On July 1, 1523- 478 years ago tomorrow- the first martyrs of the Reformation, Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, were burned at the stake in Brussels, Belgium for teaching the biblical doctrine that faith alone justifies.
Esch and Voes were Augustinian monks, as Martin Luther himself had been, and counted the Gospel more precious than their lives. When Luther heard the news, he wrote his very first hymn, A New Song Now Shall Be Begun, to commemorate their deaths:
1. A new song now shall be begun,
Lord, help us raise the banner
Of praise for all that God has done,
For which we give Him honour.
At Brussels in the Netherlands
God proved himself most truthful
And poured his gifts from open hands
On two lads, martyrs youthful
Through whom He showed His power.
2. One was named John, a name to show
He stood in God’s high favour.
His brother Henry, well we know,
Was salt of truest savour.
This world they now have left behind
And wear bright crowns of glory.
These sons of God had fixed the mind
Upon the Gospel story,
For which they died as martyrs.
3. From where the Foe in ambush lay,
He sent to have them taken
To force them God’s Word to betray
And make their faith be shaken.
Louvain sent clever men, who came
In twisting nets to break them.
Hard played they at their crooked game,
But from faith could not shake them.
God make their tricks look foolish.
4. Oh, they sang sweet, and they sang sour,
They tried all their devices.
The youths stood firmly like a tow’r
And overcame each crisis.
In filled the Foe with raging hate
To know himself defeated
By these two lads, and he so great.
His rage flared high, and heated
His plan to see them burning.
5. Their cloister-garments off they tore,
Took off their consecrations;
All this the youths were ready for,
They said Amen with patience.
They gave to God the Father thanks
That He would them deliver
From Satan’s scoffing and the pranks
That make men quake and shiver
When he comes masked and raging.
6. The God they worshipped granted them
A priesthood in Christ’s order.
They offered up themselves to Him
And crossed His kingdom’s border
By dying to the world outright,
With ev’ry falsehood breaking.
They came to heaven pure and white;
All monkery forsaking,
They turned away from evil.
7. A paper given them to sign -
And carefully they read it -
Spelled out their faith in ev’ry line
As they confessed and said it.
Their greatest fault was to be wise
And say, “We trust God solely,
For human wisdom is all lies,
We should distrust it wholly.”
This brought them to the burning.
8. Then two great fires were set alight,
While men amazed did ponder
The sight of youths who showed no fright;
Their calm filled men with wonder.
They stepped into the flames with song.
God’s grace and glory praising.
The logic choppers puzzled long
But found these new thing dazing
Which God was here displaying.
9. They now regret their deed of shame,
Would like to slough it over;
They dare not glory in their blame,
But put it under cover.
They feel their gnawing infamy,
Their friends hear them deplore it.
God’s spirit cannot silent be,
But on Cain’s guilty forehead
He marks the blood of Abel.
10. The ashes of the lads remain
And scatter to all places.
They rise from roadway, street, and lane
To mark the guilty faces.
The Foe had used a bloody hand
To keep these voices quiet,
But they resist in ev’ry land
The Foe’s rage and defy it.
The ashes go on singing.
11. And yet men still keep up their lies
To justify the killing;
The Foe with falsehood ever tries
To give the guilt clean billing.
Since these young martyrs’ holy death
Men still continue trying
To say, the youths with their last breath
Renounced their faith when dying
And finally recanted.
12. Let men heap falsehoods all around,
Their sure defeat is spawning.
We thank our God the Word is found,
We stand in its bright dawning.
Our summer now is at the door,
The winter’s frost has ended,
Soft buds the flowers more and more,
By our dear Gard’ner tended
Until He reaps His harvest.
tr. F. Samuel Janzow (1913-2001)
The hymn also appears in The Lutheran Hymnal and elsewhere as Flung To the Heedless Winds.