Amish History Is A Story
Of Struggle And Faith
Amish history begins in the early 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. The expansion of worldwide trade began replace goods and services formerly provided by local tradesmen and peasants. There was widespread discontent with the traditional policies of the intertwined church and government. People were looking for change.
Traditionally in the Catholic Church, knowledge of the Bible came from the leaders’ interpretation. The Pope had the final word on matters and it was passed down to the people through the clergy.
With the invention of the printing press, bibles became more available for everyone to study. Lay members of the Catholic Church began reading bibles for the first time in history.
As the people studied scripture, they began to question some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Many thought that the practices of the Church had strayed from the teachings of the bible.
A Catholic priest named Martin Luther became dissatisfied with the church. In 1517 when Luther led a protest, he was excommunicated and found himself a leader in the Protestant Reformation. The Lutheran church helped make Protestantism a permanent part of Christendom.
A few years later, a landmark in Amish history took place. In Zurich Switzerland, a group of students and craftsmen became impatient with the slow progress of reform. They thought that:
- Christian practices should be based more in Scripture
- Baptism should occur only after a person is able to recognize sin
- There should be more separation between church and state
In 1525 the students petitioned the local church and civil authorities for change. When their appeals were rebuffed, they baptized each other in a secret meeting and the Anabaptist movement was born. Anabaptist means “re-baptize".
Church and state authorities recognized this new movement as a threat to their institutions. They quickly declared that the Anabaptists, also known as the Swiss Brethren, were heretics and moved to stamp them out. The Amish history of persecution began.
Within months, the Anabaptists were being killed for heresy. They began to flee for their lives. The authorities hired bounty hunters to hunt them down. They were imprisoned, tortured, dismembered, drowned, hung, beheaded or burned at the stake. Many starved in prison.
They believed in “turning the other cheek”. Thousands of Anabaptists sacrificed their lives for their beliefs. But still the movement grew as they spread north into Germany and the Netherlands.
Not all were pacifists. In 1534 in northern Germany, a group of radical Anabaptists who believed in the imminent second coming of Christ decided to prepare the way. They took up the sword and captured the city of Muenster. Turning the tables, they persecuted anyone who refused to be baptized.
Within a year they were crushed by the combined forces of the Catholic and Reformed churches. After the Muenster uprising, the persecution of the Anabaptists became more intense.
Menno Simons is an important figure in Amish history. He was a Catholic priest ordained in about 1515 and made a chaplain of his father’s village.
In the mid 1520s, Simons began to question some church doctrine. This led him to delve into the scriptures, something he had not previously done. He decided that infant baptism was not in the bible.
He came in contact with Swiss Brethren who were preaching and practicing adult baptism. At first Simons thought that they were misled fanatics. But he was attracted by their belief that the answers to the question of salvation were found in the Scriptures.
When in 1535, his brother Pieter was among a group killed for their beliefs, Menno Simons cast off his Catholic affiliation and joined the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists.
Menno Simons quickly rose to become a leader in the Swiss Brethren church. He advocated non-violence and focused on separation from this world. Simons strongly denounced the uprising at Muenster.
Within a decade of Menno’s baptism into the church, his followers were being identified as Mennonites. Amish history is steeped in Mennonite tradition.
After almost 100 years, the killings waned. Mennonites were still being fined, jailed and deported for their beliefs. Many escaped into the mountains and learned farming methods that gave them a reputation of being terrific farmers.
In 1648 the Thirty Years War ended in Europe. The war had been fueled by political ambitions and rivalry between the Catholic and Protestant churches.
Many areas were left devastated with the population almost wiped out. Landowners were desperate for labor and the Mennonites were reputed to be excellent farmers and tenants.
So at the invitation of the landowners who promised religious freedom, the Mennonites migrated south to settle on the west bank of the Rhine in an area called the Palatine. They also settled in the Alsace region of France.
During the next several decades, though they still suffered from persecution, they also enjoyed some acceptance. The Mennonites were even admired in some quarters for their talent in farming and frugal lifestyle.
This interaction with non-Mennonites eventually became an issue in the Alsatian church. Amish history would soon include the Amish church.
