Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), a nobleman by birth, studied at universities in Basel, Vienna, and Paris. When he returned to his home in Zurich in about 1522, he made contact with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), pastor of the Great Church (Grossminster) who became a Reformer.
Zwingli highlighted salvation by grace through faith in Christ, saw the Mass as a memorial and not a sacrifice, opposed enforced fasting during Lent and on Fridays, opposed greed in the church, supported the removal of relics and images, and opposed the adoration of the saints.
Grebel and Zwingli disagreed on the validity of infant baptism. Zwingli, as well, saw the support of the city-state’s council as essential to the reformation—“certain matters cannot be trusted to the mass of people,” he said. Grebel, on the other hand, saw the council’s involvement as interference that slowed change.
Dr. Harold Bender and Leland D. Harder say, “The closing months of 1524 were full of increasing conflict for [opponents of Zwingli’s style of reform]. Open threats from the pulpit, as well as private warnings, made it all too plain that suffering and persecution awaited them.
“In a touching letter to his friend Vadian in December 1524, Grebel indicates his fears for the future and his determination to press on unflinchingly upon the course he felt God wanted him to follow. He says, ‘I do not believe that persecution will fail to come. . . . By their fruits you shall know them, by persecution and sword. . . May God give grace; I hope to God that He will grant the medicine of patience thereto, if it is not to be otherwise . . . and may peace, faith, and salvation be established and obtained.’”
About a month later, on Jan. 17, 1525, the city-state’s council decided that parents were to present their children to be baptized or leave the area. On Jan. 18, 1525, the council decreed that Grebel (named with Felix Manz) accept the ruling. On Jan. 21, 1525, Grebel and others gathered to talk and to pray; on the spot, some decided to be baptized on their confession of faith. This is looked on as the start of the Anabaptist and Free Church movement.
For his part, Grebel, who was married, was imprisoned and then exiled; he died of the Black Plague outside of Zurich less than two years after the Radical Reformation began. He was not even 30.
Zwingli also became ill with the plague, but recovered and continued to be engaged in church reform and the politics of the day. In a battle in 1531 between Catholic and Protestant forces, Zwingli was present as a chaplain. He died in battle, his body dismembered and burned. In the ashes his heart was found “intact and whole,” a sign, some said, of his spiritual purity.
Less than a decade after Grebel and Zwingli engaged in Bible study and discussions together, both lay dead as the victims of people or nature in strange locations because of the strength of their convictions—despite a common faith in Christ.
Sources: W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); R. C. Walton, “Zwingli, Ulrich,” and P. Toon, “Grebel, Conrad” in Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1981); H. Bender and L. D. Harder, “Grebel, Conrad”(GAMEO, 1989); J. H. Yoder, “Zwingli, Ulrich”(GAMEO, 1959); H. J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation (Baker, reprinted 1987); Southwestern News, Fall 2012 (SBTS).