new Mennonite Life logo    Spring 2007     vol. 62 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

How the Martyrs Mirror Helped Save Me: A Response to Krehbiel and Goering

by Gerald J. Mast

Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton University and the author of Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion (Cascadia, 2006).

Stephanie Krehbiel's account of her difficult relationship to the stories found in Martyrs Mirror is a valuable contribution to what one hopes will be a growing literature of critical retrieval that explores the personal and collective reception of Martyrs Mirror by the contemporary church—the ecclesial descendants of the martyrs. What is moving in her account is its honest grappling with the text and its legacy—a challenging and critical engagement that respects the otherness of these stories and the distance between the sixteenth-century and our time. Krehbiel both asks honest questions across the centuries of the ancestors—"how can you speak of joy in the face of death"—and she criticizes the mythic uses to which the stories have been put in modern Mennonite culture.

My response to Krehbiel begins with a confessional narrative of my own personal experience of the stories found in the Martyr Mirror, which contrasts in many ways with the experience of Krehbiel, no doubt in part due to generational, gendered, communal, and existential differences between us. Having acknowledged this experiential difference from Krehbiel, I will then offer a perspective on the Martyrs Mirror that challenges Mel Goering by viewing its offensiveness to North American sensibilities as a symptom of its prophetic worth to us.

When I was a child, my family was part of a conservative Mennonite church that belonged to the nonconference fellowship movements of the 1950s and 60s which sought to resist the cultural assimilation of the Conservative Mennonite Conference and regional conferences belonging to the (old) Mennonite Church. I attended a little Mennonite grade school owned and operated by my home church. In that school I learned to love American history. I thrilled to the stories of the American Revolution and of the Civil War, of the heroic leadership of founding presidents like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and of the amazing discoveries of explorers like Lewis and Clark and of scientists like Edison and Pasteur. As a kid, I developed a large scrapbook of all paraphernalia related to American presidents that I could find and accumulated a big file on Nixon and Watergate while I was in second and third grades. One of my favorite day trips as a child was a visit to the McKinley monument in Canton, where President McKinley is buried along with his wife and two children, and where there is a statue of McKinley delivering his last speech before he was assassinated. I developed a fetish for assassinated Presidents and read everything I could find about the mythic lives and tragic deaths of Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield, and Kennedy. When we traveled east to visit relatives, I begged my parents to stop at every Civil War battlefield within 20 miles of our route and along the way I accumulated boxes of travel brochures so I could plot every future vacation my family would take with a view to all potential historical sites, museums, and battlefields within range. And I read history books voraciously: Bruce Catton on the Civil War, Allan Eckert on the conflicts of the Midwestern frontier, Carl Sandburg on Lincoln, Arthur Schlesinger on the Kennedys, every one of the hundreds of books in the Childhoods of Famous Americans series, every article dealing with American wars, Presidents, or scientists in the World Book Encyclopedia, and every history book that I could get my hands on in the Holmes County Public Library.

Of course, I also read books that were written for children. One of my favorite childhood memories is heading out to the car after church on Sunday morning to get my stash of Hardy Boys books to exchange with my friend Paul Weaver, who had also brought his stash to church. Reading a Hardy Boys book was just about the closest you could get to sinful pleasure in the community of my childhood, free as it was from all modern mass media such as radio, television, and movies of any type.

Amidst all these books I read and reread as a child was a book that for me posed a stark challenge to the vast mythology of American history and crime that I consumed as a child. This book I first found in my grandparents' battered bookcase between a pictorial history of the Six-Day War on the one side and a photographic account of the Kennedy assassination on the other. This book was probably physically the largest book I encountered as a child and also had the longest title of any book I had come across: 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. Inside this book were fascinating and horrifying engravings that trumped the color photos of the Kennedy assassination or the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. That English edition of the Martyrs Mirror included 55 engravings of Christians—women and men—witnessing to their faith in Jesus Christ, many by being tortured or executed, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus, continuing through fifteen centuries of minority Christian movements, and focusing on the witness of sixteenth-century Anabaptists and Mennonites.

