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 the trimming of beards and the wearing of 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.
- Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish. 3rd ed. (New York: Good Books, 2015).
- John D. Roth, trans. and ed., Letters of the Amish Division: A Sourcebook (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1993).