The Amish have their origins in Europe. The group emerged in the late 1600s out of the broader Anabaptist movement. Today the Amish are among the most easily recognizable peoples in North America. For some, they may seem a living remnant of a bygone era, or a people stubbornly clinging to outdated ways. Where do Amish people come from, and why did they end up here?
Roots in Europe
The Amish are a product of the Protestant revolution in Europe. In the early 1500’s a group of devout Christians in Zurich, Switzerland developed a set of beliefs counter to both the state Catholic church as well as the Protestant groups that rebelled against it. Among other beliefs, this group felt strongly that individuals should be baptized as adults, not infants. They also believed in a Scriptural doctrine of nonresistance, which would prevent them from doing military service or any other acts of violence. Due to their belief in adult baptism, this group was given the derogatory name “Anabaptists”, which literally means “rebaptizers”.
The Anabaptist story
Early Anabaptist history is bloody. Anabaptists were seen as undermining the power of the State church. For their threatening beliefs they were persecuted—captured, tortured and in some cases killed—and were forced to worship in secret. Over time they found refuge in various locations throughout Europe, including parts of Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland, and even as far east as Poland and Russia. In Europe they developed methods of farming to make the best of the poor-quality lands they were forced to inhabit, and in the process developed a strong agricultural reputation.
Amish and Mennonites diverge
One of the more conservative segments of Anabaptists became known as Mennonites, named after an early leader, a Catholic priest convert named Menno Simons. The Mennonite group later experienced tension due to conflicting beliefs. One leader named Jakob Amman disagreed with the practices of some of his brethren, maintaining that they had become too permissive. Among other issues, he believed in a more strict interpretation of the doctrine of shunning, or social avoidance. This disagreement led to conflict among the Mennonites, resulting in the eventual split of Amman and his followers from the Mennonite group in 1693. This more conservative contingent became known as “Amish”.
When did the Amish come to America?
Amish first began arriving in America in the early-to-mid 1700s, attracted by the promise of religious freedom in “Penn’s land” (modern-day Pennsylvania). Amish had been largely landless tenant farmers in Europe, so the chance to own their own land was attractive as well. Early Amish settled in southeastern Pennsylvania; one of the original settlements became the well-known community at Lancaster County.
The Amish grow and spread
As more and more Amish arrived through the 18th and 19th centuries, Amish communities grew. Amish settled in new areas outside of Pennsylvania, including Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. Some of the early Amish assimilated with society and in some cases became more modern Mennonite congregations. The last Amish settlement in Europe disappeared in 1937.
The segment of Amish society which chose the more conservative path became known as the Old Order. The Old Order Amish are found in 31 states and Canada, and number over 350,000 today.
Amish tradition through history
Throughout their history, Amish have had to adapt to persecution, societal change, and other external influences. Over time, Amish society has evolved and changed while remaining mindful of tradition and religious values. The Amish are also aware of their history and roots in Europe and the broader Anabaptist movement. As a religious minority, Amish people know where they come from, and have a sense of themselves in a broader historical and genealogical timeline.
For further information, see:
A History of the Amish, Steven M. Nolt
Map credit: http://alabamamaps.ua.edu/