Jakob Ammann, the key figure in Amish history, was born in 1644 in Bern Switzerland. He was a member of the Reformed Church through his 20s. He became a known Anabaptist sometime around the age of 35.
The Anabaptists held communion once a year. Ammann believed that communion should be held twice a year. He also felt that the Mennonites were not following traditional Anabaptist doctrine concerning separation from the world. He favored foot washing.
Punishment for non-conformity, in Ammann’s eyes, was too lenient. Shunning practices were not strict enough. He sought a return to more conservative Anabaptist doctrine.
Amish history tells us that in 1693 Ammann called for a meeting of all the leaders of the churches in the region to argue his issues. Hans Reist was the senior leader in the region. He had decided long before this time that he would not practice shunning. Reist decided not to attend the meeting.
Ammann called for another meeting to give Reist a chance to agree or disprove Ammann’s views on the issue. Again Reist refused to participate. In the heated argument at the meeting, about half of the leaders sided with Ammann. The rest came down on the Reist side.
Amish history was made when an incensed Ammann then excommunicated Reist and all the other leaders who held his views. Reist and his followers continued to be known as Mennonites. Ammann followers were soon referred to as Amish.
As news of the split spread to other Mennonite communities, both sides were debated. More conservative members began to follow the Amish ways. The Amish church grew.
After several years of turmoil in the local congregations, some Amish leaders thought that they might have been a little hasty. Amish history tells us that they sought reconciliation with the Mennonites. Some, including Jakob Ammann even excommunicated themselves as an act of humility.
The response from the Mennonites was lukewarm at best. In the end, neither side would concede the shunning issue. The split became permanent.
The next century of Amish history was one of mixed persecution and acceptance. The Amish were forced out of some areas by the local government. The Swiss officials were still seeking to purge their country of all Anabaptists.
Some landlords sought Amish tenants because of their talents for farming and reputation for hard work. Local peasants were sometimes jealous of the landowners’ indulgence of the Amish. This led to persecution by the locals.
A change in government could also mean that the persecution would begin again. There were many local governments, each with rules subject to the whims of their leader. The Amish longed for a more stable freedom to practice their religion and traditions.
Immigration to America
Another benchmark in Amish history came when some Amish decided to join other suppressed religious groups and seek freedom in America. William Penn, himself a Quaker, was granted a tract of land in America to form a colony. Penn’s Woods became known as the great religious freedom experiment in the new world.
Penn invited many persecuted religious groups to Pennsylvania where he promised religious freedom. Some Mennonites had been in the new world since before the Amish- Mennonite split in 1693. Between 1710 and 1732 several groups of Mennonites settled near present-day Lancaster.
Settling in Pennsylvania
October 8, 1737 is a red letter date in Amish history. That day the Charming Nancy, the first ship carrying a large group of Amish families, docked in Philadelphia. Though there might have some earlier Amish in America, this is the first confirmed group to arrive.
Some of the Amish from the Charming Nancy settled in the Lancaster area. Most settled about 30 miles northeast of Lancaster in Berks County.
These loosely organized communities were subject to Indian raids, droughts and crop failures. As time went on, some communities failed. But the Amish didn’t accept failure. They just moved on and tried again and again until they found somewhere compatible with their Amish lifestyle. New Amish communities were formed as more and more Amish immigrated to Pennsylvania.
The Amish were but a small part of a large group of German speaking peoples that settled Southeastern Pennsylvania. English soon identified this whole group as Pennsylvania Dutch. This term comes from the word “Deutsch” which means “German”.
They were a diverse group with many political and religious beliefs. They eventually developed their own regional dialect which was also referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch.
By the end of the 18th century, an estimated 500 Amish had immigrated to America. The next century of Amish history would see an influx of another 3000 Amish immigrants. Lancaster eventually became an Amish stronghold and remains so today.
A few of the eastern Pennsylvania Amish moved west before 1800. In 1772 the first Amish settled in Somerset County Pennsylvania. Holmes County Ohio saw its first Amish family in 1809. But the big push westward came with the next wave of immigrants.
The early 1800s found the European Amish threatened once more. After French Revolution threw the country into chaos by destroying the system of leadership, everyone was declared an equal citizen.
