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January 06

Dirk Willems, Brethren in Christ and discipleship

By Devin Manzullo-Thomas

In preparing for teaching a three-week intensive course this month on Brethren in Christ history and theology at Messiah College, I’ve been reviewing the history of 16th-century Anabaptism. While also considering the big picture, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the life stories of figures like Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock, and Michael and Margaretha Sattler. (The latter two figures are the main characters in a 1990 movie, The Radicals, that my students will have to watch as part of the course.)

Dirk Willems

Dirk Willems — Photo by Martyrs Mirror

I’ve also been reviewing the stories of Anabaptist martyrs, some of which I plan to share with my students. I think these tales will give my students a good perspective on the trials and tribulations suffered by those 16th-century people who chose to live out their radical faith rather than abide by the Christendom of late medieval European Protestantism.

Martyr stories have long played an important role in the shared memory of Anabaptist communities. This observation is especially true for those communities — like the Amish — that continue to nurture a Christian identity focused on suffering and persecution in this present, fallen world.

But even more acculturated groups like the Mennonite church have held the martyr stories in high regard. Consider, for instance, in 2007 when Nancy Heisey, then-president of the ecumenical Mennonite World Conference — which includes Brethren in Christ members — presented an icon of a Mennonite martyr to Pope Benedict XVI, during a Mennonite-Catholic dialogue held at the Vatican. (A Mennonite scholar reflects on the importance of this exchange — and of Anabaptist martyr stories more generally — here.)

Interestingly, Heisey grew up in the Brethren in Christ church, and continues to move in Brethren in Christ circles today, though she works and teaches at Mennonite institutions. Her presence in the 2007 exchange leads me to wonder whether many other Brethren in Christ, currently or in the past, have used the martyr stories as devotional resources.

In any case, the photo depicts one of the most well-known of the early Anabaptist martyr stories: that of Dirk Willems, the Dutch Mennonite who saved his captor from dying in a frozen lake.

The story of Dirk Willems was first captured in the 1660 tome Martyrs Mirror. The author, a young Dutch Mennonite minister named Thieleman van Braght, compiled Willems’ story — along with the stories of hundreds of other Dutch, Swiss and South German Anabaptists who died for their faith — as a way to remind now-unpersecuted Mennonites of their tragic history. A 1685 edition included more than 100 engraved illustrations of martyr deaths, including the one above.

In their book Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History, scholars Harry Loewen and Steven M. Nolt tell Willems’ story this way:

Dirk Willems [was] … a Mennonite who was captured and imprisoned in 1659. Dirk escaped, and while fleeing from his pursuer, crossed a frozen moat or river. Although Dirk crossed safely, the man chasing him broke through the ice and would have drowned. Dirk heard the man’s cry for help, turned around, and pulled him to safety — thus saving the life of someone who was trying to kill him. The guard whom Dirk rescued was grateful, but officials refused to release Dirk Willems and burned him at the stake …

Willems’ tableaux in Martyrs Mirror continues to be one of the most-recognized images in Mennonite history. In fact, it’s the image that Heisey and her Mennonite World Conference colleagues chose to share with Pope Benedict during their audience with him. It serves as a reminder to today’s Anabaptists of the costly nature of Christian discipleship — a message that today’s socio-economically comfortable North American Anabaptists desperately need to hear.

(Willems’ story is captured on p. 105 of Loewen and Nolt, Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History, 2nd ed., Herald Press, 2010.)

Devin Manzullo-Thomas and his wife attend Grantham Brethren in Christ Church in Harrisburg, Pa. He blogs here, where this blog originally appeared.

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