Excerpt from "Elizabeth, A Dutch Anabaptist martyr: a letter" (1573)
Reprinted in The Protestant Reformation
Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand
Published in 1968
In the early 1500s reformers began calling for changes within the Roman Catholic Church, which was the only established Christian religion in Europe at that time. An organized reform movement began after 1517, when the German theology professor (one who teaches religion) Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry) posted his grievances against the church at Wittenberg, Germany. Support of Luther's ideas gained momentum, eventually resulting in the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of Protestantism as a separate Christian faith. Simultaneously, reform efforts known as the Catholic Reformation (also the Counter Reformation) were taking place within the Roman Catholic Church (see entry). In 1555, following a series of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Germany, the Peace of Augsburg stated that each of more than three hundred principalities in Germany would adopt the religion of its local ruler. This left more than half of Germany to Lutherans, the name given to supporters of Luther's teachings.
Since the earliest stage of the Protestant Reformation, however, there had been disharmony among Protestants. All Protestants did not consider themselves Lutherans. Going far beyond the grievances listed by Luther—who never sought complete separation from the church—the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531; see entry) abandoned Lutheranism in the early 1520s and promoted his own brand of Protestantism in Switzerland. The French-born Swiss reformer John Calvin (1504–1564; see entry) also did not agree with many of Luther's ideas. Beginning in the late 1540s, from his base in Basel, Switzerland, Calvin advocated an even stricter form of Protestantism called Calvinism. The teachings of Zwingli, and particularly those of Calvin, were adopted elsewhere in Europe, but they did not necessarily reflect the views of everyone who claimed to be a Protestant. In fact, the Protestant movement was virtually in disarray, especially after the Peace of Augsburg, as hundreds of new radical Protestant sects (small groups with extreme views) were constantly forming and re-forming. Many of these sects had roots in the first phase of the Reformation. One of the strongest was the Anabaptists.
Swiss Brethren dispute baptism
The Anabaptist movement, first known as the Swiss Brethren, arose in the early 1520s among Zwingli's followers in Switzerland, then spread into Germany and the Netherlands. In 1527 the Swiss Brethren issued a statement of their beliefs in the Schleitheim Confession. Differences between the Brethren and mainstream Protestants focused on the question of baptism. Baptism is a Christian rite in which a person is anointed with water and accepted into the Christian faith. Like the Catholics, most Protestants believed in baptizing infants in order to assure that a new life would be set on the path of God. The Brethren, on the other hand, contended that a person should be baptized in adulthood even if he or she had been baptized as an infant. They referred to their form of baptism as believer's baptism because it was the voluntary choice of a mature person who was ready to accept Christianity. A member of the Swiss Brethren came to be known as an "Anabaptist," the word for "one who baptizes again." Lutherans and Calvinists often used "Anabaptist" as a negative term for any sect that did not follow standard reform practices. Like the Calvinists and the Lutherans, the Anabaptists stressed the importance of personal communication with God, and they rejected the rituals of the Catholic Church. They were different from other Protestant groups, however, because they advocated nonviolence, opposed state churches, did not participate in state government, and refused to take oaths.
Anabaptism was embraced mainly by the poor and by uneducated peasants and artisans. Anabaptists were seen as a threat by the Zwinglians. In 1525 a dispute between the two groups led to the suppression of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich and later to the banishment of its members. They were prosecuted, and in 1527 one of their leaders, Felix Mantz, was among those executed. Wherever Anabaptists and other radical sects went in Europe, they encountered similar persecution, or punishment for their beliefs. They were targeted by both Protestant and Catholic government authorities, who disapproved of their community-based doctrines and their opposition to state churches. Seldom free to practice their religion, radicals risked being arrested and put in prison, and they were often burned at the stake. (It was believed that burning was a way to destroy evil spirits.) Government authorities argued that such harsh measures had to be taken because radicals were heretics (those who violated the laws of God) who posed a threat to law and order.
So many Anabaptists were executed that they soon came to be regarded as martyrs (those who set an example by sacrificing their lives for their beliefs). In the seventeenth century Thieleman van Braght, a Dutchman, collected documents relating to Anabaptist martyrs in a book titled The Bloody Theater of the Martyrs' Mirror. Among the documents was a letter a Dutch Anabaptist woman named Elizabeth (her last name is unknown) wrote to her infant daughter Janneken. Following is an excerpt from Elizabeth's letter.
Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from "Elizabeth, A Dutch Anabaptist martyr: a letter":
- Elizabeth wrote the letter in 1573 from a prison in Antwerp (a city in present-day Belgium), shortly after giving birth to Janneken. Elizabeth's husband had already been executed, and she herself was about to meet the same fate. She was leaving the letter for Janneken, both as a remembrance of herself and her husband and as a guide for her daughter's moral and spiritual development.
- Notice that Elizabeth is willingly sacrificing her life as a way to spread the message of Christ (the name for Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity). She tells Janneken not to be ashamed of her parents because they were following the example of Christ and the early Christians (the prophets and apostles), who were also persecuted. In fact, Elizabeth feels that she has been chosen by Christ, who said, "Ye shall be persecuted, killed, and dispersed for my name's sake."
- Throughout the letter Elizabeth refers to important figures in the Christian religion. "Father" and "Lord" are terms for God. Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac were Hebrew patriarchs (fathers of the Hebrew people) who appear in the Old Testament (first part of the Bible, the Christian holy book; also called the Hebrew Bible). Abraham was the first prophet and founder of the Hebrew nation. Isaac was the son of Abraham and is revered as the second Hebrew prophet. Jacob, the Lord in Israel, was the son of Isaac. He was given the name Israel ("Prince of God") by Jehovah (the Hebrew term for God).
- Elizabeth also quotes passages from the Bible. Matt. 6:33 is the book of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 33. The second epistle (2 Thess. 3:10) of Paul (founder of first Christian churches) is to the Thessalonians, chapter 3, verse 10, and I Peter 3:10 is the first epistle of Peter (leader of Christianity after the death of Christ), chapter 3, verse 10. Matthew, 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter are all books of the New Testament, the second part of the Bible, which contains the teachings of Christ.
Excerpt from "Elizabeth, A Dutch Anabaptist martyr: a letter"
[Testament] written to Janneken my
own dearest daughter, while I was
(unworthily) confined for the
Lord's sake, in prison, at
Antwerp, A.D. 1573.
The true love of God and wisdom of the Father strengthen you in virtue, my dearest child; the Lord of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the Lord in Israel, keep you in His virtue, and strengthen and confirm your understanding in His truth. My dear little child, I commend you to the almighty, great and terrible God, who only is wise, that He will keep you, and let you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth, this is my heart's request of the Lord: you who are yet so young, and whom I must leave here in this wicked, evil, perverse world.
Since, then, the Lord has so ordered and foreordained it, that I must leave you here, and you are here deprived of father and mother, I will commend you to the Lord; let Him do with you according to His holy will. He will govern you, and be a Father to you, so that you shall have no lack here, if you only fear God; for He will be the Father of the orphans and the Protector of the widows.
Hence, my dear lamb, I who am imprisoned and bound here for the Lord's sake, can help you in no other way; I had to leave your father for the Lord's sake, and could keep him only a short time. We were permitted to live together only half a year, after which we were apprehended, because we sought the salvation of our souls. They took him from me, not knowing my condition [her pregnancy], and I had to remain in imprisonment, and see him go before me; and it was a great grief to him, that I had to remain here in prison. And now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me. Here I lie, expecting death every morning, and shall now soon follow your dear father. And I, your dear mother, write you, my dearest child, something for a remembrance, that you will thereby remember your dear father and your dear mother.
Since I am now delivered up to death, and must leave you here alone, I must through these lines cause you to remember, that when you have attained your understanding, you endeavor to fear God, and see and examine why and for whose name we both died; and be not ashamed to confess us before the world, for you must know that it is not for the sake of any evil. Hence be not ashamed of us; it is the way which the prophets and the apostles went, and the narrow way which leads into eternal life, for there shall no other way be found by which to be saved.
