Facing death with laughter

Feb 5, 2018 by

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I’m in the process of editing a 20-page essay on the spirit of the Ausbund, a German book of Anabaptist songs still used in some Amish circles. Many of the lyrics tell stories of Anabaptist martyrs. The focus of this essay is the joy with which many Anabaptist martyrs faced their death. In fact, the essay is quite startling with its focus on laughter.

This was a new thought to me, but the author quotes very liberally from the Ausbund, and provides both the German lyrics and an English translation. As you read these illustrations, you catch a glimpse of a people who faced death gladly, often laughing as they died, from sheer joy that they were going to be with their Lord.

This is a side to Anabaptism that is often overlooked. He begins with the illustration of Hans Haslibacher, who was executed in Canton Bern in 1571. Apparently Haslibacher had a vision the night before his death that his head would fall into his hat and laugh when he was beheaded. Plus the village well would turn into blood and the sun would become blood red.

All this, according to the song, happened as he said.

This is perhaps the most startling illustration, but there are others given of how the martyrs faced their death with joy, many of them even with laughter.

God’s people have lost much of that joy and confidence.

Lester Bauman was born into an Old Order Mennonite family in Ontario and attends a Western Conservative Mennonite Fellowship church near Stirling, Alta. He blogs at Lester’s Bookshelf, where this post first appeared.

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  • Charlie Kraybill

    It’s important that we not venerate the martyrs more highly than they deserve. They were human beings who ran the full gamut of emotions in response to facing the executioner. The story about Haslibacher’s severed head jumping into his hat and laughing is clearly a myth. Yes, many Anabaptists embraced their deaths with courage and conviction. But there were also many who made every attempt to escape imprisonment and the death sentence. Some recanted in order to save their lives, and we should not criticize them for doing so, because let’s face it, most of us today would recant if we were in the same situation. There’s no virtue in running after martyrdom, or being a martyr just for martyrdom’s sake. Anyone interested in receiving regular information about the Anabaptist martyrs on the anniversaries of their executions can search for a Facebook page called “Anabaptist Martyrs Guide” and like the page.