The ILC Remembers the First Lutheran Martyrs
In Friday’s Matins service participants remembered the life and witness of the first Lutheran Martyrs, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch. A bit about them follows:
Esch and Voes were Augustinian monks of Saint Augustine’s Monastery in Antwerp. When in 1522 all the monks there publicly professed Lutheran doctrine, the Bishop of Cambrai had them all arrested and imprisoned in Vilvorde, where they were interrogated by Jacob van Hoogstraten from Cologne and some dependably Catholic professors. When the monks realized that they risked being burned alive if they did not recant, all except three—Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn—recanted. The recanting monks were released but were not returned to the monastery, which instead was declared defiled and soon demolished.
Esch, Voes, and Thorn, still held in custody, were questioned again by the ecclesiastical inquisition court, but they refused to recant. They were then handed over to the secular court and sentenced to death. They were taken to Brussels and held until the appointed day of execution on 1523 July 1. New attempts were made meanwhile to get them to renounce. Voes was brought first to the inquisitors, but he refused to recant. Esch also refused to renounce Lutheranism. Thorn asked for an additional four-day period to study the scriptures with respect to his views, and thus he was not executed then with Esch and Voes. Esch and Voes were summarily delivered to the executioner, brought to the marketplace in Brussels, and burned alive. For some reason, the charges against them were not read aloud as was the established practice; it has been conjectured that the authorities were concerned that hearing the charges might cause Lutheran ideas to spread among the public witnesses or that the ideas were already there and would ignite a protest.
On learning of the execution of Esch and Voes, Martin Luther wrote what is thought to be his first hymn, “Ein neues Lied wir heben an” (“A new song we raise”) which was printed in the Erfurt Enchiridion of 1524. This is generally known in English as John C. Messenger’s translation by the first line and title “Flung to the Heedless Winds” and sung to tune IBSTONE composed in 1875 by Maria C. Tiddeman or to tune DENBY composed in 1904 by Charles J. Dale).
A New Song Here Shall Be Begun
“Among Luther’s most faithful followers were members of his own order. As early as 1519 Jakob Spreng, the prior of the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp, defended Luther’s teachings. In 1521 the Diet of Worms put Luther under the ban, called him a devil in human form, and branded his teaching heretical. In the parts of Germany where Lutheranism was strongest, the terms of this edict were never carried out. Luther’s own prince, Frederick the Wise, refused to set his name to it, and, instead of prosecuting Luther, he had him taken into protective custody on the Wartburg.
In the Netherlands, however, political conditions were different. These lands were directly under the emperor. Here the Edict of Worms was carried out to the letter. In Antwerp Jakob Spreng and his successor Henry von Zütphen were arrested and threatened with execution. The remaining Augustinians were undeterred and continued to preach with great success, and so the whole monastery was laid to the ground and all the monks imprisoned. When the scholastics of the famous University of Louvain made it known that the friars would either have to recant or be burned at the stake, all but three renounced Lutheran teaching. The three confessors were convicted of heresy and condemned to death at the stake. The fate of one of them, Lambert Thorn, is not quite clear. He remained in prison and was not executed until 1528. Luther sent him a letter of comfort in 1524. But the other two, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch, died martyrs’ deaths at the market place in Brussels on July 1, 1523, the first blood witnesses of the Reformation.
Naturally, Luther was deeply moved. Instead of pitying these men for the sacrifice which they had been forced to offer, he considered their faithfulness a victory and their martyrdom an honor. But he was incensed by the rumors quickly spread by his enemies who claimed that Heinrich and Johann had with their dying breath disavowed their own teaching and made their “peace with the church.” He wanted the blood witness of these two men to be known and the lies of his enemies to be exposed. And so he availed himself of the mass media most commonly used in his day for broadcasting important news. In an age without newspapers, radio, or television, when many people were illiterate, the folk song was the most common form of mass communication. Folk ballads told the stories of kings and villains, of treason and heroism, of battles and banditry. They were printed on broadsheets and widely sold. Wandering minstrels sang them in the market place, the roadside, and the tavern. The ballads quickly made their way from town to town, and soon they were known by heart. Their style was dramatic and direct, their language simple. Often they began with an introductory verse, such as “What shah we now take up and sing?”
