Anabaptist history can best be understood by going all the way back to the early first century church.
This New Testament Church had its technical beginning as the body of Christ while Jesus was on earth and called together his disciples and the twelve apostles.
After Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, He remained on earth yet another forty days instructing His followers.
Forty days after His resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven leaving His followers with the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit and of His own Second Coming.
That day is now referred to as Ascension Day. Ascension Day is calculated as forty days or the sixth Thursday after Easter each year. It is considered to be an important holiday celebrated by the Amish.
The early church centered around Jerusalem as it blossomed on the Day of Pentecost. But persecution drove many believers from Jerusalem and literally scattered them throughout the then known world of the Roman Empire.
Roots and Beginnings
Having survived persecution, the early church flourished. Then, under the rule of Emperor Constantine, the church went from being illegal to membership being required for citizenship.
For over one thousand years the official Church of Rome became the heart and soul of society, the fabric that held civilization together.
The scope and power of the Roman Church so grew that it held control over nearly every aspect of European life.
Due to various economic hardships and turbulent social pressures of the early sixteenth century, the Roman Church was beginning to loose its stronghold of authority in some areas across Europe.
The Reformation began because of the growing dissatisfaction with the Church of Rome and the basic alliance of the government and the church as well as various teachings and doctrines that had emerged over the centuries.
Swiss and German Roots
In approximately 1517, a German monk from Wittenberg, by the name of Martin Luther began to publish his writings and lectures.
He disagreed not only with the structure of the church and government, but with the basic doctrines of the Church of Rome itself.
At the same time a fellow Reformer and priest in the Swiss city of Zurich, named Hulrych Zwingli, began preaching against these beliefs and tenants as well.
Luther and Zwingli both advocated that the Bible taught of salvation by grace through faith alone.
They rejected the doctrines of penance, purgatory and indulgences. They believed in the symbolic rather than literal use of the body and blood of Christ at communion-known as transubstantiation.
They advocated freedom for priests to marry, and believed that they should conduct services in languages besides Latin. They held to the priesthood of all believers, and that the Bible should be able to be read by the common man.
These and other beliefs coupled with the rejection of church tradition and canonical law drew large followings of other reform-minded people. Among these was a prominent member of the church in Zurich named Conrad Grebel.
Conrad Grebel was led to faith by Zwingli himself. Thousands across Germany and Switzerland began meeting together in groups outside of the Roman Church and continued to spread the basic beliefs that fueled the Reformation flames.
Yet even within these ranks, there were those who did not agree with Luther's and Zwingli's reliance upon local governments to help support and enact the desired changes and reformations to the church.
Particularly concerned were the young dissenters of Zurich who could not agree with the compromising of Biblical doctrine and ethical teachings to satisfy church membership requirements.
They rejected the continued strong bond of church and state alliance that had now formed within Protestant churches as well.
They also felt that the protestant reformers had not gone far enough in their return to the early church. They desired to go completely back to the practices of the Apostles in the first church.
The Name Anabaptists
During the early Reformation period, the dissenters form the Church of Rome strongly held to such doctrines as salvation by grace, voluntary commitment to Christ and baptism—the indication of commitment to Christ and sign of voluntary church membership.
They rejected the idea of infant baptism, saying that these children are far to young to understand the implications and seriousness of Biblical teaching.
In 1525, the city officials of Zurich, Switzerland went so far as to require these dissenters, or radical reformers, to stop their own meetings and baptize their children or face expulsion from the community.
In an act of defiance a man named Blaurock and a man named Conrad Grebel re-baptized themselves and the others in their group to show their commitment to Christ and that their own baptism as infants was meaningless. Because of this, they were referred to as Anabaptists—meaning re-baptizers.
Though adult rebaptism was the most obvious outward indication of their differing belief system, it was their concept of the church and its proper relationship to (and separation from) the state that was their underlying and driving force. And it was this fundamental characteristic that possibly caused them a most painful and difficult future.