Hence, my young lamb, for whose sake I still have, and have had, great sorrow, seek, when you have attained your understanding, this narrow way, though there is sometimes much danger in it according to the flesh, as we may see and read, if we diligently examine and read the Scriptures, that much is said concerning the cross of Christ. And there are many in this world who are enemies of the cross, who seek to be free from it among the world, and to escape it. But, my dear child, if we would with Christ seek and inherit salvation, we must also help bear His cross; and this is the cross which He would have us bear: to follow His footsteps, and to help bear His reproach; for Christ Himself says: "Ye shall be persecuted, killed, and dispersed for my name's sake." Yea, He Himself went before us in this way of reproach, and left us an example, that we should follow His steps; for, for His sake all must be forsaken, father, mother, sister, brother, husband, child, yea, one's own life…
Thus, my dear child, it is now fulfilled in your dear father and mother. It was indeed prophesied to us beforehand, that this was awaiting us; but not everyone is chosen hereunto, nor expects it; the Lord has chosen us hereunto. Hence, when you have attained your understanding, follow this example of your father and mother. And, my dear child, this is my request of you, since you are still very little and young; I wrote this when you were but one month old. As I am soon now to offer up my sacrifice, by the help of the Lord, I leave you this: "That you fulfil my request, always uniting with them that fear God; and do not regard the pomp and boasting of the world, nor the great multitude, whose way leads to the abyss of hell, but look at the little flock of Israelites, who have no freedom anywhere, and must always flee from one land to the other, as Abraham did; that you may hereafter obtain your fatherland; for if you seek your salvation, it is easy to perceive which is the way that leads to life, or the way that leads into hell. Above all things, seek the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness; and whatever you need besides shall be added unto you." Matt. 6:33.
Further, my dear child, I pray you, that wherever you live when you are grown up, and begin to have understanding, you conduct yourself well and honestly, so that no one need have cause to complain of you. And always be faithful, taking good heed not to wrong any one. Learn to carry your hands always uprightly, and see that you like to work, for Paul says: "If any will not work, neither shall he eat." 2 Thess. 3:10. And Peter says: "He that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil." I Pet. 3:10.
What happened next…
In spite of persecution, the Anabaptists and other radicals were important to the Protestant Reformation. Many of these religious groups were headed by lay, or unordained, preachers who came to see the close connections among religion, politics, and economics. They continued pressing for social and political reforms, which they justified with passages from the Bible. The Reformation thus spread to all aspects of life, and the Christian world found itself in the middle of the most profound upheaval since Roman Catholicism was founded around C. E. 600. By the close of the Protestant Reformation in the early seventeenth century, the Christianworld was divided into five factions—Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican (Church of England), and Anabaptist. Within this structure new sects continued to emerge, and many still exist today. In fact, the Anabaptists were the forerunners of the modern Baptists, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the world.
Did you know…
- Closely related to the Anabaptists were the Hutterites (Moravian Brethren), a group founded by Jakob Hutter, an Austrian pacifist (one who is opposed to violence). The Hutterites established communities based on mutual Christian love and the sharing of goods. Another prominent Anabaptist group was the Mennonites. They were led by the Dutch reformer Menno Simons (c. 1496–1561), a well-known Anabaptist theologian. Simons stressed the importance of living according to the teachings of Christ. Like the Hutterites, the Mennonites formed close-knit communities that lived apart from the rest of the world. Today Hutterites and Mennonites continue to live in Europe and North America.
- Many other sects were formed during the Protestant Reformation. Among them were the Spiritualists, who sought personal communion with the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Holy Trinity). The Evangelical Rationalists and Puritans of both Poland and England applied "right reason" to such concepts as the deity (godliness) of Christ, the Trinity (the Christian idea of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and the existence of heaven and hell (places where the saved and sinners, respectively, go after death). The Levellers and True Levellers, Ranters, Seekers, Muggletonians, Antinomians, and scores of other radical groups rose up, especially in England, Belgium, and France. They came to be known by both Catholics and conservative Protestants as "the lunatic fringe."
For More Information
Anthony, Arthur. The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968.
Loewen, Harry, and Steven M. Nolt. Through Fire & Water: An Overview of Mennonite History. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996.
The Radicals. Worcester, Pa.: Gateway Films-Vision Video, 1989.
The Schleitheim Confession. [Online] Available http://www.anabaptists.org/history/schleith.html, April 10, 2002.