Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Forgotten Reformer: Matthew Zell

I have often wondered why we do not speak more of Matthew Zell. When we think of the reformation in Strasbourg we almost always speak of Martin Bucer. Yet, Bucer was the last reformer to arrive on the scene in Strasbourg. He was beaten by Hedio, Capito, and Zell. In fact, Zell is the first Reformer in Strasbourg. He deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Yet, he is mostly a forgotten reformer today.

Matthew Zell was born in 1477 and educated in Freiburg and Mainz among other places. He went to be a preacher in Strasbourg in 1518 and by 1521 (perhaps earlier) he was preaching the Reformed doctrines. This makes him one of the very early Reformers just slightly after Zwingli and Luther himself. For several years he labored by himself for the Reformation in Strasbourg. The Roman bishop, Wilhelm Honstein, tried to have him removed several times, but the City Council supported Zell because the people of the city loved his sermons. He was far too popular. In fact, at one point the Cathedral pulpit was closed to him and he was not allowed to preach in it. So the Carpenters Guild of the city built him a portable pulpit and they placed it in the sanctuary for Zell to use. From that point on Zell preached in the pulpit made especially for him. An indication of how beloved he was in the city.

Perhaps, we have forgotten Zell because he cared only for preaching. He did not participate in any of the controversies of the city or the broader Reformed world. He did not attend Marburg Colloquy. He did not participate in any of the attempts to unify Luther with the Swiss Reformers. He simply preached and shepherded his church. This means that in D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation Matthew Zell is only mentioned once when he houses Zwingli while Zwingli visits Strasbourg. Surely he played a more important role than that. Yet, he only seems to have wanted to be left alone to preach the gospel and teach the members of his church. And by all accounts he did just that. He even wrote a catechism around 1536 directed at children so that they might more clearly understand the biblical truths.

It should also be noted that Zell had no problem moving over. When in 1523 others began to arrive in Strasbourg to hold pulpits of their own and preach for the Reformation, Zell was happy. He did desire to see his city serve the risen Lord, and it was great news that now the pulpits were being filled with other men who preached the truth. Zell, who had been the unquestioned leader in the city, does not show any signs of anger or resentment when Bucer and Capito take the lead and begin to direct the city council of Strasbourg or lead the church into a wider community. Zell had no problem letting men who might have been more gifted at such things use their gifts and lead the church. Zell reminds us of Barnabas in that way. Barnabas had no problem stepping from the lime light to let Paul do the leading, but that does not mean that Barnabas did not do great work. Indeed he did. As it is also with Zell. A constant reminder of how laboring in one’s own vineyard can produce dramatic results. Zell is a forgotten reformer that probably would not mind being forgotten. Truly a pious example for us all.


Alison said...

Yes, and if you read Capito's letters, it was actually Zell who showed him how to get off the fence and go fully for the reformation. Capito reports that Zell gently showed him how he was only viewing the word of God as a piece of literature rather than the actual instructions of God. Something like that. Very cool. You should look that up in Capito's letters.

mark said...

Thanks for posting this.

Jodie Fesler said...

I'm currently working on a paper on Katherine Zell, Matthew's wife. Can you direct me to some good first and secondary sources about the Zell's contribution to the reformation and their relationships with other reformers and spiritualists?