The Amish are one of many Anabaptist groups that trace their roots to the Anabaptist movement in sixteenth-century Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Other groups include Mennonites, Hutterites, the Brethren in Christ, and Brethren groups that began in Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708.
The Anabaptists emphasized a literal interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. They sought to practice the teachings of Jesus in daily life, and they gave greater allegiance to the Bible than to civil government. They were, in fact, some of the earliest proponents of the separation of church and state.
The Anabaptists also rejected infant baptism, arguing that baptism should signify a voluntary adult decision to follow Jesus—and on that basis they proceeded to baptize one another into the movement. Because these radicals had all been baptized in state churches (Catholic or Protestant) as infants, their detractors called them Anabaptists, meaning rebaptizers.
The Anabaptist call for a voluntary church separate from government oversight infuriated Catholic and Protestant religious leaders as well as civil officials and brought severe persecution. During the movement’s first century as many as 2,500 were executed, often burned at the stake or decapitated. Hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned. This persecution fortified the Anabaptist view that the true church would always be a minority, and it produced a countercultural ethic of separatism. Small, scattered groups with diverse interpretations of faith and practice characterized the early Anabaptist movement.
The religious ancestors of the Amish were part of the Anabaptist movement from 1525 until 1693 when the Amish, under the leadership of Jakob Ammann, separated from other Anabaptists in Switzerland and the Alsatian region of present-day France.
- See chapter 4, “Religious Roots,” in Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
- C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1995).
- The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 5 vols. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955-90).