About four years back, Geauga County, Ohio native John Gingerich undertook to translate a text very important to the history of the Amish and other Anabaptists.
In today’s interview, John explains how the translation came about while offering a fascinating look at the story of this important group, including what made them different from other European Anabaptists.
John also discusses their influence on the Amish and other Anabaptist groups today. One of my favorite quotes on that point: “The Bernese Anabaptists were also noted for their hard-headedness. The Amish sometimes joke among themselves that they have inherited this trait!”
More importantly, the Christian martyr tradition of the Bernese Anabaptists lives on in their many descendants today. With the book now available in English a much wider audience will be able to access the story of their forbears.
History of the Bernese Anabaptists book giveaway
The book is also available for $10 plus shipping here, where you can also view more info on the book and sample pages.
John Gingerich on History of the Bernese Anabaptists
Amish America: What got you interested in writings on Swiss German Anabaptists?
John Gingerich: My father was raised in an Old Order Amish family in Geauga County, OH. Although he never joined the Church, most of the relatives on that side of the family still belong to the O.O. Amish, or related “plain” churches.
I’ve had an interest in history, especially family history and genealogy, ever since I was very young. I grew up hearing stories about such ancestors as Jacob Hochstettler, who was captured by the Indians, along with his two sons, during the French-Indian war in the 1750’s, and “Der Weis” Jonas Stutzman, another ancestor from Holmes County, OH, who always wore white clothing, as well as many other stories. In fact, I have a chair that was made by “Der Weis” Stutzman.
I soon realized that a person can’t have a good understanding their own family history without having some knowledge of the larger history and events, the context in which their forefathers lived. Thus, I became interested in Amish-Mennonite-Anabaptist history and read quite a bit of material on the subject.
When my last grandparent, Amanda (Schmucker) Gingerich, passed away in 1988, I was given some Testaments, hymnals and prayer books that had belonged to my grandparents and great-grandparents. This led to an interest in the literature of the group, and eventually I began collecting books relating to Amish-Mennonite history. In doing so, I formed many friendships with other book collectors, such as Leroy Beachy in Holmes County, OH, and David Luthy, director of the Old Order Amish Heritage Historical Library in Aylmer, Ontario. By the way, Leroy Beachy just completed his 20-year project, a fascinating, comprehensive book titled Unser Leit (Our People), documenting the history of the Amish.
David Luthy and I became very good friends, and he not only encouraged me in my book collecting endeavors, but we also engaged in many wide-ranging conversations about Amish-Mennonite history. It was during one of these conversations in Feb. 2007 that we had a discussion about the many books significant to Anabaptist history that were originally written in German but never translated into English. David mentioned that there had been a number of attempts over the past two decades to translate the book Geschichte der bernischen Täufer into English, but to no avail. This conversation inspired me to look into translating the book.
Can you share a bit about the importance of this text? How do Amish and other Anabaptists view it today?
John Gingerich: This book is significant because it was the first extensive, objective portrayal of the Anabaptists of Canton Bern that had been written up to that point. Prior books about the group were largely written by their opponents. Since its publication in 1895, the book has frequently been referenced and cited by researchers and historians.
One example of how the book is viewed by Amish and Mennonites today is exemplified by Amos Hoover of the Muddy Creek Farm Library (which houses an extensive collection of documents and books significant to Anabaptist history), who wrote that this book is “the glue in putting our entire collection into one voice,” and he further felt regarding the translation that “there was no book put out in recent history which was so critical to our Swiss Anabaptist heritage.”
What kind of revelations, if any, did you come across that you were not previously aware of?
John Gingerich: I think what impressed me about the early stages of Anabaptism in Switzerland, at the beginning of the Reformation, was how it was such a time of religious experimentation. In freeing themselves from the Catholic Church-State, the early reformers had many discussions, or disputations, about interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Both those who would eventually be persecuted, as well as those who would be persecutors, gathered together to discuss such things as the nature of the Church, its relationship to the State, application of the ban (excommunication), etc. Müller states in his book that it wasn’t certain at one point in time if the Anabaptists wouldn’t actually become the dominant party. Ultimately, however, those in favor of infant baptism and the official State Church relationship dominated the argument.
It would be interesting to conjecture about what would have happened if the Anabaptist view of adult believer’s baptism, separation of Church and State, non-resistance, not swearing an oath, etc, would have held sway. I can think of many scenarios, which would be too much to put into this interview.
What sorts of challenges did Anabaptists in Europe face? Why was Anabaptism seen as a threat? And how did attitudes towards Anabaptists change over time?
John Gingerich: Right from the outset, they were subject to severe persecution, including imprisonment, exile, being sentenced to the galleys, torture, and execution. The rejection of infant baptism itself was viewed as a threat to the established Church-State order, for baptism at birth was not only viewed as joining one to the established Church, but also as one becoming a member of the community and obtaining citizen of the state. Swearing the oath of allegiance was a fundamental part of Swiss citizenship, and refusal to do so was viewed as an abdication of one’s duties to the Fatherland. In addition, not bearing arms, either in personal defense or in fighting for one’s country, was considered seditious.
Gradually, many European States began to allow the Amish and Mennonites to make an affirmation rather than give an oath, and to render some type of alternative service rather than take up arms. The Anabaptists, however, existed in a precarious state, because official toleration of them could change at any time.
The modern-day descendants of the Anabaptists also have a variety of views on these subjects. Although adult believer’s baptism continues to be a central doctrine, some churches no longer promote the principles of non-resistance or not swearing of an oath. Most conservative branches, however, continue to promote these beliefs.