This book was a different kind of history than the war-glorifying, male-centered history that so enchanted me. The compiler of the Martyrs Mirror, Thieleman van Braght, notes this contrast in his introduction to the second part of the Martyrs Mirror, by comparing these martyr stories with the war stories of Homer. He writes of his account:

For, truly, those whom we met here, were no Greek warriors, who had enlisted under the hero Agamemnon, or his general Hector. Nor were the storms and assaults which we beheld, made upon a city built with hands, much less upon the city of Ilium in Phrygia. Nor did the conquerors burn pitch-barrels, in token of victory. Neither did the heroes who had acquitted themselves well, and faithfully risked their lives, obtain fading oak leaves, or laurel wreathes, as marks of honor. Or, if they had died, their graves were not ornamented with tombs, pyramids, or obelisks, which must eventually perish with the world.

Here things were quite different, beloved friends; yea, quite different. For heroes met us who served the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, who, though as a slain lamb, is truly the Prince of the kings of the earth.(1)

As a child, poring over the bloody engravings and reading the terrifying details of torture and execution, I understand quite clearly that these stories were following a very different plot than the nation-building, world-discovering, and enemy-destroying narratives that so attracted me. In these stories, weakness triumphed over strength, love trumped hatred, singing was heard at the stake, and a small defenseless community of argumentative Christian disciples challenged the powerful and the mighty who wielded instruments of torture and weapons of destruction. I could not forget these stories, even when I was reading about the wilderness exploits of Daniel Boone or Sherman's bloody march to the sea. In the final instance, when I made the choice to be baptized into the Zion Conservative Mennonite Church, I had been persuaded of the greater truthfulness of the stories of defenseless Christians found in the Martyrs Mirror.

In my academic exploration of the Martyrs Mirror, my work has thus emphasized the power of Martyrs Mirror stories as leverage against the nation-celebrating civil-religious mythology that surrounds those of us who live in the United States and that seeks to train our children as its subjects.(2) I have noted that this text contains far more than stories and images of bloody execution. There are also fierce debates, moving love letters, heart-felt admonitions, powerful prayers, articulate confessions, and many, many scenes of courageous civil disobedience.(3) Placing the accounts of execution within this larger canvas of rich life stories challenges for me the mythic vision of death and victimage to which Krehbiel is reacting. Still, it is understandable why the larger lively canvas might recede into the distance for readers who encounter the visually stunning depictions of cruel death.

While we should obviously be thoughtful about how we expose our children to this traumatic narrative horizon, I confess I do read to my children from the Martyrs Mirror. I highlight the feisty arguments, the stubborn stances of resistance, and the love for Jesus and the people of God that pervade the text, and not so much the scenes of death. My five-year-old son, Jacob, who is presently fascinated by the martial arts morality depicted in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is learning about the biblical arts of nonviolent resistance from Simon the Shopkeeper and Dirk Willems. My seven-year-old daughter Anna, captivated as she is by Cinderella and Snow White and princess stories of all kinds, is also discovering "the way to the true fountain" followed by the "bride of the Lamb" with Anna of Rotterdam, in her letter to her infant son Isaiah. These discoveries in the Martyrs Mirror have led us in our bedtime stories to the book of Revelation where we read about the woman clothed with the sun, the triumph of the slain lamb, a sea of glass, creatures with eyes all around and inside, the holy city, and the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. These fantastical images and stories thus far exceed the delights of Disney and the suspense of Scooby Doo. I am not convinced that we can find on television a better story than the biblical story—which is the story that is extended and elaborated in the Martyrs Mirror, or that my kids will be "messed up" by the Martyrs Mirror (at least not in comparison to the experience of being "messed up" by television programs like Bratz or classic fairy tales like Peter Pan or contemporary literary and film plots like Harry Potter or the many troubling stories in the Good Book itself). In fact, it seems likely that those who are offended by the Martyrs Mirror and worry that the book will create "messed up" people will also be worried by much of the Bible, full of bloody sacrifices as it seems to be, not to mention the martyrdom of Jesus Christ himself.

