Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite)

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Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite)

The Amish and Mennonites stem from the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Members of the Anabaptist movement insisted that church membership involve a fully informed adult decision, hence many of them requested a second baptism that symbolically superceded their infant baptism. As a result of this practice their opponents called them rebaptizers or Anabaptists. The first adult baptism was performed in January 1525 in Zurich (Snyder 1995).

In addition to adult baptism the Anabaptists proposed a complete separation of church and state, including refusing to participate in the military or swearing oaths of allegiance; a nonhierarchical church wherein clergy and laity formed a priesthood of believers; and a commitment against any use of force. These beliefs caused Anabaptists to be persecuted, and many died a martyr's death for their faith. An important book for all of the heirs of the Anabaptists is The Bloody Theater; or Martyrs' Mirror by Thieleman van Braght ([1660] 1990). This collection of accounts of persecution, torture, and death, first published in Holland in 1660, continues to be part of the collective memory of the descendents of these people.

For the Anabaptists, the call to discipleship often took precedence over family. There are many stories where men and women willingly gave their lives for the sake of their beliefs and left spouses and children behind to fend for themselves. In the Anabaptist tradition a believer was a follower of Christ first, and loyalty to family took second place (Graber-Miller 2001; Roth 2001).

The Anabaptists produced three groups: the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish. The Mennonites take their name from a Dutch Catholic priest, Menno Simons, who joined the movement in 1530. The earliest groups of Anabaptists were established in Zurich, the cantons of Appenzell, Bern, and St. Gall, and the northern Dutch province of Friesland where Menno lived and worked. The groups in the south were known initially as the Swiss Brethren and later broke into two groups: the Mennonites and the Amish. The faction known as Mennonite had formed alliances with the Dutch Mennonites by the end of sixteenth century (Redekop 1989).

The Amish emerged at the end of the seventeenth century when a young Mennonite minister, Jacob Ammann, became embroiled in a controversy with his fellow ministers in the Alsace, the Palatinate, and the canton of Bern (Meyers 1996). The heart of the argument concerned the degree of discipline that should be applied to a church member who violated accepted standards of behavior. Ammann insisted that the deviant should be excommunicated and subsequently shunned by all other members of the church, including members of the individual's family. When the two sides could not reconcile their differences, a division occurred in 1693, and Ammann and his followers broke away from the larger group of Mennonites. Those who sided with Ammann are now known as the Amish (Nolt 1992).

Because of persecution in Europe many Mennonites fled their homelands and moved east as far as Russia, while others fled west to North America. Although a small number of Mennonites remained in Europe, the majority have emigrated. The first wave of Mennonite migration to North America began in 1683. The Amish began to leave Europe in the 1820s. Many of the so-called Russian Mennonites left the Ukraine in 1874 for new homes in North America (Redekop 1989). The decision to leave Russia followed two problematic pieces of legislation implemented by the government: In 1864 a law required that all schools' primary language of instruction was to be Russian, and in 1871 compulsory military service was introduced. Rather than give up their German language and their pacifist position, the Mennonites decided to emigrate.

No Amish remain in Europe. Today there are nearly 200,000 Amish in North America, with more than 250 communities in twenty U.S. states and the province of Ontario, Canada (Kraybill and Bowman 2001).

In the four centuries since the beginning of the Anabaptist movement there have been many schisms among the Mennonites and they form a continuum from the most conservative, Old Order Mennonites (Scott 1996; Kraybill and Bowman 2001) to progressive groups (Kauffman and Dreidger 1991) that have been almost completely acculturated into the mainstream of society. The various factions of Mennonites are spread throughout the world. The fastest growing membership is in the Southern Hemisphere. Of the estimated 1,203,995 Mennonites worldwide, 702,000 church members can be found in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean Islands, and Central and South America. (Mennonite World Conference 2000).

The discussion of family life will focus on the two largest groups, the Old Order Amish and the most progressive Mennonites. The term Old Order is used to describe the Amish who retain a traditional lifestyle that includes the retention of a dialect of the German language, horse and buggy as primary form of transportation, nineteenth-century dress and hairstyle, and a resistance to organizing human beings in hierarchical organizations. Progressive Mennonites have retained an emphasis on believer's baptism, nonviolence, and the separation of church and state. However, in contrast to the Old Orders they have become increasingly urban, emphasize higher education and employment in professions, and have developed an elaborate denominational bureaucracy (Kauffman and Dreidger 1991).

