The History of the Amish (Part 4)
November 1, 2023
History of the Amish Series
Our history begins after the split of the “Ammannisch Leit” (Amish) from the remaining Anabaptists (Mennonites) in 1693. In the years following, there were a few failed attempts to reconcile the two groups.
The Amish developed clearer direction regarding clothes and outward appearance. They started as a small group in the Alsace region as well as in Palatinate and Switzerland. In the following decades, they grew and spread rapidly to the western parts of Germany and one community even settled in Austria. The Amish often lived in the same areas as the Mennonites, but had little contact with them.
The reasons for migration were mainly two: on the one hand, the growth of the Amish; on the other hand, conflicts with local or national authorities. Often, the Amish did not own their farms, but were leaseholders. These benefited both parties: the Amish were tolerated and protected, and the landlords had loyal tenants for their estates.
In church matters, the Amish had practices, such as strict shunning, that the rest of society did not understand. This made them outsiders. On the other hand, they tried to have good relationships with their neighbours. Sometimes one partner would join the Amish while the other would remain a state church adherent. As a result, the relationship of the Amish towards mainstream society became ambiguous.
Some Amish families moved further to the Netherlands, North America, and Eastern Europe because of persecution and international diplomacy. In 1711, the Swiss Bernese government shipped four boats of Amish to the Netherlands. The Mennonites nearly refused to ride on the same ship, and the few that did eventually travelled south to the Palatinate.
Already, a decade before the division, a Mennonite couple had migrated to Germantown, Pennsylvania. In the following decades, many accepted the invitation of William Penn, a Quaker from England, to come to his colony for religious freedom. The Quakers themselves were also a persecuted minority. It is unclear when the first Amish left for “the new world.” The first significant emigration was in 1737 when 21 Amish families sailed for Pennsylvania on ‘the Charming Nancy.’ Within about three decades, approximately 100 households followed. Others moved east towards Galicia (now southern Poland) and Volhynia (today part of Ukraine).
Several meetings about church discipline were held in the 18th century—the last one in 1779 in Essingen, at the home of the respected elder Hans Nafziger. The confession of faith printed in the Martyrs Mirror was confirmed, and guidelines for clothing (no fancy clothes or stylish grooming) and economically caring for each other were outlined. Many Amish who migrated took the Essingen discipline with them, thereby shaping Amish identity. Even though scattered over continents, the Amish remained united.
Migration to the New World
Crossing the Atlantic to North America was not easy in those days. Storms and disease regularly caused delay and death. Small children and older adults often died during the long journey which could take 60 to 90 days.
About 70,000 German-speaking Europeans came through the port of Philadelphia decades before the American Revolution; the Amish being one small part of this group which mainly consisted of Lutherans and Reformers. English speaking people quickly named them the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (a incorrect translation of “Deutsch” – German). The dialect they soon developed was named this way as well.
The first identifiable Amish settlement was in what later would be central Berks County, Pennsylvania. In the 18th century, other settlements were developing in Lancaster County, Mifflin County, Chester County, Somerset County and what would later become Lebanon County.
For the most part, the Amish did not live close to the Mennonites and held “very fast to the outward and ancient institutions,” according to a letter written to someone in the Netherlands. Their main occupation was farming, with some being millers or tanners. Life wasn’t easy for these first settlers, but the Amish relied on mutual aid and built strong communities.
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