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The Amish

The early years in Europe:

How the Protestant Reformation generated the Free Church movement, which led to the Mennonite movement from which the Amish split

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The Protestant reformation and emergence of the free churches:

During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli broke from the Roman Catholic Church to form separate Christian faith groups. They promoted the concepts of:

bullet Salvation by the grace of God, rather than through church sacraments.
bullet Greater individual freedom of belief.
bullet The priesthood of all believers; no priest or other intermediary was needed between believers and God.
bullet Close integration of church and state.
bullet Reliance on the Bible alone, with little attention paid to church tradition.

In what has been called "the radical reformation", some additional religious reformers took these beliefs to a logical conclusion; they preached that the believers should form "free churches" -- quite different from the highly organized state churches which were typical at the time. They separated themselves from all secular activities, including the state, and formed independent, informal, religious groups. These were much like the Christian congregations in very early Christianity.

A small group of Swiss Christians, led by Conrad Grebel and Fexix Manz formed a study group intending to recommend changes to the state Protestant church. Their reforms were rejected both by Zwingli, the church head, and by the Zurich City Council. In 1525 CE, they formed the first Swiss Brethren congregation in Switzerland. They baptized each other into membership in their "believers church" -- a crime for which some were banished; others were executed by drowning or burning at the stake. At the time, the Swiss state church was no more tolerant of what they regarded as heresy as was the Roman Catholic Church. Religious toleration developed later in Europe. A key belief of the Brethren was that only adults should be baptized. The normal practice at the time was to baptize newborns and infants. The name "Anabaptist," which meant re-baptizer, was first used as a nickname to describe this and similar groups. The name stuck.

The Anabaptists promoted the concept of church as a self-governing , loose association of adults, not including children. Worship services held in homes rather than at in a church building.

The Anabaptist leaders met in secret during 1527 in Schleitheim on the Swiss-German border. They developed what was originally called a declaration of "Brotherly Union" and is now referred to as the "Schleitheim Articles." 7 It consists of seven articles:

  1. "Believers baptism" was only performed during adulthood, after repentance and a confession of faith. They practiced antipedobaptism -- opposition to the baptism of infants. They believe that a child does not have the knowledge of good and evil. Thus, they cannot sin and would not benefit from baptism.
  2. Members who slipped and fell into error were to be warned twice in private. If they persisted, the would be warned publicly in front of the congregation and banned from the group.
  3. Only fellow believers who were baptized as adults were allowed to attend the Lord's Supper.
  4. They pledged to separate themselves from the evil in the world. They were pacifists and pledged to reject violence.
  5. The leaders in the church, called shepherds, were to be of good character, competent to preach to the congregation.
  6. They advocated church-state separation. They generally withdrew from the world, which they regarded as a corrupting influence. They would not hold public office or engage in civic affairs.
  7. Members were not to give oaths. Their word is to be sufficient.

These seven principles remain the basic guidelines used by the Swiss Brethren and Amish to this day.

Some radical Anabaptists who expected an imminent end of the world attempted to create a theocracy in Münster, Germany by force in 1534. Many governments viewed all Anabaptists as a potentially serious danger to the social order. The groups suffered extreme persecution. Many of their leaders were rounded up and executed. Programs of genocide were organized by various governments, by Protestant groups under Luther and Calvin, and by the Roman Catholic church. Some city-states employed "Anabaptist hunters" who were paid by the head to locate and arrest believers. 1

Anabaptists grew in number, in spite of the persecution. They became a loosely-organized "lay-oriented, non-liturgical, non-creedal, Bible-oriented church." 2

The Mennonites:

The Mennonites are named after Menno Simons (~1496-1561 CE), a Dutch Anabaptist leader who had left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1536. He felt that the Catholic church had lost touch with the Gospel message by concentrating on "...legends, histories, fables, holy days, images, holy water, tapes, palms, confessionals, pilgrimages, masses, matins and vespers...purgatory, vigils and offerings." 6 He emerged as a leader of the Anabaptist movement in Holland, and was able to unify the various diverse groups. Like most Anabaptist groups, Simons taught "rebaptism, pacifism, religious toleration, separation of church and state, opposition to capital punishment, opposition to holding office, and opposition to taking oaths." Finally, in 1577, the country instituted a policy of religious tolerance, and the Anabaptists there were given the freedom to practice their religion without oppression.

In 1632, Simon's followers met at Dordrecht in the Netherlands to formally set down their beliefs in a document called the Dordrecht Confession of Faith. It recorded their beliefs in the Trinity, the incarnation and atonement of Christ, the primacy of the Bible, salvation, adult baptism, etc. The Lord's supper and foot washing were observed as ordinances; they were regarded as symbolic acts, not as church sacraments. Foot washing was based on the Bible passages in which "Jesus did not only institute and command the same, but did also Himself wash the feet of the apostles..." 8

Enforcing discipline:

Other Christian faith groups at the time imprisoned, executed, or committed genocide against non-conformists. The Mennonites rejected these approaches, using non-violent means -- banning and shunning -- to enforce discipline. Banning involves excommunication: severing the relationship between the member and the group. Shunning, called "Meidung" in German, was less severe. It had three purposes: to encourage the sinner to repent; "to protect the rest of the community from possible contagion, and to maintain the community's reputation." 3 Shunning requires that church members temporarily sever all communication with the sinner, including eating together, until they recant. This practice was based on Paul's writings in:

bullet 1 Corinthians 5:11: "....if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat."
bullet Matthew 18:15-17: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and tell him alone...But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more...And if he shall neglect to hear them, then tell it onto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican."
bullet Romans 16:17:  "...mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them."

Shunning has generated great difficulties within families, particularly where one spouse is to be shunned by the other spouse and the rest of the family.

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The Amish:

The Amish began as a small group of reform-minded Mennonites along the southern Rhine River and in Switzerland. They split from the main movement in 1693. The name of their group comes from their founder: Jacob Amman (~1664 -1720). 5 He was an obscure reformer about whom little is known. He felt that the Mennonites had drifted away from their original beliefs and practices. He wanted them to return to a stricter observance of the writings of Simons and on the 1632 Mennonite Dordrecht Confession.

The split with the Mennonites was mainly over:

bullet The frequency of communion: Amman advocated twice a year instead of once. Believers preceded communion with a time of spiritual introspection. Amman felt that this might help the membership to be more diligent in their Christian life if it were performed every six months.
bullet The practice of foot washing, which Amman reintroduced. It had fallen out of use by most Mennonite groups.
bullet The process of shunning of non-conforming members. Amman felt that the Mennonites were too lax and had allowed the practice to fall into disuse. He treated shunning very seriously and took it one step further. He required the spouse of a person under the ban to neither sleep nor eat with the sinner, until they had repented and changed their behavior or beliefs. Hans Reist, a leader of the main Mennonite body, argued that Jesus had socialized with known sinners and had kept himself pure; he reasoned that Christians in the late 17th century could do the same without resorting to shunning.

After a few years as a separate organization, Amman and his supporters attempted to reconcile with the main Mennonite movement. This was unsuccessful. Since then, the two groups have been separate. However, they generally retain close ties and often cooperate on joint projects.

Starting in the early 18th century, many of the Amish migrated to the U.S. Most of the members who remained in Europe rejoined the Mennonites. Few Amish congregations existed by 1900. On 1937-JAN-17, the last Amish congregation -- in Ixheim, Germany -- merged with their local Mennonite group and became the Zweibrücken Mennonite Church. The Amish no longer existed in Europe as a organized group. 4

The Amish and Mennonites have retained similar beliefs to this day. They differ mainly in some practices.

References used:

  1. Steven Nolt, "A history of the Amish," Good Books, (1992), Page 11 to 35. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. J. Gordon Melton, ed., "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume 1, Trimph Books, (1991), Page 51. Currently out of print.
  3. D.R. Elder, " 'Es Sind Zween Weg': Singing Amish children into the Faith Community," at: You may need software to read these PDF files. It can be obtained free from:
  4. "Jacob Amman," WorldHistory, at:
  5. "Where the Name 'Amish' Comes From," at:
  6. Menno Simmons, "The complete writings of Menno Simmons," ed. J.C. Wenger, Herald Press (1956), Page 165. Quoted in Ref. 7
  7. John A. Hostetler, "Amish Society, Fourth Edition," John's Hopkins University Press, (1993), Page 30.
  8. Ibid, Page 34

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Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-MAR-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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