Dirk Willems (re)discovered

Anabaptist martyr inspires an Adventist pastor, making an old story new again

Oct 12, 2015 by

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While a seminary student at Andrews University, I visited the Menno-Hof museum in Shipshewana, Ind. There I learned an amazing story that captured my imagination.

TOWERING PRISON — Sam Millen at the Dutch Reformed Church in Asperen, the Netherlands. Dirk Willems was imprisoned in the tower after he was recaptured.

TOWERING PRISON — Sam Millen at the Dutch Reformed Church in Asperen, the Netherlands. Dirk Willems was imprisoned in the tower after he was recaptured.

In May of 1569, Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist in Holland, was imprisoned in the castle of Asperen, his home town. He managed to make a long rope by tying rags together and let himself down the castle wall and onto the frozen moat early one morning. When a guard noticed the escape, he pursued Dirk.

The moat led to a larger frozen pond called the Hondegat (Dog Hole). The Hondegat was about 30 feet deep in places. Because Dirk was on prison rations, he was quite a bit lighter than the guard. When the guard fell through the melting ice, it was evident that he was going to drown.

LOCAL HERO — A street in Asperen is named after Dirk Willems. No Mennonites live there now, but residents still consider him a hero. — Sam Millen

LOCAL HERO — A street in Asperen is named after Dirk Willems. No Mennonites live there now, but residents still consider him a hero. — Sam Millen

As Dirk heard the guard’s cries for help, he had to make a quick decision. Should he continue running or turn around and save his enemy? I’m sure none of us would have faulted him if he had kept going. Remarkably, Dirk chose to turn back and help his pursuer.

Once the guard was out of the water, he promptly rearrested Dirk, and this time Dirk was taken to a cell in the church tower, from which there was no escape.

Dirk was burned at the stake four days later. Apparently the wind was blowing the smoke away, and since Dirk didn’t die more quickly from smoke inhalation, his death was excruciatingly painful. His screams were heard for miles.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” Dirk certainly had that one figured out, and it cost him dearly. It’s hard to comprehend what went through Dirk’s mind during those few seconds as he heard his enemy’s cries for help on the frozen pond.

I have thought about this story often, because I don’t know if I could do what Dirk did.

Footsteps of history

I was in the Netherlands recently for a conference and decided to make a trip to Asperen so I could experience this story firsthand.

ICONIC IMAGE — In one of the most famous Martyrs Mirror illustrations, Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer.

ICONIC IMAGE — In one of the most famous Martyrs Mirror illustrations, Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer.

The church, now Dutch Reformed, and the pond are still there. You can even see some of the remains of the castle, which was destroyed with dynamite by the French during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

Asperen is a beautiful, quiet village of about 3,000 inhabitants. The Dutch Reformed pastor and his wife treated me with amazing hospitality. They prepared a delicious meal for me and arranged for a local historian to show me everything.

We may never have an opportunity like Dirk’s, but each of us can be kinder to those who irritate us or are even hostile toward us. What would our churches look like if each of us had a heart like Dirk’s, a heart filled with God’s love? We should love one another even when we don’t agree on every theological point.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

Sam Millen is a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Luray, Va. A native of Australia, he has lived in North America for 18 years.


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