Historical and biographical sketches/04 Der Blutige Schau-platz, oder Martyrer Spiegel

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“Among all the things which men have or strive for through their whole lives,” said Alphonse the Wise, King of Arragon, “there is nothing better than old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends for company, and old books to read. All the rest are only bagatelles.” The wise King was something of a bookworm, and mentioned last by way of climax the treasures that lay nearest to his heart. Doubtless, he was thinking all the while how the wood turns to ashes, the fames of the wine disappear with the hour, that sooner or later “marriage and death, and division” carry off our friends, and that the pleasure derived from old books alone is pure and permanent. What can exceed the delight of a connoisseur familiar with authors, imprints, paper and bindings, and educated to an appreciation of the difference between leaves cut and uncut, upon discovering a perfect copy of an extremely rare book? For him the calm satisfaction of the literateur and the gratified avarice of the miser are blended into a glowing passion. In the present age of the world we measure the value of pretty much everything by the amount of money it will bring. In Europe a copy of the first edition of the Decameron has been sold for £2260 sterling, and one of the Gutenberg Bible on vellum, for £3400. In this country we have not yet reached to that height of enthusiasm or depth of purse, but in the late sale of the library of Mr. George Brinley, a copy of the first book printed in New York, by William Bradford, brought $1600; and unquestionably as years roll on, and the number of persons who have the means and the leisure to devote themselves to literary pursuits increases, while the early imprints through absorption by public libraries and in other ways become more inaccessible, the market value of these volumes will immeasurably enhance. Up to the present time the noblest specimen of American colonial bibliography has remained utterly unknown to the most learned of our bibliophiles. There is no reference to it in the appendix to Thomas on Printing, published by the American Antiquarian Society, whose purpose was to give all the pre-revolutionary publications of America. So far as can be learned no copy of it has ever appeared at a book-sale or been in the hands of an American bookseller.[1] Though printed within a comparatively short distance of Philadelphia, until within the last year the librarian of the Philadelphia Library had never heard of its existence; and Sabin, whose knowledge of Americana is unsurpassed, was equally in the dark. It is to call the attention of those who love our literature to this very remarkable work, and to give its points and history so that it may no longer lurk in obscurity, that this article is written.

Men, communities, and nations have their origin, development, and fruition. So have books. In Holland, in the year 1562 there appeared a duodecimo of about two hundred and fifty leaves in the Dutch language called Het offer des Heeren. This was the germ.[2] It contained biographical sketches of a number of the early martyrs of the Doopsgezinde or Mennonites, a sect which was the antetype of the Quakers, and these sketches were accompanied by hymns describing in rhyme not only their piety and sufferings but even the manner and dates of their deaths. To publish such a book was then punishable by fire, and the title-page therefore gives no indication as to where it was printed or who was the printer. Meeting together in secret places and in the middle of the night, the linen weavers of Antwerp and the hardy peasants of Friesland cherished their religious zeal and their veneration for Menno Simons, by singing and reading about their martyrs. Next to the Bible this hook was most in demand among them, and later editions were printed in the years 1567, 1570, 1576, 1578, 1580, 1589, 1595, and 1599, but many copies were, along with their owners, burned by the executioners, and the book is now very scarce. It was followed by a large quarto of eight hundred and sixty-three pages with an engraved title-page, written by Hans de Ries and Jacques Outerman, and printed at Hoorn, in 1617, by Zacharias Cornelisz, called “Historic der warachtighe Getuygen Jesu Christi;” and this again by a handsome black-letter folio of ten hundred and fifty-six pages, printed at Haerlem by Hans Passchiers von Wesbusch in 1631, entitled “Martelaers Spiegel der werelose Christenen.” The subject was capable of still more thorough treatment, and in 1660 Tieleman Jans Van Braght, a Mennonite theologian at Dordrecht, who was born in 1625 and died in 1664, published “Het Bloedigh Toneel der Doops Gesinde en Wereloose Christenen,” a folio of thirteen hundred and twenty-nine pages. It was reproduced in 1685 in two magnificent folio volumes, handsomely illustrated with a frontispiece, and a hundred and four copper-plates engraved by the celebrated Jan Luyken.

