Joel Miller is the lead pastor at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church. This is the text of a sermon from November 1, 2015.
Since we observed All Saints/All Souls Day last year and are doing it again this year, I guess that makes it a tradition. It’s one that’s new to me, but one I hope we can continue. Along with our lighting of candles for loved ones who have died, I’d like to use this Sunday each year to tell the story of one of our Anabaptist or Mennonite forbearers.
In thinking about this I realized, to my own shame, that I know very little about any historical
Anabaptist female leaders. I suppose my excuse is the fact that the most prominent leaders were men. The early Anabaptists did elevate women to a greater place than they had been, but it was a far cry from an egalitarian or liberation movement for women.
So I emailed my friend Gerald Mast who teaches communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University, who, coincidentally was the speaker here the Sunday just before my first Sunday. And Gerald quickly provided a list of Anabaptist women that will last us for many years to come. He also noted that his favorite story is Anna Jansz of Rotterdam. So that sounds like a good place to start.
My main sources, in case you’re wondering, are, of course, the Martyr’s Mirror. I’m also grateful to Gerald for an essay he recently wrote about Anna. And another source, from which I will briefly quote, is an English periodical called “Sunshine for the home, the school, and the world.” In its 1874 edition, it included a short story based on Anna’s life.
As I looked over these different windows into Anna’s life, there were four scenes that especially stood out and I’ll tell her story through these four scenes.
The first scene is the only one you can actually look at. This is one of many copper etchings included as illustrations in the 1685 edition of the Martyr’s Mirror, which tells the stories of Christians who died for their faith from the time of Christ up to the 17th century. Anna Jansz is the woman in the center of the image. The day before, she and a female companion had been accused of associating with the Anabaptists and were sentenced to death by drowning. Ana-baptist means “re-baptizers.” At a time when infant baptism essentially served as one’s birth certificate and enrolled one in the census and tax rolls and possible military service, this idea of baptizing adults upon a personal confession of faith in Christ was seen not just as religious heresy, but as inciting political instability. The cruel irony of death by drowning was intentional. If these re-baptizers would use water to build their movement, the officials would use water to end it.
Now Anna has a rope around her waist and she is being led to her death in the city of Rotterdam in what is now the Netherlands.
It is winter, January 23, 1539. She is 30 years old.
Anna was born on the island of Putten just west of Rotterdam. She had been born into social privilege and grew up on the merchant street in the town of Briel. She is remembered as Anna Jansz of Rotterdam because martyrs were often named after the city in which they died rather than the city in which they were born; that act of dying for the faith becoming the defining moment of their lives.
Anna is a mother of a young child, a boy, Isaiah, who is a year and a half old. She had been allowed to keep him overnight in the jail cell, but as she is led away she is calling out to the onlookers for someone to take her child, to raise him up. Whoever accepts her child will be well compensated. She has a whole fortune she will give to the one who takes him. A local baker steps out of the crowd and receives the boy, promising to raise him as his own child.
This scene is so tragic and heartbreaking it’s hard to look at. We can only wonder what Anna is thinking at this point. Whether she rested assured that she would soon escape the trials of this world or whether the fleshy beauty of this world suddenly became almost impossible to let go of.
The second scene takes place five years earlier in the streets of the city of Muenster in Northern Germany. While Anabaptists to the south in Switzerland included pacifism in their attempts to restore the New Testament church, Anabaptism in the north took on a more apocalyptic flavor. We just spent a whole month trying to reclaim the word “apocalyptic” with its original definition of revealing something, or in the words of John Kampen, “disclosing a transcendent reality.” But here we’re reverting back to that other and more familiar meaning of apocalyptic: Namely that the world will soon end as Christ returns to judge the righteous and the wicked. Leaders influenced by the fiery preacher Melchior Hoffman came to believe in the need for a visible sign of the coming kingdom and traveled the region urging faithful Christians to come to the city of Muenster where the New Jerusalem was being established.
It is now February 1534, and enough Anabaptists have moved to the city that they have just won the majority of seats on the city council. The council soon passes legislation to institute the practice of the early church described in Act 2 and 4, which says that the believers held all things in common and there was not a needy person among them. Private property is abolished and deacons are appointed to redistribute wealth to the poor of the city. Not only is infant baptism abolished, but adult baptism is mandated, causing more and more Lutherans and Catholics to flee the city.
As more Anabaptists continue to stream in, the city soon becomes a target for the prince bishop of the region who hires hundreds of soldiers to lay siege to the city, which they do. This is how Gerald Mast describes the scene:
“The Anabaptists armed themselves against the prince-bishop’s soldiers and began to take survival measures; they also bolstered their spirits with street theatre and music and singing. The most popular song of the Münster revolution was the ‘Trumpet Song,’ its lyrics bursting with brilliant apocalyptic images drawn from the Bible: ‘I can hear the trumpet sounding, from far off I hear her blast! In Jerusalem, Edom, in Bashan, the heralds cry loud and low, their sound brings this to mind: prepare the wedding feast, All you who love the King! The gate is open! The King is preparing a feast from the flesh of kings and princes. Come all you birds, gather quickly. I will feed you the flesh of princes. As they have done, so shall be done to them. You servants of the Lord, be of good cheer. Wash your feet in the blood of the godless. This shall be the reward for those who robbed us.’
The writer of this bold and bitter hymn was a young woman named Anna Jansz.”
Anna was 23 or 24 when she and her husband, Arent, received their re-baptism. Their baptizer belonged to the pro-Munster faction of the Anabaptists, and Anna and Arent’s introduction to Anabaptism was this radical wing of revolutionaries who believed in the eminent return of Christ, seeking to prepare for Christ’s coming by establishing the kingdom through political rule. Anna never lived in Muenster that we know of, but her Trumpet Song made its way there and is a rare example of Anabaptist writing which includes calls for vengeance against one’s enemies.
