Zürich Hauptbahnhof had four prize cows in its spacious main hall, and market stalls of cheese, honey, salami and other Swiss agricultural produce. Emerging into the bright sunshine, I nearly walked in front of a tram while reckoning up the price of chips at a roadside bar. Crossing the Limmat bridge I headed towards the twin towers of the Grossmunster.

            More famous nowadays for “banking gnomes”, Zurich was once the leading city of the stern Swiss Reformation, base of the famous preacher Huldrych Zwingli. The vaults beneath its streets are indeed lined with gold, and on the surface the streets are lined with elegant shops. The steep cobbled alleys of the old quarter are more cosmopolitan and avant-garde.

Switzerland is no longer a land only of Heidi look-alikes, yodellers, cuckoo clocks and the tinkle of cowbells amidst Alpine scenery. 20% of the Swiss population are immigrants. The streets are speckled with Chinese, Vietnamese and African faces, as well as eastern Europeans.

            Perhaps this has fostered a welcome dilution of the strict Protestant work ethic and high prices.

            My first stop was the Predigerkirche, the enormous spired church once erected by the sons of St Dominic. The chanting of Buddhist monks greeted me. They were rehearsing for an evening concert of Buddhist meditation. I’m not sure Zwingli would have approved.

            In the centre of the nave, where we might expect the altar, stood a large baptismal font in black marble, 4ft high and 5ft wide, carrying an arrangement of sunflowers. This is a common arrangement in the Zürich reformed churches. The font symbolises the common priesthood of all believers. The central focus, however, is the pulpit, sometimes elevated in front of the chancel arch. When necessary the covered font can double up as a communion table.

The redundant medieval chancel is left bare, and balconies may be added in the nave to maximise seating capacity, for the crowds who came to hear the Word as preached. Those wicked papist candles and stained glass images, so violently denounced at the reformation, are creeping back in.

            Zwingli (1484-1531) was originally a Catholic priest, who studied at Basle and Vienna, and became parish priest of the town of Glarus in 1506. He was a keen biblical student, a forceful preacher, and an occasional womaniser. He strongly opposed the custom of young Swiss offering themselves as mercenaries to fight for the Italians, the French, and the Emperor. He gained a reputation as a subversive. The town magistrates were glad to seem him transferred in 1516 to the pilgrimage shrine of Einsiedeln.

Here his strong biblical preaching won wider renown, and within two years he was promoted to be “people’s priest” at the Grossmunster in Zürich.

Having imbibed Erasmus’ criticisms of the Church, and studied New Testament Greek, Zwingli began the “reform” of religious belief and practice, carefully maintaining the support of Zürich city council.

            At first he attacked the abuses of Catholic practice: too much emphasis on indulgences, purgatory, and the cult of the saints. He advocated a purely Biblical Christianity. Whatever was not in the Bible could not command obedience.

The Swiss reformation began over the “affair of the sausages” when Zwingli defended a public breach of the Lenten fast. In July 1522, Zwingli led ten other priests in a petition to the Bishop of Constance: “To allow Priests to Marry, or at least Wink at their Marriages.” It is alleged that for an annual fee of four gulden, the Bishop “licensed” clerical concubinage anyway. There was an additional one-off fee of four gulden for every child born of these unions (estimated 1500 per year). The diocese had over 15,000 priests, 200 in Zürich alone. One suspects some financial motivation on both sides of the argument. Zwingli was already living with the widow Anna Reinhart, whom he wed publicly two year later.

In 1523 a public disputation was organised in Zürich Town Hall between Zwingli and Johann Faber, the Bishop’s theologian. Zwingli had already published his “67 Articles” asserting salvation by grace alone (without works), Scripture as the final authority (against the Pope). He rejected the intercession of the saints, monastic orders, a celibate clergy, penance and purgatory.

Zwingli won the upper hand in the debate, and the City Council ordered that all preaching be based upon Scripture alone. Soon he moved further away from apostolic Catholic doctrine. He opined that “This is my Body” in the Mass means only “This signifies my Body.” The bread and wine are mere symbols. Those who receive them in faith receive the Holy Spirit, but not through the elements themselves.

Luther wrote that Zwingli was crazy, blasphemous, and possessed by the devil, as regards this question of the real presence. Luther believed that Christ becomes objectively present in the bread and wine, which remain in their substantia after the consecration (con-substantiation or com-panation).

For Zwingli, the two sacraments (he rejected the rest) - baptism and the Lord’s Supper - do not communicate grace. They merely declare that God justifies us and God nourishes us. But it is faith that wins the grace, independent of any external rite.

Zwingli’s theology had developed independently of Luther, and he had no intention of changing his beliefs to suit the Wittenberg reformer. If you’ve already rejected St Peter’s successor, why obey an ex-Augustinian friar?

Zürich abolished the Mass in 1525, replacing it with an evangelical communion service. As Zwinglian ideas spread throughout northern Switzerland, monasteries were burnt, the churches stripped of images and altars, and the bishops of Constance, Geneva, Lausanne and Basle had to flee.

Although we speak of “the Protestant Reformation”, it is a mistake to regard it as one united movement. The “reformers” were splintered from the very beginning – Luther, Zwingli, Bucer in Strasbourg, Calvin in Geneva, Cranmer and Parker in England – all had different versions of “the Bible truth.” When they met, at Augsburg, Marburg and elsewhere, they attempted to find a compromise of words which would satisfy all sides, but never succeeded in completely reconciling their differences.

Rejecting the Catholic Church, the Reformers proposed that Scripture is the only final authority. They taught that every man is inspired when he reads Scripture for himself, without any need of priests, bishops and Pope. When people took them at their word but came to rival versions of “Bible truth”, the reformers were not best pleased.

The Anabaptists, for example, denied the validity of infant baptism, and insisted upon rebaptising adults. They had led the way in destroying images, statues and even organs in the Zürich churches. They were impatient with Zwingli’s slow pace of civic reform. In any case, they hated “state churches” propped up by the civil power and demanded the abolition of tithes. As in the early Church, they felt the church should be independent of the ruling powers.

For his part, Zwingli regarded the Anabaptists as quarrelsome, envious and hypocritical extremists who were undermining civil government. Rebaptism was declared a capital offence.  Several of the Anabaptist leaders, including Mantz, attacked Zwingli as a false prophet. Zwingli and the magistrates had Mantz executed by drowning (a sarcastic reference to adult baptism) in the River Limmat in January 1527. He was the first ever “Protestant” martyr at the hands of Protestants.

Soon afterwards the six Catholic “Forest Cantons” rallied and refused to admit Protestant preachers. Zurich retaliated with an economic blockade, and the Catholic forces mounted a surprise attack. In 1531 on the battlefield of Kappel, Zwingli was killed, amidst the dissension and bloodshed his reformation had ignited.

His statue stands outside the Grossmunster, sword in hand. A memorial church has been built beside the river, as it flows into the Züricher See with the Alps in the background.

What really remains of his spiritual legacy? Zürich adopted the rival creed of Calvinism in 1548. Its spirit of hard-working, independent minded individualism persists. In the present age, in the words of the psychologist C.G.Jung: “Zürich’s relationship to the world is not of the spirit, but of commerce.”