Keeping the Faith:
Dynamics Of The Amish Movement
Since The Division Of The 1690s
by Roy Kline
Time has a way of clarifying the
motivating forces behind a person's words and deeds. To be sensitive
in relation to right and wrong motivates one to action. The validity
of that motive and action may be measured by its results and
the continuity of those results.
We have such an example about 2400 years ago by the river Ahava.
The issues of right and wrong are what motivated Ezra to take
serious measures "to afflict ourselves before God, to seek
of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all
our substance" (Ezra 8:21).
Throughout history we find persons who were motivated to similar
action at different times over different issues. Time commends
history in regards to the Swiss Brethren conflict of the 17th
century in that Amish beliefs and practices are well intact even
after 300 years. The issues over which the Amish Brethren contended
at the time of the division are articles that the Amish church
is practicing today. A number of divisions have occurred since
that time within the Amish church over issues that today seem
to be no longer significant. One may use the example of the issue
of baptizing in a stream which was cause for national conflict.
Today there are no Amish churches who adhere to that practice.
The practice of this issue had no continuity. This we cannot
say of Amish beginnings.
Amish roots run deep due to the nature of the seed sown--the
Word of God. I would like to suggest that these roots find their
origin in the apostolic church, and have continued through men
and women whose minds have been sanctified and influenced by
the truth of the Word of God. There is continuity of thought
throughout different periods of church history. It is as the
Amish have retained this pattern that has distinguished them
from the world. It is this thought pattern that we want to consider
in regards to Amish society versus their contemporaries.
Perhaps the quality the Amish are recognized for most by the
world is that of making no significant change in a society of
change and progress.
The Amish-Mennonite mentality is unique to society in general
due to their roots. There is probably no group of people who
is so incapable of wisely handling change. Our background has
been one of regarding Truth in concrete terms and not only as
relative. While not all change may have been negative it does
seem once the Amish-Mennonite mind drops its guard against change
there are hardly any limits as to what one is inclined to allow.
In 1399, 130 Waldenses were found in Bernese territory, the homeland
of the Swiss Brethren, from where Amish come. In their statement
of faith, one of the articles states, "We aim to keep the
same faith regardless of growth in numbers." We are not
clear on details how they accomplished this, but one thing the
Waldenses are known for is their memorization of the scriptures.
This practice may have had a significant effect on the church
throughout history, and is a characteristic of Amish dynamics.
There are probably few people who have committed the Bible to
memory as a group, as have the Amish, even today.
The concern of the New Testament and of such people as the Waldenses,
the martyrs of the reformation, and all God-fearing people since
has been to "keep the faith". What it took to realize
this concern is what is expressed throughout the history of the
church in various aspects. Keeping the faith for the Amish
has historically meant resisting moderation of principle.
Commitment to conviction versus compromise has been a typical
Amish concern for centuries. The 10 commandments in Exodus 20
for example, were not given as 10 suggestions. So too, men like
Jacob Ammann could be very specific.
Considering conditions at the time of the Swiss Brethren controversy
we see this truth in effect. Jacob Ammann and other were intent
to relate to the Schleitheim confession of faith as a reference
point in concrete ways as well as the more recent Dortrecht Confession.
Hans Reist regarded the articles as irrelevant, or perhaps, not
at all. This has been a dynamic for the Amish throughout their
history, to consider the scriptures and church standards as concrete
and binding. Ammann in principle did not introduce anything new-
he merely sought to enact the old, already established truth.
This mentality was expressed in earlier Bernese Anabaptists.
Delbert Gratz, in "Bernese Anabaptists" states how
one state authority wrote to another. "The Anabaptist leaders
impress us as being more obstinate and headstrong than learned
and meek..." Considering this, Jacob Ammann may have been
a "chip off the old block".
To some of the Swiss Brethren the conditions of the church indicated
that the respect for the past and the well-being of the future
was at stake. Robert Friedmann in Mennonite Piety Throughout
the Centuries writes, "Anabaptism was essentially a
movement which insisted upon an earnest life of a true discipleship
of Christ, that is to give expression in fellowship and love
to the deepest Christian faith, with full readiness to suffer
in conflict with the evil world order. So long as this willingness
to suffer as an expression of deepest faith, and this readiness
to enter into a non-resistant struggle for salvation, was a reality,
just so long was Anabaptism a great and powerful movement."
It was this concern that was at the heart of the Swiss Brethren
Issues concerning discipline, church purity, separation, and
brotherhood came into the limelight as Swiss Brethren were compromising
by taking the oath, baptizing infants, attending state churches
and on occasion sharing communion with them.
To maintain the purity of the church required stricter discipline.
Communion held twice a year would give more frequent occasion
to realize this goal. There was a need to distinguish more clearly
between the church and the world. The ban and shunning would
help clarify what belongs to the world and what is of the church.
The united commitment as a brotherhood to the Truth and the past
was threatened. Feet washing according to the example of Christ
in John 13 would revive this sense of responsibility and commitment
one to another as well as to God.
We have here three basic articles that the Amish have sought
to maintain through the centuries- discipline or church purity,
separation and brotherhood. Paton Yoder writes in Tradition
and Transitions, "Confidence in the spiritual purity
and doctrinal integrity of their forefathers accounts, to a considerable
extent, for the respect given to this day to religious customs
and traditions by the Amish."
One can further understand some of Ammann's motives and concerns
as we consider the statements he made in his letters during this
time of conflict. In Letters of the Amish Division - A Source
Book, by John Roth, we have the following statements that
reflect a thought pattern providing the dynamics for the Amish
We also believe in our heart and
confess with our mouth that apart from the Word of God no one
should be regarded as saved. For then there is no longer only
one path that leads to life. There is only one faith that is
valid before God, there is only one people who are the bride
of Christ. We know well that God saves no one apart form His
Word. Without the true saving faith it is impossible for one
to please God. If someone believes from the heart but still does
not want to confess with the mouth, then he wants to serve two
masters and no one can serve two masters at the same time who
are opposed to each other. Our opponents, however want to lead
the truehearted people into the heavenly sheepfold by another
path without this Christian discipline, without the cross, and
without suffering with which the Holy Scriptures are filled.
...We pay no regard to human councils, to longstanding practice
and the custom of time if they are not established according
to God's Word. For our faith should be loudly, clearly, firmly
and solely grounded upon God's Word. ...My highest desire is
to maintain order according to the Word of God and Christian
discipline. ...Faith is no respecter of persons. God's Word demands
obedience from all people, from the leader as much as from the
follower, from the teacher as much as from the listener."
Throughout Amish history the differences
with their contemporaries was often not on the doctrines themselves,
but where the emphasis was put on those doctrines.
The conflict the Bernese Anabaptists had with the state church
was not so much in their lifestyle and conduct but on their theology.
Delbert Gratz in Bernese Anabaptists writes how one state
church minister advised his people "to follow the good example
of the Anabaptists in their own life but not to follow their
The following discussion will revolve around this concept --
how the Amish have differed traditionally on doctrinal emphasis
in relation to pietism.
The Amish church through the years has been affected by pietism.
One might say the strength of the Amish has also been their weakness.
The effort to maintain practice, form and structure has periodically
been done at the expenses of retaining the spirit and principle
behind the practice. Formalism and spiritual staleness has historically
proven to be a seedbed for pietism.
In Mennonite Piety Throughout the Centuries, Robert Friedmann
states that the Bernese Oberland, the homeland of the Amish after
the 1711 immigration, became a leading pietistic center. This
is of interest because we see that after the Amish influence
left, pietism took over.
Pietism has been classified as the grandchild of Anabaptism.
Historically this conflict of emphasis has been evident. Pietism
may be described as being what Schwenkfeld was between Luther
and Anabaptism. Pilgrim Marpeck in his writing against Schwenkfeld
said, "He wants to look at Christianity only from the pleasant
and friendly side." This appears to be a philosophy expressing
toleration, or moderation of principle.
Following are more definitions of pietism as found in Mennonite
Piety Throughout the Centuries:
"The pietist ceased to place the emphasis upon the outer
life, but upon edification, enjoying or `tasting' of salvation
which had already been achieved (p. 12). Pietism was the gradual
disappearance of that concrete Christianity to an emotional one
which caused less conflict with the world. Pietism stressed inherited
natural wickedness more than the capacity for obedience, in order
to make conversion more effective (p. 137). When religious interests
shifted, to be focused mainly on the individual and his eternal
destiny the general style of the Christian life also changed
in many aspects (p. 102). The pietist was primarily concerned
with inner experience of salvation from a personal position and
only secondarily with expression of brotherhood and not at all
on radical world transformation" (p. 11).
By these statements one can better
understand the difference in emphasis-- inward versus outward,
individualism versus brotherhood, etc.
We will now consider a number of doctrines where a shift of emphasis
1. Salvation: It is not simply the certitude of being
saved from damnation, but a walking in newness of life and where
discipleship has precedence over the concern for experience.
2. Redemption: It is not only deliverance from sin and
freedom from guilt and the restoration of fellowship with God,
but also a commission to fulfill a task affecting a horizontal
as well as a vertical relationship.
3. Grace: It was considered by the biblicist as not merely
God's unmerited favor to man in regards to his salvation, but
grace is the enabling power of God to do what we ought to and
what is right. (endowment with responsibility.)
4. Justification: It is not only the enjoyment of knowing
a right standing with God through faith in Christ, but also an
acute awareness that justification cannot be separated form sanctification
or holiness. Faith is not complete without works. Justification
is the initiation to discipleship.
5. Knowing a right standing with God: Our forefathers
believed one could know. In literature and in expression the
emphasis was not so much on this knowledge as it was on the necessity
of living and doing right according to the Word of God. This
confidence of right relationship with God would be a result.
6. Love: It is not merely an emotional feeling of affection,
which overlooks sin and tolerates carnality. Rather it is a mind
set which requires expression in life and conduct according to
Christ's words, "If ye love me keep my commandments."
7. Fellowship: It cannot only be a devotional gathering
where each one feels himself distinct from the other due to diverse
experience. Rather it is the disappearance of all things personal
and selfish in the practice of brotherly reception, to be built
up mutually for the building of the kingdom.
8. Communion: Communion is more than a memorial service
of Christ's death and resurrection for the personal edification
of each participant. It is also a showing of oneness -- finding
identity by losing it as shown by the bread and wine, where each
kernel and each grape was crushed to make one whole -- a unit,
collectively expressing the will of God. For the Amish, council
meetings or preparatory services for communion have always been
important events involving due stress and concern. It is the
time to reevaluate one's commitment to God and the standards
of the church, the visible body of Christ, both individually
and collectively. Not only is it an examination of oneself but
also a yielding to one's brother for admonition and correction.
It is a time to enforce discipline where violation of standard
and principle exist. This has been the Amish approach for maintaining
the church collectively and individually versus the more Protestant
approach of revival meetings.
9. The church: The biblical concept of the church has
been the very center of Amish dynamics. It has been the primary
point for Anabaptist- Protestant distinction. Understanding the
church to be a covenanted community has affected the degree of
loyalty to the visible body of Christ. It is in a very real sense
the kingdom of God on earth. The church -- God's people collectively
express the will of God on earth in life and conduct. They are
the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
10. Eschatology: The emphasis is not focusing on outward
world conditions as the determining factors for Christ's second
return to earth, but an acute awareness that it is the church,
the salt of the earth, that determines God's decision for the
end. This in return is reason to be concerned about the danger
of apostasy and drift away from truth. The Amish traditionally
have understood that the return of Christ is imminent and that
return will be the end of the world. There will be time no more.
The final and last judgment will then take place when each one
must reap what was sown and must give account of himself to God
for the things done in the body, whether good or bad.
Whenever Amish brethren have deviated too far from the proper
emphasis on the above doctrines they individually or as a group
have ceased to be a congenial part of Amish society. Along with
the shift of emphasis there has also been a shift of fellowship.
In summary, one might say the dynamics of the Amish movement
are those matters that contribute to keeping the faith
in not allowing moderation of principle as held forth in the
Word of God, and as has been proven workable throughout the past,
with a proper emphasis on right relationship with God and man
as well as purity, separation and brotherhood.
--Roy Kline is an Amish minister in Holmes County, Ohio. This
is the text of a talk he presented at the annual meeting of the
Casselman River Amish and Mennonite Historians, September 3,
1994, Grantsville, Maryland.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin April, 1997