Amish Community and Family Life

The two basic units in Amish society are church and family, and these institutions intersect at a number of levels. Amish churches are defined geographically, that is, all church members within a square mile or several square miles form a church district. The size of a church (160 or fewer persons) is usually described in terms of the number of families rather than the number of individual members. The Amish do not construct church buildings, but meet for worship in members' homes. A church will divide into two geographic units, or two new districts, when there are too many families to fit comfortably in any individual member's home (Hostetler 1993).

Family life is inextricably related to the life of the church. Among other things, a child learns early in life to submit to the authority of the adults in his or her life. Respecting the authority of elders in childhood is assumed to lead to a life of submission to the rules of the church. When an Amish young person begins to think about marriage this issue is often related to a decision about church membership. Marriage within the Amish church is only permitted after an individual is baptized and may only occur with another Amish person.

Stages of Amish Family Life

Infancy and early childhood. Amish children are received by their parents and the community with a great deal of joy. Because contraception is rarely used it is assumed that when a couple marries children will be born within a year or two. The infant is assumed to be innocent until he or she becomes self-aware. At this point adults consider it their responsibility to begin to "break the will of the child." At approximately age two a child must begin to learn the meaning of discipline. They are beginning a period of preparation for church membership that will continue until they are sixteen years of age.

Children begin to help with farm or household chores at a very young age. They are encouraged to begin by helping to gather eggs, feed chickens, pull weeds, and sweep floors. As time progresses they will be expected to do more sophisticated work, but they are rarely pushed to do more than they are capable of at a particular age.

Parents expect conformity; they have relatively little tolerance for disobedience or defiance. They have no time for modern permissive childrearing and will not hesitate to use corporal punishment if needed (Hostetler and Huntington 1992).

Scholars. Typically, Amish children do not go to preschool or kindergarten. At the age of six or seven they begin to go to school and become scholars. Most Amish children attend one-or two-room Amish parochial schools. All children go to school through the age of fifteen at which point they are free to leave school. Most do so, because the Amish believe that a child has learned enough, at that point, of basic mathematics, English reading, and writing skills to function as an adult. Furthermore, Amish children are not permitted to go to high school or university. Higher education is perceived as threatening and may lead to critical thinking (Hostetler and Huntington 1992; Meyers 1993).

Youth. A child leads a fairly controlled life until he or she is sixteen. At this age there is a period of latitude, where some of the restrictions on a child's behavior are removed.

Many boys acquire their first horse and buggy at sixteen. At this point, they have the freedom to come and go from their home. Some teens begin to experiment with aspects of the non-Amish world. They may wear non-Amish clothes, put a radio in the buggy, and in some cases secure a driver's license and purchase a car.

What is the meaning of this period of latitude? Why do some parents overlook the indiscretions of their children? Although few parents will say so, they allow some experimentation with the world so that when a child makes his or her decision to join the church he or she will have some knowledge about what is being rejected in the membership commitment.

In the late teens two critical events typically occur in a young person's life. The youth must make a decision about whether to be baptized and to become a church member. The young person is also searching for a marriage partner. Baptism and marriage often, but not always, occur in a relatively short period of time. An Amish man or woman may not marry in the Amish church unless he or she is a baptized member. Furthermore, a member of the church is only permitted to marry another member. Since more than 80 percent of Amish young people choose to remain in the faith of their parents (Meyers 1994a), marriage is almost always endogamous.

Amish courtship tends to be very serious. There is much less casual dating than in the dominant culture. Dates are often limited to a young man taking a young woman home in his buggy after a Sunday evening singing service. When a couple decides to marry there is a process of permission that must be sought from parents and church leaders. When all agree that a wedding may take place, the Bishop will announce at the end of a regular church service that two individuals will be married at a designated time and place in the coming weeks. At that moment the couple has been published.

Married Couples. A wedding is one of the most important days in an Amish person's life. It is one of the few opportunities to be the center of attention. The couple stands before the congregation and exchanges vows, and then elaborate meals are prepared for them. There is a special table set in a corner of a main room, known as the Eck. (Eck is the German word for corner.) The bride and groom choose some of their best friends to be the table waiters for the meal. These people leave the service about a half-hour before it is over to make the final preparations for the meal, which has been in the works for days.

