I grew up attending a Mennonite church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Whenever that comes up, I’m always asked the question — “What’s the difference between Amish and Mennonite?”
There are a bunch, but they’re usually not significant enough for non-Mennonites or non-Amish to realize.
So if you’ve ever found yourself asking that question, here’s what you should know — straight from someone who was baptized Mennonite with distant Amish family.
We’ll start with the issue that led to both Mennonites and Amish emerging from Christianity.
It all focused on baptism.
The Catholic Church baptizes individuals the moment when they’re born.
Mennonites and Amish say that baptism is a choice, which is a belief they cribbed from earlier forms of Anabaptism.
While this may sound pointless to anyone who’s not religious, this was a huge freaking deal in the 1500s.
Anabaptists, Protestants, and Catholics killed each other like murder was a fashion statement.
Their discourse was brief, their leaders were uncompromising, and their faiths were absolute.
Just as Catholicism splintered into different regional orthodoxies and Protestantism splintered into different churches, Anabaptists globbed off into belief systems of their own.
That includes both the Mennonites and the Amish.
However, the way they came about is completely different. In fact, the Mennonite belief system is more than 100 years older than the Amish.
Buckle up — this comparison is going to take a while.
In the 1500s, the Catholic Church was the law throughout most of Europe. What they said was true, especially if you were an unwashed, uneducated, illiterate peasant working the fields so your betters could grow fat on the bounties of your labors.
Economic commentary aside, the Church was first majorly challenged by a particularly strong-willed German named Martin Luther, famous for nailing his 95 Thesis to the doors of a cathedral.
Martin’s Thesis laid out 95 different ways the church should improve to benefit society.
It turns out that a lot of commoners agreed, and soon Martin had his following of Lutherans.
About the same time, another German named Menno Simons — a Catholic priest, actually — became disillusioned with the priesthood.
He started changing his colors and meeting with protestant leaders. Soon, he became one of their contemporaries.
Then, in 1535, Simons’s brother Pieter was killed by a group of militant Catholics. Pieter belonged to a group of Anabaptists — radicals who argued baptism was a choice to be made in adulthood, as opposed to ceremony to be had at birth — who had attacked and taken a monastery.
In true Catholic fashion, the militants killed all of the Anabaptists, including Pieter.
Simons then rejected his position as a priest and joined the Anabaptists. He was re-baptized — a huge faux pas for 1500s Catholicism — in 1536.
After Simons became ordained, he rejected all notions of violence that were promoted by other Anabaptist leaders.
Simons started a following of his own. In fact, the name “Mennonites” was applied to his followers as early as 1544.
In just eight years, Menno Simons had started a subsect of a subsect of Catholicism that resonated with the people of Holland in particular.
Mennonites had been born.
Fast forward 150-some years and jump to Switzerland, and you’d be just in time for the birth of Jakob Ammann.
Ammann “became infected with the Anabaptist sect” in 1680, according to someone in the Swiss government who clearly hated Ammann with a righteous passion.
He later moved to the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, which bordered Switzerland and Germany.
That would also happen to be the location where he had the greatest following. Considering its isolation among mountains and valleys, Alsace-Lorraine was largely inaccessible back in those days, which (I’m guessing) made heresy difficult to contain.
Ammann was known as a strict disciplinarian with an idealism that bordered on harsh. It’s also possible that he regularly imposed his views on others around him, acting more in the manner of a military leader than a missionary or a prophet.
These views included a regimented separation from the rest of the world, which the followers of Ammann — the Amish — continue to practice to this very day.
Ammann encouraged everyone who would listen to “forsake the world” so that they could be free of the sinful and indulgent ways of those around them.
He regularly denied that he was trying to start a new religion or denomination. Whether he was lying or honest, he wound up doing exactly that.
With a strict leader, strict rules, and harsh punishments for anyone who deviated from either, Ammann led a very small sect of Anabaptists.
They couldn’t shave. They couldn’t wear clothing that made them proud. If you lied, you were excommunicated.
Also, Ammann had a mustache, which is today forbidden.
Regardless, Ammann had his followers.
And, oh boy, did they follow him.
In 1712, records of Ammann stopped in official government documentation. He probably died at the insanely-old-age-for-the-time of 70.
