Archive for the ‘christian persecution’ Tag

Anabaptist Bravery   3 comments

Everyone loves a superhero. They have even made a comeback on television. Of course the life of a superhero isn’t easy, what with all that dodging speeding bullets and taking out the villains.

Before you read what I’m going to talk about, check out my fellow blog hoppers and what their take on courage is.

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If you haven’t figured out from my posts yet, I’m not a big fan of heroism. I view the world as a fallen place and I really don’t think there are many actual heroes in the world. I suspect most “heroes” were just stuck in a situation where they couldn’t get out, but they weren’t ready to die, so they did something bloody and violent that someone else hailed as heroism.

As a Baptist and a borderline anarchist, I admire people whose names you know, but I also admire people you’ve never heard of. Are they heroes? Some of them conducted themselves, at least part of the time, in heroic ways. I guess we could leave it at that, but I don’t. I find myself increasingly admiring the people who stood on principle and were crushed under the forces of their society without shedding blood..

My ambivalence toward heroism is one reason I decided to continue the blog hop when it shifted its focus to Courage. It forces me to confront that ambivalence every week and forge my own path toward a definition of it. I haven’t arrived at that yet, but I’m encountering some individuals in history who acted heroically.

Let’s start with Dirk Willems, a courageous young man who escaped from a prison castle and dashed across a frozen river only to turn around to rescue the guy who fell through the ice while trying to recapture our humble young hero. This is a favorite story among Mennonites and Amish (which is how I heard it). He’s not beloved by Southern Baptists, though I’m doing my best to rectify that oversight.

No one knows how many anabaptists died during the 16th century persecution of “non-conformists” (which means anyone who wasn’t either a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran). Nobody really knows because the persecutors mostly didn’t care enough to record the names of the folks they killed. If you count anabaptist-like heretics in general, probably over a million, but we know for certain (because their names were recorded) that at least 1,500 were cruelly tortured and killed.

Most of these people were peaceful folks who did not believe in war and who became the forerunners of today’s Mennonites and Amish. The authorities objected to their existence because these anabaptists didn’t believe infant baptism had any value, so they chose to be re-baptized as willing adults.

Wow! You can’t make this stuff up!

Being baptized outside of the government-sanctified church was their only crime, so they were sentenced to death. Men were usually burned and women were usually drowned. Some anabaptists were so bold as to proclaim Christ as the flames were licking at their feet or the water was rising that the authorities gagged them before leading them to their execution so they could not testify of what they believed and win more converts as they died.

Dirk Willems was one of the anabaptists who died in the flames. His story is especially poignant because he forfeited a real chance to escape when he turned back to rescue one of his pursuers from certain death.

Captured and imprisoned in his home town of Asperen in the Netherlands, Dirk knew his days were numbered, so he made a rope of strips of cloth and escaped over the prison wall. Of course, a guard chased him. Dirk dashed across a pond covered with a thin layer of ice and, the legend claims, he made it, but the ice gave way under his pursuer who cried out for help. Believing the Scripture that a man should help his enemies, Dirk pulled the floundering man from the icy waters.

In one version of the story, the guard wanted to allow Dirk to escape, but a chief magistrate witnessed the event and ordered him to bring Dirk back for “justice”. In another version, the guard had no conflict and brought Dirk back promptly. You can decide which to believe. I’m ambivalent.

Historical documents record Dirk was condemned to death for the heinous crimes of —

  • being re-baptized
  • allowing secret anabaptist worship services in his home
  • letting others be baptized there

Clearly a heinous criminal the world was best rid of sooner rather than later.

The record of his sentence reads:

all of which are contrary to our holy Christian faith and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and out not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.

Dirk Willem was burned to death on May 16, 1569, and his property was confiscated by the State.

And people wonder why I entertain anarchist thoughts ….


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