The Amish have earned a reputation in America as a peaceful and non-violent religious group, seemingly motivated by a desire to live according to Christ’s Beatitudes. Having settled into an uneasy peace with the U.S. Government, the Amish reputation is unlikely to be tarnished anytime soon. It wasn’t always that way, however, either here or among their Swiss forebears.
Long before the public fascination with “shaming” on Facebook and Twitter, the Amish had perfected the art of “the Bann”—shunning, a fate reserved for any who ran afoul of the intricate rules and customs of the largely oral tradition of the Ordnung. In fact, the practice of shunning was at the very center of the controversy that split the Swiss Brethren resulting in what became the Amish on one side, and the Mennonites on the other.
They were all Anabaptists, of course, and as a group they were being persecuted across Europe, particularly following the bloody Peasants’ War in Germany that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The city council in Reformed Zurich had passed a law making rebaptism (“Anabaptism”) a death penalty offense punishable, in macabre irony, by drowning. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz, a former ally of Ulrich Zwingli who had become a founding leader of the Anabaptists, was the first victim of the new law. He would not be the last, as soon authorities from Lutheran and Roman Catholic cities began vigorously suppressing the new sects.
In Muenster, Lutherans-turned-Ana-baptists seized the city and ushered in a wild regime that wavered between anarchy and abject totalitarianism. The Muenster Rebellion was crushed, but the message was clear: theological aberrations could be dangerous and bloody. After Muenster, Anabaptism took a sharp turn toward Pietism, and morphed into a quasi-pacifist sectarianism that survives in many of the movements descended from the original Swiss Brethren.
It was into this “rebooted” Anabaptism that Jakob Ammann, a young man who could neither read nor write, would make his entrance. He seems to have come by his Anabaptist leanings sometime in the 1670s, since in 1680, the local authorities note the troublesome Mr. Ammann is “infected” with the Anabaptist disease. While not much else is known about Ammann, we do know he was acquainted with, and influenced by Hans Reist, a gifted preacher and teacher who held sway in the Pietistic circles of the times.
Eventually, Ammann would come to the firm conviction that the “Good-hearted” people, meaning those who supported and protected the Anabaptists with political and monetary aid against persecution, simply could not be Christians, since they had not given up the trappings of social acceptability to follow Christ. Along the way, he also came to the conclusion that footwashing was obligatory, and that those who did not repent of any lapse in conformity to the growing list of rules dictating personal conduct must be “shunned”.
At some point, the illiterate Ammann had been ordained, possibly by Reitz, but when Reitz and others refused to adoptAmmann’s extreme views, he promptly “excommunicated them”. When he then turned to the others in the assembly and demanded that they take a stand immediately on the three issues, a number of pastors said they felt compelled to speak with their congregations first. They were likewise excommunicated by Ammann.
They were troubled, and troubling times, and many religious groups were going through similar doctrinal growing pains, but the anti-authoritarian streak that caused small sects to break away from larger ecclesiastical bodies often led to the imposition of an even more authoritarian system in which there was no appeal.
The Reitz faction and the Ammann faction would eventually come to be known as the Mennonites and the Amish. There was a moment in time when reconciliation might have been possible—Aamann and several of his followers repented of their actions of excommunicating the pastors and asked forgiveness. Reitz and the others forgave, but still refused to agree to the doctrinal distinctives demanded by the Amish, so the institutional break became permanent. The splintering extended to the groups that would settle in the New World, principally Pennsylvania.
Ammann himself seems to have lost his zeal for fighting other believers and little more is known of him. His daughter reports
his death when, in 1730, she requests permission to be buried in the graveyard of the Reform-ed Church. In time, the Swiss Amish would fade away, usually being ab-sorbed back into the Mennonite community, but in North America, that was decidedly not the case.