The Amish continued.
But that’s enough history.
Let’s talk about the issues of today.
“Amish can’t use electricity” is one of the biggest misconceptions of the Amish faith.
It’s true to a certain degree.
A lot of Amish groups — yes, there are more than one — permit individuals to use electricity in areas that aren’t their homes.
Most of the time, that means that an Amish family has electrical service to their barn.
That doesn’t mean Amish children play XBox and watch Netflix.
But it does mean that telephones, cell phones, and radios are all in their wheelhouse.
The Amish aren’t as isolated today as they were in the 1600s, even after they emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine and spilled into Pennsylvania and the Midwest.
They know what’s around them — and they want it just the same as the rest of us.
There’s a caveat, though. The bishop is the person who decides all of these rules for an Amish group.
Since there’s no centralized Amish leadership, that means the Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania have slightly different beliefs from the Amish of anywhere else.
A lot of the time, this is denoted by the clothing, appearance, or transportation the Amish use.
If you want a quick way to identify different Amish denominations, you just have to look at the top of their buggies.
- Black Toppers: The most “progressive” Amish sect in which you may see them using cell phones or electric lights on their buggies
- Yellow Toppers: The middle-ground Amish sect that shuns more modern conveniences, but still allows members to do things like paint their barns to keep the wood from rotting over time
- White Toppers: The ultra-conservative Amish who are dedicated to fundamentalist interpretations of what little written correspondence remains from Ammann himself; they only wear one suspender strap because that’s all you need to hold your pants up, and they may carry physical hallmarks of centuries of closed-community inbreeding
That’s the Amish view.
For Mennonites, the answer is simpler.
It goes like this:
Amish and Mennonite congregations are famously conservative from a political standpoint. They pretty much vote republican, often because someone told them to vote like that.
While this will probably always be true with Amish voters, Mennonite voters are changing.
Progressive strands of Mennonites are emerging in previously-conservative areas. This could stem from a number of factors, but it’s probably because Mennonite youths have the same access to technology and information as any other person.
As a result, they see what’s happening in the world. They understand the problems of today.
They have a greater and more detailed concept of what’s happening in the world than generations past.
That worldliness — which Mennonites traditionally shun, according to their doctrine — has led to more forward-thinking individuals coming of age in Mennonite communities.
You can be a gay Mennonite who votes democrat today.
10 years ago, you’d have a hard time admitting any of that and remaining in good standing with your congregation.
This brings us to a very special point of the Amish / Mennonite belief system.
While they’re both quite different in their own ways, they both share a despicable sentiment that’s become as disgusting as it is antiquated.
And it’s all about…
I’ll get this out of the way early — I’m not speaking for every single Amish and Mennonite person on this.
I’m speaking about it from my experience and perspective on both Amish and Mennonites, two groups that I’m thankful to be outside now.
For the Amish, this view is easy to explain — women are less than men.
They’re mothers. They’re laborers. They’re human-shaped entities with beating hearts and breathing lungs.
Socially speaking, they get and say and own nothing.
Amish denominations are, as far as I know, unanimous in their exclusion of women from any and all positions of influence.
Church leadership, social standing, and just about every other aspect of Amish life is controlled by men.
This also used to be the case for Mennonites.
But because of subsequent generations being more involved with the world, this is now also changing.
(It’s slow, but it’s changing.)
Female pastors can be found in Mennonite churches across the country today, though many of them face challenges and obstacles that their male counterparts will never face.
Glass ceilings, double standards, derogatory comments, and all other elements of prejudice play a part in this religious sexism.
The most conservative Mennonites can try to justify their anti-women sentiment in just about any way they can think.
But really, the reason doesn’t matter.
That’s why both Amish and Mennonite women wear coverings, which are often just doilies repurposed to the tops of their heads.
Does it do anything?
It’s supposed to be a symbolic gesture of modesty to God, whom we all know resides above us, apparently.
Men, on the other hand, do not have the same strictures on their personal dress.
The justification for this belief is the same reason for any other prejudice — that women are somehow different from men (and subservient to them) because of the circumstances of their birth.
This antiquated, prejudicial belief is problematic, although it’s also a part of the Amish tradition. As a result, this leads to many women staying in their Amish communities, even when they face discrimination, since the prejudice has been normalized.