This sounded good to the Amish who had been second class citizens wherever they settled. But citizenship duties included army service. Throughout Amish history, the Amish pacifists would not participate in the military.
Robespierre, the French revolution leader, granted the Amish an exemption from the army. In place of military service, they were expected to pay an extra tax. They were also expected to participate in the new culture, threatening their doctrine of separation.
Then, Napoleon overthrew the government and proceeded with his plans for a world empire. He was soon in control of every area where Amish lived. Napoleon was not as understanding as the Robespierre. His plans demanded a large army of conscripts.
Ad all the havoc created by fighting and destruction and Europe was becoming an unattractive place for the Amish to live.
During this time, reports were circulating about how the Amish were prospering in America. The European Amish were primed to leave. But there were complications.
The War of 1812 was important to Amish history. It brought immigration to a standstill. Then in 1816 after travel to America became less dangerous, Amish immigration to America began to flow again. It lasted until 1860 when the American Civil War again made immigration more dangerous.
This second wave of Amish settled in:
- Butler, Fulton, Stark and Wayne Counties in Ohio
- Adams, Allen and Daviess Counties in Indiana
- Woodford and Tazewell Counties in Illinois
- Henry and Washington Counties in Iowa
- Lewis County in New York
- Somerset County in Pennsylvania
- Waterloo and Perth Counties in Ontario
After 1817 most Amish immigrants didn’t come through Philadelphia. Instead, they entered America through the port of New York. From there, they took a boat to Albany then a canal barge to Buffalo.
From Buffalo the immigrants took another boat across Lake Erie to Cleveland and then another canal barge to Cincinnati. Finally they took a riverboat down the Ohio River then up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Peoria.
Another route came through the port of New Orleans then up the Mississippi River to points in the Midwest.
Old Order Amish and Amish Mennonites
During the 1800s, the Amish history went through some growing pains.
As the Amish spread across the American Midwest some new settlements became more progressive. They wanted to find ways to fit in with their non Amish neighbors.
Breaks with tradition included:
- Modern clothing
- Holding public office
- More education
- Relaxing the practice of shunning
- Meetinghouse worship
Some of the more conservative leaders felt that these practices would lead church away from traditional separation. Though the two factions continued to recognize each other, tensions brewed.
The progressive movement was springing up in Amish communities everywhere.
So in 1862, for the first time in Amish history, a national meeting of church leaders was convened. The leaders hoped that by gathering together they could discuss their differences and discover some common ground. The annual meetings continued at various locations until 1878.
The first meeting was held in Wayne County Ohio, a stronghold of progressive Amish. The conservatives were outnumbered and left the conference feeling that their issues had not been resolved.
For the next couple years, the conference that was meant to bring the two sides together seemed to only point out the differences. The traditionalists felt that they were not getting a fair hearing.
For the 1865 conference, the conservatives prepared a written statement outlining their terms for reconciliation. The paper was largely ignored by the conference and the conservatives left disappointed.
Few conservatives ever attended the conference again making 1865 another benchmark in Amish history. The conservatives split from the progressives. Since they favored the old ways, they were eventually referred to as the Old Order Amish. The progressives became Amish Mennonites.
There is no way to know the exact number, but it is estimated that about one third of the Amish population remained Old Amish.
The conferences continued until 1878. Now with the progressives in charge, the meetings began to focus on the best ways to adapt to the outside world. They moved toward having a more centralized church organization.
Their doctrine moved away from their Amish history and back toward their Mennonite neighbors. They eventually abandoned shunning which was Jakob Ammann's reason for the original split from the Mennonites back in 1683.
From the close of the 19th and on into the 20th century, many Amish Mennonite congregations merged with Mennonite churches and lost their Amish identity. There are still Amish Mennonites today. Since they embrace many of the new technologies like electricity and automobiles, they are clearly closer to the Mennonites than the Old Order Amish.
So after the split, the Old Order Amish were left to carry on the old practices and traditions. At the end of the 19th century, the number of Old Order Amish in America was estimated to be around 5000.
Last Amish in Europe
Amish history shows the European population reaching its zenith in 1850 with 5000 Amish in Alsace and Loraine alone. The slow decline started with immigration to America. The rate decreased to a trickle after 1860 with only scattered individual families leaving.
The European Amish were tenants instead of landowners. This kept them spread out so they could not form tightly knit communities like their American Cousins.
Gradually the European Amish began to lose their identity. As Amish leaders died off, congregations were dissolved or forsook their Amish history and merged with surrounding Mennonite churches.
In 1936 in Germany, the Ixheim and Saar congregations merged. Ixheim was the last Amish church in Europe. On January 17, 1937 the Ixheim Amish merged with a local Mennonite church to form the Zweibrucken, Mennonite Church. The European Amish were no more.
The Beachy Amish
The Beachy Amish are an important part of Amish history. Their roots start in the early 1900s when a small group of families in Lancaster County Pa. broke away from the Old Order Amish. Once again, the issue was strict shunning. This group was nicknamed the "Peachy Amish" after one of its leaders.
Meanwhile to the West an Amish community that spanned Somerset County Pennsylvania and Garrett County Maryland divided. The Old Order Amish were in the north and Mennonites in the South. There were many family and friendly connections between the two churches.
The Amish bishop was Moses D. Yoder. Yoder favored strict shunning so when any of his church members left to join the Mennonites, they were shunned. This went on for two decades causing tensions in the community.
In 1916, Moses M. Beachy was ordained bishop to assist the aging Yoder. Beachy was against the strict shunning that was causing unrest in the Amish community. It became clear that many agreed with the new bishop. In 1927 old Moses Yoder and a small group of conservatives quietly separated and began holding services of their own. The majority sided with Beachy.
The Beachy Amish soon started making changes that would identify them as a separate Amish branch. Within a few years they had accepted automobiles and electricity. They adopted Sunday school and a less strict dress code.
Their ideas began to attract like-minded Amish. A group of Peachy Amish led by Joseph A. Stoltzfus joined in fellowship with the Beachy Amish.
During the 30s and 40s Beachy and Stoltzfus traveled to other Amish communities and established a network of Beachy Amish churches. They eventually became involved in mission work and relief efforts.
Today, there are over 150 Beachy congregations worldwide.
Pacifism and War
Throughout Amish history the people have suffered persecution because of their stand for non-violence. Amish were killed, tortured or driven from their homes because they refused to fight.
The Amish custom of wearing a beard with no mustache was started because the mustache was associated with the military. Military Service is grounds for excommunication from the church.
The Amish immigrated to America to escape persecution. The Amish history of unwillingness to fight in American wars caused some of their neighbors to think them unpatriotic.
During the Civil War some Amish men joined the Yankee cause. Going against Amish history they fought and some died in service of their country. Most young Amish men could not justify killing under any circumstance. These chose a different route.
There were legal ways to get deferred from the draft. Many young Amish men paid a $300 commutation fee. This method was sanctioned by most Amish churches. Other men paid for a substitute to fight in their place. Some Amish viewed this as an immoral contribution to the war.
Those Amish not subject to the draft were pressured for financial contributions. Some Mennonites (also pacifists) contributed heavily to the war effort. The Amish were more resistant on the grounds of non-violence. For the most part, the Amish suffered little persecution because of the Civil War.
Amish history of World War I was another story. Americans were surprised when their country joined in the fray. President Wilson had promised that America would remain neutral “in name and in practice.”
Once America was in the war, the government started a propaganda campaign to whip up support for the war. Though it was generally successful, the campaign had little influence on the Amish.
Conscription was unpopular so there was no draft when America joined the war. But within months a conscription act was passed. The government recognized religious conscientious objectors but had no formal guidelines for handling them.
Amish pacifists were placed in with the regular ranks, given uniforms and expected to participate in drills. Unofficially, the military hoped that peer pressure and separation from their culture would cause the Amish to give up their non-violent ways and become fighters.
To be sure, this strategy was successful in some cases. But most Amish refused to participate. Many were jailed, beaten and subjected to verbal abuse. When they refused to wear the uniform, they might be placed naked in a cell for days at time.
Though there is no record of anyone being killed, this treatment must surly have reminded the men of the Amish history of martyred forefathers.
