Where Did The Amish and Mennonites Come From?

If you clicked on this article it is probably true that you have seen the Amish at some point but might be unsure how they got here. Or perhaps you might be wondering why they come here since they have such a unique way of life. Below is a short introduction about how the Amish and Mennonites got here in the United States and Canada

The Anabaptists

The Amish and Mennonites were actually a later off-shoot of the Anabaptist. In order to understand the Amish and Mennonites we must first visit the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptists (initially lead by Conrad Grabel and Felix Manz) were reformers, initially from Switzerland, who believed in 7 core tenets which they documented in 1527, calling it the “Schleitheim Confession“. They become most known for re-baptizing adults after a confession of faith; something that was seen by the church/state as treason and was punished by death by both Catholic and Protestant governments. Below is a copy of the 7 point confession.

cover page of the Schleitheim Confession
Schleitheim Confession title page, ca. 1560.
Scan courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen

Baptism – Baptism is administered to those who have consciously repented and amended their lives and believe that Christ has died for their sins and who request it for themselves. Infants, therefore, were not to be baptized.The Ban – A Christian should live with discipline and walk in the way of righteousness. Those who slip and fall into sin should be admonished twice in secret, but the third offense should be openly disciplined and banned as a final recourse. This should always occur prior to the breaking of the bread.

Breaking of Bread – Only those who have been baptized can take part in communion. Participation in Communion is a remembrance of Christ’s body and blood; the real body and blood of Christ is not present in the sacrament. 

Separation from Evil – The community of Christians shall have no association with those who remain in disobedience and a spirit of rebellion against God. There can be no fellowship with the wicked in the world; there can be no participation in works, church services, meetings and civil affairs of those who live in contradiction to the commands of God (Catholics and Protestants). All evil must be resisted including their weapons of force such as the sword and armor.

Pastors in the Church – Pastors should be men of good repute. Some of the responsibilities they must faithfully carry out are teaching, disciplining, the ban, leading in prayer, and the sacraments. They are to be supported by the church, but must also be disciplined if they sin.

The Sword – Violence must not be used in any circumstance. The way of nonviolence is patterned after the example of Christ who never exhibited violence in the face of persecution or as a punishment for sin. A Christian should not pass judgment in worldly disputes. It is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate; a magistrate acts according to the rules of the world, not according to the rules of heaven; their weapons are worldly, but the weapons of a Christian are spiritual.

The Oath – No oaths should be taken because Jesus prohibited the taking of oaths and swearing. Testifying is not the same thing as swearing. When a person bears testimony, they are testifying about the present, whether it be good or evil.


The Government

During the reformation years in Europe (1517-1648) 3 distinct viewpoints about government and religion emerged.

  1. Holy Roman Empire in 1460
    Holy Roman Empire in 1460

    The government and “the church” should be one seamless entity.

    1. Keep in mind that the church at this point was the Catholic church but some reformers who had broken away, like John Calvin, felt the same about the Protestant church being the government.
  2. The church and the state should work together but the two should be separate.
    1. This was the predominant view among reformers, especially as the reformation stated to take root in Europe.
  3. The church and state should have no involvement with each other.
    1. Believe it or not, this was not the stance of the atheists but of the Anabaptist.

Because the Anabaptist decided that the government and Christians had no business together they had no protection from a higher authority. In addition, they were also pacifists, so when attacked, the best they could do is flee, hide, or die.

Ottoman Empire In 1683
Ottoman Empire In 1683

Sadly, many of them ended up dying. Since they did not participate in the military and they did not support any government they were considered as good as enemies to the Catholic lead state. The invasion of the Muslim Turks from the South East was putting huge amounts of pressure on the European leaders to fight them off. Many countries had mandatory military service.

The martyrdom of the Anabaptists by the Protestants and the Catholics was so widespread that a book was created to document as many of the martyrs as possible. It is call the Martyr’s Mirror. The persecution was so bad that they were nearly wiped out at some points.

In the first week of Lent, 1528, King Ferdinand of Austria commissioned a company of executioners to seek out the Anabaptist in Austria. Those who were found in the highways or fields were killed with the sword, others were dragged out of their houses and hanged in the door posts. Most of them had gone into hiding in the woods and mountains.

To make matters worse, the Turks did not care that they were pacifists. When they encountered the Anabaptists they killed them with no questions asked.

With all of Europe seemingly wanting to kill them, they did what anyone would do; they moved from location to location hoping to find peace with people who would allow them to live out their simple faith and let them be at peace. The issue with this was that it resulted in a group a people that no one wanted to claim and the leaders of the group usually did not live long enough to develop thorough theological views or establish a system of structure or laws for the group.


The Mennonite Break Away by Menno Simons

menno simonsMenno Simons was born in 1496, in the Friesland province of the Netherlands. He was trained and educated as a Catholic priest, learning the church fathers, Latin, and some Greek. However, like many priests of his day he was not encouraged to read his Bible because theology was the duty of people higher up in the Catholic church.

However, eventually he did start digging into the Bible, in the early 16th century, to find some resolution to the Eucharistic Trans-substantiation debate. In doing so, he soon became known as an evangelical and distanced himself from some of the Catholic theology, though he still remained a priest.

Soon after, about 1530, he encountered the Anabaptists. Menno’s first knowledge of the concept of “rebaptism”. This came through hearing of the beheading of Sicke Freerks Snijder for being “rebaptized.”

Since the re-baptizing movement was still in it’s infancy he had not yet studied the issue from a scriptural view point. Just like his quest to understand the Trans-substantiation debate, he began to dig into the Bible to understand the adult VS infant baptism debate. He eventually studied the works of Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger which furthered his studies on the issue (though Luther was a proponent of infant baptism).

He was later transferred to another service post which is where he met his first group of Anabaptists. His own brother became an Anabaptist and participated in what was one of the only violent acts of the Anabaptist movement ever performed; the Münster revolt, in 1535. The very next year Menno left the Catholic church and joined the Anabaptists.

Menno rose to great influence in the German Anabaptist movement so quickly that those who followed his leadership eventually became known as Mennonites, rather than Anabaptists. While his practices sometimes differed from the original Swiss Anabaptists, his branch of the Anabaptist lineage was not form via a schism, like would later happen with the Amish.

The Mennonite became “official” as some would say in 1632, when they formally drew up the Dordrecht Confession of Faith. This was more formal than what the Anabaptist, formally known as the Swiss Brethren had previously created in the Schleitheim Confession. By this time Menno Simons had been dead for over 70 years but the group continued to bear his name.


The Amish breakaway by Jakob Ammann

Jakob AmmannThe start of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693, led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish.

Jakob was not born into the movement, though. He converted later one in his life. According to the book, “The Amish” by  By Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt; in June 1680, government correspondence from Oberhofen asked counsel from authorities in Bern on how to deal with a Jakob Ammann who had “become infected with the Anabaptist sect”. This is the first known reference to Ammann as an Anabaptist. Sometime between his conversion and 1693 he was ordained to the ministry, possibly by Hans Reist, who would later become one of his greatest opponents.

Jakob was considered a biblical literalist and was very hard-nosed about his theology. The use of excommunication without using the proper channels and controls lead to a great divide between he and the Swiss Brethren (the Anabaptist).

The main core of the great Amish/Brethren schism started in 1693. Jakob Ammann, “together with the ministers and elders,” sent a general letter to people within the Swiss Brethren congregations, asking for a meeting in which he wanted clarification about where they stood on three issues:

  1. Shunning those who had been banned.
  2. whether liars should be excommunicated.
  3. If people could be saved who did not follow God’s word. The last issue was referring to the “good-hearted”, meaning of those who sympathized with the Anabaptists and even helped them materially in times of persecution, but who would not take the step of re-baptism.

These 3 issues were essentially views introduced by the Mennonite which Jakob wanted adopted by the large Anabaptist body (the Swiss Brethren). He was sent to Switzerland as a representative of the non-Swiss Anabaptists to debate the disputed issues and a few others. Unfortunately, they could not come to an agreement on the core issues. His main opponent, Hans Reist, would not agree with social avoidance, citing Matthew 15:17 as the reason.

The altercation became very aggressive on both sides and the followers of Jakob Ammann excommunicated the leaders of the Swiss movement and the leaders of the Swiss movement excommunicated the followers of Jakob Ammann. Strangely though, it was the Swiss Brethren lead by Hans Reist who would later become affiliated with the Mennonites, even though it was Jakob Ammann who tried to introduce Mennonite ideas into the Swiss movement.


Mennonite and Amish Migration to the Americas

Russuan Mennonites well at gnadenau

Many do not realize that these groups can be geographically located in Russia as well as the New World. Before the doors were opened for them in the states, Cathrine the Great invited them to come to Russia and inhabit lands that were given to them free because they were so hard to use for farming. Since the Mennonites became so well known for being able to farm any land it seemed like a win-win for everyone.

In the late 1800’s about 18,000 of the Russian Mennonites migrated to America to escape the mandatory military participation now being placed on them. These Russian groups ended up on the Western shores of the USA and Canada.

The first permanent settlement of Mennonites in American consisted of one Mennonite family and twelve Mennonite-Quaker families of German descent, in 1683. They settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania. This early group of Mennonites and Mennonite-Quakers wrote the first formal protest against slavery in the United States. The protest was addressed to slave-holding Quakers in an effort to persuade them to change their ways.

amish population chartAnother wave of immigrants came from Germany and Switzerland. Amish and Mennonites accepted William Penn’s offer of religious freedom as part of his “holy experiment” of religious tolerance. They settled in became known as Pennsylvania. The first sizable group of Amish arrived in Lancaster County between the 1720’s and 1730’s.

In the early 18th century, 100,000 Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania, of which around 2,500 were Mennonites and 500 were Amish. This group settled farther west than the first group, choosing less expensive land in the Lancaster area.

From 1812 to 1860, another wave of Mennonite immigrants settled farther west in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. These Swiss-German speaking Mennonites, along with Amish, came from Switzerland.

During the formation years in the USA, the Amish and the Mennonites continued to migrate to the new continent. They were distinct from other settlers, though. They refused to participate in wars and were opposed to the revolutionary war. They vehemently opposed slavery from the very beginning. They also were the source for the theory we call “separation of Church and State.” They also opposed public education and insisted on continuing a simple life style, free from the concerns of modern life and the continual drive to become wealthy or powerful.



3 thoughts on “Where Did The Amish and Mennonites Come From?”

  1. Thank you for this very nice overview; I will share it with relatives. Do you assign today’s “Old Order Baptists” to the Anabaptists? I believe they are descendants of the group known in PA as the “Dunkers” or “Taufers,” to which my family belonged when it arrived on the ship “Hope” in 1733. They were briefly in the Conestoga congregation, then moved to the part of PA that became today’s Dauphin County, and soon ‘married out’. I am aware that some Old Order Baptists, very distantly related to my family, can be found in the Midwest even today.

    • Thanks for reading friend. It is my understanding that the Old Order Baptists were originally under the leadership of Alexander Mack, which was a very very influential leader in the early German Brethren movement. The German Brethren were all under the umbrella of the Anabaptist movement. The Brethren were actually the very first Anabaptists. They were the pioneers for the whole movement. Thus, the Old Order Baptists have there roots in the heart of the Anabaptist movement, having come from the great leader Alexander Mack.

      Mack did not really uphold the 7 core tenants of the original Brethren but he did still preach passivism, adult baptism, breaking of bread, but (surprisingly) was a Universalist.

      That being said, I would recommend a really well-done book on the history of the Brethren church by one of my old seminary profesors, Dale Stoffer, as well as one from a great man from the Brethren Historical Society, Lawrence W. Schulz.

      Stoffer, Dale R. (1989), William R. Eberly (ed.), Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines 1650–1987, Brethren Encyclopedia Monograph Series, vol. 2 (1st ed.), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States: Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., ISBN 0-936693-22-3

      Schulz, Lawrence W. (1954), Schwarzenau Yesterday and Today (1st ed.), Winona Lake, Indiana, United States: Light and Life Press

      Additionally, when I was in seminary I read the writings of Alexander Mack, which I would recommend for anyone interested in the development of the early Brethren that migrated to the USA. They were very very early. You can get a used copy online for as low as $5.

      Mack, Alexander (1991) [1708–1720], Eberly, William R. (ed.), The Complete Writings of Alexander Mack (1st ed.), Winona Lake, Indiana, United States: BMH Books, ISBN 0-936693-12-6



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.