Dirk Willems : An undivided heart

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Photo: MAID

Dirk Willems (died 1569) raced for his life across the thinly frozen pond. Willems was an Anabaptist (a 16th 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.

Although weakened from his stay in prison, Willems was so light that he made it over the thin ice of the pond, known as 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.

Without stopping to consider the consequences, Dirk reflexively turned back, reaching a helping hand toward the guard and slowly pulling him from the water to the safety of the pond’s edge. The guard had no choice but to take Dirk back to prison.

Some weeks went by as Dirk languished in prison.

Eventually, the judge handed out the sentence: “Whereas Dirk Willems, born at Asperen, at present a prisoner, has . . . confessed, that at the age of 15 . . . 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.”

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 16th 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.

The inhabitants of present-day Asperen have memorialized Willems’ remarkable act of charity by naming a city street in his honor. The spiritual descendants of Willems and other 16th century Anabaptist martyrs now number in the millions.

For Mennonites, no other story out of the 16th century has so captured the imagination. What Willlems 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 from a heart undivided. For 16th 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.

Paul Toews is a long-time history professor at Fresno Pacific University and renowned Mennonite historian. This profile is adapted from Profiles in Mennonite Faith, published by the MB Historical Commission. 

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