The Amish are one of the most widespread examples of religious communities that separate themselves from the rest of the modern world.
They go to great lengths to deny themselves the conveniences of electricity, automobiles, and more, all in the name of maintaining spiritual purity and following the doctrine that was established by their founder many centuries ago.
But who was that founder? And where did he come from? More to the point, where did the Amish themselves originate?
To answer those questions, we’ll give a quick bulleted list.
Where Did the Amish Come From?
Here’s the bare-bones information about where the Amish originated:
- The Amish were founded by Jakob Ammann
- Ammann came from Switzerland
- Ammann and his followers caused a divide in the Swiss Brethren
- Ammann and his followers fled to Alsace-Lorraine (modern France)
- Ammann died prior to his followers being exiled
- The exiled Amish departed for the new world
But these are just the footnotes of a much larger story.
To tell it, we’ll need to go into more detail. In fact, we’ll have to go much further back than the Amish themselves — we’ll have to start with the Protestant Reformation.
Amish Origins Part I: The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a massive religious movement in Western Europe. During this movement, Martin Luther famously nailed a list of grievances he held against the Catholic Church to the door of a local cathedral.
This document was called the 95 Thesis, and it offered a compelling story of the corruptions of the Catholic Church at the time, all from the perspective of the layperson.
To summarize, Luther’s document ignited a wildfire of ideas and pushback against the Catholic Church. He even earned his own followers who still persist today, called Lutherans.
Other leaders, such as John Calvin, followed suit with Luther and founded their own denominations, each of which carried its own views on the Bible and Christian practices.
This fragmentation of the Catholic Church is easily one of the most pivotal events in the history of Western Europe. It’s best known for creating the Protestant denominations, which are groups of Christians who refused Catholic traditions in lieu of inventing their own.
Around the same time, King Henry VIII of England would found Anglicanism, also called the Church of England, to separate English Christianity from the power of Catholicism.
Altogether, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans would be grouped together as Protestants.
However, the Protestants weren’t the only group of new Christians to come from the Protestant Reformation.
Another one emerged that found itself at odds with not just the Catholic Church, but also the newly-founded Protestants themselves.
This group was called the Anabaptists.
Amish Origins Part II: The Anabaptists
The founding of Anabaptism is surprisingly murky to the point where it’s not 100% accurate to say any one person (or group of people) started the movement.
Anabaptism had its roots far in the past, and some would argue that the idea of Anabaptism has been around since the 400s.
Here’s why: Anabaptism, as the name implies, has a different view of baptism from Protestants and Catholics.
Both Protestants and Catholics baptize children shortly after their births in a tradition that is intended to purify their souls and allow them entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Instead, Anabaptists ask that their followers don’t get baptized until they’re adults, when they’re able to make the decision to follow the tenets of Christianity without having someone make that choice for them.
Their reasoning essentially breaks down to this: If you know what you’re getting into as an adult, you’re more likely to understand, support, and stick with the faith.
On top of that, Anabaptists take the mantle of Christianity — that is, being followers of Jesus Christ — very seriously. Their doctrine emphasizes the New Testament, as opposed to the stories of the Old Testament, and the teachings of Jesus, as opposed to the stories of the Hebrew Bible.
They believe that any one person who’s baptized should be making the same earnest and sincere commitment as Jesus’ own disciples.
However, baptism is not something that’s easily argued. Catholics and Protestants didn’t split from one another over baptism — in fact, it’s one of the only areas of the faith that they agreed.
But Anabaptists didn’t stay unified among themselves, either. Soon after their founding, a multitude of leaders took up ideological fellowships, any one of which could have turned into a full-fledged movement.
One of these leaders was Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonites.
Amish Origins Part III: Menno Simons & the Mennonites
Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest from Friesland, historically a part of the Netherlands. He was born in 1496 to a war-torn Holland that had grown disillusioned with everything from the Catholic Church to conventional government.
Life was hard, but Simons found himself among the company of local priests, who helped teach him Latin and Greek. As his education persisted, he was drawn further and further into the priesthood.
Eventually, around 1515, he was made a full priest, and he became the chaplain of his father’s village.
About 10 years later, Simons started thinking on the Christian concept of transubstantiation, which is the literal or metaphorical (depending on who you ask) change of common bread into the flesh of Jesus Christ during communion after the blessing.