This book in its immense proportions is thus seen to have been a gradual culmination of the research and literary labors of many authors. In his first edition Van Braght gives a list of 356 books he had consulted. It is the great historical work of the Mennonites, and the most durable monument of that sect. It traces the history of those Christians who from the time of the Apostles were opposed to the baptism of infants and to warfare, including the Lyonists, Petrobusians, and Waldenses; details the persecutions of the Mennonites by the Spaniards in the Netherlands and the Calvinists in Switzerland, together with the individual sufferings of many hundreds who were burned, drowned, beheaded, or otherwise maltreated; and contains the confessions of faith adopted by the different communities. The relations between the Quakers, who arose much later, and the Mennonites were close and intimate; their views upon most points of belief and church government were identical, and where they met they welded together naturally and without a flaw. Penn, along with others of the early Quakers, went to Holland and Germany, to preach to, and make converts among the Mennonites, and he invited them pressingly to settle in his province. In 1683, and within the next few years, many families from the Lower Rhine and the Netherlands went to Germantown in Pennsylvania, branching from there out to Skippack; and in 1709, began the extensive emigration from Switzerland and the Palatinate to Lancaster County, where are still to be found the largest communities of the sect in America, and where the people still turn to the pages of Van Braght to read the lives of their forefathers.

Many copies of the book were brought to America, but they were in Dutch. No German translation existed, and much the larger proportion of those here who were interested in it could read only that language. It was not long before a desire for a German edition was manifested, and the declaration of a war between England and France in 1744, which in the nature of things must involve sooner or later their colonies in America, made the Mennonites fearful that their principles of non-resistance would be again put to the test, and anxious that all of the members, especially the young, should be braced for the struggle by reading of the steadfastness of their forefathers amid sufferings abroad. Their unsalaried preachers were, however, like the members of the flock, farmers who earned their bread by tilling the soil, and were ill fitted both by circumstances and education for so great a literary labor. Where could a trustworthy translator be found? Where was the printer, in the forests of Pennsylvania, who could undertake the expense of a publication of such magnitude? Naturally, they had recourse to the older and wealthier churches in Europe, and on the 19th of October, 1745, Jacob Godschalck, of Germantown, Dielman Kolb, of Salford, Michael Ziegler, Yilles Kassel, and Martin Kolb, of Skippack, and Heinrich Funck, of Indian Creek, the author of two religious works published in Pennsylvania, wrote, under instruction from the various communities, a letter to Amsterdam on the subject. They say: “Since according to appearances the flames of war are mounting higher, and it cannot be known whether the cross and persecution may not come upon the defenceless Christians,[3] it becomes us to strengthen ourselves for such circumstances with patience and endurance, and to make every preparation for steadfast constancy in our faith. It was, therefore, unanimously considered good in this community, if it could be done, to have the Bloedig Toneel of Dielman Jans Van Braght translated into the German language, especially since in our communities in this country there has been a great increase of young men who have grown up. In this book posterity can see the traces of those faithful witnesses who have walked in the way of truth and given up their lives for it. Notwithstanding we have greatly desired to have this work commenced for many years, it has hitherto remained unaccomplished. The establishment of a new German printing office has renewed the hope, but the bad paper used here for printing has caused us to think further about it. Besides, up to this time, there has not appeared, either among ourselves or others, any one who understood the language well enough to translate it accurately. We have not felt that we could with safety entrust it to those who have been mentioned and promised to do it, and while it concerns us that this translation should be made, it concerns us just as much that the truth should remain uninjured by such translation. We have at last concluded to commit our design to the brethren in Holland, and our Diener and Vorsteher will unanimously be governed by their advice. We earnestly ask you then to receive our request in love, and to send over to us as soon as it can be done an estimate and specification. We want to know what it will cost to translate it and to print and bind a thousand copies, whether they could be sent here without great charges and expense, what they would come to with or without copper-plates, whether you think it best that they should be sent over in parcels or all at once if it is feasible, and what in your opinion is the best way in which it can be done. We appeal to your love, since all here have a heartfelt desire that the book may be translated into the German, and we ask in the matter your love and counsel about undertaking it, whether in these dangerous times of war it can be accomplished, and what it will cost to translate it and print and bind a thousand copies. We hope you will receive our request in love, and as soon as possible let us know your counsel and opinion.”[4]

