Amish Origins

Amish roots stretch back to the time of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. Their religious ancestors were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) because they baptized adults who had previously been baptized as infants in a Catholic or Protestant church.

Civil and religious authorities were threatened by the rapid spread of Anabaptist groups. Over several decades, nearly 2,500 Anabaptists burned at the stake, drowned in rivers, starved in prisons, or lost their heads to the executioner’s sword. The harsh persecution pushed many Anabaptists underground and into rural hideaways.

About 160 years after the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, Jakob Ammann converted to Anabaptism and became a leader in the Swiss Anabaptist church. He eventually moved to the Alsatian region of present-day France as part of a wave of Anabaptist emigration to avoid Swiss persecution.

In 1693, Ammann sought to revitalize the Anabaptist movement. He proposed holding communion twice a year rather than once, as was the typical Swiss practice. He also suggested that Christians, in obedience to Christ, should wash one another’s feet in the communion service. To promote doctrinal purity and spiritual discipline, Ammann forbade trimming beards and wearing fashionable dress. He administered a strict discipline in his congregations. Appealing to New Testament teaching and the practice of Dutch Anabaptists, Ammann also advocated shunning excommunicated members. This issue drove a divisive wedge between his followers and other Anabaptists living in Switzerland and Alsace.

Ammann’s followers, eventually known as Amish, became a distinctive group in the Anabaptist family. As religious cousins, the Amish and Mennonites share a common Anabaptist heritage. Since the division in 1693, however, they have remained distinctive communities. When Amish and Mennonites arrived in North America in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, they often settled in similar geographical areas.

Additional information

  • Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish. 3rd ed. (New York: Good Books, 2015).

About the site

Amish Studies is an academic website developed by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College to provide reliable information on Amish life and culture.

Designed to assist scholars, students and the general public, the site was developed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of a collaborative research grant on Amish diversity and identity in the 20th century. The research team included principal investigator Donald B. Kraybill of Elizabethtown College (Pa.) and two co-investigators, Steven M. Nolt of Goshen College (Ind.) and Karen M. Johnson-Weiner of SUNY Potsdam (New York).

The Amish population statistics are updated annually in July. Other information will be revised and added on a periodic basis.

Recent books

The Amish book cover

Authors: Donald Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013)

Renegade Amish book cover

Author: Donald Kraybill (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)