We are standing on the banks of a pond known as Hondegat on a bitter Winters day in the small Dutch village of Asperen. The year is 1569. Suddenly, we see a thin man running towards us pursued by a heavily armed guard from a nearby palace which had only recently been turned in to a prison. As the man approaches the pond he does not stop but passes over the ice covered water with ease. However, when his pursuer tries to do the same, being much heavier than his skinny prey, as well as carrying arms, he falls through the ice into the freezing water.
As we observe the scene we are shocked when the running man suddenly stops, turns round and runs back to the pond to save the struggling guard who is in danger of drowning, eventually pulling him to safety. However, in so doing he has lost the advantage as other guards a short distance away are able to capture the good Samaritan who had just saved the life of their colleague. The escapee is immediately returned to the prison from which he has so recently escaped. Later he is interrogated and tortured by those supporting the still-ascendant Catholic church in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his faith.
Subsequently the man, Dirk Willems, (1) is tried and found guilty of having been re-baptised, of holding secret meetings in his home, and of allowing baptisms there – all of which he freely confesses. A short time later he is sentenced to death by being burned at the stake. It is said that on the day of his execution, a strong east wind blew the flames away from his upper body so that death was long delayed. That same wind carried his voice to the next town, where people heard him cry more than seventy times, ‘O my Lord; my God.‘
Today, in the UK, we would probably identify Dirk Willems as a Baptist – in the USA perhaps as a Mennonite. Originally the group to which he belonged was commonly referred as ‘Anabaptist’ – meaning ‘one who baptises again’, although this title covered a variety of disparate groups at the time.
Martyrs Mirror, published in 1660, documents much of the persecution of Anabaptists and their predecessors, including accounts of over 4,000 burnings of individuals, and numerous stonings, imprisonments, and live burials. (2) The last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in Protestant England was Anabaptist Edward Wightman. This occurred under the reign of James I (1566 – 1625). One of the best know Anabaptist martyrs in England was Joan Bocher of Kent. She was burnt at the stake in 1550 during the reign of King Edward VI. Joan had also been accused of distributing the Tyndale New Testament and supposedly carried them under her skirts to sneak them into the royal court.
Those deemed to be ‘Anabaptist’ were persecuted then by both Catholic and Protestant authorities in equal measure. Please remember this was almost exclusively so called ‘Christian’ murdering or at least condoning the murder of Christian. Much of this, following the Reformation, as can be attested to by historical documents, took place at the behest of the Reformers themselves – Calvin and Luther included, in their headlong attempt to establish a ‘Christian’ state. (3)
Donald D Smeaton notes –
‘Both Calvin and Luther saw the magistrate as essential for the creation of a Christian state in which the individual could raise his family. It was the duty of the state to require a particular ethic, and even partisan theology, from all men. The magistrate was deemed an essential tool for extending and preserving the Reformation. The radical (read Anabaptists), on the other hand, claimed that the church consisted of believers only and such a church should operate completely independent of the state. The implementation of such an ecclesiology threatened the very fibre of society and resulted condemnations by both the Reformed and Roman churches. Calvin must have been familiar with the Diet of Speier (1529) that decreed ‘Every Anabaptist and rebaptized person of either sex be put to death by sword, by fire, or otherwise’. (4)
Perhaps the greatest stain on Calvins character in this regard was his consenting to the execution (by burning) in 1553 of the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus whom he considered an Anabaptist. Even Calvin’s most ardent supporters, while trying to defend him, are forced to admit – ‘It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus.’ (5)
Writing of Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, whose followers were the first Mennonites, (6), Calvin stated – ‘Nothing can be more conceited than this donkey nor more imprudent than this dog.’ Little wonder then perhaps that the children of Calvin sometimes speak so disparagingly of other Christians.
But why raise these issues at this point? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, and I have spoken about this before, I have had discussions with well known Reformed Presbyterian/Calvinistic theologians who, as others, can only point to ‘the spirit of the age’ to account for the barbarity of Luther, Calvin and other Reformers as far as their consenting to, and in many cases encouraging, the persecution and execution of those with whom they disagreed theologically. But this excuse is simply not good enough as men like Dirk Willems, and there were countless others – men and women, who lived the life of the humble Christ in Luther and Calvin’s generation. These were people who loved their enemies as Jesus taught and even, as in the case of Dirk Willems, gave their own lives to save them. They were people who lived and died in grace and love – praying for and forgiving their persecutors – while people like Luther, Calvin and their followers believed they held the moral high ground of Christianity.
Secondly Luther, Calvin and their followers were people who believed that their ‘Christian Commonwealth’ or State, as would follow in the Scottish Reformation under John Knox (see previous posts), could be established by brute force and at the end of a sword or noose. Furthermore, they firmly believed that it could be secured and controlled by infant baptism (bringing everyone in to membership and under the control of the church), coercion and the law of the magistrate. This is why the Anabaptist/Baptist movement was such a threat to them. The early Anabaptists/Mennonites believed that faith was voluntary, that moral authority was more than political power, that Christians are called to a life of love, reconciliation and peacemaking and that injustice is to be overcome with good. For my money the latter sounds more like the religion of Jesus than the former.
