Me and the Martyrs

Kirsten Beachy is one Mennonite of a younger generation who has read Martyrs Mirror. She has not only read it but integrated its images, stories and lessons into her and her husband’s genealogies and her liberal arts education. She reflects the ambiguities and ironies that many Mennonites find in thinking about the book, and writes movingly and thoughtfully about its lasting impact on her.

The Martyrs Mirror crowns the pile of genealogical charts, family histories and half-written manuscripts in our tiny office. The book details torments endured by Anabaptists and their predecessors all the way back to Christ: burnings, drownings and more creative torture. Which surprises you more: That the Martyrs Mirror came to me and Jason as a wedding present, or that we put it on our gift registry along with the Moosewood Cookbook ? Jason’s aunt bought it for us. Maybe she got it at a discount through her library connections; if so, we’re proud of her. That thrift proves we’re Mennonite: When a Mennonite dies, someone else has to find a use for the empty egg cartons, the drawers crowded with re-straightened twist-ties. I can’t throw out food; sour milk waits at the back of my fridge because I hope to bake it into something, sometime. Our people saw long years of suffering. Generations later, we’re still stocking up, just in case there’s another round of persecution, another bloody theater.

That’s the full name of the book by Thieleman J. van Braght: The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians: Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. First published in Dutch, it is as heavy as a library dictionary. We usually keep it on the living room bookshelf. If I need a break or Jason’s head hurts from telecommuting, we brew some tea and read the letters and court records, pore over the pictures. We might open the book to a vivid engraving by Jan Luyken, like the print of Ursel van Essen. She hangs by her bound wrists from a post, naked toes dangling a foot above the ground, back bared, while a man flails her with bundles of branches, one in each hand. In the background, a dozen men in fine hats watch. Van Braght, with painstaking attention to detail, explains that before Ursel’s 1570 imprisonment, she was so “tender of body” that “she had to turn her stockings inside out, and put them on and wear them thus, because she could not bear the seams of the stockings inside on her limbs.” Tender-bodied Ursel endured the scourging twice and the rack repeatedly, refusing to renounce her faith. Reading, we must be careful not to spill our tea on the pages.


Modern Mennonites avoid war but like to send food and blankets to war-torn countries. When gruesome battle images appear on our televisions, we turn them off. My fascination with the bloody martyrs is out of vogue. The Martyrs Mirror was once considered the perfect wedding gift, but I got odd looks from folks when I asked for one. It’s okay to use small excerpts in Sunday school materials, or to study the book if you’re a scholar, but it’s rather suspect to read it at leisure.

It’s fine, however, to want to know your origins, so I can write it off as interest in my heritage. Jason has a keen taste for genealogy. Sometimes I turn from my desk to catch him surfing Amish genealogical databases instead of grooming email servers and firewalls. His exploration started during our engagement, as a search to see whether we were related. It turns out we’re sixth cousins and share many forebears. We collect their stories.

The best-known story of an ancestor we share—a story I shall return to—is the tale of Jacob Hostetler and the Indian raid. Jacob and his wife arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Charming Nancy in 1738, made their way to what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, and carved a farm out of the forest. The raid occurred twenty years later, during the French and Indian War. The family refused to defend themselves. The attackers captured Jacob and two of his sons, but murdered the mother and two other children. Multiple accounts of the raid exist: blood ensures that a history will be handed down.

I recognized the Hostetler story as one my father had told me and my sister when we were little girls. Mom read us fairy tales and the Bible and Heidi , but Dad told us our history. We didn’t have the Martyrs Mirror , but he made sure we knew about Maekyn Wens of Antwerp, who refused to renounce her beliefs and was burnt in 1573. They screwed her tongue to her cheek to prevent her singing hymns or preaching heresies. Her son stood on a bench at the back of the crowd, but the sight overcame him and he fainted. Afterwards, he sifted the ashes and, finding no trace of her body, kept the screw. A century later, as van Braght compiled the stories, he knew of this souvenir. Perhaps he even saw it; perhaps he held it in his hand. I thought my father had seen it, too. He held out his hand, empty, and we imagined the cruel screw nesting inside.

