Anna Reinhard, The Wife of Zwingli


What would Luther have been without his Katie? The women of the Reformed Church have been an important element in her history. Just as Deborah and Esther, with the Marys of the New Testament, aided in making up Bible history, so the women of the Reformed Church have helped to make her history great.

The first, and in some respects the most interesting of them, was the wife of the founder of our Church, Ulrich Zwingli. Her name was Anna Reinhard. She had not been a nun like Catharine von Bora, Luther’s wife. She was a pious widow when he married her. And there is an element of romance about their courtship which Luther’s life does not have.

Not far from Zwingli’s parsonage in Zurich was a house called the Hoefli. In it lived the widow of John Meyer, of Knonau. She was born about 1487, although the date of her birth is uncertain. Of her youth we know nothing, except that she was beautiful. A young companion, John Meyer von Knonau, sought her hand. But it happened that his father had chosen another bride for his son. The Knonau were among the oldest and most prominent noble families in Zurich, and John’s father was proud of his family and position. He desired his son to occupy the same position in the aristocracy as he. So he sent him to the court of the bishop of Constance, his cousin, to be properly educated. And he chose as a bride for his son a lady of Thurgau, who belonged to a noble Austrian family. But his son was of a different mind. With true Swiss independence he preferred a Swiss girl to a foreign noblewoman. He had not forgotten the beautiful Anna Reinhard, the daughter of the landlord of the Roessli, and they were secretly married in 1504 at a village chapel in the canton of Zurich. When the father heard of this, he became terribly angry. He forbade his son the house and disinherited him, leaving his fortune to his second wife, rather than to his son’s family. Anna’s husband was now cast on his own resources. He was elected to the city council in 1511 against his father’s efforts, and then became ensign in the Swiss army, going with them to Italy in the wars against France. But after several campaigns he returned in broken health and died in 1517, leaving Anna a widow with three children, a son and two daughters.

Now it is her little boy Gerold around whom the romance of Zwingli’s marriage seems to gather. He must have been a very beautiful and attractive boy, for his grandfather happened to be with some of the city councilors in a room that overlooked the fish market one day, watching the people going to and fro. A maid came along with a little three-year-old boy and left him sitting at the stall while she paid for her fish. The old man noticed that the boy was attracting the attention of the passers-by by his beauty and pretty manners. He asked his companions whose child the boy was, and was surprised to be told that it was the son of his son. He ordered the child to be brought to him and took him in his arms. The child, unabashed, played with his beard and looked him in the face so prettily, that the old man gave way to tears. He said to the boy, “Your father made me angry, but I will not let it injure you, but will take you as my child, instead of your father.” And he ordered the boy to be taken to his own home, where the grandfather and grandmother cared for him with great tenderness. When he was nine years old his grandfather died, and his grandmother cared for him.

Now this beautiful boy, who so aptly healed over the breach in his father’s family, was destined to do a similar act for Zwingli. It was this boy who unconsciously brought his mother and Zwingli together, until they were finally married. Zwingli came to Zurich after the death of his grandfather, when Anna was struggling to support and train her family, although she was cramped by her small means. She was from the beginning one of Zwingli’s most attentive listeners whenever he preached. As her home was in his parish, he came in contact with her as her pastor. He soon saw her needs and also her Christian graces. But it was Gerold who especially attracted his attention. Zwingli’s quick eye soon saw the talents of this precocious boy. He gave him private lessons in Greek and Latin and when Gerold needed higher education, he sent him at the early age of eleven to Basle, then the literary center of Switzerland. Thus Zwingli became a foster-father to the orphan. The boy was so bright that his teacher as Basle wrote back to Zwingli, “If you have any more such boys, send them to me. I will be a father to them, and they shall be my sons.”

When the boy went (1523) to the baths at Baden, instead of giving him the customary present, Zwingli gave him what was better. He wrote him a book, entitled “Directions for the Education of a Young Nobleman,” and dedicated it to him. Most earnestly he urged him to good morals and a Christian life. This beautiful and timely appeal saved the boy. He started out in a new life, and never after brought disgrace, but only honor on his family or friends. He became the brightest and most promising of the youth at Zurich-a member of the city council when only eighteen, and president of the city council at the early age of twenty-one. Although only a young man, he thus very rapidly rose to the highest positions in the city. Now it was Zwingli’s fatherly care over Gerold, his favorite, that prepared the way for his marriage with Gerold’s mother. Gerold was, as her biographer says, the means of bringing his foster-father and his anxious mother together.

