The landscape of Anabaptist history is permeated with a diverse cast of characters. People from many times and places have grappled with what it means to be a follower of Christ. In this article, you will be introduced to five individuals from the Anabaptist tradition who sought to be faithful to their Lord. Their stories can encourage us as we follow Christ in our day.
A Pioneer Martyr
Bolt Eberli (referred to in some sources as Eberli Bolt) was the first Anabaptist martyr. He was known as “a pious and good-hearted man.” When he became an Anabaptist in April of 1525, his eloquence and his knowledge of the Scriptures led to him quickly becoming an Anabaptist preacher. During the Easter holiday and throughout the following week, Bolt preached to large crowds in St. Gall, Switzerland. He left the region for a while, but when he returned he was arrested and sentenced to die on May 29, 1525.1
It was recorded of Bolt Eberli that he:
…approached the fire stakes with joyful bearing and died willingly and joyfully. Eberli understood what most Christians today completely miss—it is an honor to suffer for Christ’s sake. He was the first martyr in a line of martyrs that…would last for three centuries. He was the first in a line of a number that only the Lord knows and that could only be revealed in heaven. He gladly bore his cross.2
A Courageous Woman
The early Anabaptist Elisabeth (or Elizabeth) Dirks was martyred in 1549. Although her year of birth is unknown, we do know that her childhood was spent at a convent in Tienge, East Friesland, Germany. When she was 12 years old, she began to doubt the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Those doubts began when she heard a report about a person who had been executed for rejecting the sacraments of the church.3
Being able to read Latin enabled Elisabeth to study the Bible for herself, and her doubts about the church deepened through her repeated reading of the Scriptures. She came to the conclusion that the monastic system was contrary to Scripture.4
After escaping the convent Elisabeth became associated with the Anabaptist leader Menno Simons. She was arrested by the Catholic authorities in 1549. During her interrogation she was pressed to reveal the names of the people she had taught about the Christian faith. Even in the face of severe threats she refused to reveal that information, recognizing the danger that would face her friends if she did so. She did, however, speak about her beliefs, which included her denial of the authority of priests to forgive sins. Her testimony included a clear confession of salvation through Christ.5
Elisabeth’s refusal to reveal the identity of the person who baptized her led her to the torture chamber. Screws were used on her fingers, but even as blood spurted from her fingernails she refused to betray her friends. In her agony, she called aloud to Christ. Her leg bones were crushed with screws; she fainted but still refused to yield. The authorities recognized the futility of further torture and sentenced her to death.
Elisabeth Dirks was tied in a bag and drowned on March 27, 1549.6 A song was written about her death – it is No. 13 in the Ausbund, a hymnbook used by the Amish.7
Johann Cornies was born in Prussia in 1789. He immigrated with his family to Russia in 1804. They began farming in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna. Johann was self-taught and he distinguished himself with his diligence and intelligence. He married Agnes Klassen (1792-1847) in 1811.
As he began farming for himself, he quickly became successful. At the age of twenty-eight, the Russian tsar appointed him to the position of lifelong chair of the Agricultural Society. In that capacity, Johann had jurisdiction over the farming in all German settlements, Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike.8 That also essentially made him the director of economic and educational activities in the Mennonite colonies.9
By 1830, Johann was renting 9,000 acres from the Russian government for his sheep and cattle. One of his special interests was developing nurseries for trees. In 1818 he started a society for Christian education. He pushed for improvement in both school curriculum and teacher training; those changes greatly strengthened the school system in the Mennonite colonies.10 In what was an innovation for his day, Johann was supportive of the education of women.11
His agricultural work included importing animals to Russia from all over Europe and introducing the potato to Russia. Some Mennonites accused him of being proud, and yet he refused several official government positions. He maintained that his goal was to be “nothing but a Mennonite farmer who, at the time of his baptism, promised not to govern or carry arms in accordance with his Christian duty.”12 When he died in 1848, Johann Cornies was farming over 25,000 acres.13
A Mysterious Fate
Clayton Kratz was born in 1896 in Blooming Glen, Pennsylvania. An inscription in the cemetery of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church reads: “Clayton Kratz, Nov. 5, 1896. Went to Russia 1920.” Clayton, Arthur Slagel, and Orie Miller were the first volunteers to work for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). MCC was not fully established as an organization when these three young men went to Russia, which was in the midst of civil war. Their purpose was to determine how they could assist suffering Mennonites in what was then the Soviet Union.14
Before going to Russia, Clayton was an excellent student at Goshen College. He was also a leader of the student religious organization. This promising young man and his two companions arrived in Constantinople, Turkey, (now known as Istanbul) on September 27, 1920. Clayton and Orie proceeded to the Mennonite settlement of Molotschna in the Ukraine. That area was under the control of the White Army (the anti-communist forces). Clayton was left there when Orie went to arrange for supplies. When the Red Army (communist forces) took over the Ukraine, the Russian Mennonites urged Clayton to flee, but he thought his status as an American relief worker would grant him safety.15
He finally did plan to flee, but before he could he was arrested by the Red Army. The Mennonite leaders pleaded for him to be released. Although that request was granted, he was arrested again two weeks later. G.A. Peters provides us with the only firsthand account of Clayton’s disappearance. Clayton was apparently going to be transported to Moscow, where he would return to the United States by way of Sweden.
