My Anabaptist Heritage

My grandparents on one side were Amish up until they were in their mid thirties, my grandparents on the other side were Mennonite. My mother owns family histories detailing the stories of my heritage. My ancestors were among the first people to settle Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The interesting thing to me is how they ended up there. The Anabaptist movement was radical, and the early Anabaptists were persecuted far worse than any other protestant movement. Their beliefs, while possibly seeming slightly secular now, were absolutely groundbreaking at the time. Belief that you should tithe only from your income, not your net worth. Belief that in order for the Church to be holy it must have no involvement in the state. Belief that professed faith is not as important as “living” faith seen through acts of charity and simple living… These beliefs threatened not only the superiority of Catholic dogma but the status of the Catholic church… it took away Catholicism’s place of power as well as it’s ability to absolve sin through professions of faith.

No wonder the Catholic church lobbied for (and eventually won) the right to kill Anabaptists without trial. The Anabaptists were burnt at the stake if they refused to denounce their faith but beheaded if they did, because it was simply too risky to leave them breathing. So my ancestors made their way to Pennsylvania and Illinois, because in the states there was Freedom of Religion and they could be free from persecution. Near my old home town in Ohio there is a Mennonite and Amish Heritage center called Behalt. In it there is a cyclorama depicting the Anabaptist history, from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. It starts out with Menno Simon’s revelations of faith and goes through brutal murders. It shows one Anabaptist man who stopped to save the man that was sent to murder him when that man started to drown. Amazing stories of faith in the midst of the worst kind of persecution- persecution by men who are your brother in faith.

Because of this history- the history of both the tradition I was raised in and my own blood lines- I find it offensive when people claim that Christians aren’t “as bad” as people of other faiths. Certainly in the 1900’s Christianity wasn’t cruelly subjugating women or putting their own people to death, but have we forgotten the Victorian era? When women died in childbirth by the droves because they were forced to labor on their backs, and then could not be buried in church graveyards because they were “unclean” for having died “in sin”? That is only one of many sins against women by the church. Let’s not forget the cruel persecution of the forefathers of ALL protestant faiths. Let’s not forget that the church has been spread at the point of a sword and by the barrel of a gun many, many times. This bloody history follows us even into America, even into what I consider to be recent history, because our great country hasn’t been around all that long.

For Christians who would condemn other faiths for the actions of a minority- lets remember what the majority of our forefathers were like. All faith is hard won in tears, sweat and blood- Christianity no less than the others. When researching this post to be sure I didn’t misspeak, I saw this line:

The early Anabaptists faced persecution far worse than the early church found at the hands of Rome.

My blood runs cold.

There is a book that every good Mennonite school looks through in their history class. It is a book of Illuminations called the Martyrs’ Mirror or the Bloody Theater. It follows the martyrdom of the Church starting in Jerusalem and going until about 1680 AD, when it was published. I can remