In the years following the migration of Swiss Anabaptists
north into the Rhine valley, they settled on farms and estates where they lived
in a quiet but sometimes uneasy alliance with their neighbors and the noblemen
who owned the estates. Forbidden to own
land or build their own church houses, they met in small groups in their houses
and barns. Ministers and deacons were
chosen from within the group. Their quiet worship was similar to what their
parents and grandparents had experienced in Switzerland. Already these Anabaptists had a collective
history of 175 years of martyrdom and pressure.
Here in the Rhine Valley the Anabaptists, who were often known as Mennonists after Menno Simmons, found many sympathetic supporters and even those who wished to attend their services but who did not formally break from the State Church. These quiet supporters, known as halb-taufer (half-Anabaptists) or treuherzige (true-hearted), believed much of what the Anabaptist taught but were not willing to separate from the State Church.
These halb-taufer became an issue as some within the Anabaptist believed that the acceptance of these people weakened their essential witness and their belief that following Jesus required significant sacrifice. As the Anabaptists experienced more freedom, issues such as this became more evident. Freedom brought much good, but it also created a different world that had to be navigated
Another issue during this time was the frequency of communion. Most Anabaptist churches only practiced communion once a year, and those who could not attend often had to wait two years before being able to partake in this special service. Again, with the freedom to worship (even though it was restricted) came issues that had to be dealt with.
Some within the church, led by a fiery young minister named Jacob Amman, began to call for change and a return to the original vision of the early Anabaptists, with an emphasis on giving up one’s life as a disciple of Christ. They reasoned that half-hearted Christians could not be true to this vision, and communion was a practice that should engage the life and suffering of Christ in the true believer’s heart and life.
Finally, in 1693-1700, after some debate, discussion, and controversy, those who called for this renewal left the larger group of Anabaptists.They were led by Jacob Amman and were soon known as Ammanischleut, which later was shortened to the Amish we know today.
Whether we agree with Amman’s methods or even the issues that were present then, the issues are still before the Anabaptists today. What is true is that there was a genuine concern for the renewal of spirituality in the church. What should be the church’s response to the half-hearted Christianity that so much of the world believes in today? How should we deal with those who are not willing to give up all to follow Christ? How does renewal happen in our churches today? These are not new questions; rather they are age-old questions that Christians of all eras have to wrestle with. Sometimes the answer to those questions is to take radical steps and engage a different way, other times it is a process wherein we bring about change by our own faithful lives and witness.