I was a child among Virginia Mennonites whose old women covered their heads in church and let me sit under their quilts at Homemaker’s Fellowship. When I was ten, we moved to a small town in southern Indiana. My Amish fifth cousins farmed the surrounding hills, but we did not visit them. The local Mennonites wore blue jeans and Indian prints: granola-making, long-winded coffee addicts. They baptized me in the midst of my awkward adolescence, burning with embarrassment as the water dripped from my head onto my green suede skirt, as everyone who could reach into the circle laid their hands upon my shoulders, my back, my arms, even my feet.

Over the years, our Sunday School materials and church bulletins featured one engraving from The Martyrs Mirror that didn’t portray immediate gore. In the foreground, Dirk Willems, in broad-brimmed hat and billowing frock coat, kneels on the ice of a frozen river, his hands outstretched to a man struggling in open water. There’s urgency in Willems’ stance: he has been running, but this final reach must be careful. The arms of the drowning man stretch towards his arms; the white space where they almost meet is full of tension.

We learned that Dirk Willems, condemned for his beliefs, escaping across a frozen river, turned back to rescue his pursuer. Afterwards, he was taken into custody, tried, and burned on another blustery day, a day too windy for the fire to burn properly, and he died a lingering death, calling out to God again and again. These horrors did not distress me. They seemed necessary, inevitable as the closing of white space between the arms of rescuer and supplicant. My ancestors could not cast off their beliefs.

Perhaps because of this steadfastness, schisms are not uncommon among Anabaptists. It is so important to be right, to be the true church, that our communities splinter to protect the pure from contamination. It’s surprising I haven’t split off from the church myself. Instead, I’ve embedded myself in a small church, a sprout from the tree of the Mennonites, that accepts doctrine-wary dreamers. If someone tried to shun me, I wouldn’t go.

The distance between me and the martyrs is a comfortable one. I can imagine them from afar like classical heroes. I don’t know whether any of the martyrs in the book are my ancestors—we moved and lost so much, left generations behind on the journey across the Atlantic, lost too many stories in the translation from German to English. We have no souvenirs to hold. There is a wide, white space between us. If I pursue the martyrs, and they turn back to close the gap and grasp my hands, what will I do?


The Amish Mennonite settlers in Pennsylvania valued the stories as I do. The Mennonites in Ephrata somehow found the resources to print a full German translation of the original Dutch printing, starting in 1748. When complete, the 1512-page tome measured 15 by 10 by 5 inches, at that time the largest book printed in Colonial America. It’s likely that our Hostetler ancestors in Berks County, Pennsylvania, saw the book or heard the stories before the Indian raid of 1757. Perhaps the histories strengthened Jacob’s decision not to defend his family against their attackers. I return to their story, curious about Jacob Hostetler’s unfortunate wife, whom some books name Anna Lorentz. It’s not clear whether she was born in the Amish community or married into it, but she agreed to sail with Jacob on the Charming Nancy . Perhaps they sought to put a greater distance between themselves and the tales of torture, or perhaps they were inspired by the feats of their ancestors to seek new hardships.

In the story, the peaches are ripe: autumn. The family hosted an apple schnitzing at their home. Anna may have been a jolly woman, glad to host the community young folk, or she may have wanted help slicing her apples. What I do know is that after everyone went home, late at night, a party of Delaware Indians arrived. They weren’t stopping by to slice apples.

The Delawares hoped to harry settlers off land that had once been theirs. They came at night in small parties to the fringes of settlements, killing or capturing the inhabitants of one house and leaving the neighbors alone, slipping away before sunrise. Our family stories mostly ignore the fact that three French scouts joined in the raid on the Hostetler family.

