The School of the Prophets: Zwingli’s legacy of Reformed education

The Grossmunster

The iconic twin towers of the Grossmunster (Great Minster) still loom large over the city of Zurich, Switzerland. Completed in the thirteenth century after nearly 150 years of construction, the majestic cathedral was built to be a home for holy relics and a grand stage for the mass. But with the coming of Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation in the sixteenth century, that all changed. Today, the Grossmunster is an architectural monument with a story to tell as it whispers its Roman Catholic roots and then thunders forth its Reformation heritage.

The Grossmunster holds a special place in the his­tory of the Reformation, for it was here that the Re­formed tradition began. When Zwingli ascended the pulpit here for the first time 500 years ago, he electrified the congregation with his bold expository preaching. Starting with the first verse of Matthew on January 1, 1519, he continued to preach systematically through the entire New Testament. From this spark of reformation in the Grossmunster sanctuary, the fires of reformation engulfed the city of Zurich and then blazed through­out Switzerland and beyond. The Lord was beginning a mighty work.

Entering the breathtaking immensity of the cathe­dral’s interior today, a tourist would find it hard not to notice the impact of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli taught that the preaching of God’s Word is the center­piece and the standard of congregational worship. Gone are the idolatrous relics and images of the saints. Now the bare Romanesque architecture of the church creates a space of simple beauty. Gone is the revered high altar of the mass, which once sat far removed from the people atop the stairs in the choir. Now a pulpit soars over the pews of the nave and a baptis­mal font doubles as a commu­nion table in the center of the church, brought down among the people. The Reformation transformed worship and re­purposed the church’s architec­ture and furnishings. In just a few years, the Grossmunster was transformed from a house of idolatry and ritual to a home for preaching and prayer.

At the Grossmunster today, there is something spe­cial about the empty choir too. In the open space at the eastern end of the church where the rites of the Latin mass once mystified an ignorant and superstitious peo­ple, Zwingli founded what he called the “School of the Prophets,” the very first Reformed theological school. It was an educational milestone that can hardly be overes­timated. Zwingli’s fledgling seminary would train the pastors of the Reformation, translate the Bible into the German language of the people, grow to become the first Reformed academy in church history, and lay the foun­dation for Reformed education throughout the world and up to the present time. In a very real sense, Ulrich Zwingli is the father of Reformed education; and the Grossmunster is where Reformed education was born.

Zwingli’s education

From his rustic youth in the mountain village of Wildhaus to his multifaceted ministry in the bustling city of Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli was prepared and equipped by God for his calling as a Reformer and educator. His passion for education started at home, continued at school, and then characterized his entire ministry.

Zwingli was raised by a loving father who served as the village mayor and by a pious mother who reared their large family of ten children. One of Zwingli’s biographers notes that “the mixing together of characters in a big family—shouts, arguments, games in common, smacks and rewards—achieve more, in an atmosphere of faith and hard work, than the smartest pedagogical recipes.”1 At home, Zwingli learned to be zealous for the Lord, to be loyal to his country, to work hard on the farm, and to discipline his young mind. His busy home was an indispensable forge for a life of learning.

Recognizing the brilliance of his young son and tak­ing an active interest in his formal education, Zwingli’s father sent him to a succession of excellent schools. At five years old, Zwingli went to live with his uncle, a former priest in the nearby town of Wesen, who tu­tored him in the rudiments of Latin. When he was ten, Zwingli attended preparatory schools in Basel and Bern, where he improved his Latin, delighted in classi­cal literature, and blossomed as a musician, eventual­ly mastering six instruments. Already at fourteen he was ready for the prestigious universities of Vienna and Basel, where he received a humanist education, studied scholastic theology, and acquired many lasting friend­ships. Before crowning his studies with a Master of Arts in 1506, Zwingli was profoundly influenced by the reform-minded professor Thomas Wittenbach, who introduced him to the Scriptures and taught him that “the death of Christ alone is the price of the forgiveness of sins.”2 The seeds of Reformation were planted in Zwingli’s soul through his university education.

When Zwingli became a priest at Glarus (1506–16) and then Einsiedeln (1516–18), he continued to study. The young pastor devoured books of all sorts and converted the second story of his house into a massive li­brary teeming with nearly 300 volumes, “an extraor­dinarily large collection for a parish priest.”3 Inspired by the brilliant Erasmus of Rotterdam, he read with fascination the church fathers—Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, and especially Augustine.4 Most im­portantly, Zwingli taught himself Hebrew and Greek during these years so that he could read the Bible in the original languages. When Erasmus published a Greek New Testament in 1516, Zwingli purchased it, copied his own pocket edition by hand, and then committed all of Paul’s epistles to memory.

