The History of the Amish (Part 3)
March 1, 2023
History of the Amish Series
Anabaptist Survival Strategies
While Anabaptist in northern Europe were occupied with solving internal matters, the Anabaptists in southern Europe, especially Switzerland, were facing persecution and hardship. After 1614, the Swiss government ceased killing Anabaptists in order to avoid creating religious martyrs. However, the persecution did not end. The Swiss Anabaptists were imprisoned, fined and exiled. These measures were meant to discourage Anabaptist growth.
From 1648 on, an unexpected opportunity came for Anabaptists looking for a peaceful existence. The Thirty Year War had come to an end and the population had dropped drastically. In some places, only half of the inhabitants had survived. Farmland lay bare with no one to cultivate it. The situation was so desperate that rulers invited the cast-out Anabaptists to come work their lands. Many moved to the Palatinate and Alsace region. The duke of Alsace, however, set conditions: the Anabaptists could live in freedom, but could not proselytize, build church buildings, or meet in large groups. Despite these restrictions and heavier taxes, many Anabaptists saw this as a better opportunity than staying in Switzerland and undergoing the harassment and persecution that they had suffered for years.
New Disagreements Arise
The Anabaptists who remained in Switzerland continued to face hardship and persecution, and therefore occasionally chose to visit the state church. The help of non-Anabaptists neighbours could mean the difference between imprisonment and freedom. Neighbours who were sympathetic, hid the Anabaptists, interceded for them, or provided important social and political contacts. This group became known as “Half-Anabaptists” (Halbtäufer) or “True-hearted” (Treuherzige).
The question arose: could the true-hearted be saved? Anabaptists in Palatinate and Alsace viewed them as unsaved. They drew a strict distinction between people inside and outside the Anabaptist church. The church would not rely on the true-hearted for help in times of trouble. God alone would see them through. This group took shunning seriously and practiced a strict avoidance toward wayward members.
A different view was held by most of the Swiss Anabaptists. They held the view that they simply could not know whether the true-hearted were saved – God alone would judge their hearts.
Jacob Ammann and Hans Reist
In the midst of this disagreement, a man named Jacob Ammann arose in the Anabaptist group in the Alsace region. Not much is known about him, but it is clear that he was a recent convert who did not grow up in a Mennonite family. He called for change and revival within the church and proposed for more frequent communion services. Preparation for the Lord’s supper included examining one’s life and relationships with God and other people. Ammann believed that more frequent communion would encourage members to give greater attention to their lives and also imply stricter church discipline, since people living in open sin would be kept away from the communion table.
Hans Reist, of Switzerland, balked at Ammann’s ideas. He was a friend of the true-hearted and kept the possibility open that they could be saved. Reist also did not practice strict social shunning of wayward members. For him, it was enough to exclude them from the yearly communion table.
Since the matter was disturbing and confusing the congregations, it was decided to hold a public debate between Ammann and Reist. Reist did not show up. A second invitation for a public debate was sent out to all ministers. Again – Reist did not attend. Someone was dispached to urgently ask Reist to attend. He refused, stating that he was busy with harvesting. Jacob Ammann was furious and placed Reist under the ban. A shock wave went through those present and everyone waited for someone to speak a word of peace. However, the only words spoken, were the words of Peter Zimmerman, Ammann’s associate: “There you have it.”
Ammann wrote letters to all the congregations, asking them to choose a side. The congregations that sided with Reist or remained undecided by March 7, 1694, would be shunned by the congregations that sided with Ammann. These congregations soon became known as the “Ammanish Leit” or “Amish.” Thus, the Amish church was born.
Perhaps because Ammann was a tailor, he put importance in the appearance of people. Men were to wear untrimmed beards. Buttons, which were connected to the ornamental style of military uniforms, were forbidden. Ammann also forbade moustaches, which were often worn by soldiers.
A few years later Ammann and other Amish leaders felt they had acted too quickly – but it was too late to make the schism undone. They could not come to an agreement with the Mennonites anymore. Several Amish leaders – including Ammann himself, excommunicated themselves from the church, as an expression of their repentance. Since the Amish and Mennonites never reconciled, Ammann, unfortunately, died while being in the ban he had put himself in.
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