But given how easily we accept on television what we are bothered by in dramatic seventeenth century etchings, I wonder if we in the professional classes of North America are really less bothered by the violence than we are offended by the rejection of the powers of officialdom found in both the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror. While we prefer stories that affirm the goodness of our respectable and responsible social positions, in the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror we find stories instead that expose the hypocrisies and contradictions associated with the good people who rule the world. The mighty are mocked in the Martyrs Mirror, following the biblical prophecy that the poor and weak will be lifted up and rich and powerful will brought down from their thrones. A re-acquaintance with the Martyrs Mirror will serve to subvert a kind of incipient conservative Unitarianism one finds all too often among progressive Mennonites, focused around service to others and activism on behalf of good human causes, but scandalized by the biblical good news that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Of course, such a re-acquaintance will also challenge an easy evangelical Mennonitism that is overly enamored with the latest church growth strategies and the most popular worship trends. The road to life is narrow and few there be that find it, Jesus said. The Martyrs Mirror is one source for discovering the narrow road to life that we should not set aside, even if the sight of our faith ancestors dying in brutal ways makes us a bit uneasy in North America as we sit in our comfortable couches in front of our television screens that depict for us at a safe distance the latest brutalities being inflicted on our enemies in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.

I acknowledge that the Martyrs Mirror has been misused and wrongly interpreted by some. The function of these stories in reinforcing an anti-Catholic prejudice among Mennonites is one case in point. Furthermore, it may be that for those who have found themselves disempowered or otherwise spiritually constrained by a particular mythic reception of the tradition, as Krehbiel has, a liberating response will involve setting these stories aside, at least for a time. But I suspect that the far greater problem among assimilated Mennonites is that we are actually quite unfamiliar with the contents of the book (some of my Mennonite students have never heard of the Martyrs Mirror), and that many of the problematic perceptions of these martyr stories have more to do with the way in which the Martyrs Mirror functions as an iconic symbol rather than as a text that we study and discuss. If this is so, I suggest that a liberating response to this burden of history might more fruitfully involve increased education and dialogue about the actual contents of the book. My critique of Mel Goering's essay is thus offered in the spirit of assisting in stirring up an educated and informed (and I hope pleasurable) discussion about this troubling and challenging text—a discussion that is advanced well by the provocative perspectives of both Krehbiel and Goering, even if my own experiences and opinions differ from theirs.

Mel Goering's essay highlights the question raised in Krehbiel's essay whether the Martyrs Mirror is a "useful story" for 21st century Mennonites. While I am not sure that usefulness is the best criterion for judging the worth of a heritage or a memory (for me, faithfulness is a better criteria), I will accept for the purposes of argument that we should consider whether the Martyrs Mirror is useful for 21st century North American Mennonites. Goering is right to point out that there is sometimes a discrepancy between intended and received messages and that the lessons of the martyr tradition in their experienced form are not always wise or helpful lessons. Yet, I suggest that Goering himself contributes to the wrongful reception of the Martyrs Mirror by advancing five incorrect assumptions about the contents of the Martyrs Mirror. These faulty assumptions may have much to do with why American Mennonites perceive the memory of their martyred ancestors to not be useful.

