In my Wednesday night class we are studying church history. Recently we covered the 16th century Anabaptist movement, primarily based in Germany and Switzerland. Although it is not in the book we are using, I elected to discuss the Anabaptists as we know them today – Mennonites, Amish and the Brethren. The Anabaptist movement was considered a part of the radical reformation and as such, was marked for elimination by both Catholic and Protestant opponents. The Anabaptists were considered radical, interestingly enough, because of their desire to recover the church that they read about in the New Testament.
The Anabaptists as we know them today are present in three distinct groups – Mennonites, Amish and the Brethren. We are familiar with these groups, at least from a distance. We see the Amish on occasion in their old style apparel, or moving along in their horse drawn carriage. Perhaps you have seen the Amish plowing their fields with a horse-drawn plow while their neighbors work with the latest John Deere equipment. You may have visited areas where the Amish are most heavily concentrated, such as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You may know and work with Mennonite people, and you appreciate them for their simple life style, strong faith, stable families and admirable work ethic. There are some ways in which each of these groups are similar to one another in their ideas and ways of doing things. True to human nature, each group is marked by various factions, consequently believing different things. It is, therefore, incorrect to say, “The Amish believe thus and so,” because there are various Amish groups, and not all hold to the same beliefs and practices.
In 1536 Menno Simons was a 28 year old priest. He had rejected infant baptism, concluding that it could not cleanse infants of original sin as the Catholic Church taught. In that he was correct, but he held on to the idea of original sin. He had heard of a man being beheaded for being baptized again as an adult by the Anabaptists. Being sympathetic to the sufferings of the Anabaptists, and seeing them as “sheep without a shepherd,” he took on the leadership of brethren in his province. When he died in 1561 he had left behind a more clearly defined Anabaptist faction known as the Mennonites.
The Mennonites are the most diverse of the three Anabaptist groups. Old Order Mennonites have many of the same marks as the Amish – rejection of higher education, technology and the adoption of rural and separatist living. Groups include the Mennonite Brethren Church, Evangelical Mennonite Church and Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Mennonite men do not traditionally were beards as do Amish men. The Mennonites have argued that a beard is a mark of fallen man after Adam’s sin. They claim that their views are solely derived from a literalistic view of Scripture, but they also adopt the Schleitheim Confession (1527) and Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632), both of which are representative statements of Anabaptist principles such as baptism, the ban (excommunication), communion, separation from evil, nonresistance (pacifism) and no oaths.
By the 1670’s a division occurred within the ranks of the Swiss Mennonites. Jakob Amman sought to tighten the reigns on church discipline, which he felt had become relaxed beyond the original standards of Anabaptist rules. Consequently, the followers of Amman became known as the Amish. A Mennonite historian said, “Most of the church’s quarrels in history can be traced to the peculiar notions of some strong-willed individual who can see but one side of a controversial question.” Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it!
The Amish are in many ways the most conservative of the Anabaptist groups. They are known for their old-fashioned appearance, horse & buggy conveyance, aversion to modern ways, strong work ethic and large families. They sell their goods in local shops to make a living. While the Amish are not permitted to use cell phones, electricity or technology, they can use these conveniences for their businesses. Their dress code and way of life are governed by the Ordnung, an unwritten code of behavioral guidelines passed down through the generations. Some of their divisions include an 1860 faction when Amish Mennonites pulled away from Old Order Mennonites so as to better blend in with English society. The Beachy Amish Mennonites are less traditional than other Amish. They do not use horse & buggy transportation and they do not have restrictions on technology, with the exceptions of television and radio. In 1967 the National Amish Steering Committee was formed to help resolve conflicts with the government over issues of non-conformity. In 1972, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Amish youth to end their education at the eighth grade in Amish operated schools.
The third group to emerge from the Anabaptists were and are more pietistic in nature than the others. From their beginning they placed greater emphasis on devotional living, feeling that religion was not meeting the most basic needs of the people. In keeping with the other two groups they interpret the Bible literally. For example, they interpret Matthew 28:19 in terms of triune baptism, this is, immersing a candidate once in the name of the Father, a second time in the name of the Son and a third time in the name of the Holy Spirit. They call themselves the Brethren.
Perhaps their most distinctive feature is how they treat the Lord’s Supper. It begins with a short service of self-examination, prayer and meditation. Then they move to another room for feet washing; men with men, women with women, and children with whoever will take care of them. After the feet washing they rise, embrace and share the “holy kiss” – again, men with men and women with women (on the lips). A common meal called a “love feast” follows. The evening is capped off with the Lord’s Supper itself. Unlike the Amish, the Brethren have few reservations about technology. The largest group among them is the Church of the Brethren, with many other sub-groups.
Hopefully, this brief overview of these Anabaptist groups has been helpful, even if only slightly so. Interested parties can learn more by searching out the materials of these groups and reading more about them. What intrigues me is the intensity with which these groups desired, and still desire, to find the New Testament church and be the same today. In the early years of their existence the pursuit of truth meant more to them than life itself. May we learn from where they have failed, and from where we ourselves may fail, by continuing to search for the New Testament order and practice it today!