image of a horse and buggy crossing sign

Something Amish

I have come to the conclusion that in every minute of every day, there is someone, somewhere trying (and failing) to explain the difference between Mennonites and the Amish.

These are people with a little bit of knowledge but not a lot. People who might have Mennonite (or Amish) ancestry. Maybe they lived once in Lancaster, PA. Or at least passed through. They might have once employed a Mennonite contractor. Or chatted to the woman who sold them a quilt. But they speak like people who know.

Always be wary of words about us spoken with confidence.

People who know a little more tend to avoid these conversations. Because we know what we don’t know and/or have given up on explanations that only made sense in 1693.

Honestly, I think the relationship between the Amish and the Mennonites just gets more confusing, the more one learns.

Consider, for instance, the basic question as to whether the Amish are actually a branch of the Mennonite faith family tree. There are so many subsects among the Mennonites, that it would certainly be easy to just throw the Amish in there with the other ones.

But the 1693 schism was pretty definitive and as far as I can tell, the Amish mostly don’t consider themselves a part of the family. Some of them even deny that the schism was with Mennonites since the people they broke with called themselves The Swiss Brethren and didn’t acquiesce to being called Mennonite until later.

I call that semantics – all the Swiss Brethren were aligned with the Dutch and German Anabaptists who had begrudgingly accepted the name Mennonite several generations earlier. As I like to say, a Mennonite by any other name still tends toward schism. And, anyway, the historical record shows the Swiss Brethren listed as Mennonites at least once before 1693.*

Proving that confusion existed even then.

It doesn’t help the confusion that some of the Amish groups changed their minds in the second half of the nineteenth century and joined up with us Mennonites again, bringing a welcome Alsatian flavour to our ethnic stew. Unfortunately, they also confusingly called themselves Amish Mennonite.

When people refer to the Amish today, however, they are pretty much exclusively referring to the Old Order Amish – the ones who did not merge with Mennonites in the nineteenth century and chose a more separatist lifestyle.

Which means the answer to that simple question of whether the Amish are or are not a branch of the Mennonite faith family tree is: no, then yes for some, then no again.

I hope you appreciate that I cleared that up.

But what about the original questions, you ask? What exactly is the relationship between the Amish and the Mennonites – what are the distinctions and is it true that Mennonites are just Amish with cars?

We are not the Amish with cars.

For one thing, some of the Old Order Mennonites avoid automobiles and electricity every bit as much as the Amish.

This is because back in the late nineteenth century, at about the same time as the Amish split between progressives (who joined the Mennonites) and Old Order Amish (who didn’t), some groups of Mennonites wanted to resist the sway of modernity and live more apart from mainstream society. Hence, the development of Old Order Mennonites. Since then, both the Old Order Amish and the Old Order Mennonites have also split themselves further into various sub-sub-sects, each with their own controversies and customs.

Mennonites like me – and most of my readership – like to point out that in both cases, the Old Order faction was a much smaller group than the Mennonites and Amish Mennonites who dressed in contemporary fashions and interacted fairly freely with the rest of the populace. And that is still true today.

But that’s an aside.

And yes, I know. People asking that question are really asking about the distinctions between Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite and don’t really care about the progressive branches of either. But even that is an impossible task. This is because neither Amish nor Mennonites have a central organizing body and many decisions about life and faith are made at the congregation level. Which results in a lot of variation within the various groups of both Mennonites and the Amish — even among those who are nominally members of the same subgroup of Mennonite or Amish.

All of this means that any attempt at generalized explanations of difference is a fool’s errand.

Though I willingly wear the title, “fool,” even I am only willing to generalize to the point of saying that historically the distinctions between Mennos and Amish came down to questions of what it means to be separate from the world and how we deal with dissent.

In the very beginning, it was also personal.

The particular squabble that started off the Amish schism occurred among the Swiss Brethren/Mennonites who lived in Switzerland, Alsace, and the Palatinate parts of South Germany.

This was in the late seventeenth century.

In the broad cultural trends recorded in Art History texts, this is the period just at the beginning of the Rococo movement. Coming out of France, this movement was bringing with it an appreciation of the ornamental — curves and curlicues, pastel shades and a certain light-heartedness. Everything, in short, that we think of as not Amish.

There is no reason to believe that Jakob Ammann and his Swiss Brethren/Mennonite companions were familiar with the paintings of Antoine Watteau or the French aristocracy’s new love of the decorative arts. But Ammann was probably aware of the ways that a new passion for ornamentation was playing out in fashion with, for instance, the introduction of such frivolities as buttons.

Because Jakob Ammann was a tailor.

Politically, the Mennonites were living in a conflict zone in 1693. Louis XIV of France, the same man who patronized the new Rococo style, also brought war to the Alsace, Switzerland and the Palatinate lands just a few years earlier. The Nine Years’ War, though nowhere nearly as devastating as a Twentieth-Century War, nonetheless must have caused uncertainty and disruption for the peasant farmers trying to till the land. All through the controversy that started the schism and the failed reconciliation attempts, French troops trudged through the fields not too far from where the Mennonites and their neighbours farmed.

Any war would have also brought back memories of the Thirty Years’ War that had ended in 1648, forty-five years previous. This had been possibly the most brutal of all pre-modern European wars, reducing the population both through migration and death, and leaving large swathes of formerly agricultural land untilled. The rulers of a few of the places that had been ravaged the worst by the Thirty Year’s War — the Alsace and the Palatinate lands — invited Anabaptists from Switzerland to repopulate their lands and bring their fields back under the plough. These rulers had grown weary of fighting over religion and were desperate for farmers. They promised the Anabaptists religious tolerance and the Swiss Brethren went. The tolerance was a boon but the impact of the Thirty Years’ War would still have been evident all around them.

The Mennonites who stayed in Switzerland did not enjoy the same level of religious tolerance. Anabaptists still faced persecution there — no thumb screws and death anymore but still imprisonment and deportation. With war on one side and harassment on the other, these Mennonites relied on the goodwill of their neighbours for safety. They came to call those who helped them and were generally good people, the “true-hearted.” Even if they were members of a state Church. Mutual respect grew among them.

This was all the background: war, fancy new clothes, official policies of harassment, and growing interfaith friendships in Switzerland.

In the foreground was a clash of personalities.

It is clear from the historical record that whatever came after and whatever the deep-sated roots of the conflict, it cannot be denied that Jakob Ammann and Hans Reist did not much like each other. Both were leaders of the Church but Ammann was young and passionately reform-minded. He was based in the Alsace. Reist was older and concerned more with the survival of the Church than its purity. Reist was based in Switzerland.

Ammann saw Hans Reist as lax, backsliding and condescending; Reist saw Amman as young, rabble-rousing and rash. Before the major dispute, they had already disagreed about such burning issues as how often to serve communion and whether or not to have foot-washing services. But they had managed to avoid a full-out schism over either of these.

The real trouble began when a rumour circulated that one of the women in Reist’s congregation had declared that the “true-hearted” people could receive Divine salvation even if they had not voluntarily accepted baptism as adults.

Ammann was appalled. He pushed for the woman’s excommunication and used the case to push his rival on an issue close to his heart — the meidung or excommunication and shunning of those outside the Church. That included people who had left, had not confessed and repented some sin, or were members of the state Church.

Reist refused to excommunicate the woman in his congregation who was anachronistically ecumenical. And he made it clear that he had no plans to shun the “true-hearted.”

Ammann then traveled around the region, garnering support among the various Church leaders for his position regarding shunning. Once he felt he had enough support, he called a big meeting to discuss the issue. When Reist didn’t show up, he called another one. When Reist didn’t show up again and claimed himself too busy, Ammann excommunicated him and all of the other leaders who had agreed with Reist.

It was as dramatic as Mennonite schisms get.

But it wasn’t over yet. A little bit later, Ammann and a few others of his group regretted that they had acted rashly and in a grand gesture of contrition, they excommunicated themselves. They didn’t think they were wrong about shunning, but the felt they should not have acted so quickly.

The Swiss Brethren/Mennonites were not particularly impressed by the gesture.

Both sides tried to heal the rift for a little while but the division was rancorous. Most of the congregations in the Alsace sided with Ammann and the Swiss and Palatinate went Mennonite. In 1711, feelings were still strong enough that the Mennonites and Amish from the Alsace refused to travel on the same boat when migrating to the Netherlands (that relative freedom in the Alsace didn’t last).

Well before the Alsatians fled to the Netherlands, Jakob Ammann brought in a number of reforms designed to keep the Church pure and separate from the evils of the world. These included more frequent communion (accompanied each time with an accounting of one’s sins); the strict enforcement of shunning; the introduction of foot washing to remind people of their humility; and, the most unusual reforms — rules against trimming beards and wearing anything but the simplest of clothing.

The Mennonites and Swiss Brethren prior to Ammann had seen it a virtue to dress plainly but Ammann was the first to lay it out with the specificity of a man who knew his fashion trends. And the dangers of the ostentatious button.

But that was then and this is now.

After the nineteenth century reshuffling, the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites found they also had much in common. Shunning remained a significant issue between the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and maybe still is to this day, but I suspect that varies a lot between congregations.

Today, it comes down to such distinctions as who wears beards and who is clean-shaven, the shape of their buggies, the type of head-covering for women, the amount of colour in their dress and, still, the choice to use buttons vs hook-and-eye as clothing fasteners. Though all of these issues vary within each of the sub-sects.

Sometimes, when I see this question on Twitter or in real life, it is in the context of a picture of an Old Order Amish or maybe an Old Order Mennonite person defying expectations. Taking a plane, perhaps, using cell phones, or playing pinball. And the observer will claim that the plain-clothed person must be Mennonite because Mennonites are more lenient than the Amish.

They are wrong about that. Some Mennonite subgroups are stricter than some Amish subgroups in some areas and some Amish subgroups are stricter about other choices than some Mennonite subgroups. And, contrary to popular opinion, the Amish and the Mennonites also change their rules from time to time.

But I can say this: absolutely none of these groups made their decisions on what to change and what to keep the same based on the ease or difficulty it would give to curious onlookers who for some reason are passionately interested in knowing just what kind of traditionalist Anabaptist they are.

Hook and Eye Cocktail

This cocktail is based on the Red Hook but uses Campari instead of Punt e Mes, because the name and label of Punt e Mes are just too fancy.

  • 2 oz whiskey
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz Maraschino

Stir the ingredients together with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Drop a maraschino cherry in as a garnish — there’s no call for anything as ornamental as a cocktail skewer

* Note on sources. I have not provided links to my sources within this article largely because I found online sources to be inconsistent and so was forced to mimic a traditionalist and head to a library where I consulted books on the subject. I most particularly relied on Royden Loewen, Seeking Places of Peace; and Steven Nolt, A History of the Amish, though I also consulted Donald Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture. Knowledge about Jakob Ammann’s life is scarce and based on scanty evidence. I have left out much that is speculative but included his occupation as a tailor though that, I believe, is also based on very few mentions in the historical record. Nolt and Kraybill leaves out mention of the woman at the centre of the dispute between Ammann and Reist but that is well documented and cited from letters detailing the schism at the time. The GAMEO article on the Amish division includes a portion of an MQR article discussing these letters. My various sources dispute whether all Amish should be considered a branch of the Mennonite faith. Nolt cites a letter from 1667 in which a Palatinate duke referred to the Swiss Brethren as Mennonite.