The Dutch are proverbially slow, and in this instance they maintained their reputation, since they did not reply until February 10th, 1748, nearly three years later. They then threw cold water on the whole enterprise. They thought it utterly impracticable both because of the trouble of finding a translator and because of the immense expense that would be incurred. They further suggested a way out of the difficulty which would have been worthy of Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was to get some of the brethren who understood the Dutch language to translate the chief histories in which the confessions of the martyrs are given and have them copied by the young people in manuscript.[5] By so doing would be secured the “double advantage that through the copying they would give more thought to it and receive a stronger impression.”

Without waiting for this valuable advice the Americans had in the mean time found a way to accomplish their purpose. At Ephrata, in Lancaster County, had been established some years before, and still exists, a community of mystical Dunkers, who practised celibacy, and held their lands and goods in common. About 1745, they secured a hand printing press, now in possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, on which they printed over fifty books, which are among the scarcest and most sought after of American imprints. In the Brinley library, perhaps the most complete collection of Americana which has ever been sold, there was but a single book from the Ephrata press. Some of the Ephrata hymns have been rendered into English verse by Whittier. The chronicle of the Cloister says: “Shortly before the time that the mill was burned down the Mennonites in Pennsylvania united together to have their great martyr book, which was in the Dutch language, translated and printed in German. For this work there was nobody in the whole country considered better fitted than the brotherhood in Ephrata, since they had a new printing office and paper mill, and moreover could place hands enough upon the work. The agreement was very advantageous for the said Mennonites, since it was determined upon both sides that the brethren should translate and print the book, but the Mennonites should afterward be at liberty to purchase or not. But scarcely was this agreement known before it began to be everywhere feared lest the good brethren might heap up a Mammon for themselves. Yes, even letters of warning were written by friends in Germany because of it. But the good God had other views therein of which the brethren themselves were unconscious until they had so far progressed with it that they could no longer withdraw. The Vorsteher who was the abettor of this work never let it come to a standstill or rest, and took every opportunity to keep all those under his direction in constant action, so that no one might again be satisfied in this life and be forgetful of the trust from above, for which purpose this martyr book served admirably, as will be further mentioned in this place.”

“After the building of the mill was completed, the printing of the martyr book was taken in hand, for which important work fifteen brethren were selected, of whom nine had their task in the printing office, viz., a corrector who was also translator, four compositors, and four pressmen. The others worked in the paper mill. Three years were spent upon this book, but the work was not continuous because often the supply of paper was deficient. And, since in the mean time there was very little other business on hand, the brethren got deeply into debt, but through the great demand for the book this was soon liquidated. It was printed in large folio, using sixteen quires of paper, and making an edition of thirteen hundred copies. In a council held with the Mennonites, the price for a single copy was fixed at twenty shillings, from which it can be seen that the reasons for printing it were very different from a hope for profit. That this martyr book was a cause of many trials to the recluses, and added not a little to their spiritual martyrdom, is still in fresh remembrance. The Vorsteher who had put the work in motion had other reasons for it than gain. The spiritual welfare of those who were entrusted to him lay deep in his heart, and he neglected no opportunity to provide for it. The three years that this book was on the press were an admirable preparation for spiritual martyrdom, although their worldly affairs were in the mean time unfortunate and permitted to fall into neglect. If this is considered, and the small price and how far those who worked on it were removed from all self-interest, it cannot fail to appear how valuable must have been to them the descriptions therein contained of the lives of the holy martyrs.”