Some Mennonite women may feel the same, but it’s much easier for Mennonites to leave their churches and become ex-Mennonites.
Anyway, let’s move onto something less frustrating.
Machinery is an interesting discussion point in Amish life.
Amish doctrine dictates that you essentially can’t use something if it’s a luxury. That’s why they don’t drive cars.
But field equipment? Bulk movers? Excavation gear?
That’s a different story.
The workaround for this could be any number of rationales. One that I’ve heard the most is that it’s not conceivable to run a modern farm using exclusively animal-drawn equipment.
That may be true.
But it’s also a solid sign that modern times are catching up to the Amish way of life.
Plus, necessities are dictated by the times in which they’re contextualized. So in an age of digital near-instant communication, propane-powered farm equipment seems almost quaint.
(Also, remember that they can have an use cell phones in certain loopholes.)
As for Mennonites?
All is up for grabs.
Mennonites — except for Old Order Mennonites and ultra-conservative sects — have open access to the world’s technology.
The more conservative Mennonites may observe certain restrictions on technology, like only driving black cars.
(Other colors could be too proud, I guess.)
That means farming equipment, computers, television, Internet, and all the other luxuries of modern living.
They may be luxuries.
But, hey, sometimes it’s nice to live easier.
Amish and Mennonite cooking has its reputation in areas where these beliefs are common.
Amish cooking practically revolves around the use of ultra-heavy butter, salt, and carbs. It’s farm food that gives you the bodily energy to do things like moving cartloads of wheat and strapping six workhorses into a plow.
The nutritional value of Amish cooking is debatable because “nutrition” isn’t in most Amish people’s vocabulary.
With an eighth-grade education, you really only have time to talk about language, math, and God.
This varies slightly from Mennonite cooking, which is Amish-inspired.
Mennonite cuisine can include just as much butter, carbs, and salt as its Amish counterparts.
The difference lies in the worldly knowledge of the cooks.
So Mennonite cooking can be tweaked. You can add ingredients and take others away.
You don’t have to rely purely on ham balls to get through the next day.
You can, y’know, eat a leafy green.
We’ve touched on this in previous sections, but the concept of “simplicity” is in both Amish and Mennonite doctrine.
It’s summed up best in a single quote from my old What We Believe book that I read before getting baptized:
“We are called to be in the world, but not of the world.”Anabaptist Mantra
So what does that mean?
It means that Amish and Mennonites are both “called” to be people in the world and live among everyone else.
But it also means that they have to restrict their indulgences so that they don’t become like everyone else.
This idea of social and ideological isolation is crucial to the Anabaptist concept of spiritual purity.
The world is full of sin and terrible, Godless things.
The further you can isolate yourself from those things, the better you’ll be spiritually.
Incidentally, that can also make you pretty miserable.
Church can take precedence over fun.
Church can be emphasized more than social development in children.
In fact, children can lose whole childhoods to the demands of their elders simply to go to church, sit in a pew, and listen to some uneducated zealot talk about how everyone’s going to hell.
This idea, at its core, relies on a conflict of two other ideas in Amish and Mennonite doctrine.
First, you’re made in God’s image and you should be thankful for that fact.
Second, you’re not perfect, so God only loves you because God shows you grace. You suck.
So how is it possible for someone to be made in God’s image and constantly disappoint that same God?
I can confidently say that no Mennonite or Amish thinker has ever thought that much about it.
Still, the idea of removing yourself from the world applies to one particular area of Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Amish doctrine, which isolates them even further from society at large.
Despite their violent beginnings in the 1500s, the majority of Anabaptist doctrine is now focused on non-violence.
This means pacifism — for example, not participating in war — and extends to everyday life.
Fist fights are ideologically condemned by Mennonites and Amish.
Killing is ultra-condemned.
Military service is actually frowned upon, perhaps making the Amish and Mennonites two of the only divisions of American society that don’t hold the branches of the military in high esteem.
In fact, physical conflicts of any kind are supposed to be condemned, despite records of spousal abuse and violence about women in both faiths.
Still, the American government recognizes the Amish and Mennonites as justifiable reasons to attain “conscientious objector” status.
