Martyrs, derived from the Greek martys (witness), are blood witnesses; i.e., persons who, clinging to their convictions, suffered the blood penalty. Usage has limited the word in general to apply only to those who suffered a violent death for their convictions. Socrates was, for instance, a pre-Christian martyr.
The Christian martyrs are blood witnesses, who suffered violent deaths for the sake of their Christian faith. This concept of martyrdom presupposes that the penalty was not applied for insurrection or any other crime, but was based on the victim's religious faith. There are martyrs in this sense only where religious persecution reigns. This was the case in the early centuries after Christ until Constantine's recognition of Christianity. The first Christian martyrs were the victims of Jewish persecution (Stephen, Acts 7, and James, Acts 12). An incomparably larger number found death at the hands of the pagan government of the Roman Empire.
Christian Martyrs in the Christian State
When the Catholic Church, with the aid of the government, developed into a strong organization, martyrdom did not cease, as one might suppose. Instead, the large church, having won recognition, now applied the very methods of suppression which it had formerly suffered, to all extra-ecclesiastical groups that refused to recognize its creed, its power politics, and its lax moral standards. There were therefore martyrs at once among the heretics, or those who in general opposed the prevailing church doctrine. The first victim of this kind was Priscillian together with six others in 385, who were publicly executed at Trier. The Donatists, against whom Augustine counseled violent measures, had many martyrs. To a much larger extent this was true of the Waldenses and Albigenses, especially after the Inquisition was instituted as a permanent ecclesiastical court, operated with state aid, which caused a terrifying number to lose their lives far into the Reformation, including also Lutheran and Reformed "heretics."
The real martyr church of the Reformation period and long after was the Anabaptist. The development of this movement in the first centuries after its inception cannot be separated from this fact. There was no religious movement that was so radically suppressed at that time as the Anabaptist movement. Catholic and Protestant government and clergy with few exceptions attempted to exterminate it by the same methods.
Executions in Catholic Countries
In the Catholic countries the Inquisition was in full authority. It was expressly recognized by the temporal government, which offered its arm to carry out its verdicts. Numerous state regulations threatened every Anabaptist with death. Members of the two large Reformation parties were also threatened with severe punishment, but the full severity of the law was not always applied. "In Bavaria and in Austria and also in the domain of the Swabian League not only their supposed connection with Lutheranism, but also adult baptism per se and the assumption that they were the originators of the Peasants' War and born revolutionaries brought the most cruel punishment upon them. Whereas in Austria the death penalty was not always carried out against the Lutherans in consideration of the nobility, there was no such deterrent against ruthless measures for Anabaptists, such as imprisonment, torture, beheading, drowning, hanging, and burning, usually without a proper trial" (K. Müller, II, 1, p. 332). Precisely in these Catholic lands the Anabaptists were often more numerous than the Lutherans or Reformed. The latter frequently were afraid to promote their doctrine without state protection, whereas the Anabaptists, who were almost nowhere tolerated, spread rapidly everywhere as a movement whose center of gravity lay in the laity.
Blood Witnesses Under Protestant Government
It is a conspicuous fact that there were Anabaptist martyrs also in Protestant countries. One would have expected that there would be no room for the persecution of dissenters in places where protest against Roman tyranny was so strong. But the Anabaptists were even here by no means tolerated. They were therefore the only martyrs in these regions. There were, to be sure, voices raised to oppose this kind of suppression of religious convictions and to warn of the danger inherent in it. Luther was at first of this opinion. Other reformers also wanted God's Word to be the sole judge in religious matters. But when this method did not accomplish their aim they took another course. In the Netherlands, after Roman Catholicism had been largely replaced by Calvinism, no Mennonite was put to death. In the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) executions ceased at the end of the 16th century, because Mennonitism had been nearly extirpated.
Reasons for the Persecution
What were the real reasons for this course of action against the Anabaptists? The sentence passed on Anneken Heyndricks in Amsterdam in 1571 may show us what the "capital crimes" were. A verbatim excerpt from the criminal records of the city, which is given by van Braght (Martyrs Mirror D 538, E 874), follows:
This sentence is typical of many. It contains a long series of charges raised against the Mennonites: neglect of public church attendance and confession, communion, participation in Mennonite services, adult baptism and communion "in the Mennonite manner," marriage within the brotherhood, and stubborn resistance toward conversion attempts.
All of this deals with purely religious matters. But adhering to this faith made one suspect politically and was labeled as disobedience not only to the church, but also to the state. This shows how closely hand in hand the state worked with the church. In its cross-examinations the state used the clergy, who frequently engaged in lively dispute with the Mennonites. But in order to induce the state to take aggressive action, great stress was put on the political danger and on the religious obligation to take action against that sort of "blasphemy."
