In the Saskatoon church I attended last Sunday the pastor told the story of Anneken Jans a 28 year old Dutch woman who died for her faith. In 1539 she was drowned in Rotterdam. Her crime was being an Anabaptist. She rejected infant baptism for her son and had been rebaptized herself as an adult. She was caught singing an Anabaptist hymn and when she refused to recant her beliefs she was sentenced to death.
Anneken was a single mother. Her husband had died. At the time of her death her son Isaiah was fifteen months old. Anneken was wealthy so on her way to her execution she offered a purse of money to anyone who would adopt her child. A baker with six children of his own took Isaiah. Anneken’s son grew up to become a successful business man and the mayor of Rotterdan. He did not adopt his mother’s Anabaptist faith.
Anneken’s story is included in the 1685 illustrated edition of Martyrs Mirror a book containing the stories of Anabaptist martyrs. She has become a faith heroine. Even though several scholarly papers and research documents I found show how her story has been mythologized and embellished, the core of it is that Anneken is revered because she chose fidelity to her religious beliefs over her own child.
The Saskatoon pastor asked us to think carefully about Anneken’s decision. Was her martyrdom the best choice?
I don’t think Anneken made the right decision and to me she is not a heroine. The kind of loving God I believe in would understand if a parent publicly denied their faith in order to save their own life or to protect the life of their child. I think glorifying religious martyrs can be dangerous. It can make us idealize suffering and it implies that our beliefs have more value than someone else’s, that we are spiritually superior . In an article on the Psychology Today website David Dillard Wright explains the harm that has been done and continues to be done by the idea of martyrdom. He suggests it is more important to live your faith than die for it. I agree.