In the years ahead, Zwingli would have much to say about God’s providence; but he likely thought little of it while he was being shaped by God’s inscrutable hand to become a leading church reformer and a trailblazer in the field of Reformed education. Zwingli’s life is an ex­cellent demonstration of the myriad ways in which God uses both formal and informal education to prepare His people for their various callings.

Education reformation

Zwingli’s unflagging commitment to Christian education became abundantly evident as soon as he began his ministry in Zurich (1518–31). When he took the pulpit at the Grossmunster, he announced to his new congregation that he would discard the homilies prescribed by the church calendar and instead preach clearly and systematically through the Bible. Zwingli wanted his congregation to comprehend the profound depths of God’s Word.

But Zwingli’s dedication to education was not limit­ed to the pulpit. With his vision of bringing true biblical reformation to all of society, he understood clearly that a Christian society requires good schools.

Already in August 1523, as the Reformation expanded in Zurich, Zwingli penned a manifesto for Reformed edu­cation entitled Of the Education of Youth. It was “the first book to be written on education from a Protestant point of view.”5 Written in the form of a letter to his teenage step­son Gerald, the pamphlet highlights the foundation, the content, and the goal of Christian education.

At the outset, Zwingli insists that the Bible is the foundation of the Christian school. Although he makes plain that the purpose of Reformed education is not to bring students to faith, for only God can do that, he insists that teachers must seek to nurture within their students an understanding of theological truth as it per­tains to every subject. It is necessary, Zwingli writes, “to pray that he who alone can give faith will illuminate by his Spirit those whom we instruct in his Word.”6

Next, Zwingli offers a rigorous model curriculum built on this biblical foundation. He stresses the neces­sity of Hebrew and Greek in order to understand the languages of the Bible. He prescribes Latin grammar and rhetoric for Christian communication. He implies an understanding of science and history and explicitly calls for mathematics, music, physical education, and even the mastery of a trade.

Zwingli concludes by highlighting the praiseworthy goal of Christian education: Christ-like conduct and service to others in every vocation. “From early boyhood,” he writes, “the young man ought to exercise himself only in righteousness, fidelity and constancy; for with virtues such as these he may serve the Christian community, the common good, the state and individuals.”7 Zwingli was not interested in education as an intellectual end in itself, but believed with all his heart that an education must express itself in a busy life of Christian discipleship and duty. In his stirring final paragraph, Zwingli declares, “The true Christian is not the one who merely speaks about the laws of God, but the one who with God’s help attempts great things.”8 As Zwingli makes plain, the goal of Reformed educa­tion was—and is—a life lived fully according to the Word of God in Christ-like service to others and for the glory of God alone.

Having set forth his vision of Reformed education in print, Zwingli worked tirelessly to put his program into practice. As the Reformation advanced in Zurich, monks and nuns abandoned their former way of life; and the Zurich city council confiscated the monasteries and their assets. In December 1524, Zwingli saw to it that these properties and funds were used to establish a citywide system of schools.9 In April 1525, the city council placed Zwingli on the new school board and appointed him the Schulherr, the director of education in Zurich.10 He immediately began reorganizing the schools under the supervision of the Grossmunster ac­cording to his robust Reformation ideal.11

School of the Prophets

Zwingli’s culminating educational achievement was the founding of the very first Reformed seminary in church history. From the beginning, he knew that the churches of the Swiss Reformation would need an educated ministry. His central educational aim was, therefore, to equip Reformed pastors to translate, exegete, preach, and teach God’s Word.

Already in September 1523, Zwingli secured permis­sion from the city council to reorganize and expand the failing Carolinum, the Latin school of the Grossmunster, in order to start a Reformed seminary; but he was at first stymied by insufficient funds and by colleagues opposed to the Reformation. Finally, on June 19, 1525, Zwingli’s theological school held its first assembly with­in the Grossmunster.

Zwingli named his new seminary the Prophezei, “the School of the Prophets,” and called its Bible studies “prophesyings.” Taking his inspiration from 1 Corinthians 14 (verse 4 states that “he that prophesieth edifieth the church”), he understood that ministers func­tion as New Testament prophets as they proclaim God’s Word. Philip Schaff summarizes Zwingli’s view this way: “The preacher is a prophet: his duty is to instruct, to exhort, to comfort, to rebuke sin in high and low places, and to build up the kingdom of God; his weapon is the Word of God.”12 But the school was not limited to clergy; it was open to all, free of charge. Zwingli saw the need for every child of God to understand the Scriptures, for every believer is a king, a priest, as well as a prophet under Christ.

