in Switzerland in 1861:
Ch. Aug. Ramseyer's
Letter to Shem Zook, February 1, 1861
as copied by Bishop Jacob Swartzendruber in 1862
Translated and Edited by
Leonard Gross and Paton Yoder
This letter, written when the Amish in America were in the process
of schism and their counterparts in Switzerland and contiguous
lands were already showing signs of disintegration, has significance
for both geographic settings.
The writer of this letter, Ch. Aug. Ramseyer, identifies himself
as the leader ("Lehrer") of a small flock of
Amish Anabaptists in Switzerland which had separated from other
congregations with Amish roots. But we know that at the time
of his death in 1895 he was a Baptist. Evidently his little group
had left him, and being theologically minded, he had joined the
growing Baptist denomination.1 His history of the Baptists,
Histoire des Baptistes
was published two years after his death.2
The letter is addressed to
Shem Zook, who lived in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, and is
clearly a response to a letter Ramseyer had received from Zook
in which the latter had made some inquiries about Amish and Mennonite
beliefs and practices in Europe, particularly in Switzerland.
That Zook, a layman, should make inquiry of an Amish minister
in Switzerland about Anabaptist church affairs in that country
is unusual and surprising. But Shem Zook was no ordinary Amishman.
Quite certainly he was the best known Amish layman of his century.
It seems he gave equal attention to his business activities and
to his church-related interests.3
At the time that this exchange of letters was taking place, Zook
and the bishop of his congregation, Solomon K. Beiler, were deeply
involved in those controversies which were coming to a head within
the ministry of the Amish church. Before the end of the year
1861, both Zook and his bishop would become involved, with others,
in proposing and planning for the introduction of annual Amish
ministers' conferences. It was hoped that these Amish ministers,
in conference, could restore harmony in the church. Such conferences
were initiated in 1862, but failed to restore unity.
Although we do not have Zook's letter of inquiry, the questions
which Zook asked of Ramseyer can be ascertained by the latter's
methodical answers. Most of Zook's questions revolved around
the condition of Mennonite and Amish churches in Switzerland,
a number of which related to the issues which were rending the
Amish church in America. Zook wondered whether the Anabaptists
in Switzerland were strict or lenient in their administration
of church discipline, especially in the matter of shunning.
Zook had evidently also asked some detailed questions about the
way in which Swiss Anabaptists baptized, particularly as to whether
they baptized in flowing water. Given Zook's preoccupation with
this ritual, and the details of its administration by Amish bishops,
his inquiry is not surprising. Already by 1850 Zook and his bishop
had come to regard the traditional Amish pattern of baptizing
in the house or barn -- where church services were normally held
-- as unscriptural. They proposed to take applicants to a stream
and baptize them while kneeling therein.4
Of theological significance
as well is Ramseyer's view that written confessions of faith,
although useful, take second place to Scripture, the sole "binding
principle" for faith and conduct.
Also of import is the author's observation that although nonresistance
was still a tenet of faith among the traditional Swiss Anabaptist
groups, the Dutch and French Anabaptists had forsaken this tenet
to a considerable degree.
And finally, Ramseyer's analysis of the various Swiss Anabaptist
groups, although certainly not complete, still contains useful
information on the nature of the Swiss Anabaptist groups in the
Concerning the Authenticity
of this Manuscript
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
of Ch. Aug. Ramseyer's letter from Switzerland
to Shem Zook, Mifflin
County, Pennsylvania, February 1, 1861
As the caption of this document indicates, it is a copy of an
original, and is therefore subject to the same critical scrutiny
normally given to any copy. According to the note on the envelope
in which it was kept, this copy was made by Jacob Swartzendruber
How the original letter got into the hands of Jacob Swartzendruber,
first Amish bishop in Johnson County, Iowa, is explained by Shem
Zook's note, appended by Swartzendruber, to Ramseyer's letter.
According to that note, Zook sent Ramseyer's letter westward
to several Amish bishops and ministers in Ohio and Iowa, asking
each one to send it on to still another. The last named to receive
it was Jacob Swartzendruber (1800-1868), of Johnson County, Iowa.