The Hostetlers barricaded themselves in the house. The oldest boys reached for their hunting rifles, but Jacob commanded them to put down the guns. I try to imagine Anna Lorentz that night. Did she approve, fold her hands in her lap, and trust God? Did she remember the martyrs’ witnesses and give her husband a gimlet eye to remind him of his faith? Or did she plead with him to use the guns? Was the refusal to bear arms a shared decision or his first display of authority after years of following orders?

When the Delawares set the house afire, the family fled to the cellar, hoping to last until dawn. With barrels of apple cider they quenched the sparks that fell among them, but soon they feared for their lives. Fortunately, with the sunrise the attackers dispersed. But one Delaware lingered behind to gather peaches. He saw the family slipping out the cellar window and called his companions back. There was no need to hurry. Anna, a woman of considerable girth, had stuck fast in the window, and the family stopped to help. I don’t know if they got her out of the window or if the Indians stabbed her as she struggled there. They killed her without honor, with a knife.

Some say the use of a knife suggests a particular grudge against Anna; she may have had earlier contact with her attackers. One story attempts to explain the raid: years before the massacre, she’d turned away a party of Indians who came begging at her door. Jason shakes his head over this; it’s less verifiable than the other facts, he says, which appear in various letters and news accounts of the time. And even if Anna had turned away some Indians, I see no direct link to the attack. We might as well say they stabbed her because she scolded the attackers, harangued the one who lingered to steal peaches. Maybe Anna liked peaches. It could have been her own tree, planted with the pit of a peach brought from the Lorentz homestead in the Old World where she was born.

But the knife story isn’t the only hint that my ancestress was not a pleasant woman. One book records a Michael Hostetler who immigrated with the Hostetlers but turned back. A single line suggests that he was Jacob’s brother, and that he left because of the way Anna treated him. What if this woman I’m trying to claim as a family martyr was actually a bitch? What about the other martyrs far back in history: Were they the outspoken ones, the obstinate ones, the ones with too much temper to lay low? The Martyrs Mirror contains the letters that Maeyken Wens, she of the tongue screw, sent to her husband, a local mason and an Anabaptist pastor. Why was she imprisoned and burned, while he escaped censure? Are we surviving Anabaptists calm and quiet as a result of unnatural selection?

There’s a final tradition about Anna. Months later, Jacob escaped from the Indians and wandered for days, certain that had lost his way. Hopeless and starving, he stumbled on the maggoty remains of a possum and ate, ravenously. He fell asleep, and in his dreams Anna appeared, telling him he was going in the right direction. Did he dream her young and supple or wreathed in blood and flame, or both? Did she speak as a saint or an angel, or was it a tongue-lashing? “Get up, you fool! Press on!”

Jason catches me up on his latest reading. Jacob’s wife has been mistakenly named. A Moravian Hostetler immigrant, not our Amish Hostetler, was married to a woman named Anna Lorentz. The family record is corrupt: no one remembers Jacob’s wife’s name. For my ancestress, there is no Lorentz peach orchard to dream of, gazing east. She has no family name at all. We can say only that she died horribly. The more I hear, the more empty-handed I feel. This new book lists her as Anna, question mark. Anna the hostess: round and apple-cheeked; overtaken by events, she dies tragically and returns, an angel, in a dream. Or Anna, sharp-tongued devotee of the way of peace: unsparing of opinions to family and strangers, urging them to take a bath and convert before she hands out peach fritters, dying as she must, a sarcastic saint. Or Anna the harridan: frustrated, bitter, fat on sorrow. She didn’t know, when she married this Amish man, that he would prefer the terrors of the frontier to the religious prejudice of her homeland, that he would ask her to plunder their stores for anyone who asked, to give up her safety for a dream of peace in a hard new land.

And now, reading, I find that the very name “Anabaptist” is questionable, that the word means “re-baptizer,” and was abhorrent to my forebears. They didn’t consider themselves rebaptized—it was their first baptism; infant baptism didn’t count. They had no wish to be executed as Anabaptists. Pages of the Martyrs Mirror are devoted to the court arguments of my righteous, contentious predecessors. The authorities were generally unconvinced. All that blood and fire, for a technicality.


