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Profiles of Mennonite Faith

No. 1, Fall 1997

Dirk Willems: A Heart Undivided

Dirk Willems was racing across the thinly frozen pond. He was racing for his life. He knew that returning meant death. Dirk was an Anabaptist (a sixteenth-century name for many Mennonites), and Anabaptists all over Europe were being tortured and put to death. If the guard caught him it would be his life. So he ran as fast as he could. But he was weakened, in fact quite thin and light, from his stay in prison. He was so light that he made it over the thin ice of the pond, the “Hondegat.” But his pursuer, stronger and heavier, did not make it across. The ice cracked, the guard fell in, and soon the cold water swirled above his head. He was gasping as he tried to get out, but the ice kept breaking. The guard was sure he would drown in the icy waters.

An etching of Dirk Willems by Dutch artist Jan Luyken. It first appeared in the 1685 edition of The Martyrs Mirror.

Suddenly he saw a hand reaching for him and a voice telling him to hold on and to be calm. Slowly but surely Dirk pulled him from the water and to the safety of the pond’s edge. Soon the exhausted guard realized that it was Dirk who had saved him. The prisoner trying to escape had come back to save the guard. The guard, exhausted but happy to be alive, had no choice but to take Dirk back to prison.

Some weeks went by as Dirk languished in prison. One day the guard heard the judge in the courtroom next to the jail handing out the sentence. “Whereas Dirk Willems, born at Asperen, at present a prisoner has . . . confessed, that at the age of fifteen . . . he was rebaptized in Rotterdam, at the house of one Pieter Willems, and that he further, in Asperen, at his house, at diverse hours . . . permitted several persons to be rebaptized . . . therefore, we the aforesaid judges . . . do condemn the aforesaid Dirk Willems that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues.”

The guard, hearing the harsh punishment, wondered why this man was so dangerous. Did rebaptism really make a person so threatening that execution was necessary? While such a sentence seems unlikely in our times it was the fate of many sixteenth-century Anabaptists. In 1569, when Willems was executed, rebaptism signaled a belief that one no longer thought the existing church – the state church – was an authentic church. Rebaptism expressed the desire to become part of a counter-movement – a restored church – that would stand against the corruptions of both the church and the larger society. That kind of religious dissent from the practice of religious uniformity was so threatening that it had to be stamped out, even if that meant executing people like Dirk Willems.

But such courage and conviction cannot be stamped out. The inhabitants of present-day Asperen have memorialized Dirk’s remarkable act of charity by naming a city street in his honor. The spiritual descendants of Willems and other sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyrs now number in the millions. For Mennonites no other story out of the sixteenth-century has so captured the imagination. What Dirk did on that icy pond was reflexive – he didn’t have to stop and think whether it was right or wrong or what the consequences would be. He simply did what his faith compelled him to do.

Willems’ spontaneous response to someone in need comes only from a heart undivided. For sixteenth-century Anabaptists faith in Jesus the Christ meant following him in every detail of life. Many of them, like Dirk Willems, lived and died with such an undivided heart.