1. Did the martyrs die for doctrinal purity? Goering poses the mission of the church and its "service wing" against the "doctrinal purity" of the martyrs and concludes that obsession with correct "faith statements" impedes "activity in the world." When we examine the Martyrs Mirror, however, we discover that it is precisely the doctrinal orthodoxy of establishment Christianity that the martyrs opposed in their witness. For example in a lengthy discussion between the martyr Claesken Gaeledochter and an inquisitor about the importance of received traditions and teachings, Claesken insists that "we need no other writings than the holy Gospels."(4) Another martyr, Joos Kindt, in a discussion with an interrogator named Polet confesses that "I hold no doctrine save that of the apostles and prophets, and of the words which our Saviour brought from high heaven."(5) This sort of response to the effort to enforce doctrinal purity is quite common throughout the Martyr Mirror. That this is so reminds us that it is people in charge of institutions who tend to enforce orthodoxy and "purity," whether that is in the form of classical Christendom or in the form of modern organizational pragmatism. The preface to the second book of the Martyrs Mirror, written by Waterlander Mennonite writer Jan Philipsz Schabaelje, highlights the preference for deeds of love over a mere "lip faith."(6) And Thieleman van Braght himself stressed in his editorial remarks in various places a flexible view of confessional dogma. He notes that Anabaptist martyrs maintained "more or less in regard to this or that point" and acknowledged the need for interpretation of creeds and confessions.(7) It is not the Anabaptists in these stories who are dogmatic; rather it is the establishment forms of Christianity allied with the powers of that age which turn out to be dogmatic and rigid—to the point of being prepared to kill in the name of doctrine.

2. Were the martyrs opposed to changing "rituals" and "faith statements?" This is one of the more absurd accusations found in Goering's article. The Anabaptists were the party of change in these stories. It was establishment Christianity with its civil-religious rituals that was unwilling to change. The martyr Claesken, for example, expresses well the frustration of Anabaptists with the rigidity of the establishment when she describes a lengthy discussion about sacramental theology in which the town pastor held to the "old tune" (oude teem).(8) The Anabaptists were seeking to reform the church, to change its rituals and faith statements, and to open the way to a free and voluntary church—an entrepreneurial faith community—but encountered entrenched religious and magisterial authorities who held a rigid and old order line against Anabaptist reformation and innovation.

3. Did the martyrs choose to die? Goering wants stories of people who made the world a better place but who did not "choose to die." While the Anabaptists were prepared to die, it is wrong to blame Anabaptists for their own deaths. The Anabaptists indeed sought to improve the world and they did not seek to die in the process. We can take the well-known story of Dirk Willems as a case in point.(9) That Dirk Willems did not choose to die is obvious insofar as we find him escaping the prison and hightailing it out across a frozen pond. He is trying to save his own life. His decision to offer disaster relief to the jailer who broke through the ice was not a decision to die, but a decision to help someone in need, to offer service to a drowning man—not a bad narrative horizon for a service agency like the Mennonite Disaster Service, I might add. That he was recaptured and burned at the stake was not his decision, but that of the local Christian magistracy. To be sure, the theology of suffering that is developed throughout the martyr stories and epistolary letters is one that stresses the readiness to follow Christ in faithfulness, even unto death. But in most cases suffering is not valorized as a good in itself; it is instead seen as an unnecessary but frequent effect of faithful living.(10)

4. Were the martyrs passive in their defenselessness? On the one hand, Goering accuses the martyr stories of highlighting argumentative and dysfunctional behavior—a tenacious commitment to conviction. But on the other hand he suggests that Mennonites need a different set of stories "not for the defenseless but for the active." Thus Goering suggests that a problem with Martyrs Mirror is that its stories promote passivity and not activism. Here it seems to me that an obstacle to seeing the activism in the Martyrs Mirror is the assumption that real action involves institutional and political action designed to "move the world toward Shalom."

If this is so, then the Martyrs Mirror offers a theological witness that Goering and other who share his view need to hear, even if they do not find it useful. The martyrs believed that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God had acted decisively to reconcile the world, to bring down the powerful from their thrones, and to restore the poor. They did not believe that it was up to them to make this happen but rather to act in accordance with the conviction that God was already bringing it about. They accepted that "the relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection," as Yoder writes in The Politics of Jesus.(11) The extent to which Mennonites believe it is up to them to save the world is also the extent to which the martyr stories will seem far from useful. But is this need to save the world not a far greater source of temptation to arrogance than an appreciation for ancestors who acted faithfully and without violence even when confronted with death?

