Embracing the Poor and Cast-off Little Flock: Why Anna Janz Still Inspires

Anna

In 1562, a Dutch Anabaptist printer secretly published a small book of stories and letters that distilled the experience and theology of the persecuted Anabaptist churches in the Netherlands. The book, entitled Het Offer des Heeren (The Sacrifice of the Lord), was small enough to conceal in a coat pocket in order to avoid confiscation by the authorities who were still seeking to rid the country of Anabaptist conventicles and writings. This collection of 22 accounts of Anabaptist suffering and witness was published in eleven different increasingly larger editions by the end of the 16th century and eventually grew into the big book we now know as the Martyrs Mirror by the end of the following century.

The first account of martyrdom in The Sacrifice of the Lord is the story of the Christian martyr Stephen from the book of Acts.  The second account is of the trial and execution of Swiss Brethren leader Michael Sattler. The third account, and the first to reference a Dutch Anabaptist martyr, concerns a woman named Anna Janz of Rotterdam.  The information given about her is the same as the information we have in our English edition of the Martyrs Mirror, now published by Herald Press and first brought to print by Indiana Mennonite leader John Funk in 1886.  The Martyrs Mirror reports that Anna gave a letter or testament to her son Isaiah at 9:00 on the morning of January 24, 1539, as she was preparing to die “for the testimony of Jesus” at Rotterdam. This letter was clearly of great significance not only to Anna’s son Isaiah, but also to the Dutch Anabaptist churches more broadly, since it appears at the head of this collection of Dutch martyr accounts and letters.  Moreover, it is apparent that Anna’s testimony was read and cherished by many suffering Dutch Anabaptists who drew on her language and commonplaces as they composed their own farewell letters to members of their families and churches, letters that appear in our Martyrs Mirror farther back in the book and that sometimes borrow almost verbatim from Anna’s letter.

Who was this woman whose life and witness powerfully shaped Dutch Anabaptist spiritual responses to the conflict they experienced with their society? Fortunately, when we turn to the German translation of the Martyrs Mirror, we find more information.  This is because when Peter Miller of the Ephrata Commune translated the Martyrs Mirror into German on behalf of Pennsylvania Mennonites in 1749, he used the 1685 Dutch edition of the Martyrs Mirror, which included more information about Anna than the 1660 edition, which served as the basis for our current English edition.  The German translation by Peter Miller was also the basis for a different English translation, sponsored by the Reformed Mennonites in 1837.  Therefore, in the Reformed Mennonite edition, we also have the additional information about Anna.

There are a number of fascinating details that appear in this account.  First, we learn that Anna was connected with David Joris, who at that time was a rival of Menno Simons, and the leader of a large peaceful faction of Dutch Anabaptists.  David Joris was a spiritualist Anabaptist who believed that mystical revelations had greater spiritual authority than the Bible and he fiercely opposed Menno Simons’ emphasis on a Bible-centered, communally accountable visible church, although he did share Menno’s pacifism.  Anna was apparently fairly close to David Joris and wrote him an admiring letter, which was printed in the 1685 Martyrs Mirror, and therefore also in the German edition and in this Reformed Mennonite sponsored English translation.  In this letter she calls David a “valiant leader of Israel” and urges him to “accomplish what you began to build up in the house of the Lord…to prepare the Lord an acceptable people, so that he may speedily come into his temple.”

We also learn from the more detailed account about Anna that she was in her late twenties when she was captured, that she was born into wealth, and that she and her husband had fled to England to avoid persecution.  We learn that someone named Meynart baptized her and her husband and that the form of her execution was death by drowning.

When modern historians examined the identity of the man who baptized Anna, they discovered that this was Meynart von Emden, a leader among the Münsterite Anabaptists who in 1534 had overtaken the city of Münster by force, required all adults to either be rebaptized or leave the city, abolished private property, and established polygamy. Thousands of Anabaptists responded to the invitation to leave their homes and towns and make the trek to Münster where they could be part of the New Jerusalem being established there as part of God’s plan for the last days. Although Meynart does not appear to have gone to Münster, he did seek to stir up an Anabaptist revolutionary movement in Amsterdam, where he helped launch an attack on the city in 1535.

