Cornelia’s Hut, February 1532
As we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God…1 Thess 2:4
Anna shook her head. And again. Was she dreaming? Why were Jan and Cornelia here? Once the snow had melted from her eyelashes, she looked around the dimly-lit interior of the room. Her eyes widened. There was Cornelia’s smoking fireplace and the rickety table, with a candle flickering on its rough surface. Anna was lying on a bed near the fire—Cornelia’s bed.
“Welcome back, Anna,” Jan said quietly. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” Cornelia said nothing, but her face wore a black look.
“How can I possibly have come back here?” Anna asked. “I was walking ever since I left-- for hours, it seemed. Did I just go around in circles?”
“Of course you did, you foolish girl. What did you expect?” Cornelia had her witch-face back on. Anna had to agree that she had been very foolish, and it was a miracle she hadn’t frozen to death in the storm. Her cloak hung dripping near the fire, and she was wrapped in every blanket Cornelia owned.
Jan’s red hair stuck out from his head in every direction, as if he had ben running his hands through it. The dark circles under his eyes made his narrow face look paler than ever, and worry lines furrowed his forehead. Anna felt guilty just looking at him. Did he care what happened to her? It was a new thought. She hadn’t stopped to consider anyone’s feelings except her own. But on the other hand, who else would search for the children? Even though she might not be able to rescue them, she wanted to know in which house they were. What kind of people had taken them. Whether they were treated kindly.
Maybe they had been taken over the bridge to the Begijnhof in the heart of Amsterdam, to the nuns. Wherever they were, Anna needed to know. When Adriaen came back, he would be devastated to find his children gone. Anna glanced to the window. It was pitch dark outside, and she could do nothing more that night.
For over a week, the weather conspired to keep the three of them in the house most of the time. When the snowstorm finally stopped after three days, the freezing rain began. Day after day, the sun refused to shine, and despair gripped Anna’s soul. How much longer would they be holed up here in this dark, smoky, and draughty hut, cut off from the children and civilization?
Every morning, Anna got up as soon as dawn began to break and checked the weather. Jan and Cornelia had made her promise that she would not attempt to leave the hut again until they all agreed it was safe. And every morning looked as formidable as the one before. There was very little food, but what Cornelia had, she shared. Jan slipped out of the house one afternoon, and returned much later, chilled and soaking wet, with a couple of snow geese slung over his shoulder.
“Today we shall feast,” Jan declared.
“Ooh! How did you catch them?” Anna asked.
“First with prayer, then with patience, then with speed,” Jan grinned.
Everyone helped to prepare the birds, and soon the geese were bubbling in the pot, filling the air with a tantalizing aroma. That night, for once, they slept without their stomachs grumbling. They saved every shred of leftover meat, making it last for a few more days.
To get their minds off their hunger and discomfort, they told each other stories. Cornelia eventually lost her crustiness and related to them the tragic story of how she had been accused of witchcraft ten years before in a nearby village. Crops were failing on the farms, and many cattle died. To add to the misery, the plague hit the province and a number of people died. Cornelia had not become sick herself, which was determined to be one sign of witchcraft. Then the village baker, not liking her competing with his baking business, unjustly accused her of being a witch. She never married and had no man to stand up for her rights, so the authorities believed the baker’s tale. They tried to execute her by drowning. But she escaped the bag they had put her in, swam away, and escaped--further proof of sorcery. She never dared go back to civilization.
Anna wept for the lonely woman. She noticed Jan’s eyes were damp as well.
“When we leave here, you’re coming with us,” he told her. “There has to be a more comfortable place for you to spend your twilight years.”
Cornelia’s eyes gleamed. “If you say so.”
Out here in the lonely woods, crowded into a small space together for days at a time, they had all the time in the world for conversation. But always, in the back of Anna’s mind, the children lurked. Only by Jan’s repeated assurances that God looked after His own, and especially innocent children, could she tolerate the confining walls of the hut. Even so, she went outside for a while every day to let the cold air calm her frazzled nerves. Cornelia and Jan claimed to want to leave just as much as Anna did, but sometimes she wondered. Cornelia was used to this life, and Jan was about as well hidden as he could possibly be as an Anabaptist, only he wasn’t converting many people.
