Who Are the Amish?

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The Amish came from Europe to the New World beginning in the first half of the 1700’s. Probably the best-known Amish community in the United States is in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Most Americans identify the Amish as a conservative religious group with plain dress, a simple way of life, and a great work ethic, but know little else about them. Where and why did the Amish way of life begin? How has it managed to endure for hundreds of years? Why are their numbers steadily increasing?

During medieval times most Europeans identified themselves with the Catholic church. Then in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg, igniting a move away from the Catholic church and breaking Europe into two large camps, Catholic and Protestant. Some in Zurich, Switzerland, however, who initially joined with the Protestants believed the break from the Catholic church’s beliefs and practices was not complete enough to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and his word. So in January of 1525, some of these took the step of performing their own baptism for adult believers, identifying with neither Catholic nor Protestant. Both Catholics and Protestants immediately viewed them as subversive, labeled them Anabaptist (because they re-baptized adult believers who had been baptized as infants), and attempted to stamp out the movement by persecuting them and putting some of them to death.

The move to a believers’ church rather than a territorial church was not to be thwarted, however, and quickly moved beyond Zurich. That Anabaptists understood the significance of their action is clear from records showing Psalm 24:1a to be frequently quoted in their hearings, debates, and trials with civil and church authorities: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” In 1527, Anabaptist leaders meeting in Schleitheim, Switzerland, formulated a written “Brotherly Union” identifying seven beliefs; the document came to be known as the Schleithheim Confession of Faith. The Schleitheim Confession shows the Anabaptists believed, in contrast to Catholics and Protestants, that (1) baptism and church membership should only be for those exhibiting in life what they professed to believe; (2) baptism and church membership should be voluntary, not forced on a person because of the area in which he resided; (3) church discipline could include the ban and excommunication but never execution (even via civil authorities); and (4) the follower of Christ should exhibit consistent honesty and love and refrain from force in his associations with others.

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In 1536 Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in the Netherlands, joined the Anabaptist movement. He became a leader of the group, and through his influence and writings, many of the Anabaptists came to be known as Mennonites. As the church grew and developed, disagreements surfaced and divisions occurred, particularly in Northern Europe. For over one hundred fifty years, though, the Anabaptists in Switzerland avoided major divisions and continued as a brotherhood of believers with a number of local churches. But in 1693, a Swiss leader by the name of Jacob Amman criticized a decision by other church leaders not to “shun” (avoid socially) a woman who had lied. Other differences became apparent, including beliefs about simplicity and uniformity, until a division occurred between the Swiss Anabaptists and the followers of Jacob Amman, who became known as the Amish.

Because of continued persecutions in Europe, both Mennonites and Amish began to move to the New World. The two groups retained their separate identities, although initially few outward differences were apparent. As the surrounding culture and technology changed, however, the Amish were much slower to change their ways than the Mennonites, eventually becoming so different from the society around them (because they didn’t change) that they became a tourist attraction. But the Amish have done more than keep the dress and practice of an earlier time—they have also continued to emphasize the values of tradition, belief, family, community, discipline, and hard work. Their conformity to each other (uniformity) and nonconformity to society seem to strengthen their sense of community. Sometimes their sense of tradition and community appears to be more important to them than a personal faith in Jesus Christ. In any case it remains true that most Amish young people choose to stay with the Amish community, evidently preferring their community to the conveniences of the surrounding culture.

(One of many sources for additional information about the Amish may be found at www.anabaptists.org.)