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Hans Brael is one of the great Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century. I've added this story as one of the first because I love it so much.
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The Reformation was all about state churches. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—all the major Reformers—used the government, local or higher, to achieve their reforms.
Not the Anabaptists. They prospered among the poor and the farmers, and they were persecuted wherever they went, made martyrs by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.
The name means "rebaptizer." The were called rebaptizers because they didn't accept infant baptism, something all the major Reformers did, and they rebaptized their converts as adults.
What I love is Hans' bravery in the face of martyrdom. He was full of the Spirit of his early Christian ancestors. He endured incredible tortures without a single dampening of his spirit as a powerful testimony to his Protestant captors and to us. And, in the end, he escaped to preach again!
Can you imagine the power of Hans Brael's teaching after enduring an imprisonment like the one which follows?
It was 1557. The Reformation was already a grand success in Germany and Switzerland; in fact, in most of northern Europe.
By Christian standards, if not worldly ones, the Radical Reformation was also a grand success. Thousands of Christians had gathered throughout Switzerland and Germany to devote themselves to Christ without concern for their own lives. Persecuted by Catholics and Reformers alike, the Anabaptists breathed the Spirit of apostolic Christianity. Their martyrs, too, boldly triumphed over their persecutors and exulted in their freedom in Christ.
Hans Brael was one such man.
He was traveling through the Pusterthal in Switzerland when he ran into a judge and his actuary, also traveling. The judge simply greeted him, but I suspect the actuary could tell there was something about this man.
"Where are you going, and what have you been doing here?"
Hans was honest. "I have been visiting my brothers."
"And by your brothers, do you mean the rebaptizers?"
Again, Hans chose honesty. "Yes," he replied.
The judge immediately dismounted and used Hans' own cloth belt to bind him. Then they made him walk next to the horses for an hour, across the muddy Swiss valley of Puster.
The way was so long and Hans was so tightly bound that when they arrived he simply collapsed on the ground. The lord may have wanted to convert Hans to a more acceptable Protestant religion, but this cruelty seemed unnecessary, and he reproved the judge.
After reviving and examining Hans to determine the reason for the arrest, they put him in prison so they could try him the next day.
The next day the lord himself questioned Hans. This was simply a preparatory session. It appears this lord didn't have a stomach for cruelty—at least not cruelty that was in front of his eyes. Once Hans proclaimed himself an Anabaptist, the lord simply pressed him to recant, but Hans, of course, refused.
Lords in medieval Europe were land owners. They owned the land, and the peasants worked the land for them. The Lords subsisted by taxing food and other supplies from the peasants, and the peasants survived on whatever the lords let them keep.
Thus the lords each ruled their own little kingdoms. Of course, they weren't all kings. Most had a king ruling over them, and the lords took titles like duke and baron.
Cities were the exception to this. The lords' lands tended to be rural, and merchants and bankers took up residence in cities led by mayors.
The lord in this story was one such rural land owner, having a castle and surrounding lands with peasants living on them.
Hans sat for eight days before they called him out again. This time the lord had six other men with them. Again they asked him a few questions, ordered him to recant, then sent him back to prison when he did not.
Eight more days passed, then the lord brought him before his entire council. This time, some of the discussion was written down for us.
It was the judge whose words are available for us. After Hans told him that the Anabaptists were the church of God, he cried out, "It may be the devil's! How could it be God's church?"
In a setting like this, it is the martyr who rules, not the council. Hans, like his forefathers in the faith, acquitted himself nobly. Rather than argue with the frustrated and angry judge, he simply assured him that the gathering of Anabaptists to which he belonged was indeed the church of God.
The judge, unable to intimidate a martyr, began shouting, "Why should it be called the church of God?"
It's never been said that persecutors of the church were known for reasonableness or sense. Hans didn't bother answering.
Unable to simply order him to recant and unwilling to hear his doctrines, they decided to try to get information from him. "We want to know where the people are that the Anabaptists send into this country. We want to know their names, and we want to know who is harboring them."