While there are modern-day Amish who have business and cultural connections with their Mennonite neighbors, most of the Old Order Amish remain steadfastly separate from all outsiders, whom they lump together as “the English”. While Pennsylvania Dutch dialect has faded among most of the German descendants who settled in Pennsylvania, the Old Order Amish continue to speak, although even among the Amish, different dialects can be distinguished.
In the Colonies, William Penn’s haven for Quakers also opened its doors to other sectarians, mystics, and outliers. At Hereford Abbey, the Reformed Princess Elisabeth Palatine, granddaughter of Elector Frederick III, had sheltered religious dissidents facing persecution. Penn was so impressed that he followed her example and welcomed a wide variety of non-conforming Christians to Pennsylvania.
Contrary to what we might think, even among the more numerous church groups like Lutherans, Catholics and Reformed, the immigration pattern did not favor one group above another. Typically, people emigrated because they happened to be in the minority in the town or region where they lived. Consequently, the boat arriving at Philadelphia might contain Lutherans from one city and Reformed or Roman Catholics from a city just down the road, where the power structure had taken a different turn.
The Amish, however, were always a small minority irrespective of where they may have begun their journey. They came in steady waves from the arrival of the Detweiler and Sieber families in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1736, and would continue for about 35 years. In this first immigrant wave, a dozen or so settlements were founded.
While the last Amish community in Europe folded into the local Mennonite congregation many years ago, the Old order Amish in America not only survive, but thrive. With high birth rates, and a healthy lifestyle, they have managed to grow numerically at a far higher rate than the general population and now are approaching 300,000 adherents. Not only have the high birth rates contributed to their growth, but approximately 90% of those raised in the Amish community remain Amish. Proselytizing is rare, which shows how strong the internal growth dynamics are to this community. The oldest of the eight remaining Old Order Amish groups are the Lancaster Amish, founded in 1760. While primarily situated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Lancaster Amish also include other groups around the country that consider themselves part of this group, both organizationally and theologically.
Evangelicals find dealing with the Amish a frustrating experience. They have historically had little interest in propagating the Gospel through missions or evangelism, and in many cases, it is not readily apparent that they share very much with the “faith alone” Evangelicals. The emphasis on outward conformity, and an extreme legalism with re-gard to dress and speech (plushness of furniture, width of hat brims, whether buggies can be covered or not, etc.) have typically been viewed by evangelical Christians as resembling “works salvation”.
Accounts of those who have attempted to open dialogue range from those who believe the Amish are a cultural phenomenon with no real attachment to Christianity, to those who estimate a majority have a genuine understanding of the Christian Gospel. That sounds harsh until we realize a lot of Protestants also think that about each other. Some of the more encouraging reports have centered around the Michigan Amish, who are ethnically, or at least linguistically, distinct from the Pennsylvania Deutsch Amish. The Michigan Amish are linked to Swiss Amish settlements in Indiana, and in many cases appear less likely to adopt technological innovation. (In other words, they appear to have as many definitions of “simple” as Reformed people do of the “Regulative Principle”, each more correct than the last.)
The author has no way to quantify such reports, and urges great caution against over-generalization with regard to peoples that are divided into as many as forty sub-groups, each with different customs and emphases. Those who have attempted to generalize about Amish theology have concluded that they believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that He died to save us from our sins. They place a high regard on Scripture, but also tend to view life and practice through the lens of a few key verses stressing separation from the world.
Their view of baptism has something for everyone. They sprinkle rather than immerse…but only adults. Perhaps, the best and most charitable construction of Amish theology is that provided by the Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster, which produced a statement which they said reflected what the Mennonites and Amish agreed upon. Briefly, they wrote:
Both Mennonites and Amish believe in one God eternally existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-17). We believe that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died on the cross for the sins of the world. We believe that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, and also empowers believers for service and holy living. We believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, a free gift bestowed by God on those who repent and believe.
That is no worse than what many evangelical churches preach, and better than many. It begs the question of limited atonement, but in that they are in company with the substantial majority of evangelicals in the U.S. While there is a marked and distinct call for adherence to an outward righteousness in Amish practice (“We are a lifestyle not a religion,” as they say), there is also a confession of the Savior.
