Amish Division


Amish Division

The Amish division was the most serious and the only major schism which occurred in the South German Anabaptist-Mennonite groups, when a considerable minority under the leadership of Elder Jakob Ammann, of Erlenbach, canton of Bern, Switzerland, in 1693-1697 divided from the main body.

The proper name for the new groups was Amish Mennonite although frequently they were referred to simply as Amish.

Not all the descendants have retained the name and the principles of the original group—none at all in Europe, most of them having reunited with the main body.

However, there are still in the United States and in Canada those who retain the name in some form, and whose existence and history therefore is directly related to this schism.

From the original documents which have been preserved, it is clear that Jakob Ammann's attempt to force the elders in the Emmental (canton of Bern) to accept the Meidung, i.e., the shunning or avoidance of excommunicated persons, was the chief if not full cause of the division, although several minor issues were mentioned.

The following account by Milton Gascho (Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 1937) is authoritative:

Uli Ammann, possibly a brother of Jakob Ammann, mentions three issues on which Hans Reist, the leader of the opposing side, would not agree with them, namely:

Meidung (Shunning), the excommunication of a woman who had admitted speaking a falsehood, and saying that true or true-hearted persons (treuherzige) would be saved.

Of course, he tried to show that Reist was to blame for not believing in Meidung, for not excommunicating the woman, and for, as the Amish accused, saying that all true-hearted persons would be saved.

Jakob Ammann in his letter of Nov. 22, 1693, accused Reist and his group of having forsaken the doctrines of Christ and the apostles by their attitude to these three issues.

In another letter Ammann asked all persons to report to him how they believed on these three issues. (He did not specify the case of the woman who admitted speaking a falsehood but spoke of disciplining falsehood in general.)

He actually excommunicated preachers Niklaus Moser, Peter Giger, and some others on the charge of falsehood because they had once said they believed in Meidung and then when they saw that Reist and Ammann disagreed on the interpretation of the teaching, they refused to accept the doctrine with Ammann's emphasis.

In the letter written by Peter Giger we see that before the question of Meidung had caused much trouble, Hans Reist had a controversy in his congregation because Ammann had started holding the communion service twice a year. There is, however, no indication that this question had any large part in the controversy.

The practice of foot-washing must also have been introduced by Ammann and practiced by the Amish during the time of the controversy, but there is no evidence in the letters written at the time that this practice had any part in causing the division.

It is interesting to note that the letter written by Christian Blank was written for the express purpose of proving that neither Meidung nor foot-washing was the cause of the division:

But this in itself is evidence that foot-washing as well as Meidung was practiced by the Amish and not by the other group at the time the letter was written.

Even though we have no evidence that foot-washing had any part in starting the controversy, we know that it had a part before the trouble was over,

for Uli Ammann accuses the other side of making it an issue when the Amish sought a reconciliation, and again in a letter written Jan. 21, 1711, we find that the Amish in another attempt at reconciliation wished to continue the practice.

One of the other things for which Ammann contended was uniformity in dress, which included the style of hats, garments for the body, shoes and stockings.

He also taught against the trimming of the beard and attending services in the state church. In fact he excommunicated a number of persons in the congregation at Markirch because they would not confess with him that it was wrong to attend services at the state church.

Some of the other disputes that arose during the course of the controversy concerned to which side a meetinghouse belonged and who had the higher authority, Reist or Ammann.

The main issues of the controversy were the first three mentioned, namely:

1. Meidung (Shunning),
2. whether those who speak falsehoods should be excommunicated,
3. and whether one could say that true-hearted persons would be saved.

Some of those on the other side thought Meidung as Ammann would have it was unscriptural, others thought that it had a certain amount of good in it, but that the practice should not be forced on those who did not believe in it.

Another point which those on the Reist side questioned was Ammann's method of excommunicating those who did not believe as he did. Of all these various things, Meidung seems to be the subject of most of the doctrinal contention.

The specific order of events of the division, which occurred in late July or early August 1693, is as follows:

Elder Jakob Ammann of Erlenbach had started to hold the communion services twice a year instead of only once, as had been the practice in Switzerland.

Two elders, Hans Reist and Benedict Schneider, opposed this innovation although it was decided to permit it. Ammann and Reist thus became the leaders of opposing factions on this issue.

Shortly, however, the main issue of the controversy between the two men shifted rapidly to the Meidung question by Ammann's asking two preachers (Niklaus Moser and Peter Giger), who were called by Reist to help settle the communion controversy in his own congregation, to ask Reist what he believed concerning the Meidung.

Learning that Reist opposed it, Ammann took three ministers (Uli Ammann, Christian Blank, and Niklaus Augspurger) with him on a tour of the churches to find out what the ministers in Switzerland believed about the Meidung.

Discovering that only a few of them agreed with him, Ammann decided to call a meeting of all the Swiss ministers in Niklaus Moser's barn near Friedersmatt, to which however not all the ministers came. Among the absentees was Hans Reist.

Since the meeting was inconclusive, a second meeting was called for two weeks later:

This meeting was fairly large, but again Hans Reist did not appear, although Ammann had twice requested him through intermediaries to indicate his stand on the Meidung.

(Reist did write a letter rejecting the Meidung and asking his readers not to pay too much attention to Ammann.)

The controversy hastened to a climax:

Ammann laid before the meeting a letter listing six charges against Hans Reist, and when he had read the charges declared Hans Reist to be excommunicated.