But there were grave difficulties in the way of the marriage, for it was not customary then for priests or ministers to marry. A priest had married in 1523 in Zurich, and it had caused a great commotion. Zwingli married Anna in 1522. His marriage caused a great sensation, more in his birthplace in the Toggenburg than in Zurich. The Romanists and the Anabaptists charged him with marrying Anna for her beauty and her money. He replied that as for her money, she was not worth more than 400 guilders.

After marrying Zwingli, she ceased to wear jewelry. Zwingli addresses her as his dearest housewife, and such she was, a useful helpmeet in his work. She was a model minister’s wife, the foster mother of the poor, and the visitor of the sick. She was called “the apostolic Dorcas.” Her care for her husband was greater even than for the parish. She brightened his cares and sympathized with him in his sorrows. When her husband, with the other ministers of Zurich, began translating the Bible (1525) and published it (1529) complete several years before Luther’s complete Bible appeared (1534) it was his custom to read to her its proof sheets every evening before retiring. She afterwards spoke of the eager interest she felt in the story of the gospel as it was thus translated into her own Swiss tongue by her husband. When it was published he presented her with a copy of it. The Bible thus became her favorite book. She tried to introduce it into the families of the congregation so that it might become the property of each household.

When she found that her husband by early rising and excessive labors was becoming too deeply absorbed in his work, she would, as he says in a letter to Vadian, pull his sleeve and whisper in his ear, “Take a little more rest, my dear.” In her intercourse with others she revealed the Christian’s spirit. The more religious the conversation, the more she took part in it. No greater joy could come to her than to receive some new light on some holy truth. She loved to hear Zwingli in his homiletical works sometimes throwing new light on the character of Christ. She thus lived in a religious atmosphere. Toward her husband she always showed great reverence.

Only one letter written by Zwingli to her has come down to us. It was written from Berne in 1528, just after a child had been born in his absence. It is a beautiful Christian epistle, thanking the Lord for the birth of a son, and praying that both parents might be able to educate him aright, urging her not to be anxious about his safety, and sending salutations to friends. He also wrote to her afterward from Strasburg when on his way to Marburg, when he praised the wife of Zell the Reformer, at Strasburg, of whom he said, “She combines the graces of both Mary and Martha.” Anna welcomed his friends and entertained his guests, of whom there was always a large number. For Protestant refugees were many in those days, and Zwingli’s house was always open to them. When Zwingli was engaged or away, she was the center of the circle. The leading citizens and ministers like Leo Juda, Pellican and others, gave her great credit and praise. And the upper chancellor of Silesia, Arator, who visited Zwingli in 1526, was so pleased with the Christian arrangement of Zwingli’s home, which he declared he would never forget it, and called Anna “an angel-wife.”

But her married life had not only pleasure and honor in it, but also care and anxiety. The danger in which her husband continually lived gave her great care. He was repeatedly warned not to go out in the street alone at night, lest he be killed or carried off into a Catholic canton and suffer like Hus. He was also warned to be careful where he ate or drank, for fear he might be poisoned. Anna, when she noticed any danger at his side, would call for help. Frequently when her husband, especially in wintertime, had to go through the streets after dark, she would call a citizen to accompany him. Or when he was kept in the corporation meeting late in the evening, she would try to arrange to have some friend accompany him home. She was always at his side or thoughtful of him when danger seemed near. Thus many attempts on his person, although near fulfillment, were frustrated. On August 28, 1525, two citizens stoned their house at night, the stones sending pieces of wood through the house. Anna and the family raised a great outcry. But Zwingli seized his sword and quieted them; calling out that if any one outside had any business they should come the next morning at daylight.

These anxieties were only prophecies of the still greater sorrow that was to come to her. She, with her husband, saw the black storm gathering over them, and which burst on the awful eleventh of October 1531. For on the ninth the news came that the army of the Catholic cantons was approaching. Hastily a little army was gathered at Zurich against them. Zwingli was ordered to go along with them as chaplain. On the Charity Square just in front of the parsonage, a part of the soldiers formed so as to depart. His wife came forth to bid him good-bye. Unable to repress her feelings she burst into tears, her children joining with her in weeping, clinging in the meanwhile to their father’s garments so as to detain him, if possible, from danger. “The hour is come,” he says to her, “that separates us. Let it be so. The Lord wills.” He then gave her a parting embrace. Her fears almost robbed her of her speech, but she said, “We shall see each other again if the Lord will. His will be done. And what will you bring back when you come?” Zwingli’s prompt reply was, “Blessing after dark night.” These were his last words to her, and they remained as a sacred comfort to her in all her after life. For she believed that blessing would come after the dark night of earth, as she saw him in the light of the new day in heaven. Zwingli then pressed his children to his heart and tore himself away. As he rode with the soldiers around the corner of the street, he looked back and she waved him a last good-bye.

