For the last three weeks I have been writing about the history of the Amish – where we came from. This all came about when a reader sent me a letter. Here’s what she asked:
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?
Cathy, when I was a special intern at the Wooster library in 1965, I loved doing research about the Amish of Wayne County. My studies led me all the way back to Isabella of Hungary who was raised to a life of great wealth and leisure in the Polish Royal Court. She was destined to marry a king. But fate or divine providence intervened when she meets Johann Hershberger, the young Anabaptist stable-hand who works for her father. They ran away and were married. Together they had a son who along with his father became the first Mennonites in my family. That was in 1575. The story of what happened to Isabella is wonderful and yet very tragic. I have written about her in my book, The Mennonite Queen. At that time I was also working on a book about my family and my mama, Jerusha, shared many stories about sitting at her grossmudder’s knee and learning the story of our family.
One of the interesting things I learned was that the split between the Mennonites and the Amish came because of the practice of shunning – what we call the meidung. Here is what my mama’s mother told her about the Amish as I wrote in A Quilt For Jenna.
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,” said Hannah.
“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.”
“We were so determined to live a pure biblical life that the Protestants and the Catholics, and even other Anabaptists, continued to persecute us. Finally in 1720, William Penn, the governor of Pennsylvania, offered sanctuary in America to any and all religious groups that were facing persecution in Europe. The Hershbergers were with the first group that came to America in 1736. They settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and tried to keep their communities closed and unnoticed, but they still faced severe trials. There were religious revivals sweeping through the colonies and many other religions tried to convert the Amish to their way of thinking.
And that, Cathy, is how the Amish came to America. We’ll talk more about their part in the history of our country next time.
*Jenny Hershberger is a fictional character from the Apple Creek Dreams series by Patrick E. Craig. To find out more about how the Hershberger family came to America, and specifically to Apple Creek, Ohio, read A Quilt For Jenna, the first book in the series