Luther was thoroughly familiar with ballads such as these. In his student days he mastered the lute. On the way to the Diet of Worms he entertained the guests at an inn in Frankfurt, singing and accompanying himself on the lute.
It was this role Luther assumed when he wrote the ballad of the two Brussels martyrs, probably early in August, 1523. Beginning with the characteristic folk song phrase, “A new song here has be begun,” it became the first hymn of the Reformation. Overnight, as it were, Luther became aware of his gift as a hymnist, and the bulk of his hymns appeared within the next few months. Although Luther wrote no other hymns in the form of a ballad, his martyrs’ hymn served as the pattern for countless Anabaptist hymns that appeared in the following years, describing the fate of their martyrs in as many as one hundred stanzas.”
Martin Luther, vol. 53, Luther’s Works, Vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 211-12.
“A New Song Here Shall Be Begun”
1 Walter’s Wittenberg hymnal of 1524 and most later hymnals have the final cadence lead to the dominant instead of the tonic:
2 The first right fitly John was named,
So rich he in God’s favor;
His brother, Henry—one unblamed,
Whose salt lost not its savor.
From this world they are gone away,
The diadem they’ve gained;
Honest, like God’s good children, they
For his word life disdained,
And have become his martyrs.
3 The old arch-fiend did them immure
With terrors did enwrap them.
He bade them God’s dear Word abjure,
With cunning he would trap them:
From Louvain many sophists came,
In their curst nets to take them,
By him are gathered to the game:
The Spirit fools doth make them—
They could get nothing by it.
4 Oh! they sang sweet, and they sang sour;
Oh! they tried every double;
The boys they stood firm as a tower,
And mocked the sophists’ trouble.
The ancient foe it filled with hate
That he was thus defeated
By two such youngsters—he, so great!
His wrath grew sevenfold heated,
He laid his plans to burn them.
5 Their cloister-garments off they tore,
Took off their consecrations;
All this the boys were ready for,
They said Amen with patience.
To God their Father they gave thanks
That they would soon be rescued
From Satan’s scoffs and mumming pranks,
With which, in falsehood masked,
The world he so befooleth.
6 Then gracious God did grant to them
To pass true priesthood’s border,
And offer up themselves to him,
And enter Christ’s own order,
Unto the world to die outright,
With falsehood made a schism,
And come to heaven all pure and white,
To monkery be the besom,
And leave men’s toys behind them.
7 They wrote for them a paper small,
And made them read it over;
The parts they showed them therein all
Which their belief did cover.
Their greatest fault was saying this:
“In God we should trust solely;
For man is always full of lies,
We should distrust him wholly:”
So they must burn to ashes.
8 Two huge great fires they kindled then,
The boys they carried to them;
Great wonder seized on every man,
For with contempt they view them.
To all with joy they yielded quite,
With singing and God-praising;
The sophs had little appetite
For these new things so dazing.
Which God was thus revealing.
9 They now repent the deed of blame,
Would gladly gloze it over;
They dare not glory in their shame,
The facts almost they cover.
In their hearts gnaweth infamy—
They to their friends deplore it;
The Spirit cannot silent be:
Good Abel’s blood out-poured
Must still besmear Cain’s forehead.
10 Leave off their ashes never will;
Into all lands they scatter;
Stream, hole, ditch, grave—nought keeps them still
With shame the foe they spatter.
Those whom in life with bloody hand
He drove to silence triple,
When dead, he them in every land,
In tongues of every people,
Must hear go gladly singing.
11 But yet their lies they will not leave,
To trim and dress the murther;
The fable false which out they gave,
Shows conscience grinds them further.
God’s holy ones, e’en after death,
They still go on belying;
They say that with their latest breath,
The boys, in act of dying,
Repented and recanted.
12 Let them lie on for evermore—
No refuge so is reared;
For us, we thank our God therefore,
His word has reappeared.
Even at the door is summer nigh,
The winter now is ended,
The tender flowers come out and spy;
His hand when once extended
Withdraws not till he’s finished.
Martin Luther, vol. 53, Luther’s Works, Vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 214-16.
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