Martyrs: Why we care about religious freedom

The Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition in which I grew up has a rich history of martyr stories.

Dirk Williams, perhaps the most famous Anabaptist martyr, turns around to rescue his pursuer after he fell through the ice. Williams was later tortured, and burned at the stake for the crime of baptizing people and holding secret church meetings. The Netherlands, 1596, etching from the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror.

I’m reading a book now called On Fire for Christ. It’s a dramatized re-telling of the stories from the classic work Martyr’s Mirror. It tells of Anabaptist Christians killed by other Christians, usually Catholics, throughout the sixteenth century.

What was their crime? The book details conversations between the Anabaptists and monks or judges who tried to get them to recant their heretical beliefs, beliefs which earned them the death penalty. Primary among these was the practice of baptizing adults, and teaching that infant baptism didn’t really absolve you from all sin.

Other capital offenses include:

  • Teaching that the bread and wine of communion don’t literally become Jesus’ flesh and blood; rather it’s a metaphor and meaningful ritual.
  • Meeting at churches not sanctioned by the official Church
  • Refusing the doctrine of confession, wherein you must confess all your sins to the priest to be forgiven.


The stories are sad. Tongue screws, stretching people on the rack. Drowning the convicted in barrels, or burning them alive. Arresting women and children, who refused to recant.

They were part of the Reformation, a sect that went even farther than Martin Luther in rejecting certain teachings of the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church was also the State in places like Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, so any teaching against the church was a state offense.

The book estimates the biggest period of Anabaptist martyrdom lasted less than 100 years, from 1525 to 1597. During that time, it says, at least 4,000 Anabaptists were killed, though the actual number may be double or triple that. Anabaptists continued to flee from less lethal persecution for the next 300 years.


To me, this preaches one very important lesson for atheists.

It underscores the vital importance of religious freedom, and the separation of Church and State.

Sometimes Christians wonder why atheists would care if Christians talk so much about God in public. Why do we care if there are Christian prayers in schools, Christians prayers in congress, Christian monuments in our courthouses? Why are we so afraid of being called a “Christian Nation”?

It’s not because atheists just hate Jesus and want to fight against him. It’s not because we’re secretly worshipping Satan and we want to tear down all reference to the “true god”. It’s not because we have some hidden agenda to make Christianity illegal.

It’s because we don’t want to be killed for our non-belief.

Anabaptists weren’t the only ones killed by Christiandom. Catholics killed protestants, protestants killed Catholics. The crime of disagreeing was a capital offense. If Christians will kill other Christians for relatively minor doctrinal differences, what consequence would await one who said there is no God at all?

That’s why it is so frightening when prominent political figures declare our country as unquestionably Christian.

That’s why we worry when Rick Perry, who could run for president again and is currently governor of a huge and influential state, says that our First Amendment right to religious freedom comes from Satan.

That’s why it’s worrisome when a major candidate for the U.S. Senate adamantly insists there is no separation of church and state. This is why we’re worried about people like Michele Bachmann, who say we should expect the world to fall apart because we’re living in the end times.

That’s why it’s a problem when U.S. Representatives say church should be in charge of the state, like Louie Gohmert does here:

 … President Thomas Jefferson — we’re talking about the guy who coined the phrase “separation of church and state” — who said there should be a wall of separation between church and state. But it was to be a one-way wall, where the state would not dictate to the church, but the church would certainly play a role in the state.

Or when a former House Majority Leader says God wrote the constitution, in spite of the founders’ statements to the contrary.

Christians had the chance to run the nations, and they used it to try and kill off everyone who did not agree. I do not want these people in charge of our country, and I will work in every capacity I can to keep them out of power.


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