Dirk Willems: Anabaptist Martyr and Child of God
I have been interested in the stories of the Protestant martyrs for as long as I can remember, but there are some stories that really touch me. One is the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. Another is the Huguenot massacre near St. Augustine, Florida, ending French hopes of settling the New World. A third is the story of Dirk Willems. I think many who have studied religion conflict in the 16th century have heard at least snatches of this story, and it seems a central theme, but I wanted to recount it here because it is so amazingly powerful.
The tale began in the Netherlands. No one knows exactly how old Dirk was when he accepted the adult baptism that marked him as an Anabaptist or ‘re-baptizer,’ but it is clear that his newfound zeal drew a wary eye from Catholic officials. In 1569 he was imprisoned for his faith but managed to employ a homemade rope so he might lower himself down out of a window. He was almost free, but then it happened . . . his pursuer slammed through the ice with a mighty crack and was in immediate danger of drowning. What did Dirk do? He stopped, went back, and rescued the man who had sworn to apprehend him.
So let’s set that scene. It was a frozen day, a barren landscape of white, most likely with a chill wind whistling. The young fleet-footed man felt his pulse throbbing in his chest and echoing in his ears as he fled across the ice. Perhaps, after having been imprisoned, it was difficult to run. He heard shouts and barking dogs, and he looked back just briefly to see that a man from the prison had given chase. Suddenly time was of the essence. Dirk Willems picked up his steps, each breath exhaling a silent prayer, until he heard a mighty crack and a strangled cry of surprise.
He stood and pondered. With this man out of the way, he could easily escape. Freedom was so close that it beckoned to him beguilingly. He had been abused, neglected, and subjected to horrific words concerning his Anabaptist faith. It was only a matter of time until he would have been carted away to the stake, or taken to be drowned. It would be easy to believe that God had destined the unfortunate guard to die. But Dirk, with a Christian heart and spirit, surged ahead, retracing his steps without taking time to ponder the ramifications. He could not walk away and do nothing.
So, even knowing that he might still be put to death, he ran back over the crystal surface and pulled his pursuer out of the hole. A thousand different thoughts must have fled through his mind. But he did not allow fear and uncertainty to cloud his judgment. There was a fellow human being in need, and gaining freedom by another’s man death was not a sacrifice he was willing to make. So what did the drenched man do to repay Dirk Willems’ kindness? Some sources say he took him back to prison. Some say he asked his authorities to set Dirk free, which they refused to do. The Good Samaritan was carted to prison once again.
On May 16th, 1569, he was burned at the stake.
I always found it stunning and admirable that my Lutheran, Huguenot, and Anabaptist ancestors and spiritual predecessors could choose to die for their faith in general, but to think that there were some who managed to rescue their tormenters in addition to sacrificing their lives for God’s Word! That is beyond inspiring. Dirk Willems was definitely a blessed man, in heaven if not on earth, and will forever be remembered with respect and admiration.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved