Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer. Engraving by Jan Luiken in the book The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror, Dutch edition.
Today is Reformation Sunday because tomorrow, October 31, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, the symbolic beginning of the Protestant movement. Instead of Reformation Day perhaps we should call it Reformations Day, because the Reformation was not a single event or unified movement. There were many varieties of religious reform in sixteenth-century Europe, which can be categorized under three broad headings: Protestant or “Magisterial” Reformation, Catholic Reformation, and Radical Reformation. The Anabaptists are the best known group of the Radical Reformation. Modern Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites all descend from sixteenth-century Anabaptists.
Anabaptist historian Werner O. Packull told me he once heard a renowned scholar call the Anabaptists the “dunghill of the Reformation.” I won’t mention the name of the man who said that because he’s now deceased, but I will say that he is famous for analyzing Martin Luther’s scatalogical language. With all this potty talk, it’s good to remember just how squeaky clean the lives of some of the early Anabaptists were. Take Dirk Willems, for example.
In 1569, Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems landed in prison for his rejection of infant baptism. Catholics and Protestants alike feared the Anabaptists’ vision of a voluntary church of true believers would cause social unrest. Willems escaped from jail using a rope made from knotted rags. Seeing him flee, a guard ran after him and followed Willems across a frozen canal, but the ice was thin and the pursuer fell through into the freezing water. Hearing his cries, Willems turned back and rescued the drowning man. The guard wanted to let Willems go, but at the mayor’s insistance he recaptured the man who had saved his life. Willems was then burned at the stake for heresy near his hometown of Asperen, Holland on May 16, 1569.
The Anabaptists’ greatest contribution to the Reformation was their emphasis on discipleship. Being a Christian means getting your life right with God, not just your theology. Judging by example of Anabaptists like Dirk Willems, those on the “dunghill of the Reformation” were a sweet fragrance to God (2 Cor. 2:15).