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The Amish are like any other religious sub-culture, in that if we desire to understand them we must understand their history, and their place in the spectrum of Christianity. Or whether they should even be thought about as Christian. One commonly asked question is whether the Amish should be considered a cult or a sub-culture within Christianity. In order to understand that question we must examine their beginnings so we can understand why they live as they do today.
The Amish trace their spiritual heritage back the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s. A small group of dissidents felt that leaders, such as Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, did not go far enough in separating the church and state. Up to this time the government and the church were seen as inseparable. These dissidents agreed with many of the basic premises of the Protestant reforms, like justification by grace through faith, but thought that further reform was warranted in the separation of church and state.
The spark became the baptism of infants. In that world all infants were baptized and by virtue became members of the church and citizens of the state. The dissidents felt that only Christians who could voluntarily and freely choose the way of Christ should be baptized and become part of the church. In 1525 a small group of them met and re-baptized each other. They became known in Germany as wieder taufers, or re-baptizers. The authorities soon termed them Anabaptists, which uses the greek sufiix Ana to denote their position on adult and voluntary baptism.
The Anabaptists refused to join the state church and were viewed as a great danger to not only the religious structure of Europe, but also the social structure as they preached their gospel of grace and equality for anyone who was willing to follow the way of Christ. In the next one hundred years the Anabaptists were persecuted and it is thought that about 10,000 were martyred for their belief that Jesus led the way into a life of separation, humility and love. Today the Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites trace their heritage back to these brave dissidents of another world.
The Anabaptists faced periodic purges as leaders and dynasties rose and fell in northern Europe. By the late 1600s many lived in the Rhine valley in southern Germany where they experienced relative freedoms and farmed lands and lived in small villages. A young leader arose among the Anabaptists who called for a renewal of that commitment to a more separate way of living. He soon led the more conservative minded element within the Anabaptists into a separation from the larger group. Since he was the spokesperson for the group his followers became known as Ammanischeleut, or Amman minded people. This was later shortened to Ammanisch and even later into the more modern Amish.
Historically a central tenet in the beginning of Anabaptism, and the Amish within that movement, has been a desire to live lives that reflect their spiritual values of humility and discipleship to the way of Christ. They hold to basic Christian tenets, yet choose to live those values out in a way that is different than other Christian groups. They are not often condemning of other Christian groups, but wish for the same respect to be offered to them. To understand this long history of being willing to live differently is to understand the Amish way. In light of a more complete understanding of history we must argue that these unique people have embraced an orthodox understanding of Christianity and what it means to follow Christ in discipleship. They have made choices that honor their history and heritage without worshiping the past. They are modern people with a desire to live well and make a positive impact on their world.
Today there are about 45,000 Amish people in the greater Holmes County, Ohio community, and over 300,000 in the world. None remain in Europe but they have settled in over five hundred settlements in 31 states and two Canadian provinces. If you wish to learn more about the Amish, or their place in history, plan a visit to the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from the Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.