Throughout the sixteenth century these Anabaptists, as they were then called, were widely persecuted and even exiled.
Yet there message had taken root in the hearts of many and began to spread to the rural countryside about Zurich, Switzerland and even into the surrounding countries of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, the Netherlands and Moravia.
Itinerant preachers, dissenting merchants and booksellers all carried their message abroad.
The persecution against them continued. Some of the Swiss city-states went so far as to employ bounty hunters to track them down and even enslave them.
The Anabaptists lived in constant fear, and resorted to meeting at night. Some recanted, while thousands were martyred, leaving an indelible impression in their minds.
These events resulted in their having a great mistrust for society as a whole and a rather negative view of government specifically. This caused the Anabaptists to withdraw from society and live in simplicity.
Simplicity and Non-Violence
Because of the torture and persecution against them, the early Anabaptists began to feel a stark contrast to and division from the world.
The world was seen by them as proud, arrogant, wealthy, cruel and even violent. They chose instead to live simply, in humility, meekness and non-violence.
In this way they felt they were best obeying the commands of Scripture to separate from the world. Though a simplistic lifestyle was typical to those living in rural Switzerland, and southern Germany, this lifestyle as a choice was accentuated by these feelings.
Growth and Divisions
Despite great persecution throughout the 1500s, the Anabaptist's numbers steadily grew. Congregations were rather autonomous and very loosely knit with other Anabaptist congregations. This created a need to begin defining the beliefs and unique characteristics that held them together.
Sometime around 1550, a meeting was held in the village of Schleitheim, located on the border of Switzerland and Germany. Here, the Swiss and south German Anabaptists began referring to themselves as "Swiss Brethren" or just "Brethren."
At this meeting they set forth their definition of the church and listed seven basic tenants of church life baptism and discipline. The issue of church discipline became a key element for the Swiss Brethren.
In rejection to the imprisonment and torture administered by the state, they opted for a nonviolent excommunication that simply barred an unrepentant believer from church fellowship.
They also wrestled over what to do with those who stopped following Christ. Their ultimate desire and purpose was to foster a spirit of commitment by creating boundaries.
The Anabaptists of central Germany became known as the German Baptist Brethren and were sometimes referred to as "Dunkers" or "Dunkards," because they practiced baptism by immersion or "dunking." This group of Brethren were also greatly influenced by Pietism.
In northern Germany, the Anabaptist movement spread into the Netherlands and grew rapidly. However a different problem emerged here.
Some of these Anabaptists, led by the heretical teaching of Melchior Hoffman, placed a large emphasis upon the imminent Second Coming of Christ.
A John Matthys took up the cause, claiming to be the prophet Enoch whom Hoffman had declared would come on the scene just before Christ’s return.
Ironically, so great was the enthusiasm of this group, that they tried to usher in the age by force. In opposition to many other Anabaptists, who advocated living peaceably with all men, some actually took to arms to try creating an "Anabaptist City-State" by overtaking the city of Münster in 1534.
A year later, a combined army of Protestants and Catholics defeated this takeover in a terrible massacre, crushing this violent sect of Anabaptists.
This resulted in an even greater persecution in northern Germany and the Netherlands, causing the Anabaptists to scatter, discredited.
Into this dark hour of Dutch Anabaptist history, in the year 1536, stepped a former catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons.
Denouncing the violence and taking great pain to distance himself from the Münster incident, he led the Dutch Anabaptists for the next quarter century.
Menno Simmon and other leaders worked to build the fellowships across northern Europe. He traveled extensively, organizing his followers into churches. He continued to teach them through his writings and exhorted them with his preaching.
So able was his leadership that by 1545 many were linking the Anabaptist movement to him and referring to its followers as "Mennonites."
Opposition to the Swiss Brethren and Mennonites continued through the 1600s. Especially severe was the opposition in the Canton of Bern, where officials tried to totally eradicate all Anabaptists from Switzerland.