After further controversial discussion, Ammann excommunicated Niklaus Moser and Peter Giger and shortly thereafter Peter Habegger, Jacob Schwartz, and Peter Ingold after all these men had refused to accept the Meidung.

At this Peter Zimmermann said, "There you have it," and the meeting broke up, the Ammann party leaving the building without shaking hands.

A little later seven of the "Amish" held a meeting nearby which can be viewed as the first Amish party gathering.

Shortly after this Ammann expelled by letter Benedict Schneider and Hans im Wiler, who refused to accept the Meidung.

Niklaus Baltzli was expelled personally on the ground of teaching that true-hearted persons would be saved.

Either shortly before his tour through Switzerland or shortly thereafter, Ammann expelled a number of the members of the church at Markirch in Alsace because they did not admit that attending services in the state church was wrong.

Various attempts were made by both ministers and lay members to persuade Jakob Ammann to recall his hasty action of excommunication, but to all he turned a deaf ear.

Soon some persons from the Emmental wrote to the brotherhood in the Palatinate describing what happened and asking for help. On 16 October 1693, some of the Palatine ministers wrote to the Amish asking them to seek reconciliation.

The Palatine ministers also at this time wrote a letter to the ministers in Alsace who had written them about the troubles at Markirch, advising the Alsace ministers not to pay too much attention to Jakob Ammann and his new teaching.

On 22 November 1693, Ammann answered the letter from the Palatinate with the approval of a number of ministers in Alsace where he was at that time staying.

About this time also Ammann sent out his Warnungsschrift (Warning-notice), a letter or broadside in which he asked all church members either to report to him that they accepted his view on the three controversial issues or to prove to him that he was wrong.

They were asked to report before 20 February 1694, and were to be excommunicated if they did not do so by 7 March.

A major attempt at reconciliation was made in the second week in March 1694 at a meeting called at Ohnenheim in Alsace at the request of the ministers of the Palatinate, at which both sides were to be represented:

Ten men came from Switzerland and seven from the Palatinate, but the number of "Amish" present is not known.

The Palatines begged the Amish not to continue acting so rashly, but the latter insisted that the opposing side accept the three major points of the controversy.

When neither side would yield the Palatines proposed a compromise yielding the two minor points of the controversy, but not surrendering on the Meidung.

Some minor difficulties were also discussed. When no agreement could be reached, the Amish left the meeting.

On the following day the Swiss ministers decided to agree with the Palatines and drafted a joint statement giving the reasons why they could not agree with Jakob Ammann, dated 13 March 1694.

About this time Ammann placed the opposing Palatine ministers under the ban and also numerous other persons whom he had never seen.

This is the climax in the story of the division. Now the entire Mennonite brotherhood in Switzerland, Alsace, and South Germany was divided into factions.

A large majority of the churches in the Palatinate and Switzerland were against Ammann, but practically all the Alsatian churches followed him.

North Germany was not directly involved although a letter by Elder Gerhard Roosen of Hamburg was sent to a friend in Alsace in 1697 expressing a concern about the outcome of the controversy.

Various attempts at reconciliation were undertaken between 1694 and 1698, both by correspondence and in meetings, but all failed.

The Amish finally decided they had been too rash with their use of the ban, in having acted without the consent of their congregations and accordingly placed themselves under the ban (probably in 1698).

When after a time the Amish indicated that they would like to be received into the church again, the other side stated they would receive them, but when the Amish insisted again that the other side agree with them on the Meidung and the other issues, negotiations broke down.

Later, after the Amish had been received into the church fellowship by ministers who had not participated in the original division, and their several attempts at reconciliation had begun to bear some fruit,

the matter of the literal observance of feet-washing as the Amish practiced it became a bone of contention and proved to be a barrier on the road to peace, since the Swiss Mennonites had never practiced this ordinance before.

On 7 February 1700, some Amish leaders again decided to put themselves under the ban, but this move failed to produce the desired peace.

No other attempts at reconciliation are recorded until 1711:

On 21 January of that year a group of Amish from the Palatinate came to Heidelsheim in Alsace desiring to make peace with the brotherhood there provided they would be allowed to practice the Meidung and foot-washing.

The Heidelsheim congregation then wrote to Switzerland for advice, and finally decided, in spite of a negative answer, to receive Uli Ammann and Hans Gerber, two of the petitioners, into fellowship again. This had no effect on the larger division which continued unresolved.

Throughout the controversy, which in essence lasted from 1693 to 1698, Jakob Ammann appears as the leader of the radical party and Hans Reist as the leader of the continuing "regular" group, who refused to follow Ammann, the innovation.

For this reason at times the Amish referred to the other party as the "Reistleut." However, this did not persist.

First, is fair to say that the Amish party was a deviation from the main body inasmuch as they introduced two practices which were foreign to historical Swiss Mennonites, namely, Meidung and foot-washing, as well as more rigid regulations on matters of costume.

Ammann and his party represent a rigidly conservative point of view which insisted upon sharp discipline and inflexible adherence to the practices which they considered essential to a true Christian church.

It is this inflexible conservatism which has marked the Amish ever since and which has resulted in an unchanging perpetuation of forms of worship and church organization as well as costume, customs, and language.

To this day the Old Order Amish in North America have continued with little change to the Amish way as fixed by Jakob Ammann and his associates about the year 1700.

In this sense they constitute a most interesting and valuable reproduction in modern times of Swiss-Alsatian-Palatine Mennonite practices of 250 years ago.