Thieleman J. van Braght may have forgiven his enemies, but he kept good records of his people’s wrongs, down to the last confiscated guilder. Did he write the Mirror so that the martyrs’ children and great-grandchildren might also have the opportunity to forgive? Or to remind those of us in quieter generations that our piety lacks proof?

For all of my sheltered childhood, I am still a product of this time, this culture, my liberal arts education. There are few churches that I can enter without leaving parts of myself outside. But I love the old four-part hymns and I believe in the way of peace, though I don’t often speak of my baptism. What of my spiritual ancestors, the ones with their tongues screwed to their cheeks, the ones hung in cages, the ones stretched on the rack because they couldn’t stop talking about it? Should I be ashamed of their fanaticism, or should I be ashamed of my own small faith? In the shadow of their fiery acts of renunciation, my ambitions for good seem small and dim, my beliefs wavering and insufficient. And yet I nourish them.

Even at a Mennonite college, it was difficult to be completely myself. I found friends among the artsy types who couldn’t care less about the martyrs, the activists who saw faith as an obstacle to freedom, and the wholesome, breadbaking folk who shared my love for our heritage but might have been troubled by my interpretations of the gospels. I hid pieces of myself. I found comrades and mentors to nourish the different pieces of my soul, but few could be part of all my worlds. It’s an old story: I was lonely.

There’s a story about loneliness that’s also a story about the Hostetler name. You might hear it in Switzerland, if you asked an old-timer. In the middle of the fourteenth century, the plague decimated the villages of Europe and wiped out two hamlets in the region of Schwarzenburg. The ghost villages Aekenmatt and Hostetten stood close together, but a deep ravine and a rushing stream separated their dead. If you were the young woman standing at the edge on the Aekenmatt side, you would have seen one light shining in one house on the other side. And when the last man left in Hostetten looked across and saw your single lantern, he would have known that he was not quite alone, yet. He crosses the ravine, clasps your hand, and you bury your dead. Where you go, you become known as the family from Hostetten, the Hostetlers.

When Jason found his way to my heart, with his willingness to join me in the lonely regions of life, I felt my light doubled. Here was a farm boy immersed in technology, equally excited by genealogy and string theory, who grew up loving Jesus and wary of the church, who argues the way of peace and chose his own baptism as a child, who feels the call of the land and a simple life, yet longs to be engaged in the world of the mind. I felt complete.

For our first anniversary, Jason and I skipped the romantic weekend getaway and purchased a water buffalo through Heifer Project, which distributes animals and training to those in need. I feel the glare of Thieleman J. van Braght upon my back. “Is that all?” he asks, “Is that the best you can give? A water buffalo? While you sit home in comfort!”

We arrived at my parents’ for Christmas to find my father’s present for us: another water buffalo. He shares our ancestors, after all. It is through him I first heard the stories, inherited the sense of obligation. How big must the herd be, how empty our pockets, our houses, how much flesh must we flay from our bones before we feel we’ve expiated the ease of our lives?


Today, sifting through the Martyrs Mirror, I find a tiny souvenir . It’s a tenuous connection, like all these links I try to make with history, but the name fits. I find it in a list appended to the German edition of the Martyrs Mirror , published in Ephrata before the French and Indian war.

It’s a list of martyrs from the Tower Book of Berne. On the 28th of May, 1538, two women were executed for their faith. One, I read, was a woman from Hoestetten. Jason has taught me how to run my finger lightly across a printed page and feel the ink of the letters, and I do it now. The word stands up in barely perceptible relief from the page: Hoestetten. It is an object in its own right, separate from the paper, placed on this page of copy after copy of this book by generations of people who don’t want me to forget. I could almost scoop it up, almost hold it in my hand.

An extended version of this essay appeared in The Tusculum Review 3 (2007): 7-24.

About the Author

Kirsten Beachy

Kirsten Beachy Kirsten lives in Briery Branch, Virginia, and earned her MFA in creative writing at West Virginia University. She edited the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror and is an associate professor and administrator at Eastern Mennonite University. .