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The Martyr's Mirror

Die Blutige Schau-Platz

Ephrata, Pennsylvania 1748-1749

Der Blutige Schau-Platz : oder Martyrer-Spiegel der Tauffs Gesiñten oder Wehrlosen-Christen, Die um des Zeugnuss Jesu ihres Seligmachers willen gelitten haben, und seynd getödtet worden, von Christi Zeit an bis auf das Jahr 1660 / Vormals aus unterschiedlichen glaubwürdigen Chronicken, Nachrichten und Zeugnüssen gesammlet und in Holländischer Sprach heraus gegeben von T. J. V. Braght; Nun aber sorgfältigst ins Hochteutsche übersetzt und zum erstenmal ans Licht gebracht.

The Bloody theater or martyr's mirror of the baptist-minded [i.e., Anabaptists] or defenseless Christians who have suffered in witness of Jesus their Savior and have been killed since Christ’s time up to the year 1660/ formerly gathered from various trustworthy chronicles, reports and testimonies and published here in the Dutch language by T. J. V. Braght; now most carefully translated into German and for the first time published.

This is, at 1512 pages, the largest book printed in colonial America. It is also a monument to the strength and faith of those members of the Mennonite community who commissioned the book, and it is a triumph of craftsmanship. How did it come to be printed by a small cloistered community at a place then on the frontier of European settlement?

Among the first settlers in William Penn's new colony were a group of families, led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, who arrived in 1683 from Crefeld in western Germany. During the next 80 years there were successive waves, many from the Electoral Palatinate higher up the Rhine, of German immigration to Pennsylvania. These people often are subsumed under the name Palatines.

Many of the people in the early groups of immigrants to Pennsylvania belonged to Anabaptist sects, especially to the Mennonites. They were the descendants of groups which had developed in central and western Europe, notably in Switzerland and in the Netherlands, and which had suffered greatly in the 16th and 17th centuries for their beliefs.

Anabaptists owe the name to their belief in baptism of believers - baptism not of infants, but of people old enough to understand what baptism meant to them. The word means baptized again - for early on many who had been baptized as infants were again baptized as adults. In German they were often called Wiedertaufer, with the same meaning. They believed, and do believe, in keeping church and state separated; they were, and are, pacifists, not wishing to bear arms against others - Mennonites often referred to themselves as wehrlose christenen, defenseless Christians; and they refused to swear oaths.

Many of their beliefs frightened and angered others - because they did not fit into main-stream beliefs and, perhaps, because others feared having in their communities people with these unorthodox ideas. As has too often happened, people thinking outside the box suffered.

Anabaptists were persecuted both by the Catholic church and by other Protestant groups. The worst persecution began during the 1520's in Switzerland - Zurich, Geneva, Berne, and Basel - and in the Netherlands. During the 16th century Anabaptists were executed by the thousands - by the sword, by burning, by drowning (sometimes sneeringly called the third baptism). They were tortured and they were imprisoned under appalling conditions. They were sold as galley slaves to the Republic of Venice. At the very least, they lost their property and possessions and had to flee, the Swiss usually going down the Rhine; their descendants were among the German-speakers who came, looking for freedom, to Pennsylvania.

This past and their knowledge of it was an integral part of their heritage. In 1562 there was printed anonymously in the Netherlands Het Offer des Heeren (Sacrifice to the Lord) which gave the stories of 21 Dutch Mennonite martyrs and included songs about them. By the end of the century at least 10 more enlarged editions had been printed and during the next 30 years other books of martyrs were printed. In 1631 was published in Haarlem in the Netherlands Martelaers-Spiegel der werelose Christenen t'zedert anno 1524 - Martyr's mirror of the defenseless Christians from 1524 to the tune of 864 pages, not counting the introduction and forward. Here for the first time martyr's mirror is in the title.