Ah, a statement Hans could address:
"We are not sent out to anyone's harm or detriment. We are simply called to seek the salvation of men and to exhort them to repentance and reformation of their lives. Therefore, since this has nothing to do with any article of faith and is nothing you need to know, I do not want to tell you. Nor do I want to accuse anyone."
To this the judge quietly informed Hans that he would be tortured if he did not tell. He urged Hans to spare himself this.
Hans had a question. "If I did what you said; if I betrayed those who showed me kindness by feeding and lodging me—even to avoid torture—could I be considered good?"
Amazingly, the council members began chatting among themselves. "You know, he's got a good point. I wouldn't consider it good if it were done to me."
Ed. Note: I'm not making this up! I know it's like some kind of comedy at this point, but that will soon change.
The judge, obviously, was enraged and silenced the council. After urging Hans to spare himself, he sent him back to prison under threat of torture.
I have to point out here that the judge then asked Hans if he intended to accuse the council of encouraging treason or treachery. He did it in anger, so that the only appropriate answer from Hans was silence. However, as you'll see shortly, the judge refers to what they're asking as "betrayal" himself.
The judge wasted no time in getting him out of his cell and to the executioner (who was in charge of torture as well as execution). He was brought to the rack.
Again, Hans was the perfect descendant of the early Christian martyrs before him. He quietly stripped himself for the rack, then lay himself upon it.
The executioner attached the ropes to his hands and stretched him until even the spectators were crying. When that did no good, they hung him by his hands from the ropes and tied a large stone to his feet.
In that position, the judge pressed him for information. Hans assured him that he would bear whatever God permitted them to do to him without betraying anyone.
The judge, seeing that he was getting nowhere, even with the rack, became enraged again. "An oath! You have sworn to one another that you won't betray each other! That's why you won't talk!"
"We make no oaths," Hans replied. "We don't betray one another because it would be wrong."
The judge came up with a plan. "You are a rogue," he said calmly. "I've caught you in a lie."
"I am no rogue. What lie have you caught me in?"
"You told us you were not a teacher, but it has become obvious from what you say that you are one."
Really, it was a pretty weak attempt at turning a Christian martyr. "I am no teacher, but if I were one, I wouldn't hide it. It's an honorable thing before God to teach his Word."
With that, the judge gave up and left, but he left Hans hanging on the rope with the stone still tied to his feet. The executioner, too, stayed to attend to him.
Soon they returned. This time it was the officers of the castle lands assembled to convince him to repent.
"Do you understand that we'll keep stretching you until we rip your limbs off? Don't do this!"
Hans smiled at them. "I will bear whatever God allows you to do. Do you understand that you can do nothing to me except what God allows?"
The executioner was no religious man, and he found that statement humorous. "Do really think God looks down in this stinking hole to see what we are doing? You're a fool. The whole idea is ridiculous!"
At that point, the council came marching back into the torture pit. "We've got to let him go. The lady of the castle can't bear the thought of this torture. She wants us to let him down.
Is that awesome, or what?
There's no record of the executioner's comment at that point …
The lord, needing a new way to get Hans to recant, went to the city government in Innsbruck and brought priests back with him.
In Luke 16:19ff Jesus tells a story of Lazarus the beggar and a rich man. In that story, he describes a place of fire and torment separated from a place of comfort by a great gulf. This place, called Hades, is described in the Book of Enoch as well.
If you ever attend a Protestant Bible school or seminary, you will likely be taught that this place was emptied when Jesus rose from the dead. This is taught based on verses like Ephesians 4:7, where Christ is said to lead forth a host of captives, and 1 Pet. 3:19 and 4:6, where we are told that he preached to "the spirits in prison" and "the dead."
Most early Christians, however, believed that Hades would not be emptied until the judgment. Rev. 20:13 says that Hades will give up the dead that are in it at the final judgment and v. 15 says that Hades itself will be thrown in the lake of fire.
So early Christians believed that all the dead went to Hades, some to the side of comfort, where Abraham and Lazarus are, and some to the side of torment, where the rich man is. (It is this view that eventually became the Roman Catholics' purgatory.)
There was one exception. Martyrs, many Christians believed, went straight to heaven. They alone were allowed to skip the judgment of the last day. They went straight to be with Christ, for whom they had died.
This was based on things like Christ's promise that he would confess before his Father those who confessed him before men, and on Rev. 6:9, where martyrs are said to be under the altar of God in heaven.
Correct or not, this was a powerful motivation for those early Christians who were called to testify for Jesus by giving up their lives.
The priests disputed with Hans for two days, but unfortunately the author of The Martyrs Mirror, from where I got this story, found their conversation "too long to relate."
The lord, who couldn't stand to watch the torture he ordered, apparently found interrogation acceptable, and he was there as the priests argued with Hans. After two days, he couldn't bear it any longer.
"You stubborn dog! I have tried everything with you, and I'm not done! I'll place you on a sharp pile, and we'll see how you trust your God then!"
The priests hadn't worn Hans out. "I'm not suffering for anything wrong I've done, but only for the truth and the faith. God won't overlook this wrong."
This is the heart of Hans Brael's martyrdom, but it can be told in just a few words.
They stuck Hans in "a deep, dark, and filthy tower." He couldn't see the sun or moon, nor even tell when it was day. They say that sometimes he could tell it was night because it got a little colder in his cell.
They left him there so long, and it was so moist and damp in the tower, that his clothes rotted off his body. For a long time, he was almost naked without anything to put on his body except a coarse blanket someone had given him in their mercy.
Finally, he was left with just the collar of his shirt, which he hung on the wall.
There were also rats in the tower. At first they terrified him, but he soon grew used to them. There were so many that he had to eat what food they gave him immediately. If he set the bowl down, they crawled all over it.
The rats were also prone to climbing into his pitcher of water and drowning. Finally, he was able to obtain a large stone to cover it with.
After a long time like this, the lord had him pulled out for another interrogation. It didn't last long. The interrogators could hardly bear his stench, and Hans—not having seen daylight in months—couldn't bear the brightness. He was glad to return to his dark tower.
The greatest trial to Hans was the lack of news from the church. However, Hans Mein, another servant of the Word, managed to get a message to him in the tower.
The one thing the church wanted to know was whether he was holding fast to God and to his people. Could he send them some token of his faithfulness?
Their message said that they would take anything, even some straw, since they were aware that he would have nothing in prison. However, Hans' situation was so dire, that he didn't even have that!
Then he remembered the rotten collar on the wall, and he sent that back with the messenger.
Needless to say, this was a shocking message to the church, and they wept when they realized his misery. Immediately they sent a messenger back asking if there was any way to send him clothes or anything else to help lessen his suffering.
Hans knew that they would put him on the rack if he was discovered with clothing delivered by Anabaptists, so he sent back word that "the garment of patience" would have to do for this martyr.
Hans was in the dungeon all summer, but once autumn came, they knew frost would soon set in. They moved him to another prison, but they made sure he didn't fare any better. One foot and one hand were put in stocks, and he would be that way for 37 weeks, unable to lie or sit in any normal manner.
This prison was more public, and so locals took the opportunity to taunt him. "There lies a holy man! Nobody is as wise as him!" Or, "There he sits, the light of the world and a witness of the people of God!" Then they would laugh.
Nonetheless, there were moments of encouragement. One nobleman came to him quietly to tell him to be courageous, for his faith was the true one.
Of course, the nobleman also added that he himself could not follow that faith because he could never suffer the martyrdom Hans was suffering. Hans rebuked him.
Later, Hans felt moved by the Spirit to call for the actuary who had originally arrested him. Probably thinking Hans was going to recant, he came quickly.
Instead Hans told him, "I called you for one reason only. I need to point out to you what you already know. You are the chief cause of my imprisonment and my miserable sufferings, yet in all my life I've never done you a single wrong."
The actuary was stricken and speechless. He could only mumble, "I had to do it; I had no choice."
Hans replied, "It's true you had no choice. The judgment of God compelled you to do it. You were so bloodthirsty against the godly ones that it became your lot to fulfill your judgment by arresting me. You have incurred a heavy judgment. God will certainly find you for this, require it at your hands, and punish you for your sins."
The actuary was terrified. The fear of God came on him, and he moaned and cried bitterly.
His own friends turned against him, and they told him, "How did you become so possessed of the devil that you wouldn't let this man go, even though you could easily have done so?"
Two weeks later he died suddenly in the middle of the night.
The night he died, Hans was seized with a great joy so that he felt that no matter how much he prayed and gave thanks it couldn't be enough. God spoke to him and told him that he would return to his brothers and to the church.
The next morning, a servant told him that the actuary had died during the night.
The lord and lady, hearing the same, became suddenly quite terrified.
Soon, two means of escape came to test Hans' faith.
First a servant came with a key to set him loose, but though he got in the prison, he could not find the right key to loose the stocks. Finally, the servant left, saying, "I want to help you escape, but it will have to be another time."
Shortly thereafter, the lady—in both fear and compassion—sent word to him that he should simply tell the judge that he had erred and would allow himself to be instructed. She promised to ask God to take his sin upon herself so that he would not be guilty.
Hans wasn't fooled by this, of course. He told the servant to tell her she had enough sins of her own. She needed to turn from those, not to add the sins of others to her own.
The result was that our martyr spent another winter in prison.
Hans had a rather unusual means of escape from an actual martyr's death, but it gave him opportunity to speak to many people, including all of his captors.
When spring came, the council in Innsbruck sent word that he should be sent to a slave ship. There, they informed him, he would learn what it's like to be stripped and scourged.
The word "martyr" comes from the Greek marturos, and it originally just meant witness. The ultimate witness is to give your life for the testimony of Christ, so the word came to mean someone who dies for what they believe.
Throughout church history, however, martyrs have included all those who have suffered for the faith, not just died for it. Thus, Hans Brael is a martyr, and he, in fact, suffered much more than even many of those whose martyrdom included giving their lives for Jesus Christ.
Hans continued unmoved. He informed them that his God lived on the sea as well as on the land, and God would give him patience.
They had to let him out of prison early so that he could learn to walk again. The long time in the stocks had left him nearly immobile. He had been in prison just a few weeks shy of two years.
During that time, he was able to bid farewell to everyone in the castle and exhort them to repentance.
Hearing of this, the lady of the castle called for him to hear him on purpose. There, he encouraged her to never again arrest a saint of God because they did no harm in the exercise of their religion.
She agreed. In fact, she wept, the tears flowing down her cheeks. She said, "Nevermore in my life shall I lay hands upon another servant of God." Then she gave him money for the journey and sent him on his way.
The servant they sent him with was a wicked man, and he took every opportunity to insult Hans. However, he was so wicked that he didn't take his duties seriously, either. It took only two days until he drank himself silly in a tavern and passed out on a table.
Hans simply let himself out of the inn and went on his way.
It was 1559 when he returned with great peace and joy to the church of God. After that, he was able to make his way back into the Pusterthal several times to preach the Divine Word.
That is the story of Hans Brael, martyr for the Gospel of Christ and the people of God. I hope it encourages and teaches you as much as it did me.
God does give patience to those who trust in him. However, don't expect the grace to die for Christ if you are not also experiencing the grace to live for Christ! Hans Brael was already a martyr—a witness—before he was captured, and he had already chosen to lay down his life—his mind, will, and emotions—before persecutors put him to the test.
One final lesson is the great boldness that filled Hans' heart. He continued to preach repentance, even when his comfort and life were on the line. He was also not afraid to proclaim judgment when God chose to judge the cruel actuary. Instances of such judgment abound in Christian history, and Herod received such a judgment even in the Bible (Acts 12:23).
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