If you’re from Philadelphia, New Jersey, or eastern Pennsylvania, you probably know who the Amish are. To some, they stand out like fish on dry land, or, more noticeably, like horse-drawn buggies traveling alongside automobiles on Route 30.
The Amish are a peculiar people who dress as if they’re living in the 1700s, live by a strict religious code, work mainly on farms their entire lives and sometimes find themselves on television. Just a few films you may know in which the Amish (or people acting Amish) starred include Witness, For Richer or Poorer and Kingpin.
If you know anything about the Amish, you might just know what a Mennonite is–the lesser known but “big brother” to the Amish people. Being a Mennonite myself, I thought I should shed some light on one of Pennsylvania’s oldest groups of Christians.
Some background: the Amish and Mennonites originally started out as Anabaptists, a group that emerged during the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland in the 16th century. The first Anabaptists split from the reforms of Martin Luther, believing that God was calling them to live more “radical lives,” and also believing in adult baptism rather than infant baptism. At one point all Anabaptists were called Mennonites, a name that was adopted from one of the church’s early leaders, Menno Simons.
Due to heavy persecution in Europe, many Anabaptists moved to America in the late 1600s. Most were invited to come to Pennsylvania, some by William Penn himself, since they were known as good farmers and good people. Among those invited were some of my distant grandparents.
With time, the Mennonites had their differences and parted ways with their more conservative members, who renamed themselves the Amish. For some, Mennonite culture evolved into dressing, acting, talking, eating and even driving more like the rest of American society. But, we still don’t dance.
Struggling with issues of conformity and attempting to keep the traditions and values for which our ancestors were persecuted has not been easy for the Mennonite church. Above all, the church desires to hold to its beliefs so that others will see and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But I sometimes wonder how we can claim to be conservative Christians living a radical life that is different from the rest of society when we own nice cars (this one doesn’t apply to me), wear designer clothing, listen to secular music and spend more time on our cell phones than proclaiming the good news. I even play video games! What a terrible Mennonite I am. It’s sometimes tough to sleep at night.
But on further review, one of the reasons the Mennonites decided to part ways with the Amish was over touchy issues such as evangelism and world outreach. The Mennonite church has a strong conviction to preach the Word to the world. And I hold equally tight to this conviction. While we need to remember the principles we claim to live by, as well as remembering those who have gone before us, it isn’t such a terrible thing to connect with the world in ways that make it more reachable with the Word.
And out of conviction now for writing this article, I have one more confession to make: although I am a Mennonite, I have danced.