COs are individuals who decline military service because they disagree on a fundamental level with the purpose and morality of killing, regardless of its context.
Some Amish sects are so dedicated to this idea that they’ll refuse to allow veterans or those killed in action to be buried in community cemetery plots.
This actually happened to my great uncle Urie Zook, who was killed by friendly fire while on a train to a concentration camp in 1945.
He wasn’t drafted into a fighting force because of his CO status from his Amish upbringing.
He survived his first tour as a B-17 ball turret gunner. Then, he enlisted again. His plane was shot down, he survived the crash, and he was killed in an Allied bombing run.
When his remains were returned to Belleville, Pennsylvania, the local bishop refused to allow Urie to be buried with the rest of his family.
After some of what I’d imagine to be the most heated arguments a community can handle without splintering from the outrage, Urie was “permitted” to be buried on the outskirts of the cemetery.
Today, the cemetery is so large that Urie might as well be right at its heart.
I’m telling this story for two reason:
- It shows how important non-violence is to Amish doctrine
- Seriously, screw that bishop
Are Mennonites as dedicated to non-violence as the Amish?
You can find Mennonites who praise military service and honor the veterans who serve.
You can find Mennonites who are ex-service themselves.
And when they die, they probably won’t be ordered to be buried separately from their families. Instead, they’ll most likely receive the military honors that they earned.
Taxes are surprisingly simple for Amish and Mennonites.
Mennonites pay taxes. Pure and simple.
Amish don’t pay medicare or social security. They pay everything else.
The Amish don’t pay medicare because they don’t participate in it. They actually create community-based health insurance pools that members can use to pay for their own healthcare “out of pocket.”
Whenever an Amish person goes to the doctor or hospital, they charge it to the pooled account.
Then they leave without any medical debt.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because this is a form of universal healthcare.
Then, the Amish don’t pay into social security.
That’s because they have strong family ties with one another, often resulting in mixed family households that include three or more generations.
So, do they need social security?
They’ve got each other.
#11. Home Ownership
Fun thing about Mennonites and Amish.
First, Mennonites buy houses like the rest of us. 30-year mortgages, interest rates, caps on loaned amounts because of credit, etc.
The Amish, on the other hand, get this cool perk with banks who know about them.
It’s called the 100-year mortgage.
Here’s how it works.
Amish families don’t move that much. Land changes hand because a landowner dies and their next-of-kin inherits it.
So the same farms stay in the same families for generations.
Sometimes, you may say, they stay in the same family for 100+ years.
So when a 20-something Amishman goes to the bank and asks for a loan to buy a whole farm, the bank listens.
They know they can loan him $1,000,000 and place him on a 100-year mortgage.
Then, by the time his great-grandson controls the farm, it’ll finally be paid off.
And the bank?
They’ll have made an enormous amount of money.
For small local banks with strong ties to Amish groups, this can make an enormous difference in long-term revenue and sustainability.
After all, what’s a cool million between an Amish guy and a bank that understands how much farms are worth?
Diversity is interesting for Amish and Mennonites.
For the Amish, it’s non-existent. The Amish are white Europeans of predominantly German and Swiss descent.
The only reason they’re Amish is because their parents were Amish.
Mennonites, however, have a much richer diversity.
This is in part because of organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, which sends missionaries and mission workers to impoverished areas across the country.
Kenya, Haiti, China, Vietnam — they’re all accessible by MCC, and MCC uses that access to spread the Mennonite word in a mostly-positive way.
(“Mostly-positive” means they actually try to help people instead of sending English-language Bibles to a bunch of hungry people who need vaccinations.)
As a result, you can find anyone of any background in a Mennonite church.
Granted, they’re mostly people of white European descent.
But the spread of MCC and other missionary organizations creates the opportunity for inclusion that includes ethnicity, ideology, background, and more.
As a result, Mennonite congregations are generally more interesting than Amish ones because they actually have to reconcile their beliefs with the real world.
Mennonites who go abroad see poverty. They see hardship. They may even experience violence.
They eat, work, and reproduce. Their lives are much more controlled in the sense of community expectations since the Amish are a closed community, largely isolated from outsiders by their ideologies and strictures.
This means that modern Amish are, to the best of my knowledge, exclusively white.
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