As a result, many Swiss Mennonites fled to Alsace and Palatinate to escape persecution. Those who dared stay behind in Switzerland had to adopt various methods of survival.
Ironically, though state opposition was severe, the Mennonites were actually revered by many of their neighbors, and viewed as true saints and exemplary Christians.
Their neighbors often took pity upon them and sought ways to help them. They would make social contacts for them, intercede on their behalf or even hide them keeping them from imprisonment.
This was a great help to the Mennonites, yet it also created a problem with very serious and lasting implications to come.
Basic Anabaptist doctrine taught that friendship or association with the world was evil and was to be avoided. Yet, what were they to do with these friendly admiring neighbors who offered them aid?
In time, the Mennonites referred to these people as "Half-Anabaptists" or "True-Hearted People." Because of the grave social injustices afforded them many Mennonites readily turned to these True-Hearted People for aid.
The alliance between the two groups became especially strong in Switzerland were the opposition was most severe. Extensive networks were built between them over the generations.
However, these networks and even the alliances themselves were not as readily needed nor cultivated in the Palatinate region were the Mennonites were relatively newcomers and the opposition was less significant.
Regardless of region, the Mennonites were uncertain of how to treat their sympathizers. These "ecumenical" relationships became especially problematic.
Adult baptism and separation from the world were their trademark distinctives indicating true discipleship.
The question nagged, since they were not baptized as adults, were the True-Hearted People saved? If the answer were yes, then in their minds the Anabaptist practice and importance of adult baptism would be nullified.
Further yet, these True-Hearted ones refused to leave their state-sponsored churches, and continued giving financially to the very organization that inflicted such great pain and suffering upon the Anabaptists.
Yet again, how could they be criticized when they were in some way exemplifying Christ by helping a neighbor in need? How could they condemn them? How could they survive without them?
The most common answer and view to this problem throughout Switzerland was simply that the Mennonites could not know whether or not the true Hearted were saved, only God knew.
It was up to them to pray for their neighbors, be grateful for their help and neither condemn nor condone them. They saw no need to sever relations with them.
However, this was not the pervading attitude of the Mennonites in the Palatinate area. There also seemed to be no middle ground between the two groups.
These Anabaptists felt very strongly that the True-Hearted People were not saved, that God alone would help them in their persecution, and no "worldly" alliances were acceptable.
The Palatinate Mennonites held very strictly to the practice of shunning those who turned from their faith and joined the state church.
The acceptance of aid from family who had turned away, or from neighbors who were a part of the worldly structure was deemed a violation of their strict separation principle.
At this same time their arose a call among the Anabaptists for spiritual renewal and re-evaluation of their distinctives and identity. There was a growing concern for change and reform in church life.
Among those calling for such change was a Swiss elder by the name of Jakob Ammann. One change that Ammann wanted instituted was the administration of the Lord's super on a more frequent basis since it would encourage spiritual introspection more often and thereby promote greater adherence to church doctrine and beliefs.
Jakob Ammann’s congregations instituted this reform and encouraged other congregations to do the same. However, when these congregations asked their elders and ministers to make this change, they refused.
Of greatest notoriety was a Swiss elder by the name of Hans Reist. While Reist and others agreed that Ammann and his followers were welcome to do as they pleased, they deemed the change unnecessary.
Ammann felt there was more to Reist's refusal. He felt that Reist represented the weakening of the Anabaptist church. Most importantly, he felt this because Reist was a friend of the True-Hearted and believed that they could possibly be saved without public confession of Christ in baptism.
Furthermore, Reist did not faithfully practice socially avoiding those who refused to publicly confess sin or those who left the church. He only excluded them from the annual observance of communion.
In 1693 a confrontation between Ammann and Reist eventually ensued. The tensions grew over the practice of shunning and thorough separation from the world as the two sides began to debate. Harsh words flew, and the Anabaptist/Mennonite Church was torn apart.
