The 17th century has been called the Dutch Golden Age, when the Nether-lands rose to international prominence in commerce, art and science. It was a gleaming era of prosperity for many, including Mennonites.
But Mennonite preacher Thieleman J. van Braght saw a time of darkness and death. “Through [Satan’s] instigation, the world now reveals itself very beautiful and [more] glorious than at any proceeding time. . . . But all are deceived thereby; yea, many who have drunk of the poisoned wine of her lusts . . . die a spiritual death,” he cautioned.
Van Braght forcefully targeted opulent homes, stylish clothes, lavish banquets — “of which a portion naturally belongs to the poor” — and more. “How different is this from the life of a true Christian, who has forsaken himself and his lusts,” he wrote in a book he authored.
That book, published in 1660, was initially titled The Bloody Theater of the Baptism-Minded and Defenseless Christians. In 1685 it would receive a new name, Martyrs Mirror, and go on to become, other than the Bible, the most enduring book for Anabaptists.
It wasn’t, however, the first book to memorialize those who were killed for their faith. The Great Chronicle, a collection of Hutterite records from the movement’s beginnings, includes a number of tributes to martyrs. The suffering church is a primary theme of the Ausbund, the Swiss Anabaptist hymn book dating to the 16th century and still used by the Old Order Amish. Dutch Mennonites produced several martyrologies in the 16th and 17th centuries, including Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians in 1631, which would become the basis for van Braght’s book.
Van Braght was the preacher of his home congregation in Dordrecht for 16 years, until his death in 1664 at age 39. He was known as a staunch defender of Mennonite principles and opposed progressive influences. To those ends, he initially wanted to update the 1631 work. But the project mushroomed as van Braght did his research. When printed, the book totaled nearly 1,300 pages.
Twenty-five years after The Bloody Theater was published, an unknown editor came out with a revised second edition. The changes were minor except for two. First was the addition of 104 illustrations from copper plates by Jan Luyken, a Dutch artist who was a Mennonite church member for a time.
The second change was renaming the book The Bloody Theater of the Martyrs Mirror, with “Martyrs Mirror” in type larger than the rest of the title. Martyrs Mirror became the common name by which the 1685 volume and subsequent editions have been known.
The first American edition and the first translation of Martyrs Mirror came out in 1748-49, commissioned by Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. Like van Braght, Franconia wanted to boost traditional Mennonite beliefs, albeit in the German language.
Conference leaders asked the Dutch Mennonites in 1742 for help with translation. Stymied by the lack of response, Franconia turned to the Ephrata Cloister, an intentional community with Anabaptist origins in Lancaster County, Pa. The cloister had a printing press.
The project took 15 men working three years in translation, paper production, typesetting and printing. When finished, an individual book was more than 1,500 pages long and, with wooden cover, weighed 10 pounds. It was the largest book produced in North America at the time.
The first English-language Martyrs Mirror, a translation of the Ephrata Cloister’s German version, was published in 1837. Several others followed. The Elkhart, Ind.-based Mennonite Publishing Co. undertook a new English edition in the 1880s, completed in 1886. Unlike the others, it was translated from van Braght’s original 1660 book. It was reprinted 20 times by Mennonite Publishing House/ Herald Press between 1938 and 1998.
While Martyrs Mirror has remained prominent, the whereabouts of Luyken’s original illustrations — etched on copper plates — were a mystery for much of the 20th century. They were last used in a 1780 German edition. By 1925, 90 of the 104 were in the possession of Hans Weber, a German businessman. They were offered to Mennonite historian Harold S. Bender, but he was unable to raise the $2,000 necessary to purchase them.
With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in the 1930s, the plates seemingly disappeared. In actuality, the Weber family hid the plates when forced to flee due to World War II. When the family returned, only one box of 30 plates could be found. The plates were then forgotten about until rediscovered by several Weber grandchildren in 1975.
That sparked great interest among Mennonite collectors. Amos Hoover, an Old Order Mennonite historian from Pennsylvania, tried to purchase all 30 plates but was able to buy only seven, with the rest going to a non-Mennonite art collector.
When the collector died in 1988, Mennonite historian Robert S. Kreider led a successful effort to raise $50,000 and purchase the remaining 23 plates. Another plate was discovered in Germany in 2011 and acquired for the collection.
The 24 plates are today housed at Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kan., and continue to provide a witness to Anabaptist faithfulness.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.