The attitude of many Anabaptists at the time is summed up in the words from a letter of imprisoned Pastor Hendrick Alewijns. After his arrest in 1568, he wrote – ‘There is no fear in love, but fearless ones run through patience … not out of, but into the conflict that is set before us, and look not at the dreadful tyranny, but unto Jesus, the Captain, the Author and Finisher of our faith.’ (7)
All of this is not to say there were no excesses in what is known as the ‘Radical Reformation’. However, these were very soon repudiated (something I have never heard said of the descendants of Luther and Calvin) and a commitment to nonviolence, brotherly love, compassion and mercy established.
We know of course that John Calvin and our very own John Knox first met in 1554 when Knox, like many other Protestants, took refuge in Switzerland during the reign of Mary Tudor. It is said that their personal relationship was forged between 1554 and 1559 when Knox was based in Geneva and served as co-minister to the English exile congregation in the city. One historian has described Knox as ‘Calvin with a sword’ and it was with the doctrine of Calvin and the Sword that he returned to Scotland to establish his ‘Christian Commonwealth’. ‘Knox believed the authority should be overthrown; political power should be seized and used to bring down the Roman church. Consequently, the Scottish Reformation was a revolution, and its success depended on the wielding of political power.’ (8)
Knox and his followers subsequently transformed Scotland into the most Calvinistic country in the world and the cradle of modern-day Presbyterianism. The Presbyterian form of church government and Reformed theology were formally adopted as the national Church of Scotland in 1690. And this form of Presbyterianism would become Scotland’s most prolific export, especially to the new world – matched only perhaps by whisky. However, I suspect both have caused pleasure, pain and addiction in equal measure. (9)
So, what to say about all this? It appears to me that historic Christianity in general (after 300 AD) , and in its Catholic and Reformed guise in particular, has, for the most part, attempted to establish itself by the sword, political control and coercion. Jesus clearly rejected this. A minority however see the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being exclusively through self giving love and mercy. Most of institutionalised Christianity has rejected this – or so it appears to me.
But there is something else that helps me make at least a little sense from this confusing picture – and it is the observation of Jesus himself. He foresaw all of this in his parable of the enemy who sowed sowed tares among the wheat in the farmers field (Matthew 14). In their consternation the servants of the landowner wanted to rip out the tares – but the owner released the damage this would do – the whole crop would be lost. Rather he said, wait till harvest and we can separate them them then! And so we live in the world of the ‘Christian’ field! Frustrating, disheartening, confusing, unacceptable at times? Yes – certainly! But the day of the harvest will come.
1 – Some inhabitants of present-day Asperen regard Dirk as a folk hero. A Christian, so compassionate that he risked recapture in order to save the life of his drowning pursuer, stimulates respect and memory. Recently Asperen named a street in Dirk’s honor.
2 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonites
3 – https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/02/luther-favored-death-penalty-for-anabaptists.html
4 – Calvin’s Conflict with the Anabaptists – Donald D. Smeeton (http://biblicalstudies.gospelstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1982-1_046.pdf). For an excellent (and unbiased) lecture on Anabaptism and this period of history please listen to ‘Forgotten Victims from the Age of Atrocity’ by historian Professor Alec Ryrie – Gresham College – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNh7OwdcZVk&list=LL&index=1&t=1326s
5 – https://calvin.edu/centers-institutes/meeter-center/files/resources-page/TheServetusControversy.pdf
6 – According to the Mennonite World Conference, there are about 2.1 million Mennonites in 87 countries in the world. Of the total, 32 percent of Mennonites are in North America. About 35 percent of the total in the world are in Africa, 20 percent are in Asia, nearly 10 percent is in the Caribbean and Latin America, and about 3 percent are in Europe.
7 – https://amnetwork.uk/resource/why-did-dirk-willems-turn-back/
8 – https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/knoxs-shocking-politics. As I have said in the main post I have never heard that this tenant of Knox’s Calvinism has been repudiated by more modern Reformed Presbyterianism.
9 – It always troubled me that a committed Presbyterian in Virginia could worship his god on a Sunday and then go home and beat his slave on Monday – or a ‘Virtuous Presbyterian’ explorer and his men in Australia could murder Aboriginal men, women and children as if they were wild animals. That the man referred to was born on my home island here on the Isle of Skye adds shame to my trouble. However, when I understand the politics and brutality of the founders of their religion perhaps I should not be surprised. Furthermore, we cannot consign all of this to the distant mists of history. In my own lifetime much of the responsibility for the murder, abuse and terror under Apartheid South Africa can be laid at the feet of the Dutch Reformed Church. If you are in any doubt listen to – ‘The Gospel of Apartheid’ by Professor Alec Ryrie – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VglzeXXY78&list=PLOMBBrd_uvLCI-4plO1i02GYJOdgXWQNv&index=8)