Already a minister, he had moved from Somerset County, Pa., to
Johnson County, Iowa, in 1851. Only two years later he was ordained
to the office of bishop. Possibly Swartzendruber was not comfortable
with keeping such an important letter, and so copied it and returned
the original to Zook, or perhaps he sent it on to still another
The strongest reason for accepting the authenticity and accuracy
of this copy is the integrity of Bishop Swartzendruber. But there
is also internal evidence that this document is a careful copy
of a lost original. The German script which is used in this copy
is written in very small characters, on lined paper, with two
lines of script between each line, a practice which Swartzendruber
sometimes followed in copying other documents. Equally significant
is the fact that Zook's questions to Ramseyer (as re-phrased
by Ramseyer in his answers) are precisely what one would expect
Zook to be asking in 1861, in the heat of the Great Schism then
in progress in the Amish church in America. Similarly, it seems
that Ramseyer's responses could only be those of a knowledgeable
This copy of a 1861 letter to Shem Zook was found among a collection
of Swartzendruber Family Papers given to the Archives of the
Mennonite Church by Sanford Swartzendruber in August, 1979. They
were accessioned and added to the Daniel B. Swartzendruber Collection
in March, 1980 (Box 3, Folder 11). These dates will explain to
the researcher why John Umble, who cataloged Bishop Jacob Swartzendruber's
"library" in 1946 did not include it in his listing,5 and also why Joe Springer did not make a typescript
of it in the early 1970s when he was examining and copying parts
of this collection. Only when Steven Reschly recently examined
the Swartzendruber Collection was this letter brought to the
attention of researchers.
Written on the envelope in
which this copy of Ramseyer's letter was enclosed is the following:
Copy [of] a letter written
by Ch. Aug. Ramseyer from Bern, Switzerland, to S[h]em Zook,
Mifflin Co., Pa. Dated the 1st of Feb. 1861. Copied by Jacob
Swartzendruber, 1862.6 It would more correctly
be called a Confession of Faith.7
February 1, 1861
Grace and peace be with you dear
friend and brother Shem Zook and with all those in that land
who, I hope, with you as with me, genuinely love the Lord Jesus
Christ, even if in other respects you may be stricter or more
lenient, rough or gentle, as has been mentioned.
I have received your letter of the 21st of the past September
and based on the assumption that it stems from a heart, enquiring
in [the spirit of] love toward the Lord and toward the brethren
on this side of the ocean, I do not delay answering your questions
insofar as I am presently able.
Concerning the first question, whether I am a preacher of the
so-called strict, or of the more lenient Mennonites,8
this question is difficult to answer, inasmuch as these expressions
are seldom used and understood in this country, and here in this
country there are other groups which are narrower or broader
in their views than we are. For example, the so-called New Anabaptists
(Apostolic Christian Church) are narrower; they cannot
even pray with people from other groups. Some fellowships are
broader, which also admit to the Lord's Supper those who
were only baptized in their infancy. And between these two extremes,
there are in Switzerland yet divers gradations.
As to whether we are strict or lenient,9
perhaps you can best decide if I tell you that we consider the
confessions of faith in the Martyrs Mirror, with which
you are certainly familiar, to be in conformity with Scripture.
At the same time we do not set this up as a binding principle
of our faith and conduct; but instead, we embrace solely
the holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, as
a rule of conduct and standard, by which
we evaluate and judge every confession, and not the converse.
It is our firm position that our confession must be written not
so much in a document, but much more in the heart. And to the
extent that we have need of something written, we seek here to
follow Paul's instruction, where he writes to the Corinthians
that we should learn from him and from Apollos not to think
[of men] more than is written: "Let no one puff himself
up in favor of one against another" [1 Cor. 4:6]. So we
need the above-mentioned confessions of faith in the Martyrs
Mirror only for those who are not acquainted with us, to
provide a brief understanding of what we are and what we teach,
and we uphold these confessions merely insofar as they agree
Just as we are not to seek honor among men and women, and since
it is not in our domain to name ourselves after Paul or Apollos,
for the same reason we seldom use the name Mennonite, and then
only to give to those to whom this name is familiar as concise
a statement as possible as to who we are, and all the more so
since we Swiss Anabaptists already came into being before Menno,
so that he is not the founder of our church. And although we
recognize him as a chosen vessel of God, we still respect him
only insofar as he taught in accordance with Scripture,
and should it be that he may have erred in something, this we
leave to his account.10
Now concerning the several points in which the Mennonites differ
from one another, we believe in the holy Trinity, that
is, in one God with three personalities, yet not
like mortal persons, but that these three are in one another
and penetrate one another, in this manner being one, as
Christ says to Philip: "Do you not believe that I am in
the Father and the Father in me" [Jn. 14:10]? And,
the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father [Jn. 14:16-17].
We believe that Jesus Christ is God from eternity and that he
became human within time, to redeem us through his death from
the power of Satan and sin and to make us partakers of his life
and of his glory. We believe that although he became flesh through
Mary, his humanity notwithstanding, he is not only the son of
man and the son of David, but also the Son of God.
We believe that the Holy Spirit is a real being, and not merely
a divine strength in people, as some Dutch Mennonites11
of the present time claim. And we believe that we are sealed
by Him for the day of redemption.
In summary, we believe that God -- the God and Father of our
Lord Jesus Christ, who is God over all things, as promised in
eternity -- so loved the world that he gave his only begotten
Son so that all who believe on Him will not be lost, but have
2. We believe in the inherited depravity of man since the Fall
of man, and therefore we also believe that Satan is a real being,
and not merely a human construct, as some Dutch Mennonites presently
claim. We also believe that Jesus Christ's actions were adequate
for the sins of humankind, so that in eternity no person will
be lost because of inherited depravity, but that all who are
lost will be rejected because they did not accept Jesus Christ
through faith, not becoming obedient to him, as it is written:
Whoever believes on the Son has eternal life, but whoever is
disobedient to the Son will not see life, but God's wrath remains
3. We believe that to attain salvation, in addition to the necessary
amending of life, a complete spiritual renewal or rebirth is
also needed, without which no one can see the kingdom of God,
much less enter into it. We believe that we as sinners are justified
by faith alone, without the works of the law, before we ever
did a good work pleasing to God, as has been richly testified
to us by God that our sins are forgiven gratis for Jesus Christ's
sake. We further believe that if we therefore turn to God with
a view to accepting his forgiveness, we will be created unto
good works through Jesus Christ to do the works which God
has prepared, for the purpose of walking therein. Through this
we give testimony that God has rightly reckoned our faith as
righteousness, so that what James wrote will be true for us,
that we are justified by works and not by faith alone.
4. Concerning baptism: We baptize no under-age children, but
only such persons of such age who confess their faith, and to
whom the Holy Spirit gives witness that they are God's children.
But if anyone should deceive us and profess to be converted for
whom it was not true, then this is known to God. And if it becomes
public knowledge, then such a one would be put out if he or she
is not converted.
We baptize only in water, actually in clean water and
preferably in running water, if it is possible.
But if flowing water is not available, then we do it in other
[water], for we do not read from Scripture that flowing water
is essential. The reason John states as to why John the Baptist
baptized in the Jordan near Aenon [Jn. 3:23] was that much--meaning
enough--water was there.13
Concerning the kind and the mode of the service, at this time
[there is] no fast rule, but rather each time being led by the
impelling of the Spirit, considering the nature of the site,
sometimes by complete immersion, sometimes by pouring water over
the applicant for baptism who is in water with a triple surge
of water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Whether the applicant kneels through this, lies down, sits, or
stands,14 such is adjusted according to
the depth of the available water, and according to his own desire.
I do not place much significance in such matters, but rather
in the fact that this step is taken on the basis of a pure conscience,
and in other respects that it be as much as possible like a burial
and complete washing and bath. How this is carried out depends
on the conditions present at the time.
Otherwise we do not argue about such matters. Rather, we recognize
any baptism which is an expression of faith and obedience, according
to the best knowledge and conscience, and [the existing] physical
setting. But on principle I never baptize someone who
is not in water by means of mere pouring.15
Furthermore, we never speculate about the actual meaning of the
Greek word, baptisein, whether it means immersion,
or can mean something else, since after all so very few people
understand Greek, and [even] the scholars are not agreed thereupon.
5. Concerning the breaking of bread, we observe the Lord's Supper
as often as we can, when possible every month, and we allow baptized
believers to partake of it, but those only in whom one can sense
the life of Christ and whose works do not betray their oral confession.
6. We also observe footwashing of the saints, firstly, when brethren
in the faith from a distance visit us, and secondly (usually,
yet not always) before the Lord's Supper. Since the three Gospel
writers who record the instituting of the Lord's Supper say not
a word about footwashing and since, on the other hand, John mentions
footwashing, yet talks about the Lord's Supper only in passing,
we therefore do not believe the intention of the apostles had
been that footwashing necessarily is to be connected
to the Lord's Supper. Nevertheless, since Christ performed it
in connection with the Lord's Supper, we therefore consider it
to be legitimate for us to do likewise.
But we observe footwashing before the Lord's Supper, firstly,
because we read according to the corrected Biblical interpretation
in John, Chapter 13:2-4: "After the supper was prepared
Jesus stands up from the evening meal,"16
et cetera; and secondly, because we see this observance
not only as a sign of humility, but also as an admonition to
be spiritually and physically ready to serve and [as a symbol]
of brotherliness, and as a sign from God that he washes us from
sin in the blood of Jesus daily, and that we are to sit at his
table as those who have been washed. It is also instructive for
us that just as we wash one another's feet until they are clean,
so we should also beware of blackening, slandering, and defaming
one another. Even much more than this, we should strive to cleanse
and sanctify one another.
7. Concerning marriage, we allow it [only] in the Lord,
that is, with a believing person who through baptism has put
on Christ. But if anyone should err so far that he should marry
an unbeliever or a baptized unbeliever, he would thereby have
separated himself from Christ and his church, and could be received
again only after true repentance and conversion, no matter whether
or not his spouse conceived. For we consider marriage to be insoluble
except in the case of adultery.
8. Concerning church discipline, minor offenses call for a warning
and, if necessary, exclusion from the Lord's Supper, and greater
or persistent smaller [offences] call for the ban
with shunning -- shunning however without conjugal separation,17 unless it should come to the place that
the banned spouse should become a snare to the other. In such
a case this one is at liberty to live alone until the situation
gets better. Nevertheless in this matter the actual one who discerns
[the case] must weigh carefully the individual's unique circumstances.
I pass over the remaining points since [here] I think we are
no different from other Mennonites. The only thing that I still
want to mention is that we hold fast to nonresistance, which
in some churches, especially in Holland and France, has been
Your two final questions remain to be answered: Concerning the
number of Mennonites in Switzerland and the total of their membership,
I can give you no satisfactory answer at this time, since I am
not well acquainted with all of them. But I hope to be able to
give you accurate information at a later time.
As far as I know there are six groups of Anabaptists in Switzerland:
1. The Zürcher Baptists (regular Baptists).18
2. The Neugatter Baptists. These have open fellowship with those
who baptize infants. These two groups are not nonresistant and
baptize by immersion. 3. The New Anabaptists (Apostolic Christian
Church) are nonresistant, practice the ban and shunning but not
footwashing, and usually baptize by immersion. This third group
is the largest and also the narrowest, for they anathematize
all others. 4. The Old Anabaptists of Bern are nonresistant,
but do not shun or practice footwashing. They baptize by pouring,
in rooms. They have two congregations, a fairly large one in
the Freibergen with four full ministers [elders], and one in
the Emmenthal with two full ministers. These number about 180
members. 5. The Neuchâtel19 and Basel
Old Anabaptists, or so-called Amish, practice the ban and footwashing,
but are asleep concerning shunning and nonresistance, and baptize
by pouring. I am not well acquainted with the fellowship in the
canton of Basel. The fellowship in the canton of Neuchâtel
numbers something over one-hundred members and has two or three
full ministers. 6. Finally, my group, whose teaching I have briefly
written about above, usually classifies itself as Amish, and
a few years ago split from the Neuchâtel Amish church because
this group is presently in decline and resists every reform.
In a word, there remained no longer any discipline and order.
For that reason six of us split off and organized collectively
and we now have only sixteen members, since one of the
six first members has already died. Most of us [in this group]
live in the canton of Neuchâtel, where I myself lived earlier
and where I plan to return soon.
These are the accounts, dear friend and brother, which I presently
can give. The Lord willing, I can write you more detailed accounts
later. And if it is agreeable to you to give me further reports
from America, I want very much to accept them as a way to strengthen
and encourage the fellowship of the heart with my otherwise unknown
children of God, with which anticipation, with brotherly greeting,
I append my name as your insignificant
Ch. Aug. Ramseyer
My address from now on will be: Ch. Aug. Ramseyer, In couvet.,
C[anto]n Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
As the note below indicates, Shem Zook, the recipient of this
letter, forwarded it to Joas Yoder and others, accompanied by
said note. When the letter eventually got to Swartzendruber in
Iowa, he evidently made a copy of it and appended Zook's note
to his copy.
February 28, 1861
Friend and Brother Joas Yoder20
After you have read this letter, then hand it to J. K. Yoder
and let old father Brand[t] see it also, and then send it quickly
to (gross) Mose Miller,21 and you, dear
friend and brother M. Miller, when you have shown the letter
to your fellow ministers, then send it to Jacob Swartzendruber,22 Iowa City, Johnson Co., Iowa.
From your insignificant friend, Shem Zook
Leonard Gross is consulting
archivist at the Archives of the Mennonite church. Paton Yoder
is author of Tradition
Letter, Delbert Gratz to Paton Yoder, 12 October 1995.
Mennonitsches Lexikon, III, 427.
See John A. Hostetler, "Memoirs of Shem Zook (1798-1880):
A Biography," Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (July
1964), 280-303, and S. Duane Kauffman, Mifflin County Amish
and Mennonite Story, 1791-1991 (Mifflin County Mennonite
Historical Society, 1991) for further identification of Shem
Concerning Zook's and Beiler's preoccupation with the stream
baptism issue see Paton Yoder, Tradition and Transition:
Amish Mennonites and Old Order Amish, 1800-1900 (Scottdale,
Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 121-27.
