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The Amish in the U.S. and Canada: before 1900

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Migration from Europe:

In 1681, William Penn, an English Quaker, received ownership of the land that would eventually become the state of Pennsylvania. He decided to try a "holy experiment:" to establish a colony that would allow religious toleration. This was a relatively novel concept at the time. Amish, Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, Schwenkfelders and others in Europe responded to the opportunity by moving to the area.

The Amish movement was founded in Europe during 1693. High taxes, high rents, inflation, wars and rumors of wars, the military draft, and religious persecution encouraged believers to leave Europe. "In many places, both Catholics and Protestants -- if they were minority members of their home territories -- often felt unwelcome." 1 Accurate records of the first emigrations to the New World were not kept. The first Amish immigrants for whom records are available -- the Detweiler and Sieber families settled in Berks County, PA in 1736. The bulk of the this first wave of immigration had ceased by 1770.

The Amish initially settled in three areas of Pennsylvania:

bullet Eight settlements in what are now Berks, Chester, Lancaster and Lebanon counties, to the west of Philadelphia.
bulletOne settlement in Mifflin county in the center of Pennsylvania.
bulletThree settlements in Somerset county in south-west Pennsylvania.

Back in Europe, some Amish families moved to the Hesse region of Germany, Bavaria, Poland and Russia. None of the settlements were ultimately successful, as there is no organized Amish presence in Europe at this time. The last Amish congregation was in Ixheim, Germany. On 1937-JAN-17, it merged with their local Mennonite group.

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Surviving external conflicts during the 18th century:

During the first century of Amish settlement in the American colonies, believers survived a number of external conflicts:

bulletSettlements in Pennsylvania were attacked during the French and Indian Wars during the mid 18th century.

bulletStarting in the mid 18th century, a religious revival spread across the American colonies. The Amish were targeted by Baptist, Methodist, United Brethren. and German Baptist Brethren itinerant pastors and evangelists. The "revivalists" took a heavy toll on the Amish membership.

bulletThe War of Independence put a heavy strain on the Amish principle of pacifism and neutrality. The colonies were divided into Patriots and "Tories" -- those loyal to Britain. The Amish attempted to remain non-violent and neutral, but were attacked by both sides. For some of them, their situation was complicated by oaths of loyalty to Britain that they had taken when they were admitted to the colonies.

Author Steven Nolt estimates that about 500 Amish had migrated to Pennsylvania during the 18th century. Most had large families. However, the attrition rate was so high that by the year 1800, there were fewer than 1,000 Amish in America. 1

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Surviving internal conflicts during the 19th century:

A second wave of immigration from Europe lasted from 1817 to 1860. About 3,000 Amish relocated to the U.S. They were motivated to leave by religious oppression in Europe, financial problems, crop failures, continuing wars, the military draft, and high taxes. Most settled in  Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Ontario in Canada. A few went to Pennsylvania. 2

Immigrants from Europe during the 19th century tended to be more progressive than those who were already established in the U.S. Some newcomers had partly abandoned traditions of Amish life. Deviations included wearing buttons on their coats; owning a piano, dishes with decorations, decorated carriages, and fancy furniture; dressing their children in fancy clothes. Perhaps even more serious, many were more flexible on matters of doctrine and belief.

The church remained united for the first half of the 19th century, in spite of growing friction between liberals and conservatives. In 1849, a conservative congregation in Mifflin County, PA, broke with most of the rest of the Amish church for reasons which are not clear.

A series of Diener-Versammlungens -- national meetings for Amish leaders were held in various settlements in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania between 1862 and 1878. The intent was to strengthen church life and commitment. They were attended by a few dozen leaders and up to 1,500 lay persons. These meetings settled some important doctrines:

bulletMennonites who wanted to join the Amish church would have to undergo a second baptism.
bulletAmish who joined another religion or Christian denomination were to be excommunicated and shunned.
bulletPhotography, joining a state militia, and belonging to secret societies were banned.

Unfortunately, in spite of initial optimism that the meetings would bring harmony, the end result was to emphasize the differences between the liberal and conservative factions within the Amish church. Thus, the meetings actually increased internal tensions. When separation came, it was not a single dramatic event. Rather, it was spread over decades as individual families and congregations gradually sorted themselves out into the traditionalist and change-minded camps. The latter wanted change but could not reach a consensus on the details. By 1880, there were four Amish groups: one conservative and four liberal:

bulletThe conservative wing called themselves the Old Order Amish. They opted out of attending the later Diener-Versammlungens, and continued to follow the historical Amish beliefs and practices. They constituted only about one third of the Amish membership, and numbered only about 5,000 by the end of the 19th century.

bulletThe liberals became the Amish Mennonites. Most congregations merged with the "Old Mennonites" by 1930, although some formed the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference in 1910 and the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference in 1925.

bulletThe Egly Amish split away from the Amish Mennonites between 1865 and 1866. They were named after their founder, Bishop Henry Egly from Indiana. He had an intense personal experience of salvation and felt that Amish should only be baptized if they had first undergone a similar incident. The group was renamed the Defenseless Mennonite Church in the mid 1890s, and became a Fundamentalist denomination, the Evangelical Mennonite Church in 1948.

bullet The Stuckey Amish broke away in 1871 and 1872. They were named after Bishop Joseph Stuckey of Illinois. He represented a faction within the Old Order Amish church which favored a relaxation of behavioral standards: using buttons, styling their hair, wearing neckties, using an organ in Sunday School, etc. The issue that ultimately caused a break with the Amish Mennonites was a matter of doctrine and discipline. Stuckey had refused to excommunicate a school teacher in his congregation, Joseph Yoder, who believed in the concept of universalism. [This is the belief that unsaved people would not be tortured in Hell for all eternity. Rather, everyone's eventual destination will be Heaven.]  The Stuckey Amish lasted until after World War II. They merged with the General Conference Mennonites in 1946.

bulletThe Sleeping Preachers Amish were a sub-group among the Amish Mennonites. During the late 1870s, in reaction to the rapid liberal shift of the movement, a few preachers developed an unusual method of delivering sermons, called "spirit preaching." They would appear to fall asleep in the early evening, rise a few hours later in a trance and preach "on the themes of repentance, spiritual renewal or the return to simpler lifestyles." 3 They were called "sleeping preachers." The phenomenon was also observed among Native Americans and other Christian groups at this time. John D. Kauffman, one of the leading sleeping preachers, formed an independent congregation in Illinois during 1907. The movement spread. However, the practice of spirit preaching has long since been abandoned. As of 1992, Sleeping Preachers Amish had congregations in Arkansas (3), Illinois (4), Missouri (1), and Wisconsin (1).
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See the next essay for developments since the year 1900

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1.  Steven Nolt, "A history of the Amish," Good Books, (1992). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. D.R. Elder, " 'Es Sind Zween Weg': Singing Amish children into the Faith Community," Page 2 at: You may need software to read these PDF files. It can be obtained free from:
  3. Op Cit, Nolt, Page 161.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-AUG-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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