Anna Reinhart Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation

Anna Reinhart Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation

Most Protestants know the story of Katharina Van Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. Many books and articles have been written about her and her impact on Luther’s life and consequently on the Reformation. Fewer people have heard about Anna Reinhart, wife of Ulrich Zwingli, although her contribution might have been just as great. This is probably due to the scarcity of information about her life.

            Anna was a widow when she met Zwingli. Her first husband, Hans Meier von Knonau, was a nobleman who could have given Anna a comfortable life. But his family opposed his choice of seventeen-year-old Anna as a bride, due to her lower social status (she was an inn-keeper’s daughter). When the couple married secretly in 1504, Hans’s family disinherited him.

For a while, John maintained an important rank in society. In 1511, he was appointed to the Zurich city council, but a shortage of money forced him to join the Swiss army as a mercenary. In 1517, after a strenuous campaign, he returned home in poor health and died soon after, leaving Anna a widow with two daughters, Margaret and Agatha, and a son, Gerold.

            Some reconciliation with Hans’s parents took place after his death, when Hans’s father, also named Gerold, saw his three-year-old namesake at a fish market and was immediately impressed by his good looks (he might have seen some resemblance). When he learned that the boy was his grandson, Gerold senior  took him on his lap and cried.

            Some time later, it was Gerold again who brought about another change in the family, when his love for God, gentle disposition, and desire to learn caught the attention of Ulrich Zwingli. At that time, Zwingli had just been called to the pulpit of the largest church in Zurich.

Anna attended the same church and her children benefited from the schooling the church offered. Attributing Gerold’s qualities to Anna’s care, Zwingli offered his services and became a father figure to the child, ensuring that he received a good education. In the meantime, Anna became increasingly attracted by Zwingli’s gospel messages.

            Love blossomed, and Anna and Ulrich got married in 1522, when Ulrich was 38 and Anna about 35. Although Ulrich was convinced that marriage was biblically lawful for all, the medieval church had made it illicit for priests, so he kept his union with Anna secret until shortly before the birth of their daughter Regula in 1524, when he sealed the marriage in a public ceremony. It was the second time that Anna married against all mores, and each time she faced an uncertain future.

            Zwingli was one of the first priests who embraced marriage after adhering to the Reformation, and this choice attracted a lot of criticism. While some whirled the common accusation that he could not contain his passions, others claimed that he had married Anna because Gerold, now older, had a good job with a steady salary. Zwingli was quick to hush that rumor.

            Anna was also criticized for the fancy clothes she had been accustomed to wearing since marrying Hans. Dutifully, she began to wear plain clothes and stopped wearing jewelry. Soon, her humble disposition and her care for the poor and sick earned in her community the title of “apostolic Dorcas.”[1]

            Anna assisted her husband in many ways. As other Reformers’ wives, she lightened his burdens and opened their home to visitors and refugees. She also helped him to stay safe during threats of assassination, and assisted him in the translation of the Bible in the local language, which he read to her every night. Together, they had four children: Regula, Wilhelm, Ulrich, and Anna (who died as an infant).

            Once again, it was war that took Anna’s husband from her. This was during a battle between the Protestant and Catholic alliances in 1531 at Kappell. Zwingli had joined the battle both as combatant and as the army’s chaplain.

Anna was crushed at the news of Ulrich’s death. But her sorrow was multiplied when she heard a fuller account of those who had died on the battlefield. These included her brother, her son-in-law, her brother-in-law, her cousin, and her son Gerold, together with many of their friends. She repeated the prayer she had recited over and over during the battle: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

Anna received many letters of comfort, but the greatest aid came from her husband’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, and his wife Anna Adlischweiler. Heinrich was about seventeen years younger than Anna Zwingli and treated her as a mother, taking her and two of her children into his family.

But Anna’s sorrows were not over. Her son William died of the plague at age 15 while he was studying theology in Strasburg, and her own health continued to decline, making it difficult for her to leave the house. She died on 16 December 1538.

Bullinger commented on her death: “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. This remarkable woman's death was like her life - sweet, quiet, beautiful.”[2]

Of her children, Ulrich followed in his father’s footsteps and became both a pastor and a professor of theology. He married one of Bullinger’s daughters, Anna. Regula, instead, resembled her mother, both in her looks and her piety (we have an idea of her good looks in a portrait by Hans Künstler Asper depicting her and her daughter Anna). After marrying Bullinger’s foster-son and successor Rudolf Gwalther, Regula supported him in his ministry like her mother had done with Zwingli, and was remembered in Zurich for her love and hospitality, particularly when many English Protestants arrived in Switzerland during the Marian persecution.

No writing by Anna Reinhart Zwingli has come down to us, but her life is a testimony of her courage, humility, love, and patience in affliction.

[1] James Isaac Good, Women of the Reformed Church, The Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United Staes, 1901, 11

[2] Good, Women, 16)


Simonetta Carr