The third scene takes place in November 1538, just two months before Anna’s martyrdom. She is traveling from England back to her home area. The events of Muenster had led to a crack-down against Anabaptists throughout the whole region of North Germany and Holland, and Anna’s husband fled to England for safety not long after they were baptized.
Anna had remained behind and soon met David Joris. Joris, who is remembered by his last name, was also an Anabaptist, but was a pacifist. He led a growing movement who emphasized the spiritual, inward dimension of Christ’s coming. This intrigued Anna and she underwent something of a second conversion and became a close companion with Joris and his ministry. The bloody and colossal failure of the Muenster project helped confirm this as a better way.
The nature of Anna and Joris’ relationship is unclear, but when Anna’s husband made a surprise return from England in 1536, he was scandalized by how close Anna and Joris had become. He only spent a few days with her, returning to England and telling his fellow believers there that his wife had become insubordinate and unfaithful.
Not long after this, Anna went to England to be with her husband. Their child, Isaiah, was born in England, but Anna’s husband soon died.
Now Anna is traveling back from England, with Isaiah. She had been corresponding with Joris and intends to join him and continue ministering alongside him. The short novel in the 1874 edition of “Sunshine for the home, the school, and the world” tells about this trip:
“After a time it became necessary that Anneken Jans should return to her own land. Business compelled her to go. But she could not leave her little son behind her. Esaias—such was his name—was a little more than a year old, and she resolved to take him with her.
In her own land persecution was still going on; great cruelties were being committed—the land was filled with terror.
Not without trembling did Anneken Jans go on shore. She landed at Delft, from which place the Pilgrim Fathers afterwards set sail; her business there was transacted, and she now had to visit Ysselmond, and afterwards Rotterdam.
Travelling in those days was a very different thing from travelling at present. No steam-vessel carried you over the sea, and no railway whirled you over the land. Even stage coaches were quite unknown and people had to journey on land either on horseback or in a cart or wagon. Sometimes a good many went together in one wagon, and thus Anneken Jans, with her little son, traveled from Ysselmond to Rotterdam.
It was a weary journey, for they traveled in the night, and the cold wind was sweeping over the country with a melancholy sound; the trees looked black and bare, and bent before the angry howling wind…Anneken Jans sat in one corner of the wagon, with little Esaias asleep on her knees; and oh, how many sorrowful thoughts were in her mind!”
The final scene is in the jail cell in Rotterdam the night before her martyrdom. Anna Jansz of Briel is about to become Anna Jansz of Rotterdam. The young woman who had composed the revolutionary “Trumpet Song” must have loved to sing. The reason for her arrest was that a fellow traveler to Rotterdam, in that horse-drawn wagon, had overheard her and her female companion singing a song associated with the Anabaptists. He had delayed reporting her, but eventually did.
After her conviction there had been some disagreement among the authorities as to whether to allow her to keep Isaiah with her. Ultimately they had consented.
Tomorrow, Anna will hand her son to a baker, who will raise Isaiah and who will use the wealth Anna also gives him to expand his business and build two breweries. Isaiah will grow up to be the mayor of Rotterdam, the leader of the city that killed his mother. He will be a member of the Reformed Church, rather than the Anabaptists—or, as they will come to be called, Mennonites, named after the leader coming into prominence just at the time of Anna’s death, Menno Simons. Although Anna had converted away from wishing violence on anyone, the vengeance spoken of in her Trumpet Song plays out nonetheless as the man who reported her to the authorities dies as a bridge collapses under him while he is on his way to witness Anna’s execution.
Anna handed the baker her son and her wealth, but she also handed him one more thing. It was a letter she composed that night in jail, with Isaiah by her side. The letter is addressed to Isaiah, and it is preserved in its entirety in the Martyrs Mirror. We can consider it a part of the long tradition of Christian letters from prison, like those of the Apostle Paul in the Roman world, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, or Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter is addressed to Isaiah, but we can also hear it as addressed to us. We’ll end by hearing a couple paragraphs of this letter from prison, the final words we have from Anna Jansz of Rotterdam. I’ve chosen someone to read it who is about Anna’s age:
My son, hear the instruction of your mother; open your ears to hear the words of my mouth. Behold, I go today the way of the prophets, apostles and martyrs, and drink of the cup of which they all have drank. I go, I say, the way which Christ Jesus—the eternal word of the Father, full of grace and truth, the Shepherd of the sheep, who is the Life—Himself went, and who went this way and not another, and who had to drink of this cup, even as He said: I have a cup to drink of and a baptism to be baptized with. Having passed through, He calls His sheep, and His sheep hear his voice, and follow Him wherever he goes; for this is the way of the true fountain. This way was traveled by the royal priests who came from the rising of the sun, who entered into the ages of eternity and who had to drink of this cup.
My son, if you desire to enter into the regions of the holy world and into the inheritance of the saints, follow after them; search the Scriptures, and it shall show you their ways. The angel who spoke to the prophet said: A holy city has been built, and set upon a broad field, and is full of all good things; the entrance thereof is narrow, and set in a dangerous place to fall, like as if there were a fire on the right hand, and on the left deep water, and only one path between them both, even between the fire and the water. See, my son, this way has no retreats; there are no roundabout or crooked little paths; whosoever departs to the right or to the left inherits death.
Therefore, my child, do not regard the great number, nor walk in their ways. But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them; for where you hear of the cross, there is Christ. Flee the shadow of this world; become united with God;
O my son, let your life be conformed to the gospel, and the God of peace sanctify your soul and body, to his praise. Amen.