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What's the Difference between Amish & Mennonite? (According to an Ex-Mennonite)

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.

#1. Baptism

The Catholic Church baptizes individuals shortly after 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 like a matter of semantics to outsiders, this was a huge deal in the 1500s.

Anabaptists, Protestants, and Catholics killed each other frequently in Medieval Europe, involved in a three-way war that saw no real victor despite the number of lives it claimed.

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.

#2. History

Fair warning — this section of the blog is going to be long.

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.

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 that outlined 95 different ways the Church should change.

It turns out that a lot of commoners agreed, and soon Martin had his following of Lutherans, the first Protestants.

About the same time, a Dutch priest named Menno Simons became disillusioned with the Catholic priesthood.

He started changing his colors and meeting with Protestant leaders. Soon, he became one of their contemporaries.

Then, in 1535, Simons's brother Pietr was killed by a group of militant Catholics. Pietr 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 Catholic monastery.

The Catholic retaliation killed almost 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. The name "Mennonites" was applied to his followers as early as 1544.

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 wrote about him.

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 — especially to large armies weighed down with weapons and armor — which made it a great place to retreat if you were facing religious persecution.

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 Amishcontinue 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.

Paradoxically, he regularly denied that he was trying to start a new religion or denomination. He considered himself more of an agent of change than a harbinger of something new. Whether he was lying or honest, he wound up creating a spinoff denomination of the Swiss Mennonites.

They couldn't shave. They couldn't wear clothing that made them proud. If you lied, you were excommunicated.

(However, it's worth noting that Ammann had a mustache, which is today forbidden.)

In 1712, records of Ammann stopped in official government documentation. He probably died at the very-old-age-for-the-time of 70.

The Amish continued.

But that's enough history.

Let's talk about the issues of today.

#3. Electricity

"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 — 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. Mennonites use electricity.

#4. Politics

Amish and Mennonite congregations are famously conservative from a political standpoint. They pretty much vote republican, often because they've always voted that way.

While this will may always be true with Amish voters, Mennonite voters are changing.

Progressive strands of Mennonites are emerging in previously-conservative communities. This could stem from a number of factors, but it's probably because Mennonite youths have the same access to technology and information as the rest of the modern world, so they're more inclined to accept modern ideologies.

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.

For example, you can be a gay Mennonite who votes democrat today. Even 20 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 similar sentiment that's become as disgusting as it is antiquated.

And it's all about...

#5. Sexism

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. They also have to wear special head decoration to display their modesty and they get no votes in the direction, leadership, or general livelihood of their communities.

Amish denominations are, as far as I know, unanimous in their exclusion of women from any and all positions of official community 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, usually under the umbrella of "traditionalism."

But really, the reason doesn't matter. Sexism is sexism, regardless of how it's spun.

As noted above, that's why both Amish and some Mennonite women wear coverings, which are often just doilies repurposed to the tops of their heads.

Does it do anything practical? No. It's supposed to be a symbolic gesture of modesty to God.

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.

#6. Machinery

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 (among other strictures).

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, gas-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.

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 a little more comfortably.

#7. Cooking

Amish and Mennonite cooking has its reputation in areas where these beliefs are common.

Amish cooking revolves around the use of 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 to a plow.

The nutritional value of Amish cooking isn't often discussed because "nutrition" is a secondary consideration to having enough energy to do everything throughout the day.

This varies slightly from Mennonite cooking, which can run the gamut from being worldly to 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 because Mennonites may not always be in positions of manual labor.

In addition, the growing number of Mennonites in foreign cultures — like Kenya and Haiti — means that Mennonite cooking can encompass a variety of different backgrounds, flavors, and techniques.

Because of Mennonite evangelism over the past few decades, "Mennonite cooking" may no longer be an accurate term. Instead, it's probably more accurate to say that Mennonites include a variety of different cooking styles.

As a result, Mennonite cooking can look more familiar to non-Mennonites than Amish cooking.

#8. "Simplicity"

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. The further you can isolate yourself from those things, the better you'll be spiritually.

Incidentally, that can also allow your faith to monopolize your time and life.

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, particularly in more rural and isolated communities of Amish and Mennonites.

Still, the idea of removing yourself from the world applies to one particular area of Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Amish doctrine, which can isolate practitioners even further from society at large.

#9. Non-Violence

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 unanimously 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 toward 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 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 chose to waive that status and enlist in the United States Army Air Force.

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 in the local cemetery.

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 is at its heart.

The reason I'm telling this story is that it shows the importance and stricture around the idea of non-violence to the Amish community.

Are Mennonites as dedicated to non-violence as the Amish?

Not quite.

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.

#10. Taxes

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.

The Amish also 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?

Not really.

They've got each other.

#11. Home Ownership

Mennonites buy houses like the rest of modern society. 30-year mortgages, interest rates, caps on loaned amounts because of credit, etc.

The Amish, on the other hand, can often work out a unique type of deal with a local bank that allows them to purchase large tracts of land, even if they're not wealthy.

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.

For the Amish, they get a farm and livelihood that doesn't force them to go broke.

#12. Diversity

Diversity is interesting for Amish and Mennonites.

For the Amish, it's non-existent. The Amish are white Europeans of 99.99%+ German and Swiss descent.

The main reason they're Amish is probably 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 sincerely try to help people in need, as opposed to making empty gestures.)

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 usually more active and perhaps even conflicting in their internal ideologies than the Amish because they have to reconcile their beliefs with the larger world.

Mennonites who go abroad see poverty. They see hardship. They may even experience violence.

The Amish are far less likely to experience that on a global scale.

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 near-only white, if not exclusively.

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