The stories are bloody. They are tear-stained. They are raw and ruthless. They are far beyond nightmarish. Most cannot imagine or conjure-up in their minds the horrors that characterize the burning, drowning, starving, and beheading of 16th-century Anabaptists—men and women who were willing to stand for truth, even to the death.
Although no one, with any certainty, can say how many Anabaptists died for their faith, the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia estimates that at least 4,000 people were martyred by the Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror tells the stories of about 900 of those Anabaptists—roughly one-third of whom were women— women who were young, women who were old; mothers, wives, sisters; married, single, widowed.
They had meals to make, clothes to mend, and children to rear. Some had to care for their families while chained to their homes for years until the children grew up and the mother could be killed without leaving the burden of orphaned children to the state. Visitors can still see the shackles and chains used to tether the women to their homes at an Anabaptist Museum in Austria.
They traded letters back and forth with their husbands in adjacent jail cells, as Marie Conn describes in her book, Noble Daughters. Like Felix Manz’ mother, they shouted encouragement to their sons to be brave as they were plunged into the river and drowned. They left prison to birth their babies and willingly returned to accept suffering in the name of Christ.
They graciously recited Scripture in answer to their tormentors’ questions and spoke civilly during court trials based on anything but due process. They even endured rape, which men sometimes committed in the public square and which history records as a widely gender-specific method of torture. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, describes a scene from the Chronicle of Hutterian Brethren in which tormentors “tore the baby from [the mother’s] breast, flung it aside, and violated her.”
These women counted it an honor to shed their blood—and their dignity—for their Lord, and they did it all with the utmost grace.
Candi Finch, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern, says her studies of 16th-century Anabaptists have taught her about courage, conviction, and confidence.
“The cruelty of what went on in persecuting these people is astounding to me,” Finch says. “If you look at the Martyrs Mirror, they used thumb screws, tongue screws—just really awful things. I think that one of the tragedies about this whole time period is they were being executed by Christians—by Catholics and Protestants.”
TheMartyrs Mirror and Dave and Neta Jackson’s On Fire for Christ describe—in sometimes graphic and devastating detail— how those in charge of the established state churches of Europe hunted, captured, tortured, and killed Anabaptists who refused to renounce their beliefs as heresy. Family and friends often watched as executioners stuffed gunpowder into the bosoms of their wives, mothers, and sisters so that the fire would catch more ferociously and force the women to feel the pain of the flames before they could die from the poisonous smoke. Yet, even in these fearful circumstances, history records that women calmly and graciously remained steadfast until the end.
“When they were being interrogated, they weren’t wishy-washy. They weren’t belligerent,” Finch says. “They were confident that God would keep His promises. We just see a real confidence in the Lord. Even if they weren’t going to be rescued from persecution, they were going to stand strong.”
Maria van Beckum and her sister-in-law, Ursula, were two such women. While staying with her brother and sister-in-law, the authorities came to arrest Maria. Even knowing the danger, Ursula agreed to accompany Maria so that she would not go alone. On Nov. 13, 1544, both were led to the stake.
“Weep not, on account of what is inflicted upon us,” Maria said to those gathered for the execution. “We do not suffer as witches or other criminals, but because we adhere to Christ, and we will not be separated from God; hence be converted, and it shall be well with you forever.”
After Ursula watched Maria burn to a heap of ashes before her eyes, the executioner asked her if she would like to change her mind and apostatize.
When she said, ‘no,’ they offered to give her a swift death by the sword. She declined and asked for the fire.
“My flesh is not too good to be burned for the name of Christ,” Ursula said.
Elisabeth Dirks, a nun-turned-Anabaptist, whose story Finch says stands out to her among Anabaptist women, also faced incredible torture before she was tied into a bag and drowned on May 27, 1549.
When asked if she had been rebaptized, Dirks answered, ‘No.’
“My Lords, I have not been rebaptized. I have been baptized only once upon my faith. For it is written that baptism belongs to believers,” Dirks said.
After fruitless torturing, the captors gave up and drowned her.
“I just really admire their pluck under the circumstances,” Finch says. “They knew their faith, which is something that men and women today can really learn from. It’s important for us to know the scriptures— why you believe what you believe.”
Finch says the Anabaptist women—in a time when copies of the Bible and literacy were limited—knew their Bibles well.
“We have testimony after testimony of women, when they’re interrogated, quoting back Scripture,” Finch says. “They didn’t have any problem answering questions.”
Finch said the stories of the Anabaptists impact her daily walk with the Lord.
“Martyr stories are really humbling to me because we don’t face anything like that in the United States, but people around the world today are facing that,” Finch says. “Knowing that brothers and sisters are willing to die for their faith is very convicting to me.”
Christians ought to get familiar with their stories, Finch says.
“We need to know our faith, and the Anabaptists are a chapter in Christian history,” Finch says. “We should learn from our mistakes as well as our triumphs. But for the grace of God, that is where we could be.”
This article first appeared in Southwestern News magazine, published Oct. 16, 2012.