I have lived in Pennsylvania most of my life and have seen many Amish people. I always wondered where they came from and how they became Amish. Can you give me some background?
That’s a great question, and the truth is, you are not the first to ask it. So for a long time, I have been gathering information about the Amish and I’d like to use the next two or three columns to talk about the roots of my faith. So here we go…
The Amish have been an “official” offshoot of the Protestant religion since the 1600’s. But the roots of our movement went back to the early days of Protestantism around 1500. When Martin Luther first brought forth the radical idea that men were justified or freed from their sin by faith alone, the idea shook the world. But there were some people who stepped back from the “fever” that was sweeping through the church and wondered if the doctrine of grace alone left too much room for people to reject a moral law because they felt that under grace they could behave any way they wanted. This group felt that Christians also needed a set of rules to guide them in holy living. And so they moved away from Luther’s movement and became known as Anabaptists. When I was writing “A Quilf For Jenna” my mama, Jerusha, told me about the day her grandmother, Hannah Hershberger, told her the story of the Anabaptists. So I’ll share those notes with you.
One day when they were working on a new design together, Jerusha asked her grandmother a question.
“Grandmother, has our family always lived in Apple Creek?”
“We have been in Apple Creek almost one hundred years,” replied her grandmother.
“How did our family come to Apple Creek?” asked Jerusha.
Hannah paused and looked at Jerusha over her reading glasses, which she wore down on her nose, the better to see the stitching. Then she put down her work and, taking Jerusha by the hand, she led her to a small chest in the next room. Hannah opened the chest and took out two books. She held up the first. It was titled The Martyr’s Mirror.
“To understand how we came to Apple Creek, you must first ask, ‘Where did the Amish come from?’ This book was first printed in the year 1660 in Holland,” said Hannah. “It tells the story of the Anabaptists and their great desire for religious freedom.”
“What’s an Anabaptist, Grandmother?” asked Jerusha.
“Sit down, child,” said Hannah, “and I will tell you of our people.”
Hannah settled into a comfortable overstuffed chair. Jerusha curled up at her grandmother’s feet and laid her head on Hannah’s lap as her grandmother began to speak.
“From about the year 350 A.D., everyone who was a Christian belonged to the same church. It was called the Catholic Church and over the centuries it became very powerful and corrupt. In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther began to challenge the authority and doctrine of the Catholic Church. It was the beginning of what was called the Protestant Reformation. The foundational belief of the Protestants was that man is saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and not by any works that he does or money he pays to the Church. With the help of the printing press, Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe. Many people followed Luther’s ideas about salvation by faith and called themselves Protestants, but still kept the Catholic rituals and practices. One of these practices was the act of baptizing infants to bring them into church membership, and at the same time, place them on the tax rolls. The government supported this practice because through it they had more control over the people and their money.”
“Our people don’t get baptized until they’re grown up,” said Jerusha.
“That’s right, child,” answered Hannah. “We believe that you cannot make a profession of faith in Christ until you understand what it means. We are the descendents of a group of people who challenged both the Catholics and the Protestants over this very idea. Because we were against infant baptism, they called us Anabaptists. In 1524 in Zurich, Switzerland, the city council, led by a Protestant priest named Ulrich Zwingli, demanded that the Anabaptists stop meeting secretly in homes, come back to the church and baptize their infants. The Anabaptists of Zurich held a meeting and re-baptized each other to signify their adult commitment to their faith.”
“Did that make Zingli mad, Grossmutter?” asked Jerusha.
“Zwingli, child. Yes, it made him very mad. He set the local soldiers on the Anabaptists. They were hunted down and told that if they didn’t baptize their infants, their children would be taken away. When they refused, terrible things happened. Some were just threatened, but others were exiled, tortured, sold into slavery, branded, even burned at the stake, drowned, or torn to pieces.”
Grandmother handed Jerusha the old book.
“This book was written to preserve the stories of hundreds of these Anabaptists who chose to suffer or flee rather than to resist by violence. You will find the story of Abel Hershberger included.”
“Who was Abel Hershberger?” asked Jerusha
“Abel Hershberger was the founder of our family and the first Hershberger of whom we have any written history,” answered Hannah. “He goes back twelve generations to the persecutions of Geneva and the roots of the Amish faith.”
“Did he fight the Catholics?” asked Jerusha.
“No,” said Hannah, “as a matter of fact he did just the opposite. He did what many of the Anabaptists did—he ran away.”
Cathy, that’s probably enough for today, and besides my editor only gives me so many column inches. So I will continue with this topic next time. Have a blessed day.