5. Were the martyrs uninterested in the problems of the world around them? Goering implies this by suggesting that we need stories that "focus on the created order (the world), not just the church." It is true that the martyrs believed that the gathered body of Christ, when faithful, offered the fullest witness to the direction of history. "But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them," Anna Janz of Rotterdam wrote to her son Isaiah before she was killed, "for where you hear of the cross, there is Christ; from there do not depart."(12) But Anna also urged her son to "honor the Lord with the works of your hand and let the light of the Gospel shine through you. Love your neighbor. Deal with an open hand your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, and suffer not to have anything two-fold for there are always some who lack."(13) Soetgen van den Houte in a letter to her children and family members identified herself with the apocalyptical and world-transforming messianic vision of Mary's Magnificat: "He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. To the poor the gospel is preached."(14) Michael Sattler criticizes Christian involvement in the war against the Turk.(15) Joris Wippe left behind "a good testimony as regards his liberality to the poor."(16) Two Dutch Anabaptists imprisoned in Elizabethan England write eloquently of God's command to "love the stranger as one's own self." Prisoners Hendrick Terwoort and Jan Pieterss write a confessional statement that includes their view on the role of magistrates: "for the punishment of evil and the protection of the good."(17) Perhaps most significantly, considering Goering's view that Anabaptists chose death, is the appearance of vigorous arguments for religious tolerance against the persecuting public policies of establishment Christian magistrates. For example, one letter by Dutch Anabaptists imprisoned in England to a minister who supported Elizabeth's repressive policies argues that efforts of authorities to "constrain us thereto with fire and sword… appears to us a vain understanding, and to militate against reason."(18) There are copies of letters written by Dutch Reformed magistrates to Swiss Reformed magistrates in the seventeenth century urging a more tolerant Swiss policy toward Anabaptists.(19) It is thus a mistake to view Anabaptist martyrs as being uninterested in the problems of the world. They were in fact at the center of dramatic changes in the relationship of the church to structures of governance and they advanced what was at that time a novel argument on behalf of religious liberty.

In a letter describing the persecution of the Swiss Brethren from 1635-1645, an Anabaptist writer notes that "we are not bitter as we write these facts. We wish only that our descendants will not forget our suffering."(20) Will we who no longer languish at the suffering margins of the world order remember our ancestors who suffered? Will our daily lives, social practices, and professional habits reflect the concern of our ancestors that we remember those who suffer? In my view, reading and discussing the Martyrs Mirror is one way to remember who we are without bitterness, to see the world from the perspective of those who suffer anywhere, and to live in the hope of the resurrection.(21)


1. Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 353.

2. Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast, "'Bloody Theater' and Christian Discipleship," Mennonite Historical Bulletin 62.4 (October 2001), 1-10.

3. Gerald J. Mast, "'Adieu my beloved, and always persevere steadfastly': Mennonite Love Letters in the Martyrs Mirror." Forthcoming in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

4. Van Braght, 612.

5. Ibid., 541.

6. Ibid., 355.

7. Ibid., 27, 372.

8. Ibid., 616

9. Ibid., 741-42.

10. Ibid., 615

11. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 232.

12. Van Braght, 454.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 650.

15. Ibid., 416.

16. Ibid., 584

17. Ibid., 1018

18. Ibid., 1024

19. Ibid., 1132

20. Ausbund (Lancaster County: Verlag von den Amischen Gemeinden, 1992), 864; Anabaptist Letters from 1635 to 1645 (Atglen, Pa.: John E. Kauffman, 1977), 42.

21. "The Christian does not have to wait until he suffers himself; the sufferings of his brethren for whom Christ died are enough to awaken his active sympathy." Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 31.