At home the Amish also had to deal with war fever. The Amish and Mennonites were labeled German sympathizers. Many thought that since they spoke German and would not fight or buy war bonds, it followed that they must want Germany to win the war.
This attitude was not to be tolerated by their war fevered neighbors. Two Mennonite meetinghouses were burned down and many others were vandalized. Since the Amish did not have meetinghouses, they avoided this fate.
Patriotic groups hounded the Mennonites and Amish for their lack of participation in the war effort. The government placed all German speaking pacifist sects on a watch list.
The Amish were difficult to watch since they had no centralized organization. Their tradition of home meetings thwarted the government much as it had done in Europe during early Amish history.
After World War I the Amish were looked on with suspicion by the outside world. Their image would not change until mid century.
The Amish history of World War Two is somewhat better. The government did not want to repeat the earlier ill treatment of conscientious objectors. Clear guidelines were produced to handle the situation. During WWII and through the Vietnam War, drafted conscientious objectors were allowed to fulfill their obligation by providing free labor.
Selective service regulations stated that the service should "constitute a disruption" in the life of the conscientious objector.
The regulations specified that the work also:
- Contribute to the national health, safety or interest
- Be performed outside the area in which the person resides
- Be a position that cannot be readily filled from the competitive job market
Drafted Amish men were assigned work by public agencies. In the USA administration of the program was provided by the Civilian Public Service (CPS). In Canada it was the Alternative Service Work (ASW).
An unknown number of Amish men received farming and other deferments. Over 750 were drafted and served through the CPS and ASW.
Some examples of their work included:
- Groundskeepers in national parks
- Forest firefighters
- Hospital workers
- Workers on experimental farms
The Amish were not forced to fight but the alternative did cause some threats to their Amish culture. For example, a young Amish man might be assigned to work at a hospital which would also force him to live in a city.
Far from the support of the Amish community, the lonely young man would forge friendships with his coworkers who were outsiders and sometimes young women. The limited work week provided hours of idle time during which he could be influenced by the outside culture.
This exposure could cause him to question his desire to live the Amish lifestyle. If he fell in love and married outside the faith, he would be lost to the Amish community.
Some of the more conservative Old Order Amish refused to serve in any capacity and went to jail. They identified with the Amish history of their persecuted and imprisoned forefathers and came out of prison stronger in their beliefs.
A look at Amish history must include a brief look at the Amish school controversy. The clash between the Amish and the public schools centers on the issues of school consolidation and mandatory high school.
At the beginning of the 20th century the American countryside was dotted with one room schoolhouses. Amish children studied along side their non-Amish neighbors. Grades one through eight were all together and taught by one teacher.
These pubic schools satisfied needs of the Amish. Amish men served on the school board. The parents knew the teacher and had influence on what was being taught to their children. Formal schooling ended with the 8th grade.
Troubles began to appear on the horizon shortly after the First World War.
During the 20s, education reform came on the scene. Reformers pushed for mandatory high school attendance so that students could be exposed to more science, art, and pursuit of individual achievement. This, they said, would better prepare children to succeed in an increasingly modern and industrialized world.
Specialized classes along with activities like band, choir and sports could not be held if students were spread all over the county. So the reformers pushed for closing all the one room schools and building large consolidated schools with modern facilities to accommodate their programs.
The Amish had several problems with these new ideas.
The Amish believe that formal schooling in reading, writing and arithmetic will be adequate to function in the Amish community. They believe that formal schooling is just a part of a child's total education.
After the 8th grade, Amish education continues on the farm or in the workshop. Here the children learn how to make a living and run a household in the Amish community.
Amish parents believe that it is their responsibility to educate their children so that they will want to join the church. In this way they are responsible for their child's salvation.
Amish history shows a culture based on separation and resistance to changes of the modern world. Consolidation of the schools changed everything. Amish children would have to be bussed, sometimes many miles, to a large school where the teachers were strangers and the parents had much less influence on what was being taught.
States began raising the age of compulsory education to 15 then 16 forcing Amish children to attend high school. To the Amish, this posed a threat to their very existence. Their children would be exposed to and taught worldly values that directly contradicted their religious beliefs. This was not to be tolerated.