There were clearly two distinct opinions represented by two now distinct groups. The larger group, the Mennonites were represented Hans Reist, and the reforming or "Ammann-ish" party was led by Jakob Ammann.
The schism spread throughout Switzerland and eventually to the south Rhine, Dutch, and north German Mennonites. Letters and opinions circulated among all parties. Judgments were rendered and expulsion from membership along with excommunication was exercised.
The Palatine Mennonites called for a conference seeking reconciliation. A compromise was suggested. The Swiss Mennonites including Reist agreed to it, but it was rejected by the Amish as they held fast to the practice of socially avoiding those who left the church even to the point of not eating meals together.
A few years after the great division, several of the Amish leaders decided that perhaps they had indeed acted too hastily. These leaders and even Jakob Ammann excommunicated themselves from the church as a symbolic gesture of repentance and indication of their desire to rejoin the larger Mennonite group. This time it was the Mennonites who refused to accept reconciliation.
Over the following years, the government of Bern once again sought to expel the Mennonites from the country. The two groups further parted in ways and beliefs.
The Dutch and north German Mennonites, who originally espoused shunning, began to practice it less. They even began to reject the Amish's conservative clothing and strict appearance regulations.
They felt it only necessary to avoid excessive luxuries, but otherwise advised their members to adhere to the local customs of the country.
To the Mennonites of Europe their was a new consensus. They felt the need to emphasize the inner heart attitude of piety rather than the physical manifestations of simplicity and social separation.
Distance from the world was not so important as the condition of the heart. Their reliance upon the True-Hearted ones brought into focus the need to define identity by ethnicity rather than discipline.
To the Amish, separation from the world was more than a matter of the heart, it involved physical and social boundaries that were unaffected by persecution. Commitment to Christ and the church were demonstrated by their commitment to their own community.
The Hutterites are a sect of the Anabaptist movement that formed back in 1528. This particular group formed when a group of Anabaptists fled from persecution to Moravia, now modern day Austria.
Several groups of this particular sect began sharing all of their material goods with one another in a communal-type of living following the pattern of the early apostolic New Testament church.
Around 1530 Jacob Hutter who was an Anabaptist pastor began leading one of these communal groups called a Bruderhof, which means "brother-estate."
Their history was marked by persecution leading to frequent migration. Thousands lost their lives, and Hutter himself was martyred.
His followers eventually became known as Hutterites. In spite of persecution, torture and martyrdom there sect survived and in 1770 migrated to Russia.
The Hutterites migrated to Russia, the Mennonites migrated to Prussia and Russia as well. Various social and economic pressures caused the Amish to migrate along similar paths.
By the late 1600s into the early 1700s these various Anabaptist populations were found from Germany to Switzerland, from the Netherlands to Russia and Prussia.
By the early 1800s the lure of a new world brought many of these as immigrants to North America. Here, they prospered and some sects greatly multiplied in the fresh fertile soils of religious freedom.
They were safe at last from the intolerant persecution that had haunted them for so long.
Large numbers of Amish, Mennonites and Brethren settled throughout Pennsylvania and eventually began moving west into various Ohio regions as well.
The Hutterites Today
The Hutterites migrated to the United States in the 1870s. While they experienced marked growth, some of their numbers forsook communal living and joined with other Mennonite groups.
Because they were conscientious objectors during World War I, many Hutterites migrated to Canada.
Approximately three-fourths of all Hutterite colonies still live in Canada with others living in South Dakota and Montana.
There are four groups of Hutterites: the Dariusleut, the Lehrerleut and two groups of the Schmiedeleut.
Hutterites have maintained their distinct communal living concept. They live as groups in agricultural colonies.
Each colony is like a large extended family with colony buildings clustered together on huge tracts of farmland ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 acres in very rural settings.
The colony may raise cows, hogs or even turkeys. Hutterites make use of modern-age technology to help them farm their land.
