Elizabeth Dirks: Laying down her life for her friends


This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16)

The story is told that a single question set Elizabeth Dirks on a path that led to her execution.

At a young age, she heard about someone being executed for questioning the teachings of the church. Her question? What could make someone believe in something so deeply that they were willing to die rather than recant?

Already schooled in Latin, Elizabeth began to read the Bible to find the answer. The answer only lead to further questions about what she had been taught as she was raised in a convent in her native Netherlands.

Soon, she became convinced that those teachings were not in line with Scripture. She escaped the convent disguised as a milkmaid, and found refuge with Anabaptists. She attended worship with them, learned from them, and was baptized by them. It is even said that she discussed theology with Anabaptist Menno Simons.

Having discovered the truth, she could not keep it to herself. She began to teach others to such an extent that she is considered by some to be one of the first female ministers of the Reformation.

It was, perhaps, a short-lived career. It’s uncertain how much time had passed from her escape until she started her unapologetic teaching career, but her refusal to stay silent attracted the authorities who arrested her in 1549.

Under questioning, Elizabeth refused to tell the authorities the names of her students or the names of those who baptized her. She countered her interrogators’ thoughts on mass, church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper by quoting passages of Scripture.

The interrogators applied the screws to her fingernails until blood spurted out, and then crushed her leg bones in the same way. Left for dead, she awakened to tell her captors she was very much alive.

Seeing they would get nowhere with her, the authorities had her tied in a bag and drowned. Some sources say it was on May 27, 1549, and others suggest it was on March 27, 1549.

No matter the date, Elizabeth had maintained her faith through great pain. It would have been easy to give up the names of her students to possibly find relief, but it would not have been loving. It might have been simpler for her to leave the convent and keep a low profile, but it would not have been loving to not share the love of Christ.

When I read the stories of people like Elizabeth, I often have the same thought she did at first. What could make someone believe in something so deeply that they were willing to die rather than recant?

I do believe. I know Scripture. I seek the Lord, and worship with my church family. I try – not nearly as successfully as I would hope – to live a life that reflects Christ to the world.

But, is that enough to make me willing to die rather than recant?

Sometimes, I just pray along with the father who begged Jesus to heal his son, “I believe; help my unbelief!”


This is the 12th post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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