This verdict is also of legal interest, in that it illustrates how the violation of the regulations and mandates against the Mennonites could at all times be the incontestable basis for severe action against them. The fact that the injustice was of earlier date, that is, before the passing of these mandates, which bound the conscience and which in every instance overstepped the boundaries of state authority, was consistently ignored.
In very many instances punishment was made easier by applying all sorts of slander and false generalizations without examination. There was no hesitation in attributing the grossest excesses to these people, who actually insisted very earnestly on moral conduct. The events in Münster, with which the quiet Anabaptists had nothing in common, were applied without distinction to all Mennonites. The few aberrations, which accompany any movement, were considered characteristic of the entire movement. The chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (Wolkan, 187) contains this passage on the subject:
Special efforts were made to dispose of the leaders, in the hope that the movement could thus be smothered. Most of these died a violent death, as Felix Manz, Michael Sattler, Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans Hut, George Blaurock, Eitelhans Langenmantel, and others. But owing to the priesthood of the believer, which they held and practiced, the loss of their leaders was not sufficient to stop the movement. To be sure, the absence of their influence may have contributed to the rise of radical elements here and there, who were guilty of excesses which a thoughtful leadership would have prevented (Münster).
Modes of Execution
The methods of execution offer a picture of inhuman cruelty. The intention was that they should have a deterrent effect on the populace. Torture was often applied, principally to extort from the victims information about their brethren, where they stayed and where they met, or to force them to recant. The Hutterian chronicle has a graphic description of these methods (Wolkan, 184):
In the execution of the Anabaptists and Mennonites medieval methods of capital punishment were maintained. The following practices were used to put the victims to death; in most cases burning at the stake both for men and women; sometimes the victims were not burned alive but were first strangled; in the Netherlands occasionally a little sack of gunpowder was placed around the martyr's neck to shorten the death struggle. When a "heretic" recanted, he nevertheless was put to death; in these cases men were usually beheaded and women drowned. But martyrs who remained loyal were sometimes also beheaded or drowned. It was the instruction both of Charles V and Philip II, that male heretics were to be decapitated and females drowned, but often men were drowned and women beheaded. Sometimes the victims were executed by being hanged. In a few cases also women martyrs were buried alive. It is not clear whether these awful practices were regulated after a certain method. Apparently the mood of the judges was decisive as to the method of execution.
The executions took place publicly; but in the course of time there were a large number of secret executions, because the crowds gathered around the execution places often showed sympathy with the victims and not seldom revolted against the executioner, the officers, and the Catholic priests, who were always present. Secret executions were numerous at Antwerp and Ghent, Belgium.
The Number of the Anabaptist Martyrs
The number cannot be determined with any certainty. Documentary evidence has been preserved only in part, some of it probably intentionally destroyed. In the "Anabaptist hunts" in the territory of the Swabian League and in the Netherlands as well as in other regions where regular trials were dispensed with, there was most likely no record of even the names or number of victims. Nevertheless an attempt has been made to determine the number from oral and written sources. For the Netherlands, Samuel Cramer has conservatively set the number at 1,500 (DB 1902, 150 ff.). He based this figure on the fairly complete records of Antwerp and Ghent, estimating the number in the other provinces on this basis, which should yield a sufficiently reliable result. W. J. Kühler also surmised that the number of martyrs was at least 1,500 (Geschiedenis I, 270) ; N. van der Zijpp (Geschiedenis, 77) is of the opinion that the number of martyrs in Belgium and in the Netherlands should be estimated as at least 2,500, on the basis of his studies on Mennonite martyrdom in the Netherlands. The best collection of data on the fate and testimonies of the martyrs is found in the Martyrs' Mirror by Tieleman J. van Braght, who lists about 800 Anabaptist martyrs by name. A larger number is given in summary form, because data and names were lacking.
For South Germany the list in the Hutterite Geschicht-Buch is of particular importance. According to the list given in Beck (pp. 278 ff.) the number of martyrs up to the year 1581 was 2,169. But the numbers given for the individual districts do not agree with this figure, totaling only 1,396. It is not clear how this difference is to be explained. (For Tyrol the list of 1581 gives the number as 338, whereas a government declaration of Nov. 11, 1539, set the number of Anabaptists executed at over 600. —Hege.) Wolkan presents a list that deviates in some instances from the above, and gives a total of 1,580 martyrs by 1542. Beck has on page 310 an additional list that was found on Julius Lober in 1531, listing 390 martyrs.
