I like to think of Jerome Segers and Lijsken Dircks as the Romeo and Juliet of Anabaptist history. Like Shakespeare’s young lovers, Jerome and Lijsken loved one another deeply, became separated against their will, and tragically died apart. But unlike the fictional Romeo and Juliet, Jerome and Lijsken lived real flesh and blood lives, and we can even read the letters they wrote before they took the ultimate step of being martyred for their faith (see Martyrs Mirror).
As part of the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century, both Jerome and Lijksen believed that:
- salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ;
- infant baptism was not taught by Scripture, so baptism should be practiced only by believers;
- as believers, they were called to follow the teaching of Scripture instead of blindly following church tradition.
In 21st century North America, such beliefs might be debated or dismissed, but hardly cause for prison. In 16th century Europe, such beliefs were deemed heretical, and as a result both Jerome and Lijsken were arrested and imprisoned at Antwerp.
After their arrest, the couple were kept in separate parts of the prison, but they were permitted to write to one another. The letters that have survived express the couple’s deep love for one another and for God.
Love for one another
In his letters to Lijsken, Jerome addresses her as “my dear wife,” “my dearly beloved wife and sister,” “my most beloved lamb.” Over and over again, he expresses his concern for her well-being. At one point he even says that he would gladly spend a whole year in prison and then be put to death, if only she would be released.
Lijsken received with joy each letter from her husband, glad to hear news of his continuing faith and love. In her own letters, she encourages him with words of Scripture and continues to commit him to God’s care. When she hears that her husband is troubled on her account, she comforts him. She calls him “my beloved husband,” “my dear husband.”
Love for God
As part of their concern for one another, both Jerome and Lijsken encourage one another to remain faithful to their Lord. They pray to be worthy of their sufferings for the sake of Jesus. They write over and over of God’s presence and comfort. They refer to many stories in Scripture and cite specific passages.
In spite of their imprisonment and suffering, in spite of the torture in which Jerome was bound to a bench and stretched on a rack, both Jerome and Lijsken remained faithful to their Lord. Even in the midst of their trials, they offered thanks and praise to God.
In one of her letters to Jerome, Lijsken writes,
My dear, beloved husband in the Lord, you have partly passed through the trial, and have remained steadfast….And I beseech the Lord with tears, to make me also fit, to suffer for His name.
In his last letter to Lijsken–written the night he was sentenced to death–Jerome writes,
I go with a glad heart, to offer up my sacrifice to the praise of the Lord.
The Ultimate Act of Faith
At the time of their arrest, Jerome and Lijsken were already expecting a child, but Jerome did not live long enough to see the baby. On September 2, 1551, Jerome Segers was burned at the stake as a martyr for his faith. Five and a half months later, on Feb. 19, 1552, after giving birth to their child while still in prison, Lijsken was also executed.
The day before Lijsken died, the people who gathered outside her prison window heard her sing a hymn, and she was able to speak to them until the authorities had her removed to another part of the prison. Then early the next morning, while it was still dark, Lijsken was taken to the river, put in a bag, and drowned. The few who witnessed her death say that her last words were those of Jesus:
Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
I offer this historical snapshot with prayers for all those today who suffer persecution for their faith. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. Bring an end to their affliction. Lead them to a place of safety. And in the words of Lijsken’s own prayer, from a sister in suffering:
The grace, peace, joy and love left by Christ to His disciples be unto you. I earnestly beseech Him, that He will give us such love and such a steadfast mind, that we may be found fit to receive the beautiful promises which He has given to us, if we continue steadfast unto the end. To this Christ be praise and honor forever and ever. Amen.