Plain Anabaptist Population Trends and Patterns
Seven Plain Anabaptist Traditions
(1) Swiss Brethren/Mennonites: In the early 1520s in Switzerland, a current of scholarly theological debate brought about a renunciation of Catholicism and a reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli. However, some of his closest followers were dissatisfied with perceived compromises of Zwingli in accommodating various state positions and maintaining infant baptism. In 1525, the Swiss government formally supported Zwingli’s position and in response the dissenters baptized one another as adults. The new Anabaptist (meaning “re-baptizers”) movement quickly spread across much of Germanic Europe despite omnipresent governmental repression including fines, imprisonment, and capital punishment. The faces of Anabaptism were many, often theologically unaligned. The Swiss Anabaptists (or Swiss Brethren) left an enduring North American legacy when beginning in the late 1600s, they immigrated to Pennsylvania upon invitation of William Penn. From there they moved into Virginia, Ontario, and the Midwest, following the frontier as it opened to European settlement. In North America, most Mennonites eventually assimilated, although Old Order groups broke off in the late 1800s and conservative groups broke off from the 1950s to 1990s.
(2) Hutterites: In 1528, Anabaptists in the Austrian Tyrol and Moravian regions united and, in 1533, many agreed to establish communes, as encouraged by leader Jacob Hutter. Moravia became a haven from persecution, and at their peak, these so-called Hutterites had something on the order of 20,000 to 40,000 people living in up to 85 to 90 colonies there. They appealed to a variety of classes and nationalities, which joined the colonies. The Thirty Years’ War destroyed many colonies, climaxing in the final 1622 forceful eviction of all Hutterites. They migrated east into Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania/Transylvania, and beginning in 1770, into the Ukraine. Through all of this migration and persecution, their practice of community of goods was weakened and largely discontinued for a time. Three movements of communal resurgence arose in Ukraine, and each subsequently migrated to South Dakota in the late nineteenth century, escaping political changes in Russia. During World War I, nearly all Hutterites then moved to Canada to flee American draft pressure. These three major communal branches persist today across the American and Canadian Great Plains.
(3) Russian (Low German) Mennonites: A second, somewhat independent Anabaptist movement arose in Holland. Anabaptist precepts leaked into the country from Strasbourg in the early 1530s. Over a few short years, the new movement grew, but divided into violent and nonviolent strands. Menno Simons, a Catholic priest, joined the nonviolent branch in 1536. He successfully organized the scattered followers and presented a thorough and articulate written defense of beliefs, so that his Anabaptist orientation came to dominate, extending from the Low Countries across Northern Germany and to Danzig, Poland. Though the “Mennonites,” as they came to be known, enjoyed around two centuries of economic prosperity and governmental tolerance after an initial wave of repression, some moved to the Ukraine (Russia) beginning in the 1780s on invitation of Catherine the Great, who was seeking German farmers to build up the land. When their exemption from compulsory military service discontinued less than a century later, many began migrating to the American and Canadian Great Plains beginning in 1874. Two world wars, repeated famine, and communism took a severe toll on the remaining Russian-based Mennonite communities. With the help of American Mennonites, refugees attempted immigration to Germany, western Canada, and South America, though not nearly as many left as sought to. Today, colonies of plain Russian (or “Low German”) Mennonites exist throughout the Americas.
(4) Amish: In the 1670s and 1680s, Ulrich Müller, a convert to the Swiss Brethren, was ordained bishop and became an itinerant preacher, especially in the Swiss Oberländer region where many converted to Anabaptism. This wave of new converts came to clash with the longer-established Swiss Emmentalers. In the summer of 1693, the convert group appointed Bishop Jacob Amman to reason with the Swiss Emmentalers. By then, many of the Swiss Brethren, especially the newer converts, including Ulrich Müller, had relocated to the Alsace region of present day France, including Jacob Amman. Jacob Amman returned to Switzerland, and under risk of apprehension by authorities, spent the remainder of the year negotiating points of communion frequency, relation with those who assist but do not join the Anabaptists, extent of shunning transgressors, and points of separation from society in daily practice. The meetings failed and Amman and accompanying delegates excommunicated six leaders. In March of 1694, the Swiss Emmentalers issued a notice of separation to all who fellowshipped with Amman, thus completing the division. Through the 1700s, the Amish settled Pennsylvania and followed the Midwest frontier as far west as Kansas. In the 1860s, the Amish gradually divided into Old Order and conservative (Amish-Mennonite) groups. These two Amish branches have diversified since, with more Amish-Mennonite groups (namely, the Beachys) arising in the 20th century.
(5) Brethren: Shortly after the Amish division, another wave of converts emerged in western Germany. These withdrew from the Calvinist and Lutheran state churches, merging elements of Radical Pietistism and Anabaptism. In 1708, their movement began when adults were baptized in a river and into a new congregation. At this point, the converts rejected the general Pietistic position that an organized church was unnecessary. Known as the (Schwarzenau) Brethren, they associated some with the Swiss Brethren, but felt this latter group lacked inner spirituality. Soon after establishment, the group migrated to the Netherlands and then to Pennsylvania. In the early 1880s, the Brethren experienced a three-way division, resulting in Old Order, conservative, and progressive groups. In the early 1900s, the conservatives were assimilating, so the Dunkard Brethren withdrew. Brethren go by several names, and Brethren denominations use combinations of these words in their denominational title: brethren, German Baptist, dunker, and/or old/old order.
(6) Apostolic Christian Church: In 1828, the young, university educated Samuel Froehlich was assigned as a minister to a Swiss state church, where his enthusiastic preaching won many devotees. However, because he developed beliefs divergent with the state church, the church dismissed him. In particular, Froehlich came to oppose the state church’s use of infant baptism and increasing rationalistic/humanistic bent in theology. In 1832 he took to itinerant preaching, including returning to his first church and baptizing adults there. His travels brought him into contact with Swiss Mennonites, from whom he learned additional Anabaptist beliefs, but also distanced himself from them for a perceived lack of inner spiritualism. Over the next decade, the movement grew quickly. In 1843, Swiss authorities expelled Froehlich from the country, but he continued to be in demand as a preacher. He particularly emphasized greater attention to processes of repentance. Already in the late 1840s, immigration among Apostolic Christians to America was starting and continued through the century. They settled in New York and the Midwest, and their enthusiastic preaching won many converts from the plain sects, particularly the Amish-Mennonites; they thus inherited the nickname “New Amish.” In the 1830s, the movement also spread to Hungary and southeastern Europe and took on the name Nazarene.
(7) Bruderhof: After World War I, the German Youth Movement promoted a society without class and war, a movement that Dr. Eberhard Arnold, a respected speaker, and his wife Emmy adopted. They moved to a rural village in Germany in 1920 and established a communal group based on literally practicing New Testament dictates, including the Sermon on the Mount. The settlement attracted many well-to-do professionals across Europe. With the growing dominance of the National Socialist party, the colony completed evacuation to England by 1937. In 1940, the pacifist, part-German commune once more fled, this time to Paraguay, where many Russian Mennonites were also settling to escape war. In the 1950s, communities were established in the U.S. and Britain. The U.S. colonies grew rapidly because of many new converts at mid-century and the acquisition of a successful production company, though the growth was paralleled by accompanying power struggles and purges as they adjusted to place, power, and people. Associations with the Schmiedeleut Hutterites were established thereafter but broken off; today the Bruderhof maintains an independent identity.
Content on this page taken from:
Anderson, Cory. 2013. "Who Are the Plain Anabaptists? What Are the Plain Anabaptists?" Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 1(1):26-71.
Anderson, Cory and Joseph Donnermeyer. 2013. "Where Are the Plain Anabaptists?" Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 1(1):1-25.
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