And now in her sorrow to whom should she go but to her Savior, to whom her husband had led her after he came to Zurich. She hurried into the house, and with the children threw herself down in the lonely chamber and prayed in the words of the Savior, “Father, not my will, but Thine be done.” Comforted she arose and awaited the result of the battle. When the first news of the defeat, and of her husband’s and her son’s deaths came, her friends concealed from her the very sad particulars connected with it. They, however, hastened to comfort her. Prominent citizens and ministers visited her, sympathizing with her. Prominent ministers from other cities, as Capito and Bucer of Strasburg, and Keller of Augsburg, wrote beautiful letters of Christian sympathy.

But the greatest comforter of all to her was young Henry Bullinger, her husband’s successor. He now took her husband’s place and cared for her as a son. He said to her: “You shall not want, dear mother. I will remain your friend, your teacher and adviser.” Nor did he stop with words, but fulfilled them by deeds. Zwingli had left his family no means, for all he could spare he gave to the poor. So Bullinger took her under his own roof, at his own table, and united the two families into one. He also acted as a father to Zwingli’s children, supervising their education and sending young Ulrich to Basle at his own expense.

Of the later years of Anna we know almost nothing. It is said she rarely went out of the house after Zwingli’s death, except when she went to church. She now lived for her children and for her Lord. In her later life she was very sick, and her disease continued for some years; but she bore her sufferings patiently.

Of her death on December 6, 1538, Bullinger says: “I desire no more happy end of life. She passed away softly, like a mild light, and went home to her Lord, worshipping, and commending us all to God.” Her death was like her life-sweet, quiet, and beautiful.

The most prominent scene in her life, and also the most impressive, is at the time of her husband’s death on the battlefield at Cappel. Bullinger says that at the news of that awful defeat there arose in Zurich a loud and horrible cry of lamentation, and tears, bewailing and groaning. But her weeping was greater, her sorrow was deeper. The greater her husband, the greater her grief. She had had sorrows before, but this eclipsed them all. For his death was not her only sorrow then. With her husband there died on the battlefield her bright, beautiful son, Gerold. Nor was this all her sorrow. With her beloved husband and son there lay dead on that battlefield her brother and her brother-in-law, while a son-in-law was wounded unto death. The sadness of death compassed her about in all directions. And then came the news that her husband’s body was quartered and burned and its ashes desecrated. Was there ever sorrow like hers? Yes, there was One, of whom the prophet speaks: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” To that Savior from sorrow she went in her sorrow, and He comforted her soul and raised up helpers to her.

In one of her biographies there is a picture of her, weeping and in prayer, while a heavenly hand is reached down, wiping away her tears and beneath it is the text: “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.” In view of her great and many sorrows she might well be called the Mater Dolorosa, the weeping mother of the Reformation. Under her crosses she wept as Mary did at the cross. And just as John, the beloved disciple, took Mary to his home, so young Henry Bullinger gave Anna a home and became a beloved son to her.

The oldest daughter of Anna Zwingli, named Regula, inherited the beauty of her mother and possessed the piety of both her parents. She grew up in the family of Bullinger with young Rudolph Gualther, who afterwards became her husband and also the successor of her father and of Bullinger as the antistes or head of the Zurich church. During the Marian persecution in England, many of its refugees came to Switzerland and were entertained by her at her home, among them Grindal, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and others, who later became bishops of England. After her death her husband thus wrote of his loss, “What the pious Abraham lost in his beloved Sarah, and Jacob in his lovely Rachel, that have I also now to mourn. An example of purest love-of the most inviolable conjugal fidelity and domestic virtue, she knew how to drive away sadness and every tormenting care from my soul.” Her son, Rudolph, whose picture we show with hers, also later wrote a poem describing her fidelity, piety and other graces.

Excerpted and condensed from Famous Women of the Reformed Church, by Rev. J. I. Good. Originally Published by the Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1901. Material is reprinted by permission of the RCUS Permanent Publications Committee.