1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

On this date in 1569, Dirk Willems paid the penalty for a famous act of charity.

Willems was condemned by the still-ascendant Catholic church as an Anabaptist, but escaped prison.

Fleeing a pursuer across a frozen pond, Willems had an opportunity to make good his escape when his persecutor crashed through the ice. But he turned back to save the drowning man:

One good turn did not deserve another: the man arrested Willems, and the compassionate Protestant found himself burned to death* this day at Asperen.

Hundreds of Anabaptists suffered similar fates, many of them registered in the Martyrs Mirror (available online here). But Dirk Willems’ story has always been one of the most affecting and popular with the Mennonite communities who trace their lineage to the Anabaptists:

[W]hen he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

(Bygones, tyrannous papists: last year, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his romish persecutor.)

Few are the faiths that lack a martyrology, but notwithstanding the incendiary language of our 17th-century source, the place of martyrs (“Dirk Willems warns Mennonites not to expect to be rewarded for good works — a sharp contradiction to the American gospel of success”) and the right way to commemorate them without stoking confessional hostility occupy unusually nuanced places in Mennonite thought.

* The burning came off badly, the Martyrs Mirror records:

[A] strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times, “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire.

On this day..