Dirk Willems was arrested in his hometown of Asperen, Netherlands in 1569. His crime – choosing to be re-baptized as a devoted follower of Christ and hosting worship services in his home – was completely unacceptable to the religious and governmental leaders of his day. The young Dutchman was carted off to a palace that had been converted into a prison to stand trial alongside other religious “troublemakers.”
While in captivity, Willems was routinely interrogated and told to renounce his faith in Christ. His refusal angered his captors who decreased the already meager daily rations Dirk received. Between the shortage of food and the blistering cold of winter, Willems knew his only chance to live was escape.
He hatched a plan and put it into place. Fashioning a makeshift rope out of strips of cloth, Willems used it to let himself down the castle wall onto the icy moat below. Unfortunately, as he ran away from the palace, he was spotted by one of the guards who sounded the alarm and then gave pursuit.
Heart racing, Dirk made his way through nearby thickets and fields until he came to the edge of the Hondegat, a pond that was still covered by a thin layer of ice from winter. He knew the risk of venturing out onto the ice: he could crash through it and drown in the freezing waters below. However, the guard drawing ever closer gave him zero chance of survival…so he chose the ice.
Dirk made his way across the surface of the frozen pond as carefully as he could. The limited rations he’d endured through his imprisonment had caused him to lose weight, so he was able to safely cross the lake. His pursuer was not as successful. The large man trekking across the ice already weakened by Willems suddenly sank through the brittle surface wearing his heavy garb and gear. Flailing his arms in terror, the man called out for help.
Dirk Willems was now confronted with a life-and-death dilemma. If he continued his escape, he would live, but the guard would surely die. If he returned to help, the guard would live, but then he’d be recaptured and sentenced to death. Knowing that he’d once been an enemy of Christ’s who’d received Heaven’s mercy, Willems carefully returned to the middle of the pond where his pursuer was fighting for his life.
Dirk was able to pull the man from the frigid waters and drag him to the safety. By that time, however, other guards had arrived on the scene and Dirk was once again taken into custody. Back in prison, he was condemned to death for his faith in Christ and sentenced to be “executed with fire, until death ensues, [with] all his property confiscated for the benefit of his royal majesty.”
On May 16, 1569, Dirk Willems was chained to the stake in front of the townspeople and set on fire. Windy conditions meant that the flames kept dying out, making Willems’ death long and miserable. Finally, one of the officials could stand his awful suffering no more, and ordered a guard to quickly end Dirk’s life.
Because of his compassion, Dirk lost his life. Because of Christ’s compassion, Dirk kept his soul.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)