John Umble, "Catalog of an Amish Bishop's Library,"
Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (July 1946), 230-39.
See the editors' introduction as to how Ramseyer's letter got
into Swartzendruber's hands.
Zook had asked many questions of Ramseyer about Amish faith and
practice in Europe, and Ramseyer had answered them quite thoroughly,
all of which led Swartzendruber to liken the letter to a confession
European Amish of the nineteenth century often called themselves
Zook had evidently asked Ramseyer whether or not the Amish in
Europe were strict or lenient in their administration of church
discipline. The term, streng (strict), was used
by American Amish primarily in connection with the ban and shunning.
Here, as elsewhere in his letter, Ramseyer implies that Zook's
questions are a little simplistic; he cannot answer in a word
Ramseyer had already emphasized that the Swiss Anabaptists accepted
the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (with its Netherlands origins)
only to the extent that it was Schriftgemäss (in
agreement with Scripture) and now asserts that Menno Simons'
life and writings must certainly be subject to the same scrutiny.
Ramseyer may also be reflecting a Swiss Anabaptist disinclination
to be tied too closely to the Mennonites of The Netherlands.
Here as elsewhere, Ramseyer exhibits some comprehension of the
currents of theology of his day and, in particular, of the prevailing
Mennonite theology in The Netherlands.
Clearly this passage is lifted from Jn. 3:36. However the Lutheran
and Froschauer versions of this verse speak of God's wrath falling
on those who do not believe, whereas Ramseyer writes of
the wrath of God falling on those who do not obey. The
NRSV supports Ramseyer's version. Ramseyer's emphasis on obedience
is pushed further later when he asserts that ultimately man is
justified by faith and works (Section 3, below).
These references to baptism in flowing water must certainly be
a response to Zook's inquiries on this subject! In 1860-61 the
Amish ministers and laity of Mifflin County were preoccupied
with this question. Ramseyer responds that the biblical criterion
on this question is that there be enough water, not that
the water be flowing.
Ramseyer may be twitting Zook about his preoccupation with a
matter which he, Ramseyer, considers to be of little or no consequence.
The German word "Besprengung," which can also be translated
"sprinkling," has been translated here and below as
"pouring," given the Anabaptist and later Mennonite
baptismal practice, which has consistently been either "pouring"
or immersion, but not sprinkling. See the Mennonite Encyclopedia,
"Baptism" (esp. I:226), and the Mennonitisches Lexikon,
"Taufe" (esp. IV:287) for the historical background.
The Lutheran version reads, "after the supper," etc.
That a guilty spouse could continue in conjugal relationship
with his or her marriage partner, but otherwise be shunned by
such, was an option never considered by any Amish fellowship
in nineteenth-century America.
The term "(regular baptists)", including the parentheses,
appears in English in this document. This may be an interpolation
by the copier, Jacob Swartzendruber.
In German, Neuenburg.
The identity of this Joas Yoder is not clear. The other ministers
to whom Zook was forwarding this letter were Amish bishops, so
one could assume that he meant to send the letter, in like manner,
to the bishop of the Wayne County congregation. But in 1862 the
bishop at that place was not Joas Yoder. J(ohn) K. Yoder, to
whom Joas was to "hand" Ramseyer's letter, had taken
that office in 1859. That leaves two mysteries: Who was Joas
Yoder, and why was the letter not addressed to J(ohn) K. Yoder?
The only solution which comes to mind is the remote possibility
that Zook thought that yet another Yoder, Jacob D. Yoder, was
still bishop of the Wayne County Congregation at this time, and
was sending this letter to him for this reason. But obviously
this leaves unanswered the questions of why Zook called the addressee
Joas, and why he did not know that he (that is, Jacob D. Yoder)
had been forced out of office in 1859. Shem Zook knew both Jacob
D. and John K. Yoder, for both had moved earlier, in their adult
years, from Zook's Mifflin County to Wayne County, Ohio.
Gross Mose was bishop of the Walnut Creek congregation in Holmes
County, Ohio. More progressive than the other Holmes County congregations,
the latter broke fellowship with Mose's congregation before the
year 1861 was out.
Whereas the other Amish ministers to which Zook was sending this
letter were already known to be moderately change-minded (as
contrasted to tradition-minded), which direction Bishop Jacob
Swartzendruber of Johnson County, Iowa, would take was not clear
as of 1861. In the years which followed, however, he gravitated
toward the traditionalist position.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1996