In this rather remarkable way have been fortunately preserved the particulars concerning the publication of the Ephrata martyr book. The Vorsteher referred to in the chronicle was Conrad Beissel, the founder of the Cloister, who among the brethren was known as Vater Friedsam. The greater part of the literary work upon it was done by the learned prior, Peter Miller, who later, at the request of Congress, according to Watson the annalist, translated the Declaration of Independence into seven different European languages The publication of the first part was completed in 1748, and the second in 1749. The title-page in full is as follows: “Der blutige Schau-Platz oder Martyrer Spiegel der Tauffs-Gesinten oder wehrlosen Christen, die um des Zeugnuss Jesu ihres Seligmachers willen gelitten haben, und seynd getoedtet worden, von Christi Zeit an bis auf das Jahr 1660. Vormals aus unterschiedlichen glaubwuerdigen Chronicken, Nachrichten und Zeugnuessen gesamlet und in Hollaendischer Sprach herausgegeben von T. J. V. Braght. Nun aber sorgfæltigst ins Hochteutsche uebersetzt und zum erstenmal ans Licht gebracht. Ephrata in Pensylvanien, Drucks und Verlags der Bruederschafft Anno MDCCXLVIII.” It is a massive folio of fifteen hundred and twelve pages, printed upon strong thick paper, in large type, in order, as is said in the preface, “that it may suit the eyes of all.” The binding is solid and ponderous, consisting of boards covered with leather, with mountings of brass on the corners, and two brass clasps. The back is further protected by strips of leather studded with brass nails. Some of the copies when they were issued were illustrated with a frontispiece engraved upon copper, but they were comparatively few, and the book is complete without this plate. The creed of the Dunkers differs from that of the Mennonites mainly in the fact that the former believe in the necessity of immersion, while the latter administer Baptism by sprinkling, and over this question the two sects have contended with each other quite earnestly. The plate referred to represented John the Baptist immersing Christ in the river Jordan, and consequently the Mennonites refused to have it bound in the copies which they purchased, and, on the other hand, in those secured by the Dunkers it was inserted. There was another plate prepared for the book, but for some unknown reason it was not used, and there is but a single known print from it.[6] These plates appear to have been engraved by M. Eben, at Frankfort in Germany. In some instances it was bound in two volumes. The title-page to the second part says that it was “out of the Dutch into the German translated and with some new information increased.” Among the additions made at Ephrata were twelve stanzas upon page 939, concerning the martyrdom of Hans Haslibacher; taken from the Ausbundt or hymn-book of the Swiss Mennonites. Some of the families in Pennsylvania and other parts of the United States, the sufferings of whose ancestors are mentioned in it, are those bearing the names of Kuster, Hendricks, Yocum, Bean, Rhoads, Gotwals, Jacobs, Johnson, Royer, Zimmerman, Shoemaker, Keyser, Landis, Meylin, Brubaker, Kulp, Weaver, Snyder, Wanger, Grubb, Bowman, Bachman, Zug, Aker, Garber, Miller, Kassel, and Wagner. In Lancaster County there are to-day many of the Wentz family. The story of the burning of Maeyken Wens, at Antwerp, in 1573, is more than ordinarily pathetic. “Thereupon on the next day,” says the account, “which was the sixth of October, this pious and God-fearing heroine of Jesus Christ, as also her other fellow believers, who in like manner had been condemned, were with their tongues screwed fast, like innocent sheep brought forward, and after each was tied to a stake in the market place, were robbed of life and body by a dreadful and horrible fire, and in a short time were burned to ashes . . . The oldest son of this aforementioned martyr, called Adrian Wens, about fifteen years old, upon the day on which his dear mother was sacrificed, could not stay away from the place of execution, so he took his youngest brother, called Hans Matthias Wens, about three years old, on his arm, and stood on a bench not far from the burning-stake to witness his mother's death. But when she was brought to the stake he fainted, fell down, and lay unconscious until his mother and the others were burned. Afterward when the people had gone away and he came to himself, he went to the place where his mother was burnt, and hunted in the ashes until he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, and he kept it for a memento. There are now, 1659, still many descendants of this pious martyr living well known to us, who, after her name are called Maeyken Wens.”