Meeting five days a week in the choir stalls of the Grossmunster, Zurich ministers, seminary students, city residents, and foreign guests gathered with their Bibles to compare the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture with the Latin Vulgate in a quest for biblical accuracy. After a morning prayer and a day of translation, exegesis, lec­ture, and lively debate, the Bible study culminated in a German sermon for the eager townspeople.13 They be­gan with Genesis and proceeded slowly and methodically through the Bible. By Zwingli’s death, six years later, they were still working their way through the Chronicles.

From the beginning, the School of the Prophets was blessed with gifted professors. In addition to Zwingli, whose exegetical works were entirely the fruit of his lectures, the faculty included Konrad Pellikan (1478–­1556), a Hebrew scholar who wrote an eight-volume commentary on the Bible; Leo Jud (1482–1542), a friend of Zwingli who spearheaded a faithful translation of the Bible into German; Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499­–1562), an Italian Reformer who produced a brilliant dogmatics; Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), the successor of Zwingli who published volumes of theological work and guided the school for 40 years; and Rudolph Gwalther (1519–86), who succeeded Bullinger and circulat­ed his own Latin sermons on the New Testament. So influential were these teachers that Marten Micron, a Dutch pastor in London who once studied at the school, referred to them as “our fathers, teachers and guides in the reformation of the church.”14

For almost 35 years, until John Calvin opened his Geneva Academy in 1559, the School of the Prophets was the only Reformed seminary in the world. It trained an army of pastors for the Reformation church­es of Switzerland; it produced the famed Zurich Bible, “the Bible of the Swiss Reformation”; it generated a vast catalogue of theological writings; and it inspired a host of Reformed schools in Switzerland, Germany, Poland, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands.15

After the death of Zwingli in 1531, the School of the Prophets expanded to become the renowned Zurich Academy, meeting in the cloister attached to the Grossmunster and offering courses in science, mathematics, politics, rhetoric, biblical languages, and Reformed theology.16 Much later, in 1833, the Zurich Academy be­came the prestigious University of Zurich, the largest university in Switzerland. Today, the university’s logo contains a silhouette of the Grossmunster, a fitting nod to the school’s Reformation roots in Zwingli’s School of the Prophets.

Zwingli’s legacy

In 1519 the advent of the Swiss Reformation also marked the beginning of Reformed education. On this 500th anniversary, every Reformed believer ought to give hearty thanks to God for Ulrich Zwingli, the father of the Swiss Reformation and the father of Reformed education. Zwingli’s personal example teaches us the importance of wide reading and lifelong learning; his educational handbook reminds us that the Bible must be the school’s firm foundation; and his theological school bequeaths to us a rich heritage of Reformed instruction.

For the past 500 years, countless Reformed grade schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and sem­inaries have flourished the world over. Indebted to Zwingli’s School of the Prophets, these Reformed insti­tutions have carried on the Reformer’s sense of Chris­tian community, his goal of service to others in every vocation, and his commitment to the primacy of God’s Word in the classroom. They too have been “Schools of the Prophets,” insofar as they have faithfully equipped their students to comprehend and proclaim the glorious Word of God more fully.

The Grossmunster memori­alizes this educational legacy today. The southern side of the church contains a captivat­ing doorway called the Zwingli Portal. The gigantic bronze doors depict 24 scenes from the Swiss Reformation, 16 of them from Zwingli’s life. How fitting that one of these engravings depicts Zwingli teaching his congrega­tion God’s Word from the pulpit and another portrays him translating the Bible with his School of the Proph­ets. To a casual tourist, these may seem like irrelevant details on obscure cathedral doors, but they speak vol­umes to a thankful believer who has come to know the inestimable value of a truly Reformed education.


1  Jean Rilliet, Zwingli: Third Man of the Reformation, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 22.

2  Rilliet, 27.

3  Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 515.

4  Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2011), 431.

William Boyd and Edmond J. King, The History of Western Ed­ucation, cited in Paul A. Kienel, A History of Christian School Education, 1 (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publi­cations, 1998), 259.

6  Ulrich Zwingli, Of the Education of Youth, G. W. Bromiley, The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 24: Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 104.

7  Zwingli, 113.

8  Zwingli, 117.

9    Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 323.

10  Karin Maag, Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education, 1560–1620 (Aldershot: Schol­ar Press, 1995), 133.

11  Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 30.

12  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 66.

13  Maag, Seminary or University?, 131.

14  Benedict, Christ’s Churches, 61–62.

15  Benedict, 30.

16  Hans J. Hillebrand, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Ref­ormation, 4 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 317.