None of these lists can claim to be exhaustive; in Beck all the executions recorded in the court records in Switzerland, and in Wolkan some of them, are lacking, nor can they offer absolute reliability, since they are sometimes based on oral information, as in the case of the 350 in Alzey (see Palatinate) and the 600 who were said by Sebastian Franck to have been executed at Ensisheim. Nevertheless the total must not be underestimated, and would probably exceed rather than fall below 4,000.
The first Anabaptist execution was not perpetrated in 1527 (Felix Manz), as has hitherto been asserted, but in 1525 when Eberli Bolt died at the stake in Schwyz. Bolt was an Anabaptist, but was executed in a Catholic canton for being a Protestant.
Steadfastness and Courage of the Anabaptists
Steadfast and willing to endure the supreme sacrifice, most of the martyrs went to their death with cheerful countenance and with a prayer on their lips. Men and women, occasionally children, were unwavering in their loyalty to their faith. Naturally they did not push themselves into martyrdom. But they did not purchase their freedom by denying their convictions, which were based on God's Word, when they were in the hands of their persecutors. Neither skilled argument, nor severity, nor kindness confused them. "Many were promised great gifts and wealth if they would recant, or splendid benefices, or power and office. Others were asked to say only a little word as desired of them, and they would be released. But they would not accept dishonorable release. Some were told merely to utter an oath, indeed only a small oath, to gain their release.... With many they dealt strangely, . . . day and night with great cunning and slyness, also with many sweet and smooth words by monks and priests, .. . with much false doctrine and testimony, with much threatening . . . and slander, also with lies and terrible reviling, but this did not cause them dismay" (Wolkan, 185 f.). There were, however, a consider able number of recantations.
What Was the Source of Their Strength?
Full of admiration, indeed frequently full of consternation, the people and sometimes the executioners witnessed the steadfastness and the courage of the martyrs. Whence came the strength to endure all this? This question is raised in many writings of the Reformation period, and its answer was not always easy. Luther, who had once thought quite differently concerning the Inquisition and the execution of John Huss, saw in their joy a delusion of hell; likewise did Faber of Heilbronn (see the significant quotation in the article Faber). Justus Menius, the passionate opponent of the Ana baptists, could hardly conceal his amazement at the courage of several Anabaptists, nevertheless he explained it as impudence and foolhardiness. "For it can very easily happen that such a desperate, hard-hearted man in his damnable unbelief is as stiff and defiant, indeed much stiffer and more defiant than a holy, pious Christian in his true faith...."—"The whole world has of course seen with what brash frivolity the poor people died, who were executed . . . at Rheinhardsbrunn" (Der ander Teil, 314).
The Anabaptists had a different idea of the source of their strength. "They could freely say with the holy apostle Paul: Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Romans 8:35. But they found and showed it to be true that according to the testimony of the apostle, neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. Through this love they overcame all things and performed glorious deeds beyond the power of man" (Martyrs Mirror D 542, E 356).
The martyrs had the unshakable certainty of being on the right road, which God had unequivocally shown them in the Holy Scriptures. Their knowledge of the Bible, revealed in their trials and other oral and written expressions, is amazing. During their persecution they had learned that this life cannot be the final fulfillment. Hence they saw even in a martyr's death the transition to a fuller and richer life. "Their holy spirit regarded the things that happen in the world as a shadow, assured of better things. Thus they were taught by God not to know anything, nor to seek anything but the eternal heavenly possession alone" (Beck, XXI).
Furthermore the martyrs lived in the conviction that true followers of Christ must necessarily draw upon themselves the hatred of the world. As they took all the sayings and demands of the Bible seriously, so also did they regard the experiences of Jesus and the apostles in the world, which they foretold for all true Christians. All expressions of principle concerning martyrdom refer to Christ's suffering and death as Lord and example to the church. Martyrdom was for them the inevitable consequence of witnessing to the truth. Nowhere is this so clearly expressed as in Menno Simons' booklet to his oppressed brethren, Of the Cross of Christ. Since the truth evokes hatred and persecution, therefore these are evidence of walking in the truth. Thus the temptations of martyrdom serve to make the victims so much the surer and firmer in their conviction. The assurance that even in suffering they were in communion with Christ gave them joy and called forth thanks for being counted worthy of suffering death for His sake.
But in spite of all their courage and steadfastness the martyrs were free of fanaticism. Of the letters printed in the Martyrs' Mirror many are written to wife, children, or relatives. They do not treat the natural bonds of marriage and family with contempt. They commend their dear ones to the loving care of the brotherhood, and mention how difficult it is to leave them alone. This feeling comes to graphic expression in a letter written by Hendrik Verstralen (Martyrs Mirror D 542, E 877): "The only and eternal God . . . keep you, my dearest wife and sister in the Lord, my flesh, my bone, the dearest among all creatures on earth. For this I have confessed more than once before the lords, if the whole world were mine, I would give it, if I could keep my wife and children with a good conscience; but for the Lord's sake I must now contrary to nature forsake everything—the spirit must overcome the flesh. O my Janneken, my lamb, how hard it is for me to part from you and the children! Oh, how deep you are buried in my heart; which is now a great conflict for me; may the Lord help me to gain the victory, so that the crown of life may be prepared for me with all the elect saints of God, who have forsaken everything for the Lord's sake."
