I can’t say for sure how I got the book that currently sits open in my lap. It is a large book–over 1100 very large pages of text that would be impossible to simply read straight through, and yet it has been hidden in my library for who knows how long. In the process of preparing my boxes and boxes of books to be put on shelves like a proper library (a process I will be blogging about it when it has reached a further stage–right now we’re halfway through the shelves and have a lot of books left to go), I came across this large book as I was emptying boxes and dividing their contents by theme. When I opened the book, I thought it to be a large set of Fox’s Book of Martyrs, but it was even more obscure and interesting than that.
The book has a long title: The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Saviour, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. The book was originally written in the 17th century by a fellow named Thieleman J. van Braght, in Dutch, and was translated in 1951 into English by Joseph F. Sohm for American Mennonites no longer able to understand either Dutch or German, and who were rapidly being acculturated. It was the purpose of the translation of this book to arrest this trend, as the preface says: “The pressures of the contemporary culture upon the group to surrender this historic principle are strong. It is evident that vigorous efforts must be made to capture the loyalty of our youth if the Biblical doctrine of nonresistance is to be preserved.”
What this book contains, from scanning through it, are accounts of baptisms and martyrdoms (a bit more focus on the martyrdoms) ranging for about 1500 years of Christian history. It certainly isn’t an easy read–and it includes accounts of the Waldensian crusade as well as the efforts by the Spaniards to snuff out the Protestant Faith in the Netherlands. This book preserves translations of personal letters quoting scripture (and even occasionally apocryphal books like Tobit) and consoling each other. The book also shows the abuse of power by both the political and religious authorities of Europe during the time, and how they opposed those who were baptized upon the confession of faith.
The book is very direct, and occasionally a bit harsh. For example, the book not only includes accounts of martyrs (which sometimes take a dig at the habits of the monks in tormenting and torturing the martyrs), but also of the uncompromising statements of the martyrs themselves. These martyrs may have been ‘nonresisting,’ but they certainly were not retiring wallflowers. Take this excerpt, chosen at random, from page 457: “Yea, how many saints and witnesses of Jesus Christ are still hated, persecuted and slain by the Babylonian whore, because they will not drink of the wine of her fornication, or have fellowship with her idolatrous works. Therefore all hypocritical saints, all wicked hypocrites, who boast of being called Christians, yet will not suffer for the name of Christ, may well be ashamed. Christ may justly say to them: If I be your Lord, why do you not keep My commandments? if I be your Master, why do you not believe My words?” Rebuke like this, coming from a brother (not even a minister) named Walter of Stoelwijk, who was martyred in 1541 in Brabant, testify to the fact that brethren have at various times been bold in speaking the faith and condemning vile hypocrites who pretend to be Christians but are not.
Nonetheless, a more gentle side of these believers also comes through in these pages, lest we think it all fire and brimstone and condemnation. Take for example, also chosen at random, this excerpt from page 104 from a man named Reytse Aysess, to his wife of two years, “Grace, peace, mercy, unity, and love be with you, my dear wife and sister in the Lord; may the almighty God comfort you in your misery and tribulation which you have on my account. Behold, my very dear and beloved wife and sister in the Lord, whom I took before God and His church, console you in your tribulation and distress which you endure on my account. Behold, my beloved, though we are to suffer here (for in the world we shall have tribulation, but our tribulation shall be turned into joy), let us firmly cleave to the word of the Lord, and depart neither to the right nor to the left. O dear and much beloved wife, I am so greatly troubled and concerned for you, and pray the Almighty God for you day and night, that He will keep you, and that you may continue steadfast unto the end; for he that continues steadfast shall be saved.” Now, the fact that this man was imprisoned by the Catholics, facing martyrdom, and yet shows concern and compassion for the nerves of his wife, shows a great deal of outgoing love. After all, page 1005 says of him that: “when he came into the torture tower, he fell down upon his face, and called upon the Lord in fervent prayer, after which he rose, and offered up his sacrifice with all boldness, and was drowned there. He now rests under the altar, waiting for the number of his fellow brethren to be fulfilled.”
That is a chilling expression, at least to me. Without reading the entire book (which would probably be depressing), it is impossible to say for sure, but at least from those pages I have glanced at, there appears to be in this book an underlying theme that tribulation and suffering are inevitable in this world for those who are genuine believers, and that those contemporary Mennonites (and other members of religious countercultures, like the Jews) within the United States have forgotten the temporary and fragile nature of freedom and the quickness with which toleration and acculturation turn into bitter hatred and persecution of alien ‘others’ within. We must prepare ourselves to take our own place on the stage of that bloody theater, if we have indeed been chosen for those times.
What is most amazing perhaps, is that this book remained hidden within my own collection for so long, given my voracious taste in books and my fascination with dark and gloomy aspects of history. Suffice it to say this book will be hidden for no longer, but it will have an honored place in my library, commensurate with its worth and excellence.