Today’s story really begins around 1536 in Switzerland at a time when the Protestant Reformation was going through internal turmoil over questions about the doctrine and practices of Martin Luther’s church. As people who had long been denied access to the Bible began to study scripture, many could find no defense of infant baptism as practiced by both the Catholics and Protestants. A minister named Menno Simons felt strongly enough on the subject that he publicly rejected the faith and formed a group of followers known at first as The Church of The Brethren, or more popularly as Mennonites. In 1693 a former priest named Jacob Ammann – also an Anabaptist – felt Menno Simons had not gone far enough and became the mentor of a group known as the Amish. Both groups believed that a person was incapable of self-determination of faith before maturity. Seen as in a state of illegal apostasy, a crime against God, they were hunted down by both major faith groups and executed, often being burned at the stake; men, women and children alike. There seemed to be no escape from persecution and worse, and by the end of the 16th century most of the leaders had been killed.
In 1681 King Charles II of England granted William Penn a large piece of North America as payment of monies owed to his father, Admiral William Penn. What is now Pennsylvania, organized on March 4th, 1681 was the largest personal Royal grant ever handed down. From the first day of its existence the Quaker government promised friendship to all Indians; a promise never violated despite Indian attacks. Then it went further by declaring that Pennsylvania would forever be a place where all who came there would enjoy Freedom of Religious Conviction.
Pennsylvania with its fertile soil, friendly climate and growing conditions and – most of all – its welcome to all religious faiths became a magnet to these benighted people who had seemingly run out of hope. As the 18th century dawned, Amish and Mennonite people began the long journey to a “promised land,” at first from Switzerland, and then from Alsace and Germany bringing with them centuries of tradition and a strong commitment to hard work, a love of the soil and their Christian faith. With identical religious roots, the two groups associated in many ways, being separated principally over the Amish practice of shunning as a disciplinary tool, and while the latter also remained averse to close contact with all things “English”, the Mennonites were not so strict. Even today a visitor to the region will find Mennonites selling Amish goods, services and crafts to an avid clientele.
The most religiously conservative of the varying communities are the “Old Order” Amish who pride themselves on living life as “the plain” people – both in dress and decorum (often limiting the use of mirrors and other “prideful” objects in the home.) From Paul’s council to the Corinthians not to become “unequally yoked to non-believers,” these Amish avoid allowing themselves to become dependent in any way on “outsiders.” Thus there will be no power, natural gas or phone lines connecting their properties, and only their own teachers occupying the one-room school houses bringing an 8th grade education to much-loved – even revered - children. If disaster or suffering comes along, they take care of each other; insurance salesmen will not do well here. They eschew the Social Security system not because they don’t want to pay into it, but because they do not wish to take benefits out of it. And their aged do not go to some kind of “Care Center”; they are lovingly given a privileged, well-earned and honored emeritus position in the homes of their thankful posterity.
And “Grace?” In 2006 a shooter invaded an Amish school house in Lancaster County shooting 10 young girls, killing 5 before taking his own life. The next day the mothers of those girls visited the widow of that non-Amish killer, bringing loaves of bread, love and forgiveness for the act of her husband. At the funeral of the husband, the building was filled with Amish people. No one else even attended.
As another Thanksgiving arrives this week, I will feel a deep sense of thankfulness, not only for myself and those I love, but for all those who over the years have found succor and religious freedom here in the home of the brave, and for the faith and traditions they and their posterity bring to our Land.
Shirley Cooper peers into a wood-fired food drying shed on an Amish farm near Nappanee, Indiana. Al Cooper Photo