Dirk Willems: Loving His Enemy to Death

Dirk Willems:
Loving His Enemy to Death

Dirk Willems was born in a small village called Asperen, Netherlands, about 1540. He was an Anabaptist, believing in salvation through Jesus Christ and a public declaration of His Lordship through believer's baptism.

He believed that the true church was composed of born-again believers, that membership was voluntary, that discipleship was their goal, and that the government had no right to dictate matters of faith, or compel its citizens to adhere to a specific tradition of religious practice. He was for separating the Church from Government.
Dirk was baptized as a young man in Rotterdam, following his salvation. With this act, he rejected the infant baptism taught by both the Catholic, and the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant church traditions. In his country, the Roman Catholic tradition was the legal State (or government-backed) religion. All others were declared illegal.
Dirk was pastor of a small house church that met in his home several times each week for Bible study, teaching, discipleship, and fellowship. He had already baptized a number of new believers when he came to the attention of the authorities. The police of Asperen were sent to arrest Dirk in the early spring of 1569, and he was held in a large stone palace that had been renovated to serve as a prison. This fortress was also surrounded by a Hondegat (moat).
For long months Dirk languished in that cold and damp prison cell, eating very little and growing thin. He began collecting rags and hiding them. One day, he had secured enough old cloth that he knotted them and made a lengthy rope. While the guard was away, Dirk let himself down from his prison window and escaped across the thin ice covering the moat.
He was almost to the other side when he heard the shout! A watchman had seen his drop to the ground and sounded the alarm. Prison guards streamed from the castle and chased Dirk, who was by then climbing onto the opposite bank. At that moment, Dirk heard the ice crack behind him! The guard, who was considerably heavier than Dirk, had slipped into the icy water! Screaming for help and struggling against the bitter cold, the guard's cries were frantic. Dirk stopped, turned, and ran back to rescue his pursuer. The guard's life was saved!
Thankful to be alive, and realizing that many people had witnessed this unbelievably selfless act, the guard pleaded that Dirk be given his freedom. One Burgomaster (mayor) however, who stood and watched, was formidably resolute. When he spoke, he reminded them all of the laws concerning escaped prisoners. Dirk was to be returned, sentenced, and put to death.

In the next weeks, Willems was tried. By a council of seven judges, whose names are written in the town's records, Dirk was condemned to be burned at the stake on 16 May 1569. All of his family's property was to be confiscated "for the benefit of His Royal Majesty." His crimes? He was "persisting obstinately in his opinion" against infant baptism, he had preached unlawfully, he had rebaptized adults who had "been converted to Christ," and he had spoken against laws that exercised control over the individual human soul and his or her relationship with God.

Willems suffered greatly on the day of his execution. The east wind blew strongly and the fires, flaring up and dying down, prolonged the burning, and carried his cries of agony to the village of Leerdam, almost three miles across the fields. A sheriff, responsible for the execution, was so moved by the way Willems had to die that he ordered the executioner to dispatch him with a quick death instead.

The town's records state that Willems died "with great steadfastness, having commended his soul into the hands of God."
What made Dirk Willems Turn Back?
The Anabaptists' belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ affected all of their lives. They sought for Christ's holistic peace. They committed themselves to non-resistance for the sake of the cross they bore each day as His followers. In the face of such injustice and violence, Dirk chose instinctively to love his enemies. He had indeed been changed from the inside out. He stopped, in his freedom, turned to see one who was struggling for life, and rescued him.

We celebrate the life of Dirk Willems this month, and the thousands of Anabaptists who gave their lives freely as Witnesses to the transformed nature of the Resurrected life. There is no other love like it.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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