From his post at the back of the herring drifter on which he worked, Jan Hendriksz watched the long, low coast of the Netherlands. South past Scheveningen and the Hoek van Holland—where ships leave the Lower Rhine and the Maas for the sea—he knew the way into the port at Rotterdam like the back of his hand.
Jan worked as a steersman for a fishing company. Even though he liked his job, the sight of the home coast, after weeks at sea, had always looked good. After his marriage to Lijsbeth Jansz and the birth of their first son and daughter, it looked even better.
Only Jan did not know, standing at his place in the summer of 1569, that he would never ride into his home port again.
As a 21-year-old, Jan had turned to Christ and asked for baptism. Soon after, he settled with his new wife at Delfshaven, outside Rotterdam. Together they had attended meetings of the Anabaptist congregation to which they belonged, and they did not have their children baptised. Now, in August 1569, that led to Jan’s arrest.
At first religious and state officials only questioned him. But when they saw his resolve to stand by his convictions, they changed tactics and began to torture him. Weeks of hunger and cold became months of trial. They pulled racked him deprived him of food. The winter of 1570 turned to spring. But Jan did not let his desire to be with his wife and children influence him to a wrong decision. In the prison at Delft, he passed a note to another captured believer, Maarten Jansz:
What could it matter, in the end, whether we have lived in great luxury and pleasure, or whether we have been persecuted, imprisoned, tormented, tortured, burnt or beheaded? What could it matter when it is all over? For then we shall be with the Lamb. We shall follow him with a multitude of saints, clothed in fine linen, clean and white, with palms in our hands. How beautiful it will be for those who endure to the end! Therefore my dear brother, even though I write to you with tears, let us be brave. Christ already predicted that we would have trouble in the world. But he told us, “Be courageous for I have overcome the world!”
Through his long imprisonment, the authorities seldom allowed anyone other than his father to visit Jan. With him, Jan sent a letter home for his brother and sister:
Dear Pouwel and Aechtgen,
By all appearances the time of my departure is at hand. Considering that, I must encourage you to struggle courageously for the faith once delivered to the saints and not to give up! I do this out of pure love to you as a brother, and desire that through faith you may also receive God’s promises so we may meet beneath the altar. My desire is to meet you among those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, robed in white—those whom the Lord has chosen out of every tribe and nation under heaven. They are the ones who have passed through great tribulation, whom the world has pursued, beheaded and burnt. But now they stand before the throne of God, and in his presence they serve him day and night.
Do not worry too much about what I am going through. . . . I have been amazed, right under torture, at how the Lord helps one to take it. First they pulled me up with a rope over a pulley. While I was hanging like that they whipped me. Then, because I betrayed no one, they hung a weight from my feet. But when they took me back upstairs I did not feel much pain. The next day my arms and legs felt no worse than if I had brought in six or seven loads of herring.
Just be brave and follow me. I expect to go on ahead and wait for you under the altar with those already slain for the name of God—those who lie and wait for their brothers and sisters yet to be killed for his testimony. Oh, that we might meet one another there! What a joy that would be for me!
Dear brother and sister, my heart’s desire for you is that you would watch out for the younger ones, Cornelis, Jakob, and Leentgen. I hope you will direct them in the fear of God as much as you can. But above all, pay attention to my children and show them and my wife as much love as you can. My glass is almost run out. My watch is nearly over. I know my day will break before long, for I have seen the morning star in the sky.
Dear brother and sister, do not hold this letter against me. Even though I have written it in a serious tone, it is for love of your souls.
Written on the 23’d of January, 1572. Now I will say Goodnight for a little while, my dear brothers and sisters, until we meet again. Just be brave!
In his last letter from jail, Jan wrote:
My beloved wife, Lijsbeth Jansz—this is to tell you that I am still standing true and in good courage in the Lord. With the Lord’s help (without which it would be impossible) I expect to keep his Word, and I believe he will preserve my treasure and deliver me out of the lion’s jaws.
I have the confidence that it is the same with you—that you are still determined, with me, to serve the Lord in righteousness and holiness all the days of your life. With this, I also trust God will continue to watch over you. May his name be forever praised!
My dear wife, since it appears that the time of my departure is at hand, I cannot forget you. Rather, because of the great love I feel toward you, I must write you a little yet. Thank you so much for the love you have shown to me through your visits and letters! May God in high heaven reward you!
