Switzerland’s Christian Heritage

Brief History of Switzerland

Helvetia, a region in central Europe, is situated on a plateau between the Alps and the Jura mountains. Its name is derived from the Roman term for its inhabitants, the predominantly Celtic, Helvetii, who were defeated in 58 B.C. at Bibracte by Julius Caesar during the Gallic war. Helvetia occupies an area in the western part of modern Switzerland where its name is still used in poetic reference to that country, on its postage stamps and also on the coins of the Swiss currency.

The Confederation’s Foundation

The “real” beginning of Switzerland, in the form of the confederation seen today, started in 1291 when the people of the Cantons (counties) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden defended themselves against the Austrian Habsburgs.

Rudolf of Habsburg was able to extend his power further and was even crowned King of Germany. He died on the 15th of July, 1291, and did not leave a successor. This offered the oppressed central Swiss a good opportunity to assert their rights and freedom. According to tradition, the drafting of the “Ruetli Oath” is considered to be the founding document of Switzerland (celebrated today as a national holiday on the 1st of August). The “Ruetli Oath” starts with the powerful words: “IN THE NAME OF GOD”. 1

Soon after, more Cantons joined the new confederation. Today there are a total of twenty-six Cantons of which Berne is the capital city. Seven million inhabitants live throughout Switzerland where four different official languages are spoken in various areas. About 64% of its population speaks Swiss-German, 21% French, 7% Italian, and 1% Romansh.
Switzerland has traditionally been a neutral republic. It has used its financial influence to ward off enemies and encourage others to respect its neutrality. For example, during World War II, Nazi Gold was kept in the Swiss Bank.

Christianity Reaches Switzerland in the First Century

Beatus was a British missionary who came to Switzerland in the first century AD. (See Britain's Christian Heritage.)

“The illustrious Beatus, who founded the church in Helvetia, received his baptism and education at Avalon (Glastonbury). He was the wealthy son of a prominent British noble, his pre-baptismal name being Suetonius. It is of interest to note that Beatus was baptised at Avalon by St. Barnabas, the brother of Aristobulus, sent in advance by St. Paul to Britain to represent the Apostle to the Gentiles. In the scriptural record he is referred to as Joses, the Levite, who changed his name to Barnabas, meaning “Son of Consolation”, the same Barnabas who, together with St. Paul, founded the church at Antioch, A.D. 43. (ACTS 11:22).”

“He selected Helvetia as his missionary field. Before he left Britain he disposed of all his wealth and used it to ransom prisoners of war on the continent, making his headquarters at Underseven (Unterseen) on Lake Thun. Beatus introduced Switzerland to Christianity, erecting hospitals and churches, building a band of devoted missionaries who continued his great work throughout the centuries. It was in the humble dwelling he first built on his arrival in Helvetia that he spent his last days. He died in his cell, A.D. 96. This ancient cell [the Beatus cave] is preserved and can be seen today on the shore of Lake Thun.” 2
Theban legion: An entire Roman Legion was martyred for Christ in St. Maurice in the Canton of Valais in A.D. 286. This legion of soldiers, consisting of six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men, were all Christians. The legion was called the Theban Legion, because the men were Egyptian Christian Copts who had been recruited from and stationed in Thebias in Upper Egypt. Maximian ordered the whole army to swear an oath of allegiance and swear to assist in the mass extermination of Christianity in Gaul. The whole Theban Legion refused to do so and Maximian had them all executed. The Maximian period is known as the “Sixth Primitive Persecution” in Fox's Book of Martyrs. During their martyrdom, numerous miracles happened, which without doubt largely contributed to the massive conversion of the inhabitants of these regions to Christianity.

Switzerland Becomes Catholic

Switzerland, along with the rest of Europe, has been predominantly Catholic since the days of Emperor Constantine up until the time of the Reformation. However, scattered throughout the mountains were pockets of Bible-believing Christians, even during the Roman Catholic dominated “Dark Ages”.

The Reformation In Switzerland

Zwingli In Zurich

Huldrych ZwingliInspired by the preaching of Martin Luther in Germany, from as early as 1517, Huldrych Zwingli taught in Zurich. By 1525, the Protestant Reformation was firmly established in the city of Zurich.
The governing council was the first to decide on completely implementing the Reformation throughout Zurich. They entrusted Huldrych Zwingli with the responsibility, and the Reformation of Zurich was therefore implemented in 1525 A.D.

Zwingli had translated the Bible into the native language which was called the “Zürcher Bible” or “Zwingli Bible” by the year of 1529 A.D. The Reformation encouraged others to read the Bible instead of just listening to sermons, and therefore would have their own understanding of its contents. In Zurich, a community of Anabaptists (Mennonites) was founded in January 1525 A.D., with Grebel, Manz and Blaurock being its leaders.

