Amish and Mennonite followers are often lumped together as the same group. In some areas, the terms are used interchangeably.
But the fact is that there are enormous differences between the Amish and Mennonite, despite the fact that they’re both Christian denominations.
One of the biggest differences between Amish and Mennonites is their age. Mennonites are significantly older than Amish by about 136 years. The first use of the term “Mennonite” was around 1544, and the first use of the term “Amish” was around 1680.
Ironically, that means that Mennonites, the older denomination, embrace technology and modern conveniences more readily than the Amish, the younger denomination.
Anyway, that’s the short answer.
The long answer is much more detailed.
When Were Mennonites Founded?
The term “Mennonite” was first used around 1544 to describe the followers of a German Anabaptist named Menno Simons.
Before then, Simons was a Catholic priest. He chose to leave the priesthood (and all of Catholicism) after a group of Catholics attacked and killed his brother, Pieter.
After leaving the Church, Simons was re-baptized as an Anabaptist in 1536 — which was a killable offense during the Protestant Reformation.
Still, Simons proved himself to his new religious community as an innovative thinker and a devout pacifist. He rejected all notions of violence, even those that were promoted by other Anabaptist leaders, and quickly grew his own following of Anabaptists.
In 1544, the term “Mennonite” was first used to describe Anabaptists who were also committed to non-violence, particularly those who lived in Holland. This commitment went beyond a standard oath, however, as stories were passed throughout Europe of Anabaptists who willingly gave up their lives instead of defending themselves against violence.
In just eight years, Simons had gone from a disgraced Catholic priest to a sect leader during the largest change in Christian history.
Simons passed away about 17 years later on January 31, 1561 at his home in Holland. He was buried in his back yard and survived by a wife, two daughters, and a son.
When Were Amish Founded?
On February 12, 1644, a Swiss baby was born by the name of Jakob Ammann.
Ammann was the middle of six children and worked as a tailor for the beginning portion of his life. He was most likely illiterate, and he was probably baptized Catholic shortly after his birth.
Then, around 1680, Ammann began making waves around Switzerland when he gradually turned his ideology toward Anabaptism. The exact date of his conversion isn’t known, but it most likely happened between 1671 and 1680.
Then, between 1680 and 1693, Ammann was ordained into the Anabaptist ministry. 1693 is also the time that Ammann began to break with the Swiss Brethren, his original Anabaptist denomination and the Swiss equivalent of Mennonites.
Probably to escape religious persecution, Ammann fled to the mountainous Alsace region that is now situated among modern France, Germany, and Switzerland. He then most likely left the region in late 1712 after an edict from Louis XIV expelled Anabaptists from Alsace.
No one is quite sure when Ammann died, but it’s almost certain he didn’t live past 1730.
During this time, Ammann wrote almost nothing aside from leaving his “mark” on official paperwork and three letters that he allegedly wrote. As a result, most of what we know about Ammann comes from people writing about him, which isn’t a great way to get to know a historical figure.
Regardless, it’s what we have.
From the get-go of these remaining writings, we know that Ammann was an extraordinarily controversial figure in the Anabaptist sect.
He began making waves by being fanatically dedicated to his own interpretation of the New Testament and, as a result, was a “firm disciplinarian” as noted by several of his critics.
He’s also noted as having rejected core tenets of Swiss Brethren doctrine and believed that those who were baptized and followed him should follow his ideology no matter the cost.
This, more than anything else, is what drove Ammann’s followers — the Amish — to actively separate themselves from the rest of the world, even in the 1600s and 1700s. Ammann also refused to uphold traditions that he felt were not supported by Biblical precedence, which served to alienate himself and his followers more from the culture at large.
Strangely enough, Ammann denied repeatedly that he was trying to begin a faith of his own. Instead, his critics note that he believed the process of baptism would be a new birth of the spirit as someone moves from who they were into who they are supposed to be.
It’s important to note that Ammann was still a prominent member of Anabaptist leadership at this point, and he retained the power to excommunicate those who disagreed with him. At one point, he excommunicated seven ministers who each led their own congregations, which created a deep fissure between his followers and the Anabaptist establishment.
The excommunicated ministers responded by excommunicating Ammann, and the rift became permanent.
Try as they might, Ammann and the excommunicated ministers never fully reconciled. The issue of social shunning — the process by which the Amish cut all ties with those who have chosen to left the faith — was not accepted by the excommunicated side, and Ammann refused to budge.
Eventually, they went their separate ways.
Today, the descendants of Ammann’s followers stay shockingly dedicated to the teachings of a man who died more than a dozen generations ago. They also follow three of the telltale signs of Ammann himself:
- A rejection of long hair on men
- A rejection of shaved faces on men
- A rejection of clothing that created any sense of pride
And that’s how we have the Amish.
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One thought on “Which Came First: Amish or Mennonite?”
Despite having lived in South Central Pennsylvania for much of my life, I’d never “gone deep” on this difference, even though I knew them in a cursory way. Very interesting–thanks very much.What about that “house” versus “school” Amish we used to hear about?