I am inspired and moved by the story of Dirk Willems, one of the heroes of the Reformation, each time I hear it, and have written a little book on him. I hope you like it.
Here is the opening section
The Story of Dirk Willems:
The Man who Died to Save His Enemy
The banging shook the old timber-framed house in Asperen, Holland.
“Open in the name of the Duke of Alva,” rough voices yelled. The horses clopped on the cobbled street, their breath rising in impatient clouds.
A slight young man ran down and unbolted the door.
“Are you the Anabaptist Dirk Willems?” the Burgomaster demanded. The mail-clad soldiers surrounding him glared.
“Do you admit that in 1521 at the age of twenty, contrary to the doctrines of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, you were re-baptised in Rotterdam, at the house of one Pieter Willems?”
“I was indeed baptised as an adult after I made a public profession of my faith in the Lord Jesus. For according to the example of the Lord, that is the right and proper time to be baptised.”
“Never mind that. Have you taught that Christians should not bear arms, nor take oaths of loyalty to The Most Noble Duke of Alva?”
“I have indeed taught that. For, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commanded us not to resist evil, nor to take oaths. Mindful of the invisible presence of Christ, our word, spoken to another human being, should suffice.”
“Never mind all that. Have you unlawfully permitted people to be baptised in your house?”
“Will you renounce all your heretical beliefs, teachings, and actions?”
“I will not, for I have resolved to obey the commands of the Lord Jesus as closely as I can. For…”
“Never mind all that. Thief-catcher, in the name of the Duke of Alva, arrest this man,” the Burgomaster commanded.
* * *
During the Reformation, Christianity stretched, and shook herself awake, rubbing sleep from her eyes. It was a Renaissance of the Spirit. Ordinary men and women rediscovered Scripture, reading it for the first time—not in Latin but in their mother tongues—reading hungrily, as if it were news, breaking news, good news.
Martin Luther, then an Augustinian monk, desperately sought spiritual perfection by means of spiritual disciplines, including fasts, which permanently ruined his digestion. If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, and readings, he wrote.
Hoping to distract him from his scrupulosity and tormenting guilt, his Superior, Dr. Johann von Staupitz, promoted him to Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg. Luther immersed himself in the Bible while lecturing through it, and was dazzled by its language. He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God. God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain, he wrote.
As he understood the Book of Romans for the first time—that God accepts us as his beloved children, not because of our good deeds, but because of our faith in Jesus—Luther declared, “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
When Martin Luther visited Rome as a pilgrim in 1510, he was appalled by the worldliness, extravagance and cynicism, particularly in the aggressive selling of “indulgences” spearheaded by Johann Tetzel. Buying indulgences promised reduction of time spent in Purgatory; the money was used to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the exquisite art of Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, and Raphael.
Luther was appalled at Tetzel’s saying, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Who knows if it is really true? he wondered about this papally-sanctioned doctrine. And with that question, he began, one by one, to question every Catholic doctrine that lacked any Biblical foundation, or was expressly forbidden by Scripture.
In 1517, Luther pinned Ninety-five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, challenging Catholic practices—the sale of Indulgences, Confession, Purgatory—that he considered unscriptural.
The Ninety-five Theses were wild fire. Within two weeks, they created an uproar throughout Germany; within two months, thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press, they were read and discussed all over Europe.
In Switzerland, the influential reformer Huldrych Zwingli went further than Luther, only accepting those doctrines and practices that had a firm Biblical foundation, and ignoring every Catholic doctrine without it–such as a celibate priesthood, the veneration of saints, the Pope’s power to excommunicate, the damnation of the unbaptised, hellfire and, especially, tithing.
* * *
At the same time, however, there were wilder, dreamier men and women, dubbed the “Radical Reformation.” They dreamed not only of a private, internal reformation, but of communities in which each member obeyed the voice of the Spirit within them, obeyed the indwelling Christ, and obeyed scripture.
They publicly confessed their faith in Christ, repented of their sin, and amended their lives. And then they were baptised. Again. And so, they were scornfully called “Anabaptists,” or “re-baptisers”—a label they rejected since they believed that infant baptism, not being a conscious choice, was no baptism at all. However, the mocking monicker stuck.
The Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit still spoke directly, and that God still gave some men and women the gift of prophecy. They were egalitarian, treating both men and women, rich and poor, as equals in their close-knit communities, modelled on those in the Book of Acts. They practised simplicity—in their food, dress and speech. They were honest, gentle and peaceable; even their harshest critics said so.
Their faith set them ablaze. They resolved to obey the Sermon on the Mount, their “Bible within the Bible,” as precisely as possible. To experience the blessings promised in the Beatitudes to those who choose the way of meekness, mercy, and peace-making. To refuse to quarrel and contend. To love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.
They believed in pacifism, oh yes!—in turning the other cheek, and letting the aggressor seize both coat and cloak. They believed Christians should never bear arms, despite the threat to Reformed communities from the Turks in Austria and Germany, and the Catholic armies in Reformed Northern Europe.
Their Schleithem Confession read: “Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force—such as sword and armour, and all their use either for friends or against enemies—by virtue of the Word of Christ: Resist not him that is evil.”
* * *
They were persecuted–of course, they were. By Catholics; by Lutherans; by Zwinglians, all of whom were offended by the Anabaptists’ desire to re-baptise the baptised. The Anabaptist attempt to create communities of “true Christians” within Christian cities like Zurich provoked outrage. Also, since refusing to bear arms or to take oaths to rulers or magistrates meant self-exclusion from civil or military service, the Anabaptists threatened the established order!
Anabaptism was made a crime, punishable by death, in European country after country. Some Anabaptists were flayed and had their tongues torn out. Others were drowned with deliberate and ironic cruelty, after the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I sardonically called drowning “the third baptism, and the best antidote to Anabaptism.” Many Anabaptists were beheaded, tortured to death, or drawn and quartered. Still more were burned at the stake.
* * *
When Dirk Willems was arrested in Holland in 1569, he refused to recant the radical reading of Scripture which had set his life ablaze with purpose and joy. The Crown confiscated all his property for its own uses, and he was sentenced to be “executed with fire, until death ensues.” Willems was imprisoned at the Palace in Asperen, until May, when he was to be publicly burnt at the stake.
Read on on:
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