The before-mentioned Heinrich Funk and Dielman Kolb were appointed a committee by the Mennonites to make the arrangements with the community at Ephrata, and to supervise the translation. Their certificate is appended, saying: “It was desired by very many in Pennsylvania that there should be a German translation and edition of the martyr book of the Defenceless Christians or Tauffs-gesinneten, before printed in the Dutch language, and the Brotherhood in Ephrata, at Conestoga, offered and promised not only that they would translate the book, but would take care that it should be of a neat print and a good paper and at their own cost, if we would promise to buy the copies and have none printed or brought here from any other place. Thereupon the elders and ministers of those communities of the Tauffs-gesinneten, which are called Mennonites, (to which communities the said book is best adapted), went to Ephrata and made there with their said friends an agreement that they, the said Taufs-gesinneten, would buy the said books at a reasonable price, and would not give orders elsewhere, provided they should receive assurance of good work, paper and translation, but if the print should not turn out well they should be released. Heinrich Funk and Dielman Kolb had such a great love for this book that they both with common consent gave their time and labor to it, and, as the leaves came from the press and were sent to them in their order, went over them one at a time, comparing them with the Dutch, and in this work have not omitted a single verse. They have not found in the whole book one line which does not give the same grounds of belief and sense as is contained in the Dutch. They have indeed found a number of words about which they have hesitated and doubted, and which might have been improved both in the Dutch and German, but it is not to be wondered at that in so large a book a word here and there is not used in the best sense; but nobody ought to complain for this reason, for we are all human and often err. Concerning the Errata placed before the Register, it has been found that many that were in the Dutch edition have been corrected, though not all, and some have been found in the German, although, as has been said, they are not numerous. We have, therefore, at the request of the rest of our fellow ministers, very willingly read through this great book from the beginning to the end, and compared it with the Dutch, and we have according to our slight ability and gift of understanding found nothing that would be disadvantageous to this book, or in which the teachings of the holy martyrs have not been properly translated, but we believe that the translator has done his best, with the exception of the typographical errors, of which in our opinion there are few for such a great book. But should some one go through it as we have done, and find some mistakes which we have overlooked or not understood, it would be well for him to call attention to them, because two or three witnesses are better than one. We further believe that the best thing about this book will be that the Lord through his Holy Spirit will so kindle the hearts of men with an eager desire for it, that they will not regard a little money but buy it, and take plenty of time, read in it earnestly with thought, so that they may see and learn in what way they should be grounded in belief in Christ, and how they should arrange their lives and walk, in order to follow the defenceless Lamb and to be heirs of the everlasting Kingdom with Christ and his Apostles. In this book are contained many beautiful teachings out of both the Old and New Testament, accompanied with many examples of true followers, from which it is apparent that we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God. Acts xiv, 22. We see in it many true predecessors who have followed the Lamb, of whom Paul says, Hebrews xiii, 7: Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Although the road is small and narrow, nevertheless it leads to everlasting joy.”

When Israel Acrelius, the author of the History of New Sweden, visited Ephrata in 1754, he was shown the martyr book, which, he says, of all the works published there, had given the most trouble and least return. “We went down again to Müller's room, and there he showed me the History of the Persecution of the Anabaptists, a large and thick folio volume, which he himself had translated from the Holland into the German language, and had afterwards had it printed there in Ephrata, saying it was the largest book that had been printed in Pennsylvania, as also that he had labored for three years upon the translation, and was at the same time so burthened with work that he did not sleep more than four hours during the night. He believed that the Anabaptists had not suffered any persecutions in Sweden. I however gave him to understand that King Gustavus Adolphus had in his time had great difficulty in curing their infectious reformatory sickness, which would otherwise have gone very far, although he did this without persecution. The edition of Müller's book was one thousand two hundred copies, of which seven hundred have been circulated and five hundred are still on hand. He said that they could be sold within ten years. I think he meant twenty. The price is twenty-two shillings. I asked him how they could be sold at so low a price. Why not? said he; for we do not propose to get rich.” There is still another event in the history of this publication recorded in the chronicles of the cloister. “This book had finally in the revolutionary war a singular fate. There being great need of all war material and also paper, and it having been discovered that in Ephrata was a large quantity of printed paper, an arrest was soon laid upon it. Many objections were raised, and among others it was alleged that since the English army was so near, this circumstance might have a bad effect. They were determined, however, to give up nothing, and that all must be taken by force. So two wagons and six soldiers came and carried off the martyr books. This caused great offence through the land, and many thought that the war would not end well for the country, since they had maltreated the testimonies of the holy martyrs. However they finally again came to honor, since some judicious persons bought what there was left of them.”