Thirty years later (1660) a young Dutch clergyman, Tieleman Jansz van Braght, published at Dordrecht, also in the Netherlands, Het Bloedig Toneel der Doops-gesinde En Weereloose Christenen - The bloody theater of Anabaptists and defenseless Christians. van Braght says in the preface that he had set out to edit the book of 1631 and to add a little new material, but soon felt that he needed to do an entire rewriting of it. This book was commonly known in Dutch as the Martelaersspiegel or Martyr's Mirror. This is the great martyrs book of Anabaptist groups and still is being read - in German - only a few miles from where this is being written.

By fifty years after the founding of Pennsylvania (1683) the Anabaptist presence had spread and there were established Mennonite communities in modern Montgomery, Bucks, Berks, and Lancaster counties in southeastern Pennsylvania. They had built communities and good lives but were troubled by two things. Older people feared that their children and grandchildren had lost touch with the knowledge of their past. They had van Braght's book, but younger people could not read Dutch.

The other concern was with conditions nearby and in Europe. Since the late 17th century England and France had fought several "small" wars for dominance in Europe and control of the most profitable colonies. Several of these wars had both a European and an American phase, the American phase usually involving Indians who adhered to one side or the other; the best-known American phase would be the French and Indian Wars of 1755-1763. In general - not always though - Indians were allies of the French.

England's over-all pattern of colonization was built upon the harvesting of both natural resources and of crops, these grown often in plantation agriculture. Settlers were needed to do the work; the raw materials collected went to England and then were returned to the colonists as more expensive manufactured goods. France, at least in North America, was concerned with natural resources - notably the fur trade - and settlement ran a distant second. Trading posts, yes; settlement, not really. This approach was far more acceptable to the Indians who feared westward expansion of the English-settled colonies.

William Penn had worked hard at dealing honorably with the Indians, something his heirs did to a much lesser extent, and both English and German settlers in Pennsylvania feared that war might come nearly to their door-steps. How could young people not familiar with the Mennonite heritage of non-resistance deal with such situations?

So, in 1742 representatives of the Mennonite community at Skippack in Montgomery County, northwest of Philadelphia, wrote to the Mennonite community in Amsterdam asking about having van Braght's book translated into German. There was no reply so they wrote again in October 1745 asking what it would cost to have the book translated and to have 1000 copies printed. The Skippack people also had gone to the well-known printer, Christopher Saur (Sauer), in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia) with the same questions.

Saur had recently produced the first German bible printed in America, but felt that he could not take on a job of that size and suggested that the Skippackers should approach Conrad Beisel's cloistered community near Ephrata in Lancaster County. Beisel was a charismatic character who in 1732 had founded, with a small group of followers, a Sabbatarian commune on the Cocalico Creek near modern Ephrata in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania - to put it into perspective, it is about 130 miles north of Washington, DC.

By the middle of the 1740's the commune had both a paper mill and a print shop. Ephrata had also a remarkable member, Peter Miller, who would be there for nearly sixty years; he was a graduate of the university at Heidelberg and was said to know eight languages.

Two men from Skippack, Henry Funk and Dielman Kolb, went up to Ephrata and arrived at an opportune time. The community had just gone through a period of turmoil and soul-searching about what many members saw as too great an interest in profit-making; this resulted in a greater work load which left less time for prayer and meditation. The commune had two gristmills, a mill for linseed oil, a sawmill, a fulling mill, the paper mill, the print shop and a tannery. However a return to greater spirituality had begun and the brethren wished that to continue.

An agreement was reached. The Ephrata Brethren, who "did not propose to get rich", pledged to do their best job; the Mennonites promised to buy the books at a reasonable price if the quality of the translation and of the workmanship suited them. Not a bad deal - especially since they had no word from Amsterdam until February, 1748. The word when it came was that Amsterdam could not help - too expensive. The Dutch recommendation was that the Americans translate a few of the best stories and have the young people copy them out.


Part of the Ephrata Cloisters today

Peter Miller, who would years later translate the Declaration of Independence into the languages of European courts, started translating van Braght. Miller said that it took him three years of near day and night work. The paper makers started stock-piling; ink was produced, about 400 gallons of it, made of lamp-black, linseed oil, oak galls, and the fruit of Phytolacca americana (pokeberries); and boards of white oak were cut to be seasoned for the bindery. Funk and Kolb stayed at Ephrata, proofreading every page as it came off the press. By 1751 most of the books had been printed and sewn and were ready for purchase and binding. The press-run is said to have been either 1200 or 1300.

