The Unexpected Food That Sparked a Reformation

Mike Leake

Borrowed Light
Published: Apr 18, 2023
The Unexpected Food That Sparked a Reformation

In Germany, Martin Luther had no idea that nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg’s Castle Church would trigger the Protestant Reformation. In Switzerland, sausage would spark the Protestant Reformation.

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I remember a praise chorus with those words. The concept is that all it takes is one little incident, one person excited about Jesus, who can then spark a reformation. A little spark can create a blazing forest fire. In Germany, Martin Luther had no idea that nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg’s Castle Church would trigger the Protestant Reformation. In Switzerland, sausage would spark the Protestant Reformation.

How Did Sausage Spark the Swiss Reformation?

It was March 9, 1522, in Grabengasse, Switzerland. This day was the first Sunday of Lent. It was church tradition, codified in the 7th century, to fast during this 40-day Lenten season from meat, dairy, and eggs. Fish was an exception. Not sausage.

But I suppose the local printer, Christoph Froschauer, and his friends had a hankering for sausage on this day. His friends (the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers of his day) were known as young reform-minded entrepreneurs. One of the men, Heinrich Aberli, was known as a radical baker. That doesn’t mean he was frivolous with ingredients. It means that on Ash Wednesday (four days prior to the sausage incident) Aberli had provoked the authorities by very publicly eating a roast when it was forbidden by Lenten observance.

The dinner party ate the forbidden sausages and ensured that this became no private matter. They wanted the news of their rebellion to spread through the town. Word got out and those who ate the sausages were jailed for breaking canon law (The lines between canon and civil law were blurred at this time).

There was one young man who was present but did not partake of the forbidden sausage. That young man was one of the two priests at Froschauer’s dinner party, Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli. He would play a pivotal role. After the arrest of these men for eating sausage, Zwingli would preach a fiery sermon--Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods. 

In his sermon, Zwingli argued that fasting should be voluntary and not mandatory. He could not find anything within the New Testament which would force a fast upon people. While it was fine to observe Lent, argued Zwingli, there was no evidence of it in the Bible. Zwingli, in true Protestant Reformation form, was arguing that the Bible should bind the conscience and not the Roman Catholic Church.

Only three weeks later, Froschauer, having been released from confinement, published Zwingli’s sermon. It spread throughout the city. Other priests demanded Zwingli be removed from his position, but the city government decided to allow a debate instead. You could say that Zwingli and the other reformers won the debate. A year later, the city abolished its fasting laws and decisively broke from the Catholic Church.

Zurich became the first city in Switzerland to embrace the principles of the Reformation. Soon after, Geneva (which would play an important role in the life of another reformer, John Calvin) joined the Reformation. And it would be Froschauer that was responsible for printing the first complete Bible of the Reformation.

And all this because of a couple of pieces of sausage.

Zwingli became an important figure of the Reformation, and this affair of the sausages is an important incident in the history of religious freedom.

Who Was Ulrich Zwingli?

Many believe that this affair of the sausages was entirely staged to provoke a decision within the city. It’s not as if Zwingli suddenly became a Protestant so he and his friends could eat sausage. In reality, Zwingli had embraced ideas of Reform at least three years prior (1519).

After the affair of the sausages, Zwingli would extend his criticism of the Catholic church. He railed against the corruption of church leaders and attacked the use of images in houses of worship. He, like other Protestant Reformers, also promoted clerical marriage. But where he really broke away was through expository preaching—preaching through the entire New Testament. This was entirely different from what took place in the Catholic mass. He eventually introduced a Protestant liturgy that would replace the Catholic mass.

Just as with other Reformers, Zwingli did not stay entirely in the ecclesiastical lane. The entire city changed around Protestant ideals. Switzerland itself was split along religious lines. Some areas remained Catholic, while others embraced the Reformation. Zwingli would die on the battlefield in 1531.

Zwingli was one of the figureheads of the Reformation. He would feud with Anabaptists. He would also differ from Luther on issues of the Lord’s Supper. Much more could be said about this reformer, he certainly deserves his place alongside Luther, Calvin, and others when talking about the Reformation. He certainly did more than preach in favor of sausage.

At the heart of much of Zwingli’s work was the principle of religious freedom. (Though that is a bit ironic when one looks at his battles with the Anabaptists, but that’s a story for another time).

How Does This Help Us Understand Religious Freedom Today?

It is important to interact with this incident in regard to religious freedom. Zwingli was not arguing against fasting. He wasn’t even trying to stop those from observing Lent. What he wanted was for people to be able to follow their conscience and be bound to the Scriptures.

Yet it’s also important to note that Zwingli was not arguing against any authority of bishops or the city to legislate for morality. Daniel Owings is correct when he says, “For Zwingli, the gospel was not freedom from the law per se, but freedom from human laws claiming divine authority.” This means that, for Zwingli, his understanding of religious freedom is that a law doesn’t come with divine authority simply because someone in a God-given place of authority makes the law. The Scripture is what shows the divine law. Human law either follows this or it doesn’t.

Where the Bible doesn’t clearly speak, Zwingli wanted people to be free to obey their own conscience. If that meant you were free in your conscience to eat a sausage on the first Sunday of Lent, then one should not be prevented by law to do this. Christian freedom is about being able to do that which we believe God is calling us to do. But it’s not a freedom to “do what I want” as much as it is a freedom to love our neighbor.

This is how Zwingli said it in his sermon:

To sum up briefly: if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice… If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbor the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded. . . .

We have much to learn in our day about true Christian freedom. Freedom is the ability to do that which we were created to do. It’s a freedom that motivates us to love others and not to prize our individuality. We can learn much from this little slice of history.

Daniel Owings, "Idols, Ideals, and Ideology: The Critique of False Religion in the Sixteenth Century," PhD diss. (University of Chicago, 2022)

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fcafotodigital

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake.