The Amish: Who Are They?

The Amish are direct descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists. During the 1500s, committed groups of Christians throughout Europe set Europe on fire  with their quest to restore genuine apostolic Christianity. These remarkable Christians—called Anabaptists by their detractors—truly were one of the most remarkable movements in all of Christian history. Historians often refer to the Anabaptists as the “third wing of the Reformation”—the first two wings being the Lutheran and Reformed. Other historians refer to the Anabaptist movement as the “radical Reformation.” That’s because the Anabaptists believed that any restoration of primitive Christianity must involve a radical transformation of our lives.

One of the principal convictions of the Anabaptists was the doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” That is, they fully realized that Christians cannot serve two masters. We cannot be entangled in the military and political affairs of this world and imagine we can still be fully committed to Christ. Nor can we be involved in building commercial empires and still be seeking His kingdom first. His kingdom is not of this world, and when we live by the teachings of Jesus, we will noticeably differ from the world around us.

Separation of Church and State

The Amish today, like the 16th century Anabaptists, try to follow the literal words of Scripture. Some of the Scriptural conclusions the Anabaptists came to were considered extremely revolutionary and radical by most professing Christians of their day—Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran alike. For instance, the Anabaptists taught that the church should be separate from the state. Ever since the time of Constantine, the church and state had been married to each other, and practically nobody in Reformation Europe questioned the propriety of this. The entire structure of medieval society rested on the union of church and state. In the beginning, Luther had talked about separating church and state, but he abandoned this position when he saw that it was unacceptable to the ruling authorities.

The Anabaptists were severely persecuted by the Roman Catholics, Reformed church, and the Lutherans. In fact, within a few years, the majority of the original Anabaptist leaders had been arrested and put to death. The Anabaptists became a hunted group, moving from town to town and meeting secretly in barns and forests. Yet they were zealous evangelists and they spread rapidly. The secret of their strength was that most of them loved their Lord with all of their heart, mind, and soul.

Amish-Mennonite Division

Eventually, the Anabaptists splintered into three main groups: the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. The division between the Amish and the Mennonites occurred during the period of 1693 through 1698. The diviswion occurred in Switzerland over the issue of shunning persons who had been excommunicated from the church. A sizeable minority of the Anabaptists in Switzerland, led by Jakob Amman (also spelled Ammann), took a firm position on the side of shunning the excommunicated. Neither side was able to bring about a reconciliation, and the two groups permanently split. The supporters of Jakob Amman came to be known as the Amish.

During the 1700s, many of the Amish emigrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania, where they found freedom from persecution. Those who didn’t come to America eventually died off or joined the European Mennonites. The two main groups of Amish in the United States are the Old Order Amish, who drive horse and buggies, and the Beachy Amish, who allow cars and other modern inventions. There are a considerable number of other differences—both in lifestyle and doctrine—between the two groups.  The two largest Old Order Amish communities are in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes County, Ohio.