Peters came to the conclusion that Clayton was likely not executed, but rather died of a disease before he was released. Efforts on the part of MCC staff to determine Clayton’s fate were fruitless. The conclusion of his story remains a mystery. Clayton Kratz sacrificed his life in the service of his fellow man.16
A Founding Father
Ngongo David (also known as David Ngongo) is best known for his service as the president of the Congo Mennonite Church. His year of birth is unknown, but he was likely in his upper 90s when he died on August 18, 2004. Jim Bertsche – a missionary to Congo – said, “Pastor Ngongo and those of his generation were truly the founding fathers of today’s large and growing Congo Mennonite Church.” In 2004, there were 194,000 Mennonites in Congo.17 By 2012, that figure had reached 235,000.18
Beginning in the 1920s, Ngongo began working with the pioneer missionaries to Congo. As he traveled with them, he was able to witness the spread of the Christian faith in his country. In a culture that tended to fear evil spirits, Ngongo emphasized in his ministry that Jesus is good news for Africans because he defeated the evil powers through his death and resurrection. Ngongo traveled by bicycle or on foot to visit churches, where he provided instruction and encouragement.19
After Congo gained political independence, there was a shift away from missionary leadership in the churches. Ngongo used the words of the Samaritans in John 4:42 to describe the new situation facing believers in his country when he said, “It is no longer because of what you [missionaries] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”20
It is said of Ngongo that he was thoroughly committed to prayer. “When he encountered problems while chairing church meetings, he would brush his papers aside and declare, “It’s time to have a talk about all of this with our Father God” and invite all around the table to join him.”17 Ngongo David was a transformed man who remained committed to seeing the gospel continue to transform lives.
|Daniel Yoder and his wife, Heidi, live in Elnora, IN. A self-diagnosed bibliophile, he is an instructor at Elnora Bible Institute, where he teaches theology, apologetics, and Anabaptist history.|
1. Neff, Christian. “Bolt Eberli (d. 1525).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 2 Dec 2016.
2. Widner, Wes. “Defending the defenseless, setting the record straight on the Anabaptists.” Reason to Stand. 2010. Web. 2 Dec 2016.
3. Neff, Christian. “Elisabeth Dirks (d. 1549).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 28 Nov 2016.
4. Graves, Dan. “Elizabeth Dirks Drowned as Anabaptist.” Christianity.com. 2007. Web. 28 Nov 2016.
7. Neff, “Elisabeth Dirks (d. 1549).”
8. Loewen, Harry and Steven M. Nolt. Through Fire and Water. Rev. ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010. Pages 210-211.
9. Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Third edition. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993. Page 176.
11. Loewen and Nolt, p. 211-214.
13. Dyck, 176.
14. Toews, Paul. “Clayton Kratz: Went to Russia 1920.” Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. 2007. Web. 29 Nov 2016.
15. Bender, Harold S. “Kratz, Clayton (1896-1920).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 29 Nov 2016.
17. AIMM News Service. “David, Ngongo (d. 2004).” Mennonite Weekly Review obituary: 2004 Sep 6 p. 7. Web. 2 Jan 2017.
18. Bertsche, James E. and Richard D. Thiessen. “Congo, Democratic Republic of.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2011. Web. 2 Jan 2017.
19. AIMM News Service.
20. Quoted in Loewen and Nolt, p. 281.
21. AIMM News Service.