In September of 1753 Israel Acrelius, a Swedish pastor who spent several years in Pennsylvania, went with George Ross of Lancaster (later a signer of the Declaration of Independence) to visit Ephrata. Acrelius says that 700 copies had "been circulated" at a price of 22 shillings each, although most other sources put the price at 20 shillings. It's not easy to compare those 20 shillings with this year's dollars, but, to give some idea, in 1759 the price of a bushel of wheat at Lancaster, Pennsylvania was 8 shillings.

After Acrelius' mention of the book it drops out of sight for 20 plus years. It may be that the 700 hundred copies sold by 1753 had filled the immediate needs of the market and that the rate of sales had dropped off. Information about the Martyr's Mirror appears again in Chronicon Ephratense, a history of the community published in 1789. Here appears the well-known story of Continental troops coming in 1776 to Ephrata and going off with 2 wagonloads of unbound copies, the paper to be used to make gun cartridges.

For the flintlock muskets of the time a cartridge was a charge of powder and a musket ball wrapped together in paper. The user tore open the cartridge with his teeth, poured a little powder into the pan, and dumped the rest, and the ball, and the paper down the barrel to be seated by the ramrod. It did make reloading a bit faster. The story continues that the troops were reluctant to use the books for this purpose and that most of the copies were returned to Ephrata. There the story stopped.

Amazingly the story was continued in 1985 when a copy of the Martyr's Mirror turned up in a used bookshop in Indiana. It was bought by a man, himself Amish, who is very interested in Anabaptist history. On the flyleaf is a note, in German, written by Joseph von Gundy, born near Ephrata in 1751. von Gundy wrote that the book in which he was writing was one of those which had come back from Philadelphia. He also stated that 150 or a few more copies were used for cartridges, but that soldiers then stopped using them - their own conscience told them that it had not been printed for such a purpose.

The government offered to return the remaining books if it was paid for them and for the "shipping and handling". von Gundy says, This we did, sending them payment in 1786 when Congress money was worth so little that this book unbound did not cost me over four shillings and six pence … He continues that 175 books were returned although many of them were damaged. Fortunately his copy was complete.

After the fighting stopped the great westward movement of Americans began. Joseph von Gundy himself ended up in Harrison County, Ohio. It is easy to imagine a Mennonite family preparing to go off to the new country, but not leaving the old until a copy of the Martyr's Mirror, perhaps one of those returned in 1786, had been bought at Ephrata and packed up. When the last copy was sold at Ephrata we do not know. The community existed in some form until 1934, but there seem to be no remaining records of its sales.

The Physical Book

A copy of Die Blutige Schau-Platz should have 1512 pages in 2 separately paginated parts. The first part, dated 1748 on the title page, deals with Christian martyrdom from the time of Christ to 1500, with a few later martyrs in the last chapter. The second part, dated 1749 on the title page, deals with those, nearly all of them Anabaptists, martyred during the 16th and 17th - up to 1660 - centuries. At the end is a statement from the Mennonites endorsing the correctness of the translation of text into German.

titlepage binding

the first title page & hand made corner pieces on leather-covered oak boards

There were several later printings/editions. In 1780 it was reprinted in Germany at Pirmasens in the Palatinate. The first reprinting in America was by Joseph Ehrenfried at Lancaster in 1814 and the book was first translated into English in 1837, also at Lancaster. The Martyr's Mirror is now easily available in English, both in print and even on-line, from translations made from the Dutch original.

The Martyr's Mirror is all home-grown - the need for the book, and the capability at Ephrata to produce every bit of it - the translation, the paper, the ink, the oak boards, and the Ephrata tannery's leather to cover them. To have in front of you a Martyr's Mirror from Ephrata is to have there a remarkable piece of colonial history.

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