For centuries, Christianity in Switzerland was defined by Catholicism. The country's identity was transformed profoundly during the Reformation. Today, Catholics and Protestants make up the two largest denominations in Switzerland.
Christianity began to spread in Switzerland from the 4th century on via the Roman Empire. The first bishoprics, which possessed much of the land, were founded and shaped not only the development of agriculture but of politics as well. Monasteries began to appear in the 7th century, developing into important centres of learning and culture. Religious authority was curtailed from the 13th century onwards, particularly during the Reformation and, later, in the Swiss Constitution.
Two large, long-established national churches predominate in modern-day
Switzerland. In the 19th century, many smaller splinter groups such as the
Pietists and Protestant free churches joined the picture; Christian Orthodox
churches were also added to the mix in the 20th century.
In 1970, 98% of the Swiss population belonged to one of these Christian churches. The number of Roman Catholics has remained relatively stable because of immigration from southern Europe, but the Protestant community in Switzerland has declined sharply. A growing number
of people have no religious affiliation.
More than one third of the Swiss population is Catholic, which makes it the largest denomination in Switzerland. Population-wise, the cantons with the highest numbers of Catholics are Uri, Valais, Obwalden and Appenzell-Innerrhoden. The Roman Catholic Church has six dioceses with seats in Solothurn, Fribourg, Sion, Chur, St Gallen and Lugano. Their bishops report directly to the Pope.
At the beginning of the 16th century, people all over Switzerland began demanding more autonomy and greater participation in public affairs. Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and Jean Calvin in Geneva were two reformers who helped secular ministers emancipate themselves from the Catholic bishops. The Protestant Reformation movement, particularly Calvinism, spread rapidly in Europe. Switzerland was one of the most important
centres during the Reformation.
Protestantism emphasises rationalism and hard work, and stipulates that all
believers must be able to understand the Bible. The result was universal
literacy, including women, and an overall increase in the level of education.
The Protestant ethic has had a decisive influence on Swiss identity. In spite
of the conflict and friction between the different parts of Switzerland caused by the Reformation, it was in the end responsible for creating closer ties between them.
Today, one quarter of the Swiss population is Reformed Evangelical. There are three cantons where Protestants outnumber Catholics: Bern, Appenzell-Ausserrhoden and Schaffhausen.
The Reformed Evangelical churches are organised by the cantons and led by a synod and a synodal council. They make up the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches (FSPC) together with other Protestant free churches in Switzerland.