Simons read more into this by reading the Bible, and he made a surprising discovery. While transubstantiation was a question on his mind, the phenomenon of infant baptism compelled him far more.
He discussed this with his superiors in the Church, and he was eventually transferred to a new jurisdiction called Witmarsum. There, he first encountered others who believed the same about baptism — and they called themselves Anabaptists.
Simons largely ignored the Anabaptists he encountered, at least from an ideological perspective. However, he is said to have respected their zeal and passion on an issue that he may have secretly agreed.
Another 10 years later, Simons receives grim news. His brother, Pietr, was killed with a group of radical Anabaptists.
These Anabaptists had stormed a Catholic monastery and taken it by force. The Catholics retaliated, and the ensuing fight was said to brutally one-sided.
Pietr lost his life, and Simons began questioning his faith.
In 1536, Simons left the priesthood and joined the Anabaptists.
Simons made a name for himself among the Anabaptists as a convert from the Roman Catholic priesthood (which was a huge deal) and an educated statesman. After joining them, he soon found himself with a group of followers.
They, like other Anabaptists, were compelled by7 the idea of rejecting infant baptism.
Unlike other Anabaptists, they also supported an idea that was unique to Simons — nonviolence.
Simons was arguably the first Anabaptist leader to reject violence in all of its forms, even in terms of self-defense. After marrying and fathering several children, Simons died in 1561, leaving behind a legacy that persists to this day.
Amish Origins Part IV: Jakob Ammann, the Swiss Brethren, & the Schism
About 80 years after the death of Menno Simons, Jakob Ammann was born in the canton of Bern, Switzerland.
Ammann is recorded as being the third of six children, and he followed in the footsteps of his fathers by becoming a tailor. He was illiterate for most of his life — possibly all of it — though he initialed and “made his mark” on many documents still existing to this day.
Despite being born a relative commoner, Ammann and his family is said to be quite wealthier than the others of his day. This is important, as it gave Ammann a life of relative comfort compared to the harsh realities of 1600s Europe.
This also allowed him to spend a healthy portion of his life discussing matters of faith, eventually becoming a senior leader in the Swiss Brethren, who were effectively Swiss Mennonites.
Ammann became known for his hardline approach to deviation from Swiss Brethren doctrine. He is recalled as being harsh, often unfairly harsh, and supporting the idea of excommunication for even mild offenses.
This attitude made him a polarizing subject of the time. It earned him a group of followers, and he vehemently stated he was not looking to start a “new faith.”
However, it also brought him at odds with the established leadership of the Swiss Brethren.
Eventually, this conflict came to a head during a council of Swiss Brethren elders in the late 1600s. In a nutshell, the council got heated, members took sides, and Ammann pronounced the excommunication of his opponents.
But Ammann’s opponents also excommunicated him.
With a minority of support on Ammann’s side, he left the Swiss Brethren with his followers. They, in turn, left Switzerland and traveled to Alsace-Lorraine, a region between France and Germany, in an effort to separate themselves and safely worship without persecution.
Though Ammann is reported at having made some effort toward reconciliation with the Brethren, a true moment of forgiveness never occurred.
As a result, this became known as The Schism in Anabaptist history.
Ammann passed away some time later, potentially as late as 1730.
His people, however, would persist as the Amish.
Amish Origins Part V: Ammann’s Legacy
Ammann’s legacy is best summarized in the Amish belief system.
It’s also accurate to say that the resulting “homelessness” of the Amish and their eventual landing in the New World can be attributed to Ammann himself.
After being kicked out of Alsace-Lorraine by King Louis of France, the Amish were once again in need of a home after the death of their leader.
Many sought refuge and home throughout Europe.
But others made for across the Atlantic.
Some of the earliest records of Amish coming to the Americas date back to the mid- or late-1700s, only a few decades after Ammann’s death.
Some landed in ports in what would be Pennsylvania, moving gradually inalnd to begin farming and cultivating the land.
The Amish became self-sufficient communities over time, and their relative isolaton from most of the rest of the Americas meant they could truly embrace their non-violent doctrine, even by avoiding the draft for the Revolutionary War.
The Amish would go on to become one of the few social groups recognized as conscientious objectors by the United States federal government, and they would continue to use the punishment of excommunication for egregious offenses (called meidung).
Now, about 400 years after they were founded, the Amish continue their way of life among the modern world in places like Lancaster, PA.
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