Anna, who was around 24 years old when she was baptized, was influenced by the apocalyptic fervor that stirred Dutch Anabaptism during those years.  This fervor is evident in a famous revolutionary song that she wrote, called The Trumpet Song which has been called the Marseillaies of early Dutch Anabaptism.  This song was published in a songbook edited by David Joris and after her death was published together with her letter to her son and a letter from David Joris in a popular pamphlet of 1539.

In the song, she reflects the same themes of God’s vengeance and justice that inspired Münsterite Anabaptists like Meynart.  However, while Anna expects God’s justice to come soon, she does not call for taking up the sword.  Instead, like David Joris, she calls for worship and celebration and thanksgiving for the justice that is on the way and that is God’s to accomplish.

It is not clear what happened to Anna’s husband Arent Janz after they fled to England as did so many Dutch Anabaptists during those bloody years. But it is clear from the historical record that Anna returned to the Netherlands in 1538 with a female companion and a son.  A fellow traveller reported them to the authorities, recognizing them as Anabaptists because they were singing an Anabaptist song.  In prison, Anna composed a letter to her son Isaiah and on the day of her execution she offered her fortune to anyone who would be willing to raise the child.  This scene is captured movingly by Jan Luyken, the illustrator of the 1685 edition of the Martyrs Mirror.  However, this image was not included in our English edition, so I have included it here.

Following her death, Anna’s testament to her son became a touchstone of Anabaptist martyr literature. In addition to being printed together with her Trumpet song as a pamphlet and placed at the beginning of the Dutch Anabaptist martyr tradition in the many editions of the little book The Sacrifice of the Lord, the testament, like so many martyr testimonies, was transformed into a song that was included in the 1570 edition of the Sacrifice of the Lord and eventually made it into the famous Swiss Brethren hymnbook, the Ausbund, that is still used by the Amish.

What was so attractive and powerful about Anna’s testimony for those who read and sang it over the years?  I want to identify three important motifs in Anna’s testament. You may notice other motifs or appeals that stand out as persuasive and attractive, or even as troubling and problematic.

First, this is a Testament that provides assurance of God’s solidarity with the poor and the weak during a time of chaos and vulnerability.  God will bring justice and a better country to those who seek it.  God will restore bodies that have been hurt.  God will bring vengeance to the powerful and unjust. These are words of comfort and strength for people have experienced loss of control over the circumstances of their life.  We may not be able to fix things, but the God we serve surely will.

Second, in this Testament, the faithful are called to follow the same difficult path that Anna is walking—the path of the apostles and martyrs, the path followed by Jesus Christ.  This is a path of suffering and bitterness that paradoxically leads to great joy and life. These are words that give agency and choice to people who have been told that they have no choices.  Anyone can decide to walk the path of the apostles and martyrs, even when you have been imprisoned or boxed-in by circumstances or lost your livelihood. Anyone can decide to follow Jesus.

Third, in this Testament, Anna urges a life of simplicity and generosity, being attached to a poor and cast-off little flock, where the cross is visible and the poor are cared for. This text is an early Anabaptist stewardship text that calls for receiving resources as gifts to share, rather than to hoard for the self.  The vision of a little flock of cross-bearing disciples and generous stewards as God’s people is a compelling vision of the church that stands in contrast with the assumption that God’s action in the world is identified with the big cathedral in the middle of town and its members that have political clout and economic leverage. The powers of this world cannot be trusted with our lives but the little flock and its shepherd can.

These themes of apocalyptic expectation, suffering discipleship, and generous community are not unusual themes in Anabaptism.  However, it is not often the case that apocalyptic expectation is blended so well with an earnest call to peaceful and generous community life.  As Werner Packull has pointed out in his 1987 essay for Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, Anna’s life and writings eloquently embody the traumatic transformation of Dutch Anabaptism from a violent revolutionary movement into a peaceful countercultural church.  As he puts it , “revolutionary and peaceful Anabaptists, Jorists and Doopsgezinde, initially co-existed in the same movement, and, as in the case of Joris, for a time at least, in one and the same person.“

What an inspiring and challenging life Anna of Rotterdam lived in her 29 years on this earth. What a gift she left behind in her letters and songs.

Anna’s Testament can be found on pages 453-454 of the Herald Press edition of the Martyrs Mirror.  More of her life story is also retold in Profiles of Anabaptist Women, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht.

 

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