The Anabaptists did not accept the baptism of young children, but rather, insisted on a personal decision made by every adult to become a member of the Christian Church. Adults who were converted to these beliefs were baptised once again. Zwingli did not support this re-baptismal view and the governing council of Zurich banned the Anabaptists in 1526 A.D.

Some of their leaders were even executed and the remaining people were banned from the city and had to leave to different regions. Some had to hide in the mountains or even flee to other countries such as Alsace, Tyrol, Moravia and the Netherlands.

A number of Anabaptists gathered in Moravia in 1528 A.D. This was organised along communal lines and they got their name from Jacob Hutter who joined the group in 1529 A.D. Thus began the Hutterian Brethren. In the Netherlands (see the Dutch Christian history report), Menno Simons joined the Anabaptist movement in 1536 A.D. after some deep inner turmoil. He eventually became the leader of the Dutch Anabaptists (Doopsgezinden) and his followers were soon referred to as "Menists" and finally as "Mennonites". Later in the 17th Century, they moved on to other countries such as Germany and Russia, and later the USA and Canada.

Farel in Berne

Guillaume FarelGuillaume Farel preached during the Reformation, starting in 1526 A.D. at Aigle, Neuchâtel, Morat, Grandson, and Orbe. The town of Berne was influenced by the Reformation due to his fiery preaching about the reformation of the town Berne.

Farel was not a teacher and his scholarly abilities were minimal, but he was an explosive evangelist who spread the gospel of Reformation wherever he could. He also made it powerfully clear to Calvin, who was a great friend of his for many years, that it was his duty to start the Reformation in Geneva.

Calvin in Geneva

John CalvinJohn Calvin was banished from Paris in 1533 because of his open devotion to the Reformation. When Calvin travelled through Geneva in 1536 he had no intention of staying, but Farel convinced him to do so. Farel had failed in 1532 A.D in his first attempt at Reformation due to the resistance of the citizens of Geneva. He returned, however, in 1533 under the protection of the city of Berne.

Calvin was a good teacher and was a very good organiser. This made Farel and Calvin a great team to start reformation in Geneva. It was Farel that had done the most work in spreading the Reformation in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Due to persecution in France, many Huguenots found respite in Calvin’s Geneva. He was known for his strict organisation of the church. The doctrines, as well as the organisation of the reformed church by John Calvin inspired and influenced other reformed churches all over the world; especially in Scotland, the Netherlands and in the United States of America.

The Geneva Bible: The Forgotten Translation

The Geneva translators produced a revised New Testament in English during the year 1557. This was essentially a revision of Tyndale's revised and corrected 1534 edition. Most of the work was done by William Whittingham, who was the brother-in-law of John Calvin. The Geneva New Testament was barely off the press when work began on a revision of the entire Bible, a process which took more than two years. The new translation was checked with Theodore Beza's earlier work and the Greek text. In 1560 A.D., a complete revised Bible was published based on the Hebrew and Greek texts and a selection of other Bible translations. It was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. After the death of Queen Mary, Elizabeth was crowned Queen in 1558, once again moving England towards Protestantism. The Geneva Bible was finally printed in England in 1575 A.D. after the death of Archbishop Matthew Parker, editor of the Bishop's Bible.

Seventeenth To Nineteenth Centuries

Despite the Protestant Churches that sprang out of the reformation, large parts of Switzerland remained Catholic. The Protestant churches lost their initial fervency over a period of time, and slowly drifted into formula and doctrinal debates rather than keeping the fire that marked the early reformation period.

Pentecostal Movements in Switzerland in the 20th Century

During the years 1900 and 1904, John Alexander Dowie was in Switzerland and preached on “how to live without sin”. After his visit, the Church of Zion was founded in Zurich where the fire of the Holy Spirit fell in 1907 with the sign of speaking in tongues and miracles of healing the sick. The Pentecostal church grew again in 1920 when Smith Wigglesworth preached in big healing meetings. They were held in the French-speaking part of the country, in cities such as Geneva, Vevey, Morges and Neuchatel. There were also some meetings held in the German-speaking regions of Zürich, Berne and Basel. Many healings occurred during this time, and Smith Wigglesworth was even put into jail because the doctors had complained about the success of his healing ministry.

Christianity Today

Despite these moves of God, the Catholic and traditional Protestant churches are still overwhelmingly the main churches in Switzerland, and there are only a few other independent or Pentecostal Christian churches. Various religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Esoteric movements are appearing more and more. Revivals such as those in the 16th and early 20th centuries are needed again today, where God manifests Himself through miracles and through the power of the Word of God. A fitting end is a quotation from Zwingli that is engraved on the wall of the Grossmünster Church in Zurich: “Take heed that the Gospel of the Bible is preached among you, that you will keep your Country indeed; even the devil is trying everything to destroy you; where the fear of God is; the help from God is.” Huldrych Zwingli

  • 1. Further details about this can be found at: Federal Charter of 1291
  • 2. George Jowett, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, Covenant Books (1961), p.168.