Colony members eat meals together in a common dinning hall and share laundry facilities, but each individual family has its own living space in barracks-style, apartment-like housing units. Most families have between five and six children.
Their Austrian dialect is called Hutterisch. Children learn English in school as well as High German for worship. They do attend the local public schools.
Hutterites core values center around three main themes. 1) They share material goods in communal living. 2) They surrender their own self-will for the good of the community. 3) They believe in separation from the evils of the world.
They believe that individual ownership of private property epitomizes greed and selfishness, promotes vanity and worldliness and leads to many other evils.
They own only a few personal items and work without pay for the benefit of the whole. In this way they believe they are following the pattern of the early church in the book of Acts.
Their practice of these distinctives has survived for almost 500 years, earning their position as the oldest communal living sect in North America.
The Mennonites Today
The Mennonites remain by far the largest yet most complex Anabaptist family group in the world. There are over sixty different groups of Mennonites in North America alone.
Their forebears range from Swiss-south German to Dutch-north German having migrated to America from Russia and Prussia.
These all now divide into three rough cultural groups: Old Order, Conservative and Assimilated. They are all based on their degree of separation from "the world."
Old Order Mennonites reject higher education. They use some technology selectively, and live a typical separatist lifestyle in rural areas.
They do not evangelize, hold revivals, or even have Sunday school or evening church services. All speak English, while some maintain a German dialect as well. Old Order Mennonites are also divided by those who only use horse and buggy and those who will drive automobiles.
Conservative Mennonites are somewhere in the middle between Old Order and Assimilated Mennonites. There are approximately twenty different conservative groups.
They too usually avoid higher education and professional occupations. They stay out of politics, oppose divorce, and do not ordain women.
Conservatives tend to live in rural areas though many do not farm. They emphasize separation from the world by wearing plain dress. However they utilize technology far more than the Old Order.
Most of their homes have telephones and use electricity, though they forbid television and sometimes computer and internet.
Assimilated Mennonites comprise about two-thirds of the Mennonite population today. For the most part they accept and utilize technology and higher education. They even operate several colleges and seminaries.
They actively engage in their surrounding culture, dress mainstream, and will get politically involved. Some have come to accept divorce and even the ordination of women.
Assimilated Mennonites have formed three large groups and many smaller groups as well. These large groups are: the Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
Great diversity characterizes these various Mennonite communities. Some are tradition in belief and lifestyle while others are rather urban and suburban.
Some are very liturgical in form, while others are quite charismatic. There are even many ethnic people groups as well. These range from Chinese to Hispanic, from African-Americans to Asians.
Within all the different Mennonite groups of North America there exists a truly diverse yet unified people. Some continue in traditional dress and lifestyle while others embrace the modern styles and technologies.
Whether they drive a horse or a car, they are united in their desire to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
The Amish Today
The Amish, like their Mennonite and Brethren counterparts do allow for private ownership of property.
They live mostly in rural areas, but among non-Amish neighbors. Many but not all farm. Their numbers have grown steadily since settling in America.
Most of their settlements are east of the Mississippi River and approximately two-thirds live in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The largest Amish settlement is in the Holmes County, Ohio area. The second largest is in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, while the third largest is in North-Central Indiana.
There are four major groups or types of Amish with each having several subgroups. These main groups are the Old Order Amish, the New Order Amish, the Beachy Amish and the Amish Mennonites. Approximately 85 percent of all Amish are considered Old Order.
The Beachy Amish and Amish Mennonites drive cars, use electricity, worship in church buildings, practice evangelization and do not require a strict distinctive dress style.
Just the opposite is true of the Old and New Order Amish. There are ten basic tenants or practices that distinguish the Old and New Order Amish from the rest of society:
horse and buggy as means of transportation
the use of horses and/or mules for farm work
plain and simple dress and clothing style
beards but no mustaches for men
a prayer cap or type of head covering for women
continued use of Swiss or German dialect
worship in homes or shop but not in church building
only school children through the eighth grade
do not use electricity
do not allow television or computer use
How conservative or traditional a group is can be measured by how long the beard, how wide the brim, how dark the clothes, how large the head covering, how slow the singing, how long the sermon and service, how much the use of foreign dialect, and how little technology is allowed.
