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The Martyrs: Esch and Voes

May 12, 2016 2 Comments

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by Mathew Block

On July 1, 1523, two Augustinian monks were burned at the stake in Brussels. Their crime? They were Lutheran.

A year earlier, in 1522, Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes and the other monks at the Monastery in Antwerp had declared their adherence to the teachings of Martin Luther and the other Evangelical reformers: that the Scriptures were authoritative even over church tradition, and that bishops—including the pope—were themselves subject to the authority of Scripture. They further held that bishops should exercise spiritual authority—to preach the Word of God—rather than the prince-like powers many bishops exercised. They also rejected the then-common practice of selling indulgences.

These were dangerous opinions to hold in the early sixteenth century. In short order, the Bishop of Cambrai had all the monks of Antwerp arrested. The Dominican theologian Jacob van Hoogstraten and several professors from the University of Louvain served as interrogators. Under threat of execution, all but three of these monks recanted: Voes, Esch, and a third named Lampertus Thorn.

These three were brought to Brussels from their prison in Vilvorde so that they might be burned at the stake. When they arrived, Thorn asked for additional time to consider his beliefs—and he was granted a reprieve. Esch and Voes, however, remained steadfast in their faith, and so they were led out to the market square to be executed. Asked one last time to recant, they answered, “We will die as Christians and for the truth of the Gospel.”

We will die as Christians and for the truth of the Gospel.

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An early woodcut of the martyrdom of Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes.

As the fire rose around them, they confessed their faith again and again in the words of the Apostle’s Creed. Then they sang the Te Deum until, as one author puts it, “at last the fire choked their voices, and there remained of them nothing but ashes.”

It may seem an ignominious end for these early Belgian adopters of the Reformation. Even their former monastery did not survive: it was considered corrupted and subsequently demolished. Voes and Esch’s witness to the truth of the Reformation was brought to an abrupt conclusion.

And yet, their message lived on, encouraging others. Though he wavered for a time, Thorn later affirmed the faith that Esch and Voes had professed with their blood. Some say Thorn was executed a few days after Esch and Voes. Others—including Luther—seem to suggest he remained imprisoned indefinitely because of his faith. But even in that situation, Thorn, together with Esch and Voes, became a symbol for steadfastness in the faith. In a letter to Thorn, Luther writes that “you and [Esch and Voes] have been a great comfort to me, and a sweet savour to all Christendom, and a glorious ornament to the gospel of Christ.”

It can be hard to think of execution as a “sweet savour.” And yet it is true: the death of the saints reminds us that our God is greater than death—indeed, that He has defeated death. So it is that the death of Esch and Voes would inspire repentance in the lives of their former brothers at the monastery in Antwerp. Jacobus Probst, for example, had recanted in the face of the Inquisition. He later repented and threw himself with new vigour behind the cause of the Reformation, drawing strength from the witness of Esch and Voes

It can be hard to think of execution as a “sweet savour.” And yet it is true: the death of the saints reminds us that our God is greater than death—indeed, that He has defeated death.

Their story went on to encourage other Christians too, thanks in part to a ballad Luther wrote commemorating their martyrdom. One English translation puts part of the song this way: “Flung to the heedless winds / Or on the waters cast, / The martyrs’ ashes, watched, / Shall gathered be at last. / And from that scattered dust, / Around us and abroad, / Shall spring a plenteous seed / Of witnesses for God.”

Truly it is said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” These Belgian Lutherans’ witness to Christ, sealed with their blood, is a testimony both to their faith and to the God who inspires such faith. Their blood ultimately points us back to Christ, whose blood wins salvation for all who believe in Him—and who strengthens us to confess His name even when persecution comes.

May the faith of Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes continue to encourage Lutherans today as we remember just how great a prize has been won for us by Christ. It is a prize worth more than any comfort in this world. May we live in the light of this truth!

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Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada.

  • Thanks for this encouraging article. And it is more than encouraging; hearing about the faith and steadfastness of our forefathers in the faith is emboldening.

    They call to us, ‘Your timid footsteps lengthen;
    Throw off sin’s weight, your halting weakness strengthen.’ (LSB 667:3a)

  • revrobertwaters

    I’m glad to see that at long last Robert Barnes has been added to the commemorations in the Lutheran Service Book. Esch and Voes should be there, too.