Maeyken Wens: One face of Early Anabaptism

There’s been a couple of posts today referencing early Anabaptists and discussing what exactly they stood for. As Jonny pointed out, they are far from homogenous. I always like pointing out the example of the Batenburgers, survivors of the Muensterites who basically turned terrorist. I always like pointing out their infidel-hating, cow-massacring ways to counterbalance any overly pious view of early Anabaptists.

But I’m not here to write more about the Batenburgers. Instead I’d like to look at a woman named Maeyken Wens who was burned at the stake in Antwerp on October 6th, 1573. If you’ve ever flipped through the Martyr’s Mirror, you may have come across the image that goes with her story (at right). Unlike most of the Martyr’s Mirror etchings, its not an image of death or persecution, but of the aftermath. Her son Adriaen is sifting through the ashes looking for the tongue screw that clamped her tongue so she couldn’t sing or testify. I first heard her story from John Sharp, Mennonite historian, storyteller and father of Michael J. If you grew up Mennonite, you’ve probably heard it too and you may have even seen the tongue screw, carefully handed down from generation to generation to remind us of our persecuted past.

But it isn’t the story of the tonge screw that I want to write about either. It’s the letters Maeyken wrote to her husband and her son that interest me most. These simple, down-to-earth letters, preserved in the Martyr’s Mirror, are a window into the life of one ordinary early Anabaptist as she deals with the reality of her imminent death. A look at a few excerpts illuminate some similarities and differences between our world-view and hers:

O my dear friend, I should never have thought that parting should come so hard to me as it does. True the imprisonment seemed hard to me; but that was because they were so tyrannical; but now the parting is the hardest of all.

O my very dear and beloved husband, pray the Lord heartily in my behalf, to remove the conflict from me; for it is in His power, if it is His pleasure. Truly the Lord has said, “He that does not forsake everything is not worthy of me;” for the Lord well knew that it would come hard to the flesh. But I hope that the Lord will also help me through even as He has helped many, and for which I can simply trust Him. Oh, how easy it is to be a Christian, so long as the flesh is not put to the trial, or nothing has to be relinquished; then it is an easy thing to be a Christian.

Aside from a few notable examples, such as the recent captivity of our CPT friends, most of us are pretty far away from Maeyken’s cell and her experience of imminent death (the “parting” she refers to). Her commitment and courage is truely remarkable. This summer, Walter Klassen wrote an article in the Mennonite suggesting that based partly on this criteria, that the only Mennonites who could justifiably call themselves Anabaptist these days are those living in “Vietnam, Colombia, Ethiopia and in other places in the world where they were and are being persecuted for their faith by repressive governments.”

As regards further the visiting, you may do in the matter according to your pleasure; for I should indeed often desire your visit, were it not for the expense. But if you want to make your heart glad, you may come; I dare say nothing else, except that it costs so much, else I should desire to have you come soon. If you come, go to no expense in the way of bringing anything with you, as it costs far too much.

Despite the fact that she is about to die and will probably never see her children again, Maeyken feels bad that the cost of her huband and children visiting may be too much. We seem to have done a pretty good job of passing this personality trait down.

Hence, my dear son; beware of that which is evil, that you will ‘not have to lament afterwards, “Had I done this or that; for then, when it is as far as it now is with me, it will be too late.” Hear the instruction of your, mother: hate every thing that is loved by the world and your sensuality, and love God’s commandment,

This is the quote from her letters that fascinates me the most. So much that I once wrote an unoriginal poem juxtaposing her words with lines from Julia Kasdorf. Maeyken would have felt much more comfortable at Rosedale Bible College than Mennofolk or any gathering of Mennonite feminists.

Oh, regard not the great multitude, or the ancient custom, but look at the little flock, which is persecuted for the word of the Lord, for the good persecute none, but are persecuted.

This part we might get along with a bit better. After all, who really likes ancient customs? And isn’t it sort of fun to be part of that special little flock, a part from the great multitudes? We can also clearly agree that only bad people persecute others. And we can all root for the underdog.

Maeyken leads her fifth and final letter to her pastor with the following:

O my brother in the Lord, I would so gladly have written you a short letter, but my time has slipped away, although I have been confined long enough. But I am such a poor writer; hence you must excuse me, and think, if you were invited to a table somewhere, would you not certainly be satisfied with that which was prepared? So you must also be satisfied with my writing, for I do not have much, and hence I cannot give much.

So Maeyken spends most of first paragraph of her two paragraph letter to her good friend on the night she was sentenced to die apologizing for her inadequacy as a writer and for not having written sooner. Truly a pioneer of self-effacement.

So all this is to say that while we may feel far away from early Anabaptists on big picture things like persecution and hating our sensuality, its surprising how we sometimes line up with Maeyken on some of the realities of day-to-day Anabaptism. I recommend taking a few minutes to read a story or two of others in the Martyr’s Mirror as a good reality check to personalise our discussion of our spiritual ancestors.

Comments (2)

  1. Peter Wiens

    Hi TIMN, I just read your post on Maeyken Wens today… I like it! (I’m a Plautdietsch Mennonite from Russia, living in Germany…)

    Reply
  2. Mary Ranc

    I own an old Marytr Mirror and cannot understand why these people fought so hard for a made-up religion. Some guys sat around a table and wrote a book. It is a scam that insecure fall for. I was raised Mennonite and was so unhappy with the teaching of hating, the incest, the children that were molested. My brother was a Pedophile and the Mennonite church him and paid for his therapy (that never worked); The Mennonites would not even give me a place to sleep when my drunken/drugged up husband locked me out. They shun me to this day because I elevated myself out of the Mennonite Cult and now live on a higher level of Spiritually with the Universe. The woman’s letters pleads with her son to hate. That is evil. Mennonites are only about keeping their money and then lie to show they are poor.
    My God loves me and never tells me to hate. She tells me to love the down-trodden Mennonites. But sometimes I find it quite a challenge.

    Reply

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