Amish Beginings

Amish Beginnings

The Amish and the Mennonites share the same Anabaptist heritage, but in 1693 they formed two separate groups. Persecuted for decades after 1525, many Swiss Anabaptists found safe havens in mountainous regions, where they frequently rented marginal land for farming. Despite these hardships, many Anabaptists became known for their agricultural husbandry. Often exhausted in spirit, the once fiery Anabaptists turned more and more to the daily pursuits of making a living and passing on their faith to their children. After 1648, groups of Swiss Anabaptists periodically moved northward into the Palatinate and Alsace regions of present-day Germany and France, located east and west of the Rhine River. Although the new daughter settlements in these regions maintained contact and fellowship with their maternal church in the Alps, some differences soon began to emerge.

In the late 1600s, controversy began to swirl around the activities and teachings of a reform-minded Anabaptist elder, Jakob Ammann. A recent convert to Anabaptism, Ammann migrated from Switzerland to Alsace, where he led several Anabaptist congregations. Concerned about lax church discipline and a weak spiritual life, Ammann instituted a series of reforms. He urged congregations to celebrate communion twice a year, instead of once, and to carefully discipline erring members. Additionally, Ammann forbade people from secretly joining Anabaptist congregations while still holding membership in the state church.

Most important, Ammann taught that when wayward members were excommunicated, other members should shun them in daily life as well. This social avoidance, earlier practiced by some Dutch Anabaptists, emphasized the purity of the church and the seriousness of sin, and it also encouraged excommunicated members to repent and return to the church. Different understandings of social avoidance soon drove a wedge between Ammann and other Anabaptist leaders. After heated meetings in 1693 and 1694, two separate groups -- Amish and Mennonite-- emerged over the course of several months. Most of the congregations that followed Ammann eventually took the name Amish. Many of the other Anabaptists eventually used the name Mennonite.

In addition to strict discipline, Ammann stressed simple, unadorned living. In time, untrimmed beards, simple clothing, and the use of hook and-eye fasteners instead of buttons became trademarks of Amish life. A conservative flank of Anabaptism, the Amish maintained a distinct identity from their Mennonite cousins as they emigrated and settled in the Americas. The last Amish congregation in Europe dissolved in 1937.

Economic problems, incessant warfare, and political instability drove many Europeans to risk their lives crossing the Atlantic in hopes of finding a more stable life in North America. For the Mennonites and the Amish, the promise of religious tolerance was an added lure. Already in 1683, ten years before the Mennonite-Amish schism, Mennonites had begun settling near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along with other persecuted religious minorities, the Mennonites chose land in Penn's Woods, the colony governed by the English Quaker William Penn. Offering freedom of worship and religious practice, Pennsylvania became a haven for the Amish as well.

Several Amish families may have arrived on American shores before 1730, but sizable communities began to form only after 1737. Amish families continued to arrive in Pennsylvania throughout the 1770s, settling in both southern Berks County and north-central Lancaster County. Defection to other churches, Indian raids, and the lure of better land eventually dispersed the original communities. By 1760, a permanent Amish settlement congregated near the Berks-Lancaster border, and by 1790 another community had formed in eastern Lancaster County.

The communities grew slowly; by 1900 Lancaster's Amish settlement included a mere six congregations. The twentieth century, however, witnessed phenomenal growth, as the Lancaster settlement grew to more than a hundred congregations. Today across North America, the Amish population of adults and children exceeds 180,000. Members reside in twenty eight states and the province of Ontario, with about 65 percent in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. During the twentieth century, the Amish population has doubled about every twenty years, bringing a diversity of lifestyles and practices among the more than 330 different geographical settlements.

Article from The book Amish Enterprise Pages 6-8: From Plows to Profits, by Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, the Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, second edition. Used by permission of the authors and the publisher. For more information contact the Hopkins Press