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WORKS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
THE BURNING OF FRIAR HENRY IN DITHMARSCHEN - INTRODUCTION
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In the Netherlands with their hardy and independent population, prepared by the prereformatory labors of Pupper of Goch and Wesel, the piety and schools of the Brethren of the Common Lot, and the humanism of Erasmus, the Reformation found from the beginning a fertile soil. Luther’s teachings won adherents especially among his Augustinian brethren who belonged to the German congregation under the leadership of Staupitz and later of Link. Foremost among them were the friars at Antwerp, men like Henry Voes, John Esch, Jacob Propst, and Henry of Zutphen. To Voes and Esch, burned at Brussels on July 1, 1523, fell the honor of being the first martyrs of the evangelic cause. Propst, prior of the Antwerp monks since 1519, whom Erasmus called “a pure Christian, who almost alone preaches Christ,” escaped a like fate in 1522 by a public recantation, but became afterwards a trusted friend of Luther and labored faithfully for thirty-six years in the evangelic ministry at Bremen. Henry of Zutphen, who succeeded him as prior, “outshone them all” when, at the age of thirty-six, after escaping from prison in Antwerp and laboring for two years in Bremen, he was burned at the stake in Holstein on December 10, 1524.
Henry of Zutphen, this is the only name we know him by; he has been variously called Moller, Moller, and Muller, but without warrant, was born about 1488 at Zutphen, a village in the province of Geldern in the Netherlands; entered the Augustinian order; studied at Wittenberg, 1508, becoming bachelor of philosophy in 1509 and master in 1511. He served as sub-prior at Cologne, 1514, and as prior at Dolt, 1515. In 1520 he returned to Wittenberg, becoming an intimate friend of Luther and Melanchthon, and took his bachelor of divinity degree in 1521, defending theses on Justification, which three years later he submitted to the archbishop of Bremen. In the summer of 1522 he left Wittenberg for Antwerp, where he succeeded Propst as prior and became the leader of the reform movement. Here he was taken prisoner on September 29, 1522, by Margaret of Savoy, regent of the Netherlands, but was immediately liberated by the populace including thousands of women, and after several days of hiding made his escape. Intending to return once more to Wittenberg, he stopped at Bremen, where he was called as preached at St. Ansgar’s chapel in November, 1522, and obtained Luther’s permission, in the absence of his vicar general Link, to accept the call. After a richly blessed ministry at Bremen, toward the close of which Jacob Propst and John Timann became his colleagues at Our Dear Lady and St. Martin’s respectively, he accepted a call to conduct a preaching mission at Meldorf in Dithmarschen, between the Elbe and Eider rivers in western Holstein.
Here he preached his first sermon on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 1524, and on the following Saturday, December 10, was burned at the stake in the nearby village of Heide by a band of drunken peasants instigated by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities.
The sad tidings was immediately communicated to Luther by Propst, heartbroken at the calamity and deeply shamed by the recollection of his own cowardice almost three years ago. The letter was intended originally for the Augustinian brethren at Antwerp, but the messenger having departed, Propst sent it to Luther after adding a paragraph in which he besought him to send a letter of consolation to the church at Bremen. With this request Luther was glad to comply. The death of Voes and Esch, a year and a half before, had stirred in him emotions that could be released only in verse; in their memory he had sung his first hymn, “Ein neues Lied wit heben an,” and had written a comforting letter to the Christians in the Netherlands. Now again, no less deeply moved, he put together the story of Henry’s martyrdom, relying on the data in Propst’s letter as well as on other information, prefixed to it a devotional exposition of Psalm 9:1, and dedicated the whole in a prefatory epistle of truly apostolic tone to the Christians at Bremen. Wisely he adopted the simple and direct style of the old chronicle writers, keeping himself and his emotions in the background, and achieved a “beautiful bare narrative” the equal of anything in Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs.” Thus Von Bruder Henrico ynn Diedmar verbrand is one of the most beautiful and tender of Luther’s writings and deserves a place in the first rank of all his works.
The writing, whose date is either February or March, 1525, is found in the various editions of Luther’s Works at the following places: — Weimar, 18, 215-250; Erlangen, 26, 400-426; 53, 347-354; Berlin, 7, 275-302; Walch, 21, 94-121; St. Louis, 21a, 687-709. The major portion of it is given also, with excellent linguistic notes, in R.NEUBAUER, Martin Luther, 1 (5. and 6. ed., 1913), 191-205.
The following literature should be consulted: — J. F.IKEN, Heinrich von Zutphen (1886);BERTHEAU in Prot. Realenc. (3. ed.), 21, 735-742; KALKOFF, Die Anfange der Gegenreformation in den Niederlanden (1903); LINDSAY, History of the Reformation (1916, reprint), 2:224-234; KOSTLIN-KAWERAU, Martin Luther (5. ed., 1905), 1:603-620.
The spot at Heide where Friar Henry was burned has been marked, since 1830, by a simple monument. Claus Harms, whose first parish was in Lunden, retold his story in 1817, and Claus Groth, the most artistic of German dialect poets (born at Heide in 1819), celebrated him in verse, both in the Low German dialect. That Friar Henry’s memory still lives among the common folk of Holstein is seen from a passing reference in Gustav Frenssen’s Dorfpredigten (88th thousand, 1921) in which his martyrdom is mentioned as equally well known with that of John Huss.
A. T. W. STEINHAEUSER.
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