A Field Guide to Anabaptists

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to learn what an Anabaptist is and how to recognize one in the wild.  Ready?  OK.

Some History:  In 1525, with Reformation in the air, a group of German and Dutch Christians managed to irritate both the Lutherans AND the Catholics, and were burned at the stake by everybody.  Their crime?  Suggesting that infant baptism was a bad idea and re-baptizing those who had been christened as babies.  (“Anabaptist” means “re-baptizer.”)  Menno Simons, a Dutch reformer, became influential in the sect, and his followers were called “Mennonites.”  One of his disciples, Jacob Ammann, created the Anabaptist order that later became known as the Amish. 

The Mennonites and the Amish got very tired of being harassed by everybody, so they took William Penn up on his offer of tolerance for everyone, and immigrated to America.  Once they got here, the groups splintered more than a piece of old pine, which is kind of depressing.  One of the deepest splits happened when an Amish man, exposed to the fervor of a Methodist revival, wanted to start a Sunday school for children.  Since Anabaptist doctrine teaches that true conversion can only happen to adults, this seemed pointless, and the group split formally into Mennonite (Sunday school  and education in general are okay), and Amish (no Sunday school, and no regular school past 8th grade.)

Some Theology:  Amish and Mennonite groups believe all the basic tenets of Christianity – the divinity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the triune nature of God, and the authority of the Bible.  Because they take the Bible very seriously, they make it the central authority of their lives, and therefore choose to live simply and outside the influence of the world, being “in it but not of it.”  They want their lives to be in stark contrast to those who have assimilated or compromised with the world, and of course, one of the most visible ways to do this is in lifestyle.

Anabaptist doctrine is Calvinistic in nature, but not in origin.  Like true Calvinism, it struggles with insecurity – am I saved or not?  The Amish and Mennonites generally believe that one can’t know for sure until one stands in front of God.  The uncertainty of election has made the Amish non-evangelical, which is why their populations remain ethnically stable and largely German or German-Swiss;  most American Amish descend from 200 families who came here in the 1700’s, which presents some gene-pool problems, as you can imagine.  The Mennonites, on the other hand, have a more evangelical outlook, and often engage in mission work both in American and abroad.

Some Things That Aren’t Really Theology But Are Pretty Close:  Both Old Order Mennonites and Amish take Paul pretty literally.  Women don’t cut their hair, and they always wear a head covering.  Church leaders are ordained after being chosen by lot from a class of nominees.  Members may be excommunicated for violence, military service, criminal activity, buying insurance, or using technology that has not been approved by the elders.  Individual groups may practice “shunning,” following Paul’s injunction to have nothing to do with an unrepentant sinner.  Marriage or business partnerships with non-Amish are unheard of, since this defies Paul’s injunction to avoid being “unequally yoked.”

The whole 18th Century lifestyle thing evolved over time – as technology advanced, the Amish, in particular, retreated.  It seemed to threaten the distinctiveness of the people, so they avoided it.  As different groups allowed different technologies, the communities fractured along those lines.  Sunday school, as previously mentioned, was a big break.  So was the use of the automobile, and later, the internal-combustion tractor.  Some Amish eschew any internal combustion; some require steel tires so the tractor can’t be used for transportation, and some allow tractors without penalty.  Likewise, some Amish communities use propane for refrigerators and stoves, while others insist on wood stoves and no electricity at all. 

The Field Guide:  (A Caveat:  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Amish and Mennonite communities, particularly the humility and discipline with which they live their lives.  The field guide is not intended to be disrespectful, although if it is, they’ll never know.)


                Men:  Beards but not mustaches; short hair; black pants; brown, dark blue, or gray shirts; straw hat in summer, black felt hat in winter.  Boys are the same except for the beards.

Women:  No cutting of hair; bonnets worn after age 16, although this can be a mesh cap in summer; white bonnet strings if single, black if married; dress in gray, dark blue, or black; dresses have capes to cover most of the bodice; black stockings; black shoes; modesty is key.  Little girls identical.

                Farms:  No visible modern technology.  Barns lit by skylights; houses plain white, brick, or stone, and unornamented, even by purely decorative plants; lots of horses; big gardens; neat and tidy, but never showy; certainly no “Amish” stars.

                Church:  German or Pennsylvania German spoken in services, ( and sometimes in the family circle.)  Services are held in members’ homes every other Sunday, and include singing, two sermons, and a fellowship meal.

                School:  One room schools staffed by Amish women teach basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills for children through roughly the 8th grade.  There is no higher education for Amish, and in practical terms, this means that the Amish work in agriculture and building trades almost exclusively.  There is no such thing as an Amish lawyer.

Old Order Mennonite

                Men:  Beards optional; shirts can be dark plaids or other muted colors; men and boys wear jeans; hats similar.

                Women:  blue or gray dresses for older women; girls younger than 16 can wear calico prints; mesh caps only, no bonnets; stockings do not have to be black.  Little girls dress similarly.

                Farms:  No internal combustion engines, but may have telephones or electrical appliances.  (These things are discouraged unless the household is elderly.)  Some landscaping, ornamental planting, etc.  There are “car-driving” Old Order Mennonites who paint their bumpers and other chrome black.  This has lead to them being called “Black-bumper Mennonites.”  I am not kidding.

                Church:  services may still be in German, but can be in English.  Usually occur in a meeting house, which the group may share with other Mennonite groups, but there is no pulpit; instead, there is a speakers’ table used by the men who will deliver the sermon.  Sermons are quite measured and unemotional; “Methodist” fervor is frowned upon.  Uses the same songbook as the Amish.

                School:  Like the Amish, school is an informal affair, usually over by 8th grade.  Some Old Order Mennonite schools go through tenth grade.

Conservative Mennonite (considered dangerously liberal by the first two groups)

                Men:  Facial hair not obligatory; jeans, sneakers, no shorts.  Boys, ditto.

                Women:  Hair remains uncut and heads covered.  Caped dresses can be made of modest print fabrics; mesh caps; girls similar; no pants, shorts, sandals, or other immodest dress.

                Farms:  Can own automobiles, tractors, milking machines and similar, and both men and women drive, although women don’t usually work outside the home, unless it is in education.  Houses unadorned but may have swings and porch furniture, as well as ornamental plants. 

                Church:  Often sharing a building with Old Order Mennonites, although the two groups distrust one another.  Services may include Sunday school or other Bible teaching.  Instruction of the young, regarded as pointless by the other two groups, is taken seriously here, and sometimes the CM groups will have winter “Bible schools,” where teenagers do in-depth studies for one to three weeks.  Very popular.

                School:   Some children attend public schools, others attend Mennonite schools that go through twelfth grade.  The “assimilated” branch of the Mennonites is very pro-education and has founded and supported a number of colleges, including Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: