These men died for what most of us don't particularly care about. They were the smart ones.
Initially, all the monks at St. Augustine's Monastery in Antwerp confessed Luther's teachings, but all but three- Esch, Voes, and the prior, one Lampertus Thorn- recanted when the Bishop of Cambrai had them arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated. The three who remained steadfast were condemned to death and sent to Brussels for execution.
Thorn asked for an additional four days to study the Scriptures with regard to the matter; his request was granted.
Thorn's ultimate fate is unclear. Various sources state that he, too, was burned at the end of those four days after preaching an eloquent sermon at the stake; this seems doubtful since the authorities were not even willing to let the charges against Esch and Voes be read aloud lest hearers be contaminated by Luther's doctrine and would be even less likely to permit a sermon on it to be given four days later. Others imply that he was executed in 1528; still others claim that he died in prison that year, perhaps being murdered. In any event, Luther is said to have written him the following letter of consolation, which he may or may not have actually received:
Grace and peace in the Lord! Christ, who is with you my dear brother Lambert, bears witness within me that you have need of my comfort neither by word, nor by writing. For He suffers and is glorified; He is captive and reigns; He suffers violence and nevertheless triumphs in and with you, having made you just and holy, through the knowledge of Himself, which is hidden from the world, but which He has so richly bestowed upon you.
Thereby you are not only strengthened inwardly by His Spirit in your affliction, but also by the true, salutary example of the two brothers, Heinrich [Voes] and Johannes [Esch] at Brussels in the year 1523 due to constant confession of divine truth.
Thus both you and they are to me greatly comforting, indeed a sweet savor to the whole of Christendom, and are to the Gospel of Christ a wonderful adornment and jewel. How would it be for me that I should weigh you down with my cold, feeble consolation? And who knows why the Lord did not permit you to perish with those two. Perhaps He spared you that He might do some mighty work through you.
Therefore I am sincerely refreshed, and rejoice with you, with thanks to the faithful Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given me not only to confess his Word, and graciously granted to taste the first-fruits of his Spirit; but also has left for me to experience and see in the three of you such a rich, glorious prosperity of His grace.|
I might deem this a misfortune, by which one says: I was the first to bring this doctrine to the light of day, for the confessing of which these two were burned, and you are now imprisoned. But in that I consider myself not worthy for the latter, that I such persecution and tribulation as you three (and God be praised! that others have not suffered and endured) will nevermore be found worthy to suffer persecution and disgrace for the sake of Christ’s name and Word.
Nevertheless, I shall comfort myself thus — that your bonds are my bonds, your prison my prison, and your fire my fire. In addition, I shall preach and confess indeed publicly before the ungodly evil world, princes and angels just the Word: for whom those two were burned, and you are imprisoned and bound: wherefore I also suffer along with you and rejoice.
But the Lord Jesus, who has begun the good work in you, will perform it until the day of His wonderful and joyous appearing, Phil. 1:6. Pray for me, as I do for you, and remember you do not suffer alone, but He who says, Psalms 91:14, “I will be with him in trouble; he shall call upon me, and 1 will answer him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name, I will protect him.” Indeed, we all, together with the Lord, are with you, therefore you are not abandoned. But await the Lord, be strong and courageous, and await the Lord, Ps. 27:14, who said: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world, John 16:33.
Do not dispute with Satan, but turn your eyes to the Lord. Be firmly rooted upon the pure faith, and never doubt that we shall be justified and saved through the precious blood of Christ, the spotless Lamb of God. So little are our works and human commandments able to take away sin and make us just: so also neither condemn nor make guilty for some sin.
Here in our Elector’s land is good peace, God be praised. The Duke of Bavaria and Bishop of Trier cause many to be slain, and banish some. Other bishops and princes are indeed not bloodhounds; nevertheless they torment their people with threatenings, and do them great harm. So Christ is now again become the reproach of men, and despised of the people, Psalm 22:7, which also you were made a member of by the holy calling of our Father in heaven, and may He also perfect this call in you to the honor of His Word and name, Amen.
All our people greet you, especially Jakob Probst and the brothers of Antwerp, and commend themselves to your prayers. At Wittenberg, Tuesday after St. Anthony’s, 1524.
The other monks were released after recanting but the monastery was closed and later demolished. The last sentence of Luther's letter may imply that some of them subsequently fled to Wittenberg.
Esch and Voes were asked whether they had been "seduced" by Martin Luther. Yes, they replied- in the same way that the apostles had been seduced by Jesus! This did not go over very well with the inquisitors. They went to their deaths joyfully. As mentioned earlier, the charges against Esch and Voes were not read at the place of execution, probably out of fear that word of Luther's teachings might be spread by their mere public acknowledgment.
Esch and Voes were the first martyrs of the Reformation. When word of their deaths reached Luther at Wittenberg, he was moved to write his very first hymn, "A New Song Now Shall Be Begun, in their memory:
As July begins, so it ends. Or almost ends. On July 30, 1540, Robert Barnes- another Augustinian alumnus who had served Henry VIII as a diplomat in negotiations with Lutheran rulers he had become acquainted with through his personal friendship with Luther- was burned by Henry the same day two Catholic priests were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason in refusing to acknowledge the king's title as head of the Church in England. It seemed that Henry was determined to be even-handed as well as heavy-handed in making the point that he would brook no opposition to his status as sole theological arbiter of the realm.
Barnes, who was noted for his knowledge of Scripture, had begun by speaking out against the greed and worldliness of his fellow clergy, something which did nothing to make him popular among them. He was converted to Lutheranism by Thomas Bilney and arrested for heresy. Initially recanting his beliefs, he staged a fake suicide and fled to the Continent where he was a guest in Luther's home.
Returning to England under the protection of Thomas Cromwell, Barnes received back into the king's favor because Henry desired Luther's approval of his divorce from Queen Catherine. But Luther's response was negative. Barnes continued to serve as a diplomat for Henry until Cromwell fell from favor when Anne of Cleves, whose marriage to Henry Cromwell had arranged, displeased the king. Interestingly, Barnes appears as a character in the episode of the 1970 miniseries "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" dealing with Anne of Cleves, in which he was portrayed- probably accurately- as a pious and learned but tactless and rash man with the habit of speaking when he might better have remained silent.
According to historian Jasper Ridley, Sir Thomas More, Henry's chancellor, played a leading role in sending Barnes to the stake, accusing him not only of heresy but also of sedition for saying that if the king was to order a subject to violate God's law it was the subject's duty to obey God rather than man- ironically, the very belief which would ultimately cost More his head, although More would at first try to save by remaining silent rather than either expressing approval or disapproval of Henry's claim to be head of the Church in England, and spoke his mind only after being condemned. Barnes, for his part, had said plainly that if the King ordered him to burn a Bible, he would refuse.
Barnes plainly confessed the doctrine of justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith at the sake, and died with great courage.
The Lutheran Service Book- the current hymnal of my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod- includes in its calendar the commemoration of Barnes on July 30. Oddly, the deaths of Esch, Voes, and other significant Lutheran martyrs remain unobserved. In any case, in a day when people are apt to take their faith for granted, to be relatively uninformed about the contents of the Bible or what their churches even believe, and to be easily led away from the Faith through a combination of ignorance and a lack of real commitment to the substance of Christianity, it's probably more important now than ever to bring to remembrance those in the past whose priorities were in better order and who were willing to die for precious truths so many in our churches barely know and lightly value.