It is manifest that the publication of this book was regarded as an event of great magnitude and importance, or the record of it, gathered as it is from such widely separated sources, would not have been so complete, and it is also plain that only religious zeal could have made the production of such a literary leviathan possible at that time. It was reprinted at Pirmasens in the Palatinate in 1780. A note in this edition says: “After this martyr book was received in Europe, it was found good by the united brotherhood of the Mennonites to issue this German martyr book after the copy from Ephrata again in German print, that it might be brought before the united brotherhood in Europe.” They secured the old copperplates of the Dutch edition of 1685, which had since been used on a work entitled Théâtre des Martyrs, published about 1700, without text, date, or imprint, and with them illustrated the publication. It thus appears that the uncomplimentary implication contained in the old query of “who reads an American book?” applies only to our English literature. The republication at that early date of a work so immense certainly marks an epoch in the literary history of America.

The war of 1812 called forth another American edition, which was published by Joseph Ehrenfried at Lancaster, Pa., in 1814, by subscription at ten dollars per copy. It is a folio of 976 pages, fifteen inches tall, and magnificently bound. There is a preface, authorized by many of the Diener and Vorsteher of the Mennonites in the name of the whole community, which gives some information concerning this and other publications.[7] The Pirmasens edition seems to have been unknown to them. Shem Zook, an Amish Mennonite, had a quarto edition published in Philadelphia in 1849, and John F. Funk, of Elkhart, Indiana, issued another in 1870. An imperfect English translation by I. D. Rupp appeared in 1837, and in 1853 a translation by the Hanserd Knollys Society of London was in course of preparation, and was afterward published.

Copies of the Ephrata edition are, as has been said, exceedingly scarce. A copy has been known to bring thirty-two dollars among farmers at a country sale, and one which had found its way into the hands of Frederik Muller & Co., in Amsterdam, was held at 180 florins. There is one in the library of the German Society in Philadelphia, one in that of the Mennonite College at Amsterdam, and another in that of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, but to the great libraries elsewhere it is as yet unknown. Having regard to the motives which led to its publication, the magnitude of the undertaking, the labor and time expended in printing it leaf by leaf upon a handpress, its colossal size, excellent typography, the quality of its paper made at Ephrata, its historical and genealogical value, and its great rarety, it easily stands at the head of our colonial books. Among the literary achievements of the Germans of Pennsylvania it surpasses, though eight years later, the great quarto Bible of Saur, the first in America, printed at Germantown in 1743, which for nearly half a century had no English rival.

  1. Since this was written a copy was secured by a publishing house in Philadelphia, and was sold for $120.
  2. Still earlier were fugitive broadsides and pamphlets, printed secretly by the friends of the martyrs. Naturally nearly all of these have disappeared, but it is well known that they existed and were widely circulated. A few of them are preserved in the library of the Mennonite College at Amsterdam. I have one giving details of the burning of Frantz and Niclaus Thiessen, in Brabant in 1556, which came from the library of Count Zinzendorf. It is at least possible that the Tysons who settled in Germantown were of the same family.
  3. Wehrlosen Christenen, a name they often gave themselves.
  4. Dr. J. G. De Hoop Scheffer very kindly sent me this letter, which has never before been printed, from the Archives at Amsterdam.
  5. The greater part of the literature of the Schwenckfelders was reproduced and disseminated in this way in Pennsylvania.
  6. In the Cassel collection.
  7. I have the editions of 1660, 1685, 1748, 1780, and 1814. They cannot be found together anywhere else.