Among the various groups many variations abound. The color of buggy tops, the use or banning of buttons, allowing gas refrigerators and even permitting indoor bathrooms is all up to the bishop of each local congregation.
The Old and New Order Amish congregations worship in the homes of their members on a rotational basis, and on every other Sunday.
A service lasts around three hours, has two sermons and congregational singing without instrumentation. A meal and informal fellowship follow the service.
Usually, their congregations are comprised of 30-35 families or about 150 people. Once they become larger than this they will usually subdivide into separate congregations.
A typical Amish family has seven children though they may have more than ten. Amish do not baptize members into the church until they are at least sixteen or older.
Upwards to eighty-five percent of Amish youth actually join the church. Those who are baptized into the church and later defect are shunned and excommunicated, while those who never join but drift away are not.
One area of change, particularly in Ohio, is in the vocation of the Amish. Less than one in five Amish children are now growing up on farms. Those Amish who do not farm often have family owned and operated businesses kept close to home.
Some Amish have become carpenter/woodworkers - as homebuilders, roofers and cabinet and furniture makers.
Others are loggers, furniture store owners, retailers, cheese makers, buggy and harness makers, basket makers, even printers or exotic animal farmers.
Some of these have become thriving and prosperous businesses and industries.
Separation from the world is the Amish trademark. Their mainly unwritten rules, known as the Ordnung, govern nearly all they do - from clothing style and color, to use of machinery and technology.
They seek to avoid the values of the world, and this separation dictates much of their everyday lives.
They are loyal and submissive to their own community rejecting individualism or anything that draws attention to self. This is why close-up photographs of individuals is frowned upon. They strive to model humility, obedience, simplicity and modesty.
The Brethren Today
The modern Brethren exist in around twenty-four different groups. Four of these are quite large: the Church of the Brethren, the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, the Brethren in Christ and the Brethren Church.
Most of the Brethren practice baptism by emersion and celebrate what is called a Love Feast. This Feast is a worship service consisting of a liturgical meal, foot washing and communion.
Most Brethren do not require plain dress except the Old German Baptist Brethren. These Brethren also continue the same practices and rituals established by the historic Brethren.
Their men wear beards, but members own cars, use electricity and participate in agricultural and business pursuits. The Dunkard Brethren also wear plain dress.
The Brethren Church, headquartered in Ashland, Ohio, and often called Ashland Brethren have congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania as well.
The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches have congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and even California. Their emphasis on evangelism has sparked their growth in recent times.
The Brethren in Christ formed in eastern Pennsylvania around 1780. They are a unique blend of Anabaptist Mennonites and Brethren Pietists originally called River Brethren. Today their practices are actually a mix of Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan Methodist beliefs.
They have congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, California and Ontario, Canada. An Old Order group exists as well.
Their members do drive cars but wear plain clothes and their men wear beards. This has caused some people to mistakenly identify them as Amish.
The largest group of Brethren is the Church of the Brethren. Their headquarters is in Elgin, Illinois. Their congregations exist in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Indiana.
Their emphasis is discipleship, the simple life, peacefulness, and the church as their community. They are non-creedal and are more ecumenical than other Brethren.
For Further Research
For more information about the history of the Anabaptists, Amish, Mennonites, Brethren or Hutterites you may wish to consult the following books:
The Church in History by B.K. Kuiper, 1979, WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI
A History of the Amish by Steven M. Nolt, 1992, Good Books, Intercourse, PA
Who Are the Anabaptists? by Donald B. Kraybill, 2003, Herald Press, Scottsdale, PA
Our People: The Amish and Mennonites of Ohio by Levi Miller, 2004, Herald Press, Scottsdale, PA.
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