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A woodcut in the 17th-century Anabaptist Martyrs Mirror shows Dirk Willems, an early Dutch Mennonite, saving the life of a "thief-catcher" who has fallen through the ice on a lake. The "thief-catcher" had been pursuing Willems at a burgomaster's behest, to bring him to trial and execution for his Anabaptist beliefs. After his act of mercy, Willems was nonetheless recaptured (over the protests, the Mirror notes, of his rescued pursuer) and burned at the stake.

This story is intimately familiar to most Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren (the Amish still give the Martyrs Mirror as a wedding present). It celebrates their sense that to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, one must serve others as he did and taught. This sense of compassionate human responsibility has borne fruit in a long history of Anabaptist mutual aid and service ministries.

Fire-forged bonds

During the intense persecutions of the 16th and early 17th centuries, adherents drew together for protection and sustenance in close-knit communities. But after the persecutions ended, the tendency to act in concert persisted. In Europe, especially Russia, where Catherine the Great permitted Mennonites great freedom to develop their own way of life, Anabaptist agricultural communities operated as cooperatives, with equal distribution of arable land and commonly held animal herds. They also grew used to sharing the workload—an ethos demonstrated most visibly today in the traditional Amish barn raising. Such cooperative efforts have allowed the Mennonites and related groups to achieve what one writer has called "reasonable prosperity for the group rather than for only a few within the group."

In America, early Mennonites continued the practice of providing for persecuted ...

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