From their founding, the Amish have been pacifists. During their formative years in Switzerland, the Swiss were routinely recruited as mercenaries to fight in foreign wars. It is one of the things Zwingli cited as a sin to be repented of. It was not a big step from anti-mercenary convictions to pacifism, particularly for an illiterate Pietist like Aamann, who was also drinking deeply from the Anabaptist calls for separation from both the state and the fallen culture around them. The practice of shunning, however, is the most visible blemish on this Anabaptist flower. Without written rules, and dependent upon local bishops who were largely unaccountable, shunning was guaranteed to create division and is, indeed, largely responsible for the many splits that have occurred among the American Amish right up to the present day.
The Reformed who, perhaps, have the most well-developed system of church government as it relates to discipline, have constructed elaborate checks and balances, allowing the accused to have counsel, requiring formal notice and written charges, and employing a series of appellate courts to insure as much fairness as humanly possible. It doesn’t always work, but it has for better or for worse been used as the pattern for the American court system, stressing the rights of the accused.
Ironically, though vastly different in their discipline practices, the Amish and the German Reformed congregations in particular, shared a belief that excommunication from the church meant separation from God, not just the local assembly. Matthew 18 reads:
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jakob Aamann came under conviction that he had acted rashly in excommunicating fellow pastors and, as reported, begged their forgiveness. Aamann had made it clear that he believed a failure to live a life of separation from the world meant a person was unsaved. If Jesus, in effect, is in the midst of the gathering of the elders when they make a decision regarding discipline, “binding it in heaven” as it were, then excommunication is, for those who hold this view, a salvation issue that cannot be rectified by simply joining the church down the street or in the next village.
For this reason many churches that practice church discipline will not receive into membership one who has been excommunicated by a believing church, even from another denomination, until there is repentance, reconciliation and restoration.
In an effort to avoid the tyranny of personal prejudices, the Reformed constructed their relatively complex system to protect and guard the innocent, as noted. Lutherans had a mixed system, adopting formal procedures, but retaining a more hierarchical iteration. Other Anabaptist groups tended to be no better nor worse than whomever the leader happened to be at the time. In many modern evangelical churches, formal church discipline is increasingly rare. While most Protestants would eschew the term “shunning”, some do not see gossip, slander and social media shaming as its moral equivalent.
While Aamann’s rash outburst was grievously sinful, and no doubt might have been mitigated by a more formalized process of discipline, it is equally true that the Reformed and similar ecclesiastical systems have been abused. Sadly, in those cases the abuse was not always repented of, as was the case with Aamann.
The Amish are a curious and remarkable people, and if we attempt to place them into a theological pigeonhole, we may satisfy our need to categorize, yet fail to find the truth. The author sits on the board of a theological seminary, and for 38 years served as a Reformed Church elder. A lesson learned many times over was that the discipline process is for the protection of the purity of the church, the defense of the innocent, and the separation of the unrepentant. Another lesson learned was that the only infallible mark of the church is not the way we preach, discipline or commune. The only infallible mark of the church is saving grace, a point made many years ago by the late Rev. C.W. Powell.
With that in mind, who can forget the heart wrenching image of those Amish children who died at the hands of Charles Roberts IV, a distraught local man who had lost a child and decided to take it out on the Amish.
“I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with him…. I’m going to make you pay for my daughter,” he said, as he entered the one-room schoolhouse and gunned down 10 little Amish girls, five of whom died. Donations poured in for the families, who by conviction had no insurance, medical or otherwise. Bills were paid, and the Amish quietly donated the extra funds to the local emergency services that had come to their aid. Then they gave much of the remaining funds to the widow and children of the man who had taken the lives of their little girls.
“By their fruits ye shall know them”. We could do worse to know and to be known by such acts of mercy.