In 1839, the election of a reform-minded theologist to Zurich’s education council caused an uproar – followed by a deep liberal-conservative rift that split the canton in two.
On January 26, 1839, the Zurich education council met to discuss the appointment of a new theology professor. The panel was deeply divided. The liberals wanted to appoint David Friedrich Strauss, in the hope that 300 years after the Reformation, the church would modernise. For the conservatives, the 31-year-old German was out of the question.
In his publication, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined), Strauss not only differentiated between the historical person Jesus of Nazareth and Christ as a construct of faith; he also declared biblical stories in general to be myths. After a stormy session, the council was evenly split – seven against seven – and mayor Conrad Melchior Hirzel, as the president of education, had to cast the decisive vote.
This historical account is part of a series of swissinfo.ch articles marking 500 years of the Reformation. The origin of the Reformation is generally considered to date back to the publication in Germany of the Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517
The mayor’s vote, according to the liberal Neue Zürcher Zeitung the next day, “helped the cause of progress on the path to victory”. The selection of Strauss, a reform-minded theologist, was “a major church event” and was completely in the spirit of the great Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, the newspaper said.
The majority of Reform Protestant clergymen saw it differently. Johann Jakob Füssli, the first parson of the Grossmünster (Great Minster), demanded at the municipal parliament that the church should also have a say in appointing theology professors. It is not “appropriate”, he thundered across the room, “to entrust the education of our church servants to a man who denies all the positive aspects of Christianity”. His motion was rejected and the liberals trumpeted this decision as a “celebratory call” for Strauss to bring the “beacon of light” to Zurich.
For the conservative bourgeoisie and a majority of the rural population, the choice of this progressive theologist was the last straw. Since 1833, the canton of Zurich had a liberal new constitution that had removed control of the education system from the church. Since then, the youth of Zurich were no longer taught by clergymen, but by secular teachers who brought with them equipment and liberal ideas from the newly founded seminary in Küsnacht.
By appointing Strauss, the conservatives feared that even the education of pastors at the theological faculty would become secularised, leading to the founding of “an irreligious church”. Pastors fulminated from the pulpit against Strauss the Antichrist, and delegates from almost 30 parishes united under the leadership of the industrialist Johann Hürlimann-Landis to create a “Central Committee” with the demand “we won’t and can’t have Strauss!”
A deep rift split the canton in two. Debates and fights broke out in pubs, student meetings and at private kitchen tables. Conservative politicians even demanded the abolition of the university -- then just six years old -- to invalidate Strauss’s appointment. Liberal citizens reacted scornfully, saying this just went to show “that the principles of our Reformers – freedom of thought and of research, and the striving for truth” were in great peril. “The Strauss matter is stirring up a huge fuss here and people are already split into Strauss fans and Strauss opponents,” the student Otto Werdmüller wrote to his parents.
In a few weeks, hundreds of newspaper articles and almost 100 campaign leaflets for and against Strauss had been published. The cartoonists had a field day with what became known as “Straussenhandel”, or “the Strauss Affair”. One drew the Zurich mayor kneeling in front of Mephisto, who is riding an ostrich (the German word for ostrich is Strauss). While the bird tramples on a cross and a bible, donkeys representing the liberal politicians bray an “amen” to heaven. An anonymous author even wrote a drama with the title “Zwingli Before the Municipal Parliament in the Year 1839”, in which the reformer condemns a letter from the Central Committee as an “instrument of insurrection” and rips it to shreds.
On March 10, 1839, the Central Committee submitted a petition with 40,000 signatures, calling not only for the appointment to be annulled, but for the school in general to be brought under the authority of the church. As an escape route from the standoff, the government suggested Strauss be immediately pensioned because he could no longer be of any service to the Faculty of Theology.
A week later, the municipal parliament succumbed to the pressure of public opinion. After a nine-hour meeting, it ordered Professor Strauss into retirement before he had even taken up his post. In compensation, he was paid a pension of CHF1,000 a month until the end of his life.
Catherine Hickley, swissinfo.ch