Mennonite and Amish History
Founded upon the religious teachings of the early Christian church, Mennonite and Amish history is generally thought to begin on January 21, 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland.
Most casual followers of European history are familiar with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Led by Martin Luther, the Reformation attacked the extravagances of the Roman Catholic Church. What many people don't know is that there was another very significant movement aimed at reforming the Roman Church.
This fellowship of reformers were known as the Brethren. Nicknamed Anabaptists which means "rebaptizers," this fellowship stood for the principal that the group should be made up of voluntary adults, who were baptized after a confession of their faith. At the start, they taught the necessity of living separate from worldly matters.
The Brethren or Anabaptist movement was formed in Zurich, Switzerland by young students of the religious reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli advocated that Grace and forgiveness of sins was attainable by faith alone. The message appealed to the peasant class in particular.
When Zwingli backed down on his principal against baptizing infants, several of his students led by Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock and Felix Manz formed the Brethren. Their goal was to create a pure church free from state influence.
From the start, the Brethren were persecuted by the Roman Church as well as by the Reformers of Martin Luther who felt threatened by the movement. Although the Brethren movement grew quickly, the persecutions required the movement to meet and worship in secret. Meetings were held at night and often in caves among the mountains.
Some people believe that the repercussions of the persecutions and the secret meetings were the basis for their strong withdrawal from society and resistance to change - traits that are still an essential tenet of their lifestyle today.
In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, there were not many influential leaders. One of the reasons is because many of the major leaders were murdered during the religious persecutions and became martyrs. Another reason is that the movement emphasized the priesthood of all believers as opposed to a single leader with authority over the masses.
One of the most famous of the Anabaptist leaders was Menno Simons. Formerly a Catholic priest from The Netherlands, Menno Simons had joined the Anabaptists in 1536. Menno Simons' moderate views and extensive writing had the beneficial effect of unifying many of the different factions of the Anabaptists. Although he shared authority and leadership, the group that were unified under his principals became known as the "Mennonites.
From the start, the Anabaptist movement stood for the purity of the Church and the principal that adults must voluntarily commit themselves to the discipline and faith of the fellowship. As time went on some followers began to feel that the moderation of the Mennonites compromised this purity that had been so important in those early days.
In 1693, a young Mennonite leader, from the Alsace region of modern-day France, named Jacob Amman formed his own Christian fellowship because he felt that the Mennonite Church did not exercise enough church discipline or maintain a strong enough spiritual life. Jacob Amman's followers began to be nicknamed - you guessed it - the Amish.
Perhaps the main principal that historically divided the Mennonites from the Amish concerns the practice of
Jacob Amman felt that is was essential to church purity to excommunicate those who were unable to adhere to the strict discipline of the church teachings.
The Amish also disagreed with the Mennonites over the observance of communion and the practice of foot-washing.
Mennonites and Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
The story of the Mennonite and Amish history shifted to North America in the late 1600's. When William Penn founded the new colony later known as Pennsylvania as a safe haven for religious minorities, the prospect of religious freedom became a welcome escape from the years of merciless persecution.
It is believed that the first group of Mennonites settled in 1683 in Germantown which, today, is a part of Philadelphia. When land became available in the area which is now known as Lancaster County, Mennonite settlements were started and flourished. The first migrations of the Amish began in the 1720's.
Today, Mennonite and Amish history continues to flourish. It is estimated that worldwide there are more than 975,000 Mennonites and members of closely related Anabaptists groups such as the Brethren in Christ. About half of this number reside in North America. Nowadays, membership is growing most rapidly in Asia and Africa. This growth can be attributable to the hard work of Mennonite missionaries who have striven to alleviate the suffering of people oppressed by poverty, conflict and natural disaster around the world.
Although smaller, the Amish communities are also flourishing. Of the more than 150,000 Amish currently living in North America, about 65% live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. There are Amish settlements in 22 states in the U.S. There are settlements in Ontario, Canada as well.
The oldest group of Old Order Amish currently consist of about 19,000 individuals living in Lancaster County, PA. Some historians estimate that the Amish population doubles every twenty years and that on average seven new settlements are founded each year.
Ironically, in Switzerland and Germany - the birthplaces of Amish history - there are virtually no more Amish remaining.
If you enjoyed reading about the Mennonite and Amish history and would like to learn more about the Amish people in Lancaster County, please take a look at the following pages:
Return to an Introduction to the Amish People of Lancaster County from an Overview of Mennonite and Amish History
Return to the Welcome to Lancaster County Home Page from Amish History