Sometimes Anna caught Jan gazing at her with a look in his eyes she didn’t understand, a look that made her feel almost special, and even admired, but why would that be? Did he see her as a desirable woman? Anna quickly cleared her mind of such nonsense, ignoring the pleasant possibility of a man seeing her in that light.
Jan treated Cornelia and herself with the utmost respect, and hardly let either of the women do any work after he was recovered. He regained enough strength to chop wood, and taught Anna how to do it, because she insisted. Chopping wood helped ease the frustration of being trapped in the woods. The color never did come back into Jan’s cheeks, no matter how often he was outside in the cold.
Jan was also a master story-teller and a patient teacher. There was no paper of any kind to be had, but he scratched words on the frosty walls with a stick, expanding Anna’s humble amount of education. Cornelia even learned to read a little bit.
Cornelia had been away from civilization for so long that she had never heard about the Lutheran protests against the corruption of the Roman Catholic church. She never heard any news, so Jan told her everything about the state of Europe in the last several years. He told her about Martin Luther, a former monk from Germany, who stood up to the Pope with his thoughts on church corruption, even though it put his life in danger.
“I don’t doubt for a minute the wickedness and corruption of the bishops and priests,” Cornelia said. “I think it’s high time someone had enough courage to bring it into the open. Thanks be to God.” Of course, Anna thought, Cornelia had first-hand experience of overzealous judgments.
“Martin Luther doesn’t believe that the pope has the power to forgive people’s sin or save them from purgatory. The common people of Germany are very poor, because they must pay all kinds of taxes and tithes. The German Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, got permission from the pope to sell letters of indulgence, and now they are being cheated out of their money with these indulgences.”
Anna had bought indulgences from that very man, and thought herself safe from purgatory as long as she sacrificed the pittance she had scraped together, to buy them.
“Letters of indulgence? What is that?” Cornelia leaned forward with enraptured dark eyes. Was she glad that the ones who caused her exile were now being challenged?
“It’s a piece of paper that people are induced to buy. Albert of Hohenberg came up with the idea of selling indulgences to pay for building Saint Peter’s grand basilica in Rome. He promises the poor peasants that their sins will all be forgiven if they buy these indulgences. They can even buy indulgences for their friends who have died, to save their souls from purgatory. He assures them that ‘as soon as the money clinks in the chest, the soul is released’.”
Anna shifted uncomfortably. Jan was talking about the church she had been loyal to all her life, and hearing about these abuses made her cringe. If everything Jan said was true, she was surprised anyone still went to the Church.
“How is the Church reacting to all the opposition?” Cornelia asked.
“They are outraged that their subjects dispute their authority, which is why there is so much persecution. Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor, has ordered his militia to use force to make people attend his state-approved churches, and they’re arresting everyone they can find who doesn’t obey. Communion is held three times a year, and those not present are sought out for questioning.”
Anna got up and put on her cloak. “I’m going out to get more wood.”
Jan watched her go with puzzled, almost hurt, green eyes. “There’s still quite a pile here.”
She ignored him and went outside, where cold drizzly rain was falling. Would this wretched weather never end? The weather was as miserable as she felt. Her heart was torn all to pieces like chunks of Cornelia’s hard bread, and she felt pulled to bits trying to make up her mind which was the actual True Church. The old or the new, which one was right?
Was the Catholic church wrong? Anna wanted to be safe on earth, and she also wanted to go to Heaven when she died. Was it possible to have both, or must one choose? Or what if one joined the wrong religion, and ended up having to suffer for it after death? Had the choice already been made for her when she ran away with Jan?
Carrying an armful of logs, Anna staggered back into the hut. This wet wood would probably burn badly, and they’d have to endure a smoky fire. But they were all used to that. She plunked the wood on the floor and hung up her cloak. Jan welcomed her back with a smile which showed his even white teeth. “You’re just in time to hear about the birth of Anabaptism.”
Anna groaned inwardly. Did she have to hear more of this? She couldn’t think of anything more to do outside, so she resigned herself to listening to more about his religious views.
