We admire those willing to die for what they believe, and we pay attention to the last words of those we admire. The book Martyrs Mirror consists primarily of final messages from Christians in jail, joyfully waiting to die for their faith. Most of Martyrs Mirror describes the persecution and execution of thousands of Anabaptists in the Low Countries between 1524 and 1660 (plus Germans, Swiss, Austrians and other Europeans). Martyrs Mirror contains their final testament to the world.
Though based on earlier works, the present Martyrs Mirror was first published in 1660, a hundred years after the worst persecutions, by Thieleman J. van Braght, a Dutch Mennonite pastor. By the 17th century, his native Holland was one of the most prosperous nations on earth, and van Braght saw that his fellow Anabaptists were sinking back into the complacency their spiritual forefathers had left. In this sense, his day greatly resembles our own. Today his book is a traditional Mennonite or Amish wedding gift.
Martyr's Mirror is about Christians who discovered God wanted more for His people than they had ever imagined. Because their transformed lives set them apart, they were criticized and even persecuted, meeting in secret, anticipating arrest, but often winning the respect of their neighbors, even winning converts from those who watched their patient executions. The people memorialized in this book wanted to restore the glory of God's original plan for His Church, and often testified they saw at least a glimpse of it. They laid the plumb line of the Gospel to their lives, and as best they could, sought to adjust their lives to match Christ's example, instead of reinterpreting Christ's example to fit their lives. They did not serve a weak God.
Living 450 years ago, and called Anabaptists by their enemies because they insisted only believers could be truly baptized, these people typified the "Radical Reformation" which questioned literally every human tradition that had propped up the state church for a millennium and a half. Refusing to defend themselves with political or military power, this people's influence spread even under persecution and foreign occupation. Perhaps one-tenth of the inhabitants of the Low Countries (now Holland and Belgium) came to believe as the Anabaptists did, despite mass tortures and executions under the Inquisition of their Spanish rulers.
Once the Spaniards were driven out of the Low Countries by Protestant patriots in the later 16th century, the executions and tortures stopped. But persecution continued in Europe, causing some of the most earnest followers of the Anabaptist dream to immigrate to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The largest group, the Mennonites, includes members, missionaries and relief workers throughout the world, of all races. The largest Mennonite groups are in North America and Africa. In Germany, most Mennonites are from the former Soviet Union. The Hutterites still live in farming communes in the Great Plains and Prairie Provinces of the United States and Canada. Though the conservative Amish disappeared entirely from Europe by the 1930's, their numbers are increasing in North America with each generation. Today many other seekers, without affiliating themselves directly with these older groups, have aligned with the Anabaptist vision.
Jan Luykens created the original etchings for the second edition of Martyrs Mirror, some of which were later discovered in a box that had survived World War II Germany. Most of the original plates are still lost. Luykens, like van Braght, was a 17th century Dutch Anabaptist pastor and writer who also illustrated a classic edition of Pilgrim's Progress.
Though much of the persecution described in Martyrs Mirror was directed by religious organizations under state authority, the greatest danger to our souls today is not any particular denomination, but any religious tradition that intertwines itself with the world system and relies on state support. The complete book, which is in the public domain, is available from Herald Press (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON). Convinced that we desperately need to drag ourselves from a slumber which rapidly looks more and more like death, Martyrs Mirror has been placed online for the glory of God.