The Amish - From Old World to New

The history of the Amish is a fascinating story, from the Anabaptist beginnings and persecution in Europe in the 1500’s, to the emergence of the Amish in 1693, their arrival in the New World, and the various conflicts with the State that have taken place since that time. In this series, we will try to give you a brief overview of some of the important parts of the Amish story.


Part One: The Anabaptist Forefathers Part Three: From Europe to America

Part One: The Anabaptist Forefathers

Inflation, poverty, problems in the cities, over-population, religious disputes, threats to government stability, wars, problems between church and state...

While this may sound like a list of problems from our world today, it was also the world of 16th century Europe. In 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther challenged the authority and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. A new invention, the printing press, and the support of many German princes helped to spread Luther’s ideas.

Ulrich Zwingli, a Protestant priest in Zurich, Switzerland, taught "salvation by grace through faith alone." But some followers were troubled by Zwingli’s alliance with the City Council. Zwingli felt God’s Kingdom on earth should be established by political power. However, some of his followers believed that church reform should not come from the government, but that the church and state should be separate. They believed in pacifism and adult baptism. The Council demanded that these dissenters stop their meetings and baptize their children. Indeed, infant baptism was the main way authorities knew of the birth of children for their tax purposes.

On January 21, 1525, they secretly met and re-baptized each other to signify their adult commitment to their faith, and a Church not part of the State. Their radical acts challenged the unity and authority of both, and their refusal to serve in the military was a distinct threat to the city’s safety.

The results? They were hunted down, asked to recant, had their children taken, were threatened, exiled, tortured, sold into slavery, branded, burned at the stake, drowned, or dismembered. A book of some 1200 pages was printed in the year 1660 in Holland to preserve the stories of hundreds of these Anabaptists (re-baptizers) who chose to suffer rather than to resist. This book, known as the MARTYRS MIRROR, is still found in many Amish homes today.

Of the hundreds of stories, perhaps the most profound is that of Dirck Willems. Pursued by an Anabaptist hunter across frozen water, his captor fell through the ice. Willems, rather than escaping, returned to save his captor’s life. Willems, however, was taken into custody and later burned at the stake.

The Anabaptist faith of these Swiss Brethren spread from Switzerland to Germany and the Netherlands. In the following years, thousands of these Anabaptists were put to death by both Protestants and Catholics, who viewed their ideas as dangerous thinking. These experiences ingrained in them a suspicion of the world and government, as well as humility and a belief in separateness from and denial of the violence around them. They were forced to worship in hiding, in each other’s homes, sometimes in caves. A story from the Martyrs Mirror tells of a ferryman who allowed the Anabaptists to hold secret worship services on his boat. He was caught and condemned to death for allowing these activities.

To this day, the Amish do not have churches in which to worship, but do so in each other’s homes, just like the early Anabaptists. For them the church is not so much a building, as a community of believers. Thus, a neighbor’s home or barn, filled with benches, becomes the "church" for that Sunday’s worship service. Weddings and funerals take place in the home as well. There are now over 100 church districts in the Lancaster Amish settlement. These are geographic areas, and people in each district take turns having church in each other’s homes. Benches, hymnbooks, and other items needed for worship are transported from one house to another in each district by means of a bench wagon, pulled by horses. The Amish church services unify the community, the home, and the family through the act of worship.

Click here to examine the stories and images from the Martyrs Mirror online.

Part Two: The Amish and Mennonites Emerge

The Anabaptist faith began in Zurich, Switzerland on January 21, 1525. A group of Christians, in defiance of the established church, met secretly and re-baptized each other to signify their adult commitment to their faith, and a Church not part of the State. Their radical acts challenged the unity and authority of both, and their refusal to serve in the military was a distinct threat to the city’s safety.

Thousands were killed for their beliefs at a time when the separation of Church and State was viewed as a subversive idea. Nevertheless, as Anabaptism spread into other parts of Europe, the Anabaptist leaders felt a need to meet and record their beliefs in adult baptism, discipline by and within the church, the doctrine of non-resistance, etc. The Dutch Anabaptist document of 1632 known as the DORDRECHT CONFESSION remains to this day as the key statement of Amish "doctrine."

Some of the imprisoned Anabaptists set to writing hymns in their cells. These were soon printed and, with the addition of others, became the AUSBUND, the hymnbook still used by the Amish today. Some 400 years have passed since these words were written. Still sung by the Amish today at worship, they are reminder of the hardships and sacrifices endured by their forefathers...

We wander in the forest dark,
With dogs upon our track;
And like the silent, captive lamb
Men bring us, prisoners, back.
They point to us amid the throng,
And with their taunts offend;
And long to let the sharpened ax
On heretics descend.


The greatest of the Anabaptist writers was former Dutch Catholic priest Menno Simons. From his name, the followers later became known as Mennists and Mennonites. Simons wrote of the need to avoid or shun some of the Anabaptists who had opted for violence in spreading their views. Of his life he wrote...

"For 18 years now I, my poor feeble wife, and little children have endured extreme anxiety, oppression, affliction, misery and persecution; and at the peril of my life have been compelled everywhere to live in fear and seclusion. Yea, while the State ministers rest on beds of ease and soft pillows, we generally have to hide ourselves; while they appear at weddings and banquets with pipe and lute, we must be on guard when dogs bark lest the captors be at hand; while they have large incomes and easy times, our pay is fire, sword, and death."

By the late 1600’s, disagreements arose in the church over reforms, shunning, and church discipline. An Anabaptist elder born in Switzerland, Jakob Ammann, and his followers ended up breaking away in 1693. This conservative faction later became known as the Amish.

In time, many of the Anabaptists, both Amish and Mennonites, settled in the area of the Palatinate in Germany, and Alsace-Lorraine. For many, however, the guarantee of religious freedom would only be found in a New World, across the Atlantic Ocean, in an American colony known as "Penn’s Woods."

Part Three: From Europe to America

The Anabaptist faith began in Zurich, Switzerland on January 21, 1525. A group of Christians, in defiance of the established church, met secretly and re-baptized each other to signify their adult commitment to their faith, and a Church not part of the State. Their radical acts challenged the unity and authority of both, and their refusal to serve in the military was a distinct threat to the city’s safety.

These Swiss Brethren, the forefathers of the Amish and the Mennonites, were killed by the thousands for their beliefs. Nevertheless, Anabaptism spread into other parts of Europe. But persecution, wars, and instability in Europe created the desire for people of various Christian faiths, the desire for a place where they could live in freedom and worship in peace.

William Penn, an English Quaker once himself imprisoned for his beliefs, was forming a colony based on these ideals in the New World. It was called "Penn’s Woods," or Pennsylvania. Perhaps even Penn was unsure whether it was truly possible for his dream of religious freedom to come true, as he called his colony a "holy experiment." His land agents invited many of the persecuted religious minorities to come to America. The Mennonites and Amish started arriving in the early 1700’s. The journey across the seas was a long and perilous one, lasting two to three months. Many people died from disease before they had even reached the New World. Of such voyages, we have these words from a passenger diary kept on the ship "Charming Nancy" in 1737...

"On the 29th of July, three children died. On the first of August my Hanseli died, and the Tuesday previous five children died. On the 3rd of August, contrary winds beset the vessel and from the first to the 7th of the month three more children died... Landed in Philadelphia on September the 18th, and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20th --- died --- wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days."

One day in October in the 1760’s, a German immigrant named Nicholas Stoltzfus arrived in Philadelphia. Today, nearly 1,000 families in Lancaster bear his name, along with others such as King, Fisher, Beiler, Esh, Lapp, and Glick. Each arrived with a unique story; each came with the hope for a better life. As one contemporary Amish author has written...

Men and women struggled to know the will of God, and to live it. True faith in the sixteenth century was not easy. Nor is it easy today in the twentieth century. The cost is still the same --- whole-hearted devotion and obedience to God. Temptations have not lessened, nor even changed, in 400 years. The decisions of our forefathers are the decisions that we face today.

While the days of persecution and martyrdom may have ended for the Amish, they still found conflicts and problems with the State, some of which continue to this very day. These problems centered on the areas of military service, taxes, education, and government regulations.

Part Four: Conflicts in Modern Times


The Anabaptist faith began in Zurich, Switzerland on January 21, 1525. A group of Christians, in defiance of the established church, met secretly and re-baptized each other to signify their adult commitment to their faith. Their radical acts challenged the unity and authority of both, and their refusal to serve in the military was a distinct threat to the city’s safety. These Swiss Brethren, the forefathers of the Amish and the Mennonites, were killed by the thousands for their beliefs.

In the early 1700’s, the first Amish and Mennonites arrived in the New World, looking for a land where they could live and worship in peace. But, while the days of persecution and martyrdom may have ended for them in America, they still encountered conflicts and problems with the State, some of which continue to this very day. These problems centered on the areas of military service, taxes, education, and government regulations.

In the year 1937, school consolidation began in rural areas of Lancaster County. Several Amish men were put into jail for refusing to send their children to school at the age of fourteen. Fifteen was the age required by the State for schooling. But the Amish liked the one-room schools, and needed the children on the farm. Talk of having private, one-room schools began.

The problem wasn’t really solved until the 1950’s, when even more Amish fathers were jailed. Eventually, an arrangement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education was worked out. But similar problems continued in other states. Finally, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court guaranteed all the Amish in the U.S. the freedom to operate their own private schools and stop education at the eighth grade. Now there are over 100 Amish schools in Lancaster County alone.

Other problems arose for the Amish with the coming of World War I in the early 1900’s. Some people were suspicious of the Amish because of their German heritage and dialect, and because they were non-resistant. Some boys were even beaten and abused in the C.O. (conscientious objector) camps that were established. In fact, several books have been written about these experiences. At Camp Taylor, Kentucky...

"One of the guards became angry and struck me across the breast with the bayonet of his gun. The same guard also struck one of the Ohio boys, knocking him down and stabbing him with his bayonet. He made a cut in his pants and a gash in his hips about two inches long. One of the guards tried to scare us and held his rifle close to my head, repeated it, and pulled the trigger. He had forgotten to take all the shells out of his gun and it went off, shooting a hole through the ceiling and roof. He was scared more than we were!"


Throughout their history, the Amish have had problems with the outside world because they were different. They continue even today. In 1981, an Amish family in Indiana were returning home in their buggy one night. Some boys from town drove by throwing stones at them from their car. A rock hit their little baby and killed it. The boys got suspended sentences, and were each fined a couple thousand dollars...for killing a baby.

And in 1992, there was a series of arsons that destroyed seven Amish barns in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Over 150 cows and horses died, but fortunately no one was hurt. Over $600,000 in donations came pouring in when the story hit the news. New barns were raised. The Amish hardly knew how to respond to this show of generosity and concern from the outside world.


Amish Country News Amish Series by Brad Igou (1997)

 


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