“First of all, Ulrich Zwingli, who lives in Switzerland, came to the same conclusions Martin Luther did. What the clergy is teaching to their congregations is not from Scripture. No human being has the power to forgive sins, not even the Pope. Tithing and taxing the poorest people, and not the wealthy, is wrong. There is nothing in Scripture requiring the celibacy of priests or any other of the clergy, and forced celibacy leads to fornication. Neither are there any rules in the New Testament about not eating meat during Lent. Zwingli, a pastor, even attended a sausage supper at his printer’s house during Lent and let the printer and his workers eat sausages. There was a public outcry and the printer was arrested.”
Jan leaned forward and stirred the coals, then added a log to the fire. Cornelia was wrapped in layers of shawls and blankets, and Anna tucked her skirt around her feet, trying in vain to warm them. She could have eaten several pounds of sausages right now.
“In the beginning, Zwingli, who is also a teacher, taught his young students to live according to the Scriptures.” Jan continued. “He taught that it is wrong to worship statues of Mary, saints or their ancient relics. Costly displays of decorations and paintings in the church are works of the devil.”
But they are so beautiful. And someone spent a lot of time making them.
“Zwingli does not believe that Mary or any other saint is able to intercede for people’s souls, because there is no such thing written in the Scriptures. Only through Christ dying on the cross can our sins be forgiven. He teaches that the bread and wine of the sacraments is not actually Christ’s body and blood because Christ is in Heaven, sitting at the right hand of God. The bread and wine are symbols of the covenant made with Christ.”
Cornelia gazed at Jan with adoration. “This all makes perfect sense to me. When I was a child long ago, my parents, who came from the Waldenses, had a faith very similar to this. But they had to keep it a secret because the authorities would have killed them.”
Jan nodded. “Yes, the Romans have monopolized Christendom for centuries. The corruption has become so bad that they will have to change. Even the church admits that it has problems. Martin Luther hoped to reform the Catholic church but ended up founding a new one.
“There was a civil war between Lutherans and Catholics, and afterwards they agreed to allow two religions; Lutheran and Catholic. Not Anabaptists, resulting in both parties persecuting us. The subjects must attend the same church as their rulers, but people are allowed to move if they don’t agree with their local religion. Which brings us to the persecution here in the Netherlands. Charles is Catholic, so we all must be Catholic. If we don’t go to church or leave the country, we will be punished and executed or banned.”
Cornelia’s grizzled gray head nodded constantly as he spoke; it was all clear to her, and she hung on Jan’s every word. “So who was the leader of reform here in the Netherlands?”
“Different groups formed and separated from the church, then refugees came from Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere, bringing ideas for reform with them. Charles V was busy fighting the Turks and didn’t notice what was happening here, so the movement was quite advanced by the time he found out about it.”
Cornelia cackled. “And now he’ll never get rid of all those he calls heretics. There are too many to destroy all of them, right?”
“I would think so,” Jan said. “They say there are thousands of Anabaptists in Amsterdam, including some of the city councillors. But that is beginning to change now that Charles has set up his council at The Hague, to search for and get rid of heresy in the Netherlands. All the officials who aren’t loyal to Charles are being replaced.”
It was getting late in the day, and lurking shadows closed around them. Anna got up to serve their portion of bread, wine and a few dried apple pieces. They all gnawed at their food slowly, appeasing their raging hunger.
“Tomorrow, if the weather is better, I will go and search for some more wild game,” Jan declared. “The food supply won’t last us until spring.”
Until spring? I’m leaving the first day of decent weather, and maybe before if it takes too long, Anna thought. It was still the middle of February.
“I hadn’t planned on having guests,’ Cornelia defended herself, “but I’m glad you came. If I don’t have much food for my body, at least I am getting plenty for my soul.”
“Is that enough for today, or do you want to hear about the Anabaptists now?”
“Do go on!” Cornelia exclaimed. “I’m not tired enough to sleep yet.”
“Anna?” Jan asked kindly, “Is this agreeable to you?”
