Last week I received this question from a reader in Pittsburgh. There was so much to the answer that I had to divide it into several parts. Here’s the question:
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?
Here’s a short reprise of my introduction from last week. Then I’ll tell the rest of the story of Abel Hershberger.
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 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. They also rejected infant baptism because they felt that a person needed to be mature enough to make their own decision to follow Christ. Because they refused to baptize their children as infants, they came under great persecution from the secular authorities and the Catholic church, since their refusal kept the children off the tax rolls. Even the Lutherans joined in persecuting the Anabaptists. Now here’s the rest of my great-grandmother Hannah’s story…
“When the persecution in Switzerland became too fierce, Abel Hershberger fled to Holland with his wife and five children. On the way, the soldiers caught them and killed Abel’s wife and four of his children. They were able to kill them because Abel Hershberger believed that to be a Christian, you must be non-violent, so he did not fight the soldiers, even as he watched them murder his family.”
“Why did he believe that?” asked Jerusha.
Hannah went on with the story.
“While he lived in Switzerland Abel read the writings of a man named Menno Simons, a man who preached peace and non-violence. Abel Hershberger became a disciple of Menno. He and other followers of Menno believed that Christians were to love their enemies and pray for those who treated them badly. When he was asked later why he did not defend his family, he said, ‘One either believes what Christ says and follows him, or he does not. There is no in-between. I will see my family in heaven, where our lives will be so much better than they could ever be in this wicked world.’ Abel took the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ quite seriously. He and the others who followed Menno Simons were called Mennonites.”
“I’ve heard of the Mennonites,” said Jerusha. “They are a lot like us.”
“Yes, they are, Jerusha,” said her grandmother, “but in some basic doctrines we are far apart.”
“Go on and tell me about Abel,” said Jerusha. “What happened to him?”
“Abel went to Holland with his one remaining son. They became part of the group that Menno Simons led and followed him from city to city. There was a price on Menno’s head, but he managed to evade capture and organized the church in Holland. The Catholics especially hunted for Menno because he had been a Catholic priest who rejected the Pope, and they hated him for it. One night they broke into the house where Menno was preaching and all the Anabaptists ran out the back. It was winter and Abel ran with several men. They ran out on the frozen river and the soldiers that chased them fell through the ice. Instead of escaping, they went back and rescued the soldiers, who promptly arrested them. The soldiers tried Abel and burned him at the stake.”
“And that’s why he’s in the book?” asked Jerusha.
“Yes, child, and it’s a great lesson to all of us. Christ asks us to be like him in every way. Every trial we have in our life is a fire that burns away all the things of this world that we cling to and purifies our faith, so that when Jesus returns he will find a faithful people who have placed all their trust in Him and worship nothing above him. Sometime in your life you will face great trials, Jerusha.” said her grandmother. “We all do. How you face those trials and respond to the lesson that the Lord is teaching you will have a great influence on your eternal life and the remainder of your life on this earth. Even when it seems that we cannot go on, we must always know that God is working all things together for good, even the most horrible things.”
“What happened to Abel’s son, Grandmother?” asked Jerusha.
“Johann Hershberger was so impressed by the love that his father showed to his enemies that he gave his life fully to the service of the Lord. He became a great preacher and helped Menno establish the organization of the Mennonite church. He married and had seven children; three died in the first great influenza epidemic of 1580, and two were martyred by the Lutherans. Still Johann passed his faith down to his remaining sons and their sons. In the late 1600s a Hershberger was with the group led by Jacob Amman that broke away from the Mennonite church over Meidung, what the English call shunning. Jacob Amman insisted that anyone who broke the ordnung of the church must be excommunicated–not just from communion, but from the church and the people, as well.”
“I think it’s mean not to talk to someone who used to be your friend,” said Jerusha.
“It may seem harsh, but we see the need for it and that’s why the Amish, as they came to be called, left the Anabaptists and started their own church,” said Hannah. “You see, the Amish practice shunning as a means of enforcing a person’s commitment to God, which they make to the whole congregation when they join the church. Second Thessalonians 3:14 tells us, ‘And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.’ There are many other scriptures that support shunning, so we feel that the Bible is very clear. Because shunning is unique among the Amish, it also helps us to keep our church unique. Without Meidung our church would ultimately disintegrate and become like all the other churches. And if a person repents and changes his ways, they are welcomed back into fellowship.”
Well, that’s enough for today, gentle readers. I will tell more about the Amish and how they came to America in my next column.
*Jenny Hershberger is a fictional character from the Apple Creek Dreams series by Patrick E. Craig. To find out more about Jenny read “The Road Home” and “Jenny’s Choice”, Patrick’s latest two books.