For years the Amish struggled to find ways to adapt to these new circumstances. Some local school districts made efforts to respect the Amish doctrine of separation. In Lancaster Pa. there was a public school for Amish only.
Some Amish children repeated the 8th grade until they were 16. Some Amish families migrated to other states with more favorable laws. Many Amish fathers went to jail for keeping their children home from school. It was clear that the Amish and public school system were on divergent paths and there was no stopping it.
In the late 1940's some parents changed the course of Amish history when they decided to withdraw from the public school system and form their own private schools. They built one room schools on land donated by Amish farmers. They chose their own teachers, usually a young Amish woman with an 8th grade education. The Amish were once again in control of schooling their children.
The idea grew and spread to other Amish communities throughout America. Prior to 1945 there were fewer than 10 Amish schools. The next two decades would see that number increase to 150.
Public officials found many faults in the Amish schools. Among their objections were the uses of non-certified teachers, outhouses, no central heating and of course, ending schooling with the completion of the 8th grade.
So the harassment continued. More Amish parents were dragged into court and jailed. The Amish refused to give in.
In 1965 the battle entered the national stage. In Buchanan County Iowa, local school officials had been trying to force the Amish to attend public school for several years. One fall morning officials arrived at an Amish schoolhouse intent on loading the kids on a bus and taking them to the local public elementary school.
Most of the students scattered. Newspaper photographers were present. They snapped photos of children fleeing into a cornfield to escape angry officials. These images incensed the American public and instantly created national support for the Amish cause. For the first time in Amish history, large numbers of the general public were learning about the Amish Culture.
People became aware that this struggle was being repeated in Amish communities across the country. Money poured in for fines and legal defense.
Did the Amish have the right to educate their children according to their religious beliefs?
In 1972 Amish history was made. In the case of Wisconsin vs. Yoder, matter was finally settled. The Supreme Court ruled the Amish had the right to educate their children according to their religious beliefs without interference of the government.
This was not only an important ruling in Amish History. It was the first successful challenge of the compulsory education laws. This ruling has been sited in many court cases since.
The Amish were now legally entitled to have their own schools. The growth of Amish schools was phenomenal. In 1965 there were 150 Amish schools. Today there are more than 1300 schools with over 35,000 students.
As the first half of the 20th century ended, many looked upon the Amish with suspicion. After two wars with Germany the Amish history of pacifism had cast doubt on their patriotism.
Outsiders generally considered the Amish to be a backward people. The Amish history of stubborn resistance to modern technology, their strict religious practices, their lack of higher education and their horse and buggy lifestyle made them subject to pity rather than admiration. Of course, the Amish cared little about the opinion of the outside world since their entire culture is based on separation from worldly sin.
After the Second World War the public perception of the Amish began to change.
Americans had been moving from farms to heavily populated urban centers since the before the turn of the century. They found jobs in factories and offices. They earned more money in less time than ever before but were becoming disenchanted with the rat race.
Many began to look back upon the lifestyle of their ancestors with nostalgia. They romanticized the old days of less pressure, clean air and healthy living.
The Amish became a symbol of this lifestyle. Civic leaders and businessmen in larger Amish settlements recognized the potential for tourism. The Amish were promoted as a slice of Americana; a romantic look into our agricultural past.
The promotion has worked. Today the Amish are admired. The Amish history of work ethic, family values, craftsmanship and perseverance are looked upon as prime examples of what has made America great. Millions of tourists flock to Amish country every year.
The Struggle Continues
Throughout Amish history outside worldly influences have threatened to erode the Amish culture. As we continue through the 21st century, the struggle to preserve their Amish identity will continue.
The Amish have been able to survive as a culture by maintaining closely knitted farm communities. But farmland has become so expensive that today less than half of the Amish men are farmers. The others have their own cottage industries, work in the trades or work in factories where they are exposed to outside influences on a daily basis.
Can the Amish working away from the farm maintain their identity? Will the Amish farmers be able to continue the Amish lifestyle? Or will the Amish be swallowed up by the modern culture? What will be the Amish history of the future?
Time will tell.
Return from Amish History to Amish Culture