The petition for strength to endure, found in this letter and repeated in many others, is a sign of the sobriety of the martyrs, as is also their prayer for forgiveness of sins. They did not share in the error that a martyr's death would in itself assure God's grace or be of special merit. The wish for martyrdom therefore was far from their minds. They did not consider it treason to the cause to avoid the catchpolls as long as possible. Menno himself by no means walked carelessly into the arms of those who had set a price upon his head.
Because they were fully aware of the seriousness of death for Christ's sake they did not hesitate to urge upon their judges the responsibility for their wicked conduct. Like the voice of an Old Testament prophet sounds the cry of Hans Blietel (Blüetl) : "Repent, reform, and desist from your unrighteous, wicked, and vicious life; for if you do not do this, the eternal God will visit you for your sins, and He shall require the innocent blood at your hands, and punish you for it" (Martyrs Mirror D 72, E 473 f.).
The frequency of martyrdom in their time and the prophecies concerning it in the Bible convinced them that the end time was approaching. Persecution of the truth in itself they regarded as evidence that the power of Antichrist was at work, and so it is not surprising to find that they viewed their persecutors as representatives of Antichrist, an idea that Luther expresses frequently in relation to the papacy.
The Effects of Martyrdom
The consequences of the martyrdom of the Anabaptists are of enormous significance. First of all this is true for the movement itself. The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Anabaptist congregations. "Persecution contributed greatly to the spread of Anabaptism. The believers, driven from city to city, everywhere laid the foundation for new beginnings. Everywhere the simple manner of proclamation, the touching cohesion of the members among themselves, the earnest and strict life of the adherents, the thousands of joyous and simple martyrdoms, the wonderful poetry that grew out of the bloody persecution and constant danger of death, and the feeling that this condition was the seal of true Christianity, were extremely effective" (K. Müller, 333). In precisely those places where the movement was met with the greatest tolerance, as in the realm of Philipp of Hesse, it was soon extinct.
Martyrdom gave Anabaptist literature its strongest incentives, especially in hymnology. (See Ausbund.)
Toward the outside martyrdom was the most effective propaganda for the new movement. The man of the common people, with his natural sensibilities, was not blinded by the artificial attempts of the judges to justify their conduct.
One of the last formal executions was that of Hans Landis on 20 September 1614 at Zürich. Nevertheless many other Mennonites died in the following years as a result of bad treatment in prison. These must be included at least indirectly among the martyrs. The last martyr in the Netherlands died in 1574, and the last in Belgium in 1597.
Growing scruples against the death penalty for heretics, the obvious ineffectiveness of the severe measures, frequently also political necessity, led to the abandonment of the death penalty. At that point Mennonite history ceases to be martyr history. Toleration and complete religious freedom were by no means achieved, at least not in many countries. Once more under the Communist rule in Russia hundreds of Mennonites are estimated to have perished. It was, of course, not persecution for their Mennonitism, but punishment for being Christian is usually given a political veneer. But "God knows how many lost their lives in Russia, according to the verdict of the Soviet merely as reactionaries. But their rejection of much that a government separated from God asked of these alleged reactionaries stemmed from their inner relationship to God" (Kroeker).
See the article Martyrdom, Theology of
Der ander Teil der Bücher D. Martin Luthers. Wittenberg, 1551.
Beck, Josef. Die Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer in Oesterreich-Ungarn. Vienna, 1883.
Braght, Tieleman Jansz van. The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs' Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith ... Scottdale, Pa., 1938.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III: 44-49.
Hoog, I. M. J. De Martelaren der Hervorming in Nederland. Schiedam, 1885.
Kühler, W. J. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem, 1932: 245-77.
Kroeker, J. Das Bekenntnis der russischen Märtyrerkirche. Berlin, 1936.
Müller, K. Kirchengeschichte II. Tübingen, 1911, II, 2, 1919.
Swartzentruber, A. Orley. "The Piety and Theology of the Anabaptist Martyrs in van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1954): 5-26, 128.42.
Wolkan, Rudolf, Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Vienna, 1923.
Zieglschmid, A.J. F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder. Ithica, N.Y., 1943.
Zijpp,; N. van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem, 1952: 59-77.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 521-525. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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