Anna loved hearing Jan’s soothing male voice; and for that, and because Cornelia desired it, she decided she could listen to more of his story. She couldn’t deny being curious, and the only way to find out the Truth was to hear every viewpoint.
In the nearly dark hut, with only the sputtering fire for a light of, Jan continued. “As I’ve already told you, Zwingli lives in Zurich, Switzerland, and is a pastor at Grossmunster cathedral. About ten years ago, in 1522, he was also teaching a group of young men interested in learning to read Latin and Greek classics, but especially the Bible.
“Hardly anybody read the Bible then, because it was written in Latin and Greek. Zwingli hired someone to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew. He was going to dig until he uncovered the truth; and what he found, he preached. Zwingli is a smooth talker, and he convinced the Council of Zurich to let him preach from the Scriptures instead of following Catholic protocol.
“So, in this class he taught, there were several young men, in their twenties, who were quite interested in reading the Bible for themselves, and they read into it even more deeply than did Zwingli. “Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock thought the Scriptures should be followed exactly, and must be the only authority, without deferring to the council about how to run their church services. They discovered that the early church, in the time of Christ, had been composed of heartfelt believers only, and was not united with the state. Also, they found that the true church must always be persecuted, despised and rejected, as Jesus was. They wanted Zwingli to abolish the mass right away, as well as infant baptism.
When Zwingli refused to do so, wanting to make changes gradually and only by consent of the council, there was a division. Disputes were arranged, but the honey-tongued Zwingli had the council on his side. His students were ordered to submit to authority, and to have their children baptized within eight days, or they would be banned from the city.
“On January 21, 1525, on the evening after the dispute, Grebel and his friends gathered to pray, and called on God to show them what to do. Suddenly, George Blaurock, a fiery black-haired young man, stood up and asked to be baptized. Nobody objected, so Grebel grabbed a bowl of water from the table and baptized George with a bit of water on his head. After that, Blaurock baptized the rest of them and a new church was born. Persecution began immediately.
“That was nearly ten years ago, and by now, the Brethren are spread over the whole of Christendom, and despised almost everywhere by the authorities. Is it because the Brethren are bad people? No. They have gained many followers because of their honest characters and high morals, and they go singing joyfully to their cruel deaths, in hopes of an eternal happy home in Heaven. The Brethren are persecuted because they refuse to change their beliefs at the whim of the authorities, but continue to worship God in their own way.”
Cornelia sighed. “It is a beautiful story. If I were not so old, I would find one of the Brethren and be baptized. I want to be a member of this group.”
Anna could hear the tears in Cornelia’s quivery voice.
Jan said, “I am only a teacher, so I cannot do it. But if that is what you desire I can instruct you in the doctrine, then if you decide to go ahead I will help you find a preacher. You do realize that from that moment on your life is in danger, though it is in God’s hands to use you as He will.”
Cornelia snorted. “What is life worth to me? I desire to serve Him in any way I can, and if God is with me I no longer fear death.”
“I didn’t think so. Anna?”
She squirmed and mumbled, “I need more time.”
Back in Germany, she had heard a similar version of Anabaptism from her parents, and how it came to be, and she hadn’t minded hearing it again, in Jan’s words. Even if she did come to accept this new doctrine, the Anabaptists might not accept her when they found out what a sinner she was. She coveted her best friend’s husband and had let his wife die, betrayed his brother and abandoned his children. She did not belong with these saintly people.
“My sin is too great,” she added, looking down at her fingers twisting in her lap.
“Everyone’s sins are great. Why, even Conrad Grebel was disowned by his father for his misbehavior at school; by brawling, cavorting with women, and there were even rumors he helped murder a fellow student while drunk. To God, no sin is too great. Jesus shed enough blood to wash away everyone’s sins, even yours.”
“And you trust a church with a drunken murderer as a founder?”
“Jesus is the founder, and by his grace and mercy, Grebel’s sins are as if they had never been, washed as white as snow, because he has been forgiven by God. And so can ours be. I will be praying that you find peace,” Jan said softly.
“Me too,” Cornelia said.
A few lone tears dripped onto Anna’s bearskin bed. “Yes, pray for me.”