Once married the couple establishes their own home and typically begins to assume fairly traditional roles. Men work in the fields, the shop, or the factory, and women work in the home, cooking, cleaning, and occasionally assisting their husband with outside work. Although in the past farming was synonymous with the Amish way of life, farmers are now in the minority in the largest Amish settlements in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (Meyers 1994a; Kraybill and Nolt 1995).

A father in the Amish home is the religious leader. He may read the Bible in the morning or read prayers from their prayer book before and after meals. Both parents, however, teach their children, by example, how to be men and women.

Aging. Amish people tend to retire in their late fifties or early sixties. A farmer, in particular, may allow a son or son-in-law to take over the farm at this age. He may still have an active role on the farm but the next generation assumes the major responsibility for the farm operation.

Elderly people are rarely put in nursing homes. They are usually maintained at home in a separate room, apartment, or a smaller building on the property of one of their adult children. Smaller homes for the elderly are known as the grandfather or dawdy house. Older people are respected, and members of their community treat them with a great deal of kindness and affection.

Mennonite Families

In the twentieth century Mennonite community and family life changed in some significant ways. At the beginning of the century they were primarily an agrarian people who lived in homogenous rural communities. By the close of the century less than 7 percent of Mennonites were still on the farm (Kauffman and Dreidger 1991). For the most part they have given up traditional dress, have left the agrarian way of life, have moved into most professions, and are much more involved in the life of the dominant culture. They have developed their own institutions of higher education, an insurance industry, an international mission and service organization, retirement communities for the elderly, and many other formal organizations.

Within families there has been an increasing emphasis on egalitarian childrearing and a trend toward a balance of power between husband and wife. This change is probably associated with the increasing emphasis on employment for women. The majority of married Mennonite women are employed full-time outside of the home (Kauffman and Meyers 2001).

The average number of children in Mennonite families also approaches the national norm. In contrast to the Amish who continue to have large families, with the average family including 7 children (Hostetler 1993), Mennonites average 2.3 children per family among couples under the age of 49 (Kauffman and Driedger 1991).

Although Mennonite families are similar in many ways to families in the larger society, there are some unique characteristics of this population. Mennonites continue to place great value on marriage. Ninety-one percent of women and 98 percent of men marry. The majority of Mennonites prefer to marry within their religious tradition. Furthermore, in the United States Mennonites tend to marry earlier than the rest of the population. The average age at marriage for men in 1989 was 23.2 and women 21.3 (Kauffman and Meyers 2001). In contrast the average for males and females in the general population was 26.2 and 23.9 (Eshleman 1997).

Mennonite families also tend to have higher incomes and lower rates of divorce than the dominant culture. The most recent comprehensive survey of Mennonites was taken in 1989 and in that year divorce rates were less than half of the non-Mennonite population in the United States. Only five percent of the respondents over the age of thirty who had married at some point in their life were divorced or separated (Kauffman and Meyers 2001).

Finally, progressive Mennonites tend to be less sexually active prior to marriage than the larger society. Approximately one-third of Mennonites admit to premarital intercourse, which is less than half the incidence in the general population (Lauman et al. 1994).

See also:Hutterite Families; Protestantism; Religion


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kraybill, d. b., and bowman, c. f. (2001). on the back-road to heaven. baltimore, md: johns hopkins university press.

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meyers, t. j. (1993). "education and schooling." in theamish and the state, ed. d. kraybill. baltimore: johns hopkins university press.

meyers, t. j. (1994a). "lunch pails and factories." in theamish struggle with modernity, ed. d. b. kraybill and m. a. olshan. hanover, nh: university press of new england.

meyers, t. j. (1994b). "the old order amish: to remain in the faith or to leave." mennonite quarterly review 68(3):378–395.

nolt, s. m. (1992). a history of the amish. intercourse, pa:good books.

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roth, j. d. (2001). "family, community and discipleship in the anabaptist-mennonite tradition." mennonite quarterly review 75(2):147–160.

scott, s. (1996). an introduction to old order and conservative mennonite groups. intercourse, pa: good books.

snyder, c. a. (1995). anabaptist history and theology: anintroduction. kitchener, ont.: pandora press.

other resources

mennonite world conference. (2000). "mennonite andbrethren in christ world membership totals for 2000." available from

thomas j. meyers