I want to thank you in particular for your last letter. It was a precious one. I let Maarten read it too and we were so glad for your words of encouragement and comfort that we both cried. I also cried because you love me so much, and because I love you. For that reason I must express my concern for you again—not that I doubt your commitment to walking in the fear of God. Not in any way! I am sure you want to do nothing but what is right. My concern only comes from pure, clear, love for your soul. In fact, I have often wished you might be taken before me, because it is so difficult to get to heaven and so easy for us to be led astray, like Paul says, “Let him who stands take heed lest he fall.”
My dear Jansdochter, walk in the fear of God!
The fear of God is the foundation of obedience. When we think of how dreadfully God will punish sinners, we begin to fear him. For that reason we shun what is wrong.
Those who do not fear God indulge in great wickedness.
My dear Janstochter, cling to Christ, the true vine! Stay in him and he will stay in you. Then you may be a beautiful branch and bear much fruit. Then the Father will prune you to bear more and more fruit.
The one who does not stay in Christ withers up and must be cut off from him. “Your sins,” says the prophet, “separate you from God.” Therefore my dear wife, cling to Christ and draw back from sin like you would from a snake. Do not come near it or it may bite you, for its teeth are like lions’ teeth, sinking into the souls of men (Ecclesiasticus 21:2).
We must watch out for sin. God certainly warns us against it, but he does not prevent us from committing it, if we determine to do so. Of this we have many examples in the Scriptures, such as in the story of Adam.
My dear Jansdochter, be patient in trials that come upon you for Christ’s sake!
Patience is a Christian characteristic. Christ said, “In patience keep your souls.” Paul wrote, “You need patience, so that after you have done the will of God you may also receive the promise.” (How right he was, I have certainly discovered through my time in prison!) Paul says further, “Let us run with patience the race set before us, looking to the captain of our faith and the one who makes it perfect, Jesus Christ, who for the joy that was set before him endured rejection and shame. Think of him, who suffered such opposition from sinners, so that you will not give up, nor grow weary in your minds.”
My beloved, think on these words and wait on the coming of Christ! Have oil in your lamp and be ready! To the one who overcomes, all things will be given.
Dear Janskindt, do not worry. Even though men may separate us now, they will soon have no more power over us. Even Carolus [the emperor Charles V of Habsburg] will have no power anymore. Bloodthirsty priests will no longer hate the people of God and we shall live with him forever ever. Then our sorrow will be forgotten in great joy.
My beloved, comfort yourself with God’s promises for he will keep them. Be patient and persevere. Beneath the altar I will be waiting for you!
With this I commend you to God who brought Israel safely through the Red Sea and the wilderness to the promised land. May he bring you into his eternal kingdom. How I wish I could take you with me! But now, for a short while, I must tell you Goodnight.
This, no doubt will be my last letter to you, but how I look forward to speaking with you face to face in heaven!
Goodnight, beloved wife, a thousand times Goodnight. Be brave in the truth and walk in the narrow way until the Lord comes. I thank you from the heart for the boundless love you have shown me through this time of trial. It is in great need that we discover the best kind of love.
Tell my son, Hendrick Jansz, Goodnight. Teach him to be a good child and to fear God. With this letter I am sending three coins. You and the children may each keep one as a remembrance. You may let the woman pay for the bed later, and also the man for the coat. Tell him I appreciate it very much.
Now my dear Janskindt, be brave! I write you Goodnight.
Goodnight, beloved. Please take this as calmly as you can. It is the same as if you had lost me at sea. Sooner or later we would have had to be parted by death anyway.
You may as well go back to live with your parents.
Pray to the Lord for me. I hope not to forget you. Greet my friends where you can, from me. Goodnight, my dear Janskindt. You know why I must suffer.
Written on the 4th of February, AD 1571, by me
The morning after Jan wrote his last letter, prison guards led him and Maarten Jansz out into the fresh air and sunlight of the market square at Delft. They tied Maarten to a post, and lit his fire first. Even though they had seared his tongue he prayed loud enough for the gathered crowd to hear: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! I am not worthy to suffer for you, but you have made me worthy.” The flames roared up, yet the crowd heard Maarten’s last words distinctly: “Lord, take up my spirit in your hands!”
When Jan’s turn came, he also spoke to the people. At first all was quiet, but many in the crowd knew him. Even though they did not share his beliefs, they respected him as a hard-working seaman and liked him. Their mutterings grew into an ominous rumble of voices and angry cries: “Why should this man die? What has he done worse than the rest?”
Fearing a riot, the authorities hustled Jan back into the courthouse. There they gagged him completely and tied him up so he could not move. Then they brought him out again, quickly lit the fire, and he passed from earthly affliction into peace and glory with the body of Christ.
Badly burned but not consumed, the city authorities took the remains of the two men and tied them to posts outside the city as food for the birds.