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Thieleman J. van Braght

(1625-1664), Dutch Mennonite elder and author

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Thieleman Jansz van Braght was born 29 January 1625 in Dordrecht, and died 7 October 1664. His father, like Thieleman van Braght himself, was a cloth merchant. The boy showed great talent. He applied himself at first to a study of languages and learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and German. In 1648 he was made preacher in his home town, and served in that office for 16 years, until his death. He was a warm defender of Mennonite principles, engaged in disputes on the streets, on ships, or wherever the occasion offered itself. One of his best-known disputes was that with Gerardus Aemilius, the Reformed pastor of Oud-Beyerland, chiefly on the subject of infant baptism. Van Braght's knowledge, learning, skill in the Scriptures were clearly shown on this occasion.

Van Braght played an important role in the difficulties that developed in Holland about 1660 between the more progressive and the conservative Mennonites. He was completely on the side of the conservatives. The conservatives offered him the eldership of their Rotterdam congregation, but he declined it. In Utrecht he helped to depose the more progressive preachers, among them Willem van Maurik. Van Braght was the chairman of the Synod of Leiden of June 1660, where the conservative Mennonites united against Collegiantism. In 1657 van Braght published his School der zedelijke deugd (School of Moral Virtue) to deter the young people from unvirtuous living and lead them to the true fear of God. This little work went through 18 editions. But he became more famous for his publication of the Martyrs' Mirror. The first edition appeared in 1660, the second in 1685 with copper engravings by Jan Luiken. The foreword of his first edition indicates his original plan to print the martyr book of 1631 without change, merely adding martyrs who had been discovered since that date; but he went much further. He gathered much information from city archives and made successful use of it. He also visited the congregations in South Germany. He was thus able to replace erroneous reports with correct ones, and did not hesitate to publish what had been hitherto uncertain or unknown.

According to modern standards his method of work was not scholarly; he accepted and published whole articles without checking their accuracy, and was historically inexact. His preferences and aversions also played a part. It must not be forgotten that he wrote for the purpose of edifying. But on the whole he can be considered reliable; nowhere is there intentional falsification. His reliability was thoroughly established by the late Samuel Cramer (DB 1899 and 1900). His work soon superseded the older martyr books. The Offer des Heeren, first published in 1562, as well as the other martyr books, was no longer widely known in the 18th century. A glance at the new edition of the Offer des Heeren (1904) shows how much of it van Braght used, but also that he altered it independently. His treatment of baptism, for instance, which he added for each century, is quite extensive and independent.

As a preacher van Braght was widely celebrated. The sermons which his brother published (51 Predicatien, over verscheyde Schriftuerplaetsen, Amsterdam, 1670, with portrait) are, to be sure, not the best that he produced. Thieleman van Braght also wrote some hymns; a few of them are inserted in the songbook of Klaas Stapel, Lusthof des Gemoeds (1681).

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In 1660, Dutch Mennonite Thieleman J. van Braght published this immense and beautifully crafted collection of the stories and testimonies of Christian martyrs from the preceding seventeen centuries, focusing mostly on Anabaptists, or Christians who practiced nonresistance. The stories can at times be dreadful, but the letters written to family members, the professions of faith in the midst of certain death, and the staunch preparedness for persecution have served as an inspiration for thousands of Christians over the centuries. The book documents the stories of some 4,011 martyrs, who chose to die for their faith with the promise of resurrection before them – something many of us cannot even imagine. This is a book that inspires us to keep the faith and believe steadfastly in the call Christ makes upon us: to take up our crosses, and follow Him.

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