We often read about how the Amish and Mennonites are admired by modern society for their religious, moral, and family values. The Amish were widely hailed for their beliefs about forgiveness after the Nickel Mines shootings.
However, we also recently experienced the other extreme of how their core beliefs are viewed by what happened at Goshen College in the past few months. Although this Mennonite college had quietly adhered to its Anabaptist principles for the past century of its existence, and thus did not play such patriotic songs such as The Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, it reversed this policy in 2010. This created a controversy among students, faculty, and alumni of Amish and Mennonite background. Subsequently, the school’s Board decided recently to revert to its original position, and said it would seek an alternative song.
This has created a national outcry and condemnation by many. No matter one’s position on the issue, I think a person has to understand the historical context in which the Amish, Mennonites, and other Anabaptist groups hold these beliefs. Our forefathers were willing to be imprisoned, tortured, exiled and, in some cases, executed, for these principles. Their strong belief in separation of Church and State, considered radical and traitorous in the 16th century, is now one of our fundamental American values.
Their willingness to nonviolently sacrifice their lives for these beliefs, in my opinion, takes as much courage as someone’s willingness to do the same while fighting for their country.
What distinguished the Bernese Anabaptists from others?
John Gingerich: Unlike Canton Zurich, which succeeded in virtually eradicating its Anabaptists through intense persecution, Canton Bern was never able to completely rid itself of the Anabaptists. In fact, the oldest “Taufgesinnten” Church, formed in 1530, still exists to this day in Canton Bern.
Although the Anabaptists in some areas were highly educated, Müller notes that the Anabaptists of Canton Bern were largely farmers and herders. Most people think of the Anabaptists of that era as being radicals, but Müller describes those in Bern as being ultra-conservative in their views. He felt their positions regarding the church, state, infant baptism, etc, reflected ancient beliefs, handed down from such “heretical” groups as the Waldensians. He noted that, at the time of the Reformation, they already possessed a well-developed theology and knowledge of Scripture. He asked how this could have been possible unless the group was already reflecting ancient, pre-Reformation beliefs? This view is rejected by most modern historians, but I’ll leave those arguments up to the academicians.
The Bernese Anabaptists were also noted for their hard-headedness. The Amish sometimes joke among themselves that they have inherited this trait!
What countries in Europe did Bernese Anabaptists inhabit? What remnants are there today?
John Gingerich: Because of intense persecution that lasted almost three centuries, the Anabaptists of cantons Zurich and Bern were forced into exile, sometimes individually and sometimes en masse. They then migrated throughout Europe, into such locales as Alsace and Lorraine (modern-day France), Moravia (portions of modern-day Poland, Czech Republic and Austria), along the Rhine River in modern-day Germany, the Netherlands, and even into Russia and modern-day Romania (with the Hutterites).
Although the last Amish Church in Europe ceased independent operations in the 1930’s, Bernese Anabaptist ancestry can still be fond in Mennonite congregations in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and, of course, in Switzerland.
Chapter 15 is entitled “Foiled Deportation to America”. I think many picture the migration of Anabaptists to America as that of a persecuted people willingly seeking a land of religious and economic freedom. When were Anabaptists under threat of deportation to America, and why did they resist?
John Gingerich: It’s important to remember that, despite all persecutions experienced, the Anabaptists loved their Swiss homeland. When exiled, many returned under the threat of being “sentenced to death or lifelong imprisonment or, ultimately, condemned to the galleys.” By the end of the 17th century the authorities in Canton Bern felt very frustrated about their inability to rid themselves of these “Taufgesinnten” (baptism-minded, i.e., those believing in adult baptism). Therefore, they sought other, more effective means.
In 1699, they communicated with the Dutch East India Company about transporting the Bernese Anabaptists to “take these people off our hands, by such means and to such a place we can be confident they will not return,” possibly the East Indies or some remote island. The East India Company did not respond to their request. The authorities then made their own arrangements to transport the Anabaptists to the British colonies in America. In making arrangement for transportation along the Rhine River, they ran into trouble with the Dutch authorities, who protested they would not tolerate religious prisoners being transported through their territory. The Bernese authorities were informed that “as soon as they set foot in our country, they [the Bernese Anabaptist prisoners] would be set free.” That is what actually occurred when, in 1710, these prisoners were on their way to ocean ports for transportation to America. When they arrived in the Netherlands, they were set free.
Another larger-scale forced exile occurred in 1711, which resulted in the scattering of many Bernese Anabaptists along the Rhine River, with the majority arriving in the Netherlands, where they eventually merged with the Mennonite congregations there.
Later, when it became obvious that America offered many opportunities not available in Europe, a large exodus from their ancestral homeland to America took place.
What has come of the Bernese Anabaptists and their descendants in America?
John Gingerich: We see descendants of Bernese Anabaptists in modern-day Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite congregations, as well as many other church affiliations. We see a wide variety of religious practices and beliefs among them, from very conservative to very liberal. In addition to their physical descendants, we also see a spiritual progeny of these faithful forefathers, made up of many people of various backgrounds, races and languages. This, I think, is the most important legacy of the Anabaptists.
As Müller concluded his book, he noted that the Swiss Anabaptists “have become a great people. . . They also contribute to the glory of their homeland, which even now sends them its greetings with the assurance that it has not forgotten them.
“The Lord tills His field. He allows the grain to grow and thrive. In time, the fences that men have erected in the midst of these waving grain fields will no longer be needed.”