On the last day of October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany. The Reformation had been launched.
By the beginning of 1522, Ulrich Zwingli was established as leader of the Reformation in Zurich, with a group of young men under his tuition. Among them were the first identifiable antecedents of the present day Amish.
Introduced by Zwingli to the Greek New Testament, they became eager to see the reform of the church. Zwingli had planned to observe the Lord’s Supper in the simple New Testament (NT) manner on Christmas Day 1523.
Although he had previously said that the practices of the church should be determined by Scripture, when the Zurich City Council refused their consent to abandon the mass, he conformed to their wishes.
When some of his students objected to this in public debate, one of their number Simon Stumpf, who was first to speak out, was banished from the city. Others became marked men.
A small group of these young men began to meet together in the house of Felix Manz to study the Scriptures. They became convinced that, in the NT, the church was made up only of believers trusting in Christ for salvation, demonstrating their commitment to Christ in baptism and in holy lives, and freely associating together in local congregations.
They also said the NT gave no grounds for the baptism of infants. This took the Reformation beyond what Luther and Zwingli and other leaders were prepared to accept. In fact, it looked back over 1200 years, to a time before the Emperor Constantine when the church was separate from and independent of the state.
That separation effectively ceased when Constantine professed conversion to Christianity. The Edict of Milan in AD 313 legalised the Christian faith and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 made Christianity the state religion.
From that time on, dissent from the teaching of the Catholic Church was not only heresy, but treason against the state. Whilst the Reformers took the doctrine of salvation back to the Bible, they could not do the same for the doctrine of the church. The new Protestant churches were state-established and continued to look on dissenters as subversives.
Well aware of what they were doing, on the night of 21 January 1525, about a dozen men met at the home of Felix Manz and, after fervent prayer, submitted themselves to the divine will and sought God’s mercy upon them.
Believing their baptism as infants was meaningless, Conrad Grebel then baptised George Blaurock who then baptised Grebel and the rest of the company. They pledged to live lives separated from the world, to preach the gospel and uphold the faith.
They were fervent evangelists and many believed, were baptised and formed into local congregations of believers. They were given the nickname ‘Anabaptists’ (re-baptisers), though they simply called themselves the ‘Swiss Brethren’.
Within five years, Grebel, Manz and Blaurock were all dead. In October 1525 they were all imprisoned in Zurich, accused of sedition. However, they were helped to escape and continued to evangelise. After further imprisonment, Grebel died of the plague in summer 1526.
Manz was rearrested and sentenced to death by drowning. On 5 January 1527 he was rowed out onto the River Limmat in Zurich. His wrists were bound together and passed over his bent knees. A thick rod was passed between his knees and his elbows and he was thrown into the river to perish.
On the same day, George Blaurock was stripped to the waist and beaten with rods, from the place of Manz’s execution to Zurich’s city gates, and banished. He travelled widely, preaching the gospel and seeing many converts.
He was finally captured, tried for being an Anabaptist, sentenced to death and burned at the stake near Kausen in the Tyrol, on 6 September 1529.
This set the pattern for Anabaptist persecution by both Protestant and Catholic states. Yet the Anabaptists were not deterred, considering it an honour to suffer for Christ’s sake.
Driven out of one city, they moved to another and the movement spread from Zurich to Bern, to South Germany, Moravia, Poland, North Germany and the Netherlands.
They lived exemplary lives, worthy of the gospel of Christ, as even their enemies had to admit. Capito, a leading Reformer in Strasbourg, said of them, ‘There is evidence of piety and consecration and indeed a zeal which is beyond any suspicion in sincerity’.
A sixteenth century Roman Catholic theologian writes: ‘As concerns their outward public life, they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward display is found among them but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness, in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God’.
This quality of life was insisted on by them as consistent with new life in Christ. Not only did they feel constrained to follow the NT in their understanding of the church, the Lord’s Supper, baptism and way of salvation, but also in its requirement for changed and separated lives.
The ‘mixed multitude’ that made up the state-established Reformed churches made similar expectations impossible for the Reformers, a fact admitted and lamented by Luther.
Some ten years after Conrad Grebel baptised George Blaurock, an ex Roman Catholic priest joined some Anabaptists in the Netherlands. Around 1537 this ex-priest began ministry as an elder among them. Though harassed and pursued for years, he avoided arrest and continued preaching and writing until his death on 31 January 1561.
His name was Menno Simons and so significant was his ministry that Anabaptists generally became known as Mennonites.
One of Menno’s greatest heartaches was dealing with the vexed issue that later became central in the events that led to the formation of the Amish. The Anabaptists rejected all use of force, but were jealous to maintain biblical standards of behaviour in the church.
To this end, they were prepared to employ the procedure laid down by the Lord in Matthew18:15-17 and excommunicate offenders who would not repent. They also practised the ‘shunning’ called for by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:11 and Romans 16:17.
The question that arose was how far this should be taken in practice. Some were quite severe and said shunning should take place even between husband and wife if one of them was excommunicated. Some took a more lenient view.
Menno preferred the latter, but felt obliged to support the stricter line, insisting that all should be done in love and in hope of restoration of the offender.
Disagreements over the degree of shunning festered for some time, but in 1632 the Dordrecht Confession put forward a moderate form of shunning, which all were able to support. By 1660 all conflict on the subject had died down.
After 1614, the Swiss authorities abandoned public executions, though persecution of religious dissidents continued in the form of fines, imprisonment and exile.
The Thirty Years War, which ended in1648, had devastated large areas of land and princes began looking for settlers to cultivate land which was derelict. Tiring of religious conflict, they were glad to take Anabaptists as tenant farmers.
The state-established Roman Catholic and Reformed churches continued in their drive to remove opposition to their authority, but the common people were also tired of religious conflict. Many were prepared to help and shelter hounded Mennonites, who were respected for their simple, holy lifestyles.
How should this long persecuted people, who saw a sharp distinction between themselves and the world, now respond to the world’s favour?
Many were glad of the help of kindly neighbours in a time of urgent need. Others stressed the need to preserve biblical standards, keep themselves separate and rely only on God’s help, as in times past. Jacob Ammann was one of these.
Ammann was born in 1644 in Bern and became a member of the Reformed Church. By the year 1680, he had joined the Anabaptists and during the 1680s moved to the Alsace region, where he became a noted leader.
He called for a return to the principles of previous generations: clear separation from the world, a rigid application of shunning and the avoidance of worldly fashions. To this end, he laid down a plain dress code to be followed.
Ammann was intractable. He even excommunicated Mennonite leaders who opposed his measures and a split within the movement became inevitable. Ammann later regretted his actions and tried to make amends, but without success. Those who took his position became known as Amish.
As at the movement’s beginning, the Amish were forced by persecution to migrate. They spread from the Alsace to the Netherlands, Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia.
Recognised as efficient farmers, they usually found land to rent and were well thought of. Over time, some reunited with the Mennonites and others were assimilated into the local cultures where they had settled.
In 1937, the last Amish congregation in Europe, at Ixheim, a village south of Zweibrucken in Germany, joined with the local Mennonites.
A more significant migration for the future of the Amish began in 1737, when 21 Amish families boarded the Charming Nancy bound for the New World. Others followed over the next decade and a further wave in the early nineteenth century.
At the dawn of that century, there were not many more than 1000 Amish in America and they were struggling to hold their numbers. Their pacifist principles and refusal to bear arms had made life particularly difficult during the Indian wars.
More were lost to the Amish cause, however, by another eighteenth century event — the Evangelical Revival.
Numbers of Amish who heard the message of salvation from evangelical preachers found that it answered something lacking in their lives. Whereas the first Anabaptists had insisted that conversion must be evidenced in a godly lifestyle, the Amish were by now saying that Christians experienced salvation in the way they lived, without the need of a singular conversion experience.
They also taught that, though salvation was the result of the grace of God, the idea that those who confess their faith in Jesus Christ can be personally assured of salvation is presumption.
Only God himself, they claimed, can make that judgement at the end of one’s life. An Amish person could therefore have no assurance, yet assurance of salvation was one of the great blessings attending the Evangelical Revival and many left the Amish church when they experienced it for themselves.
The Amish bishops felt evangelical preachers were putting too much emphasis on a personal conversion experience, at the expense of Christian behaviour.
Abraham Drachsel, an Amish bishop from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, was forbidden to preach for making too much of the doctrine of regeneration. He left the church and a large section of his congregation followed him. It was clear that, by now, the Amish had departed from the biblical gospel of their forefathers.
The Amish faced further trials during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), American Civil War (1861-1865) and the two World Wars, when their refusal to bear arms put their loyalty into question.
However, the years after the Civil War presented a challenge of a different kind. Until that time, the Amish were not as distinctive in their outward appearance as they appear today.
Both they and their neighbours lived the frugal existence of frontier settlers. Fine clothing, furnishings and luxury goods were hard to come by. No one had electricity and everyone relied on horse power for transport and field work.
Recovery from the Civil War was followed by increasing prosperity and the beginnings of industrialisation. Some Amish embraced mechanisation and the increased material prosperity that came in its wake.
Others felt this would lead to pride and worldliness and undermine family and community ties. This led to the emergence of the ‘Old Order’ Amish, the people popularly associated today with plain clothing, wide brimmed hats, bonnets, untrimmed beards and buggies.
At the close of the nineteenth century, the Amish numbered only about 5000, yet today are estimated to be above 250,000. Why have they even survived, let alone prospered in the modern world? Why do they still generate so much interest?
To be concluded
Pictures of Amish in this article series are used by kind permission of Plain New Life
and ‘Mission to Amish People’