I’ve done a bus tour and a couple of private tours lately, and I have been surprised at how many people want a little backstory on where exactly the Amish came from. For that, we go back to Switzerland in the 1500s...
In 1525, shortly after the Protestant Reformation began, a group of Christians emerged in Switzerland who refused to have their babies baptized, believing in adult choice in religion, and therefore, adult baptism instead. Since baptism was the equivalent of receiving church membership, Swiss citizenship, membership on the tax rolls (like our Social Security numbers), and registration for the draft—this was seen as radical and disruptive.
This group came to be known as “Anabaptists” and they were severely persecuted. Hundreds were executed—burned, drowned, tortured publicly, and starved in dungeons. Even today, most Amish households have a copy of the book “The Martyr’s Mirror,” which records many of these stories.
Needless to say, the Amish soon retreated to more remote areas of Switzerland, and eventually to the Alsace region of what is now southern France. Their desire for “separation from the world” and nonconformity to mainstream culture became more and more ingrained.
It was in 1693 in Alsace that the Anabaptists split into two groups: The Amish, led by Jacob Amman, and the Swiss Brethren (later known as Mennonites), led by Menno Simons. There were various doctrinal disagreements that drove them apart, one of the main ones being shunning—which the Mennonites felt was too harsh, but the Amish felt was necessary to maintain the purity and unity of their church.
In the early 1700s William Penn was granted a piece of land in North America which came to be known as Pennsylvania, as a place for the persecuted Quakers of England to make a fresh start. Penn invited the good Amish farmers of the Alsace to join him, and eventually the Pennsylvania Amish moved west to Ohio and then Indiana. The Amish church completely died out in Europe.
Today the Amish are found in 32 states and Canada. There are about 325,000 of them here, and they are thriving! 80 to 90 per cent of their children remain in the faith, and their population here in North America is doubling approximately every 20 years. There are many subdivisions now from the main body of Old Order Amish, including the Beachy Amish, the yellow buggy (Byler) Amish, the white buggy (Nebraska) Amish, the Swartzentruber Amish, and the New Order Amish.
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For more on the history of the Amish, try Donald Kraybill’s small but info-packed “Simply Amish.” Don’t be fooled by its small size; I had to read it twice to even begin to absorb it all!
For a deeper dive, try Steven Nolt’s “A History of the Amish,” now in its third edition. Here’s a quote I think is very illuminating: “While Moderns are preoccupied with ‘finding themselves,’ the Amish are engaged in ‘losing themselves’… The Amish believe that personal ambitions are secondary to the Holy Scriptures, centuries of church tradition, and family obligations… best described with the German word Gelassenheit, which means submission—to God, to others, and to the church.” No wonder they don’t always think or act like we do!
For more on the Indiana Amish specifically, try Meyers and Nolt’s “An Amish Patchwork,” written in 2004 but still a very good source (other than some of the statistics). There are a number of other Amish settlements in Indiana, and not all are just like the one where I live and write. The Amish and other old order groups in the rest of Indiana are actually quite diverse.
If you prefer your information online, the best source for information on the northeastern Indiana Amish community where I live—Lagrange and Elkhart Counties—just might be my blog and my Facebook page, both entitled “My Amish Indiana.” For more general information, the sources I trust are Erik Wesner’s “Amish America” website and the amazing and frequently-updated Elizabethtown College Amish website. The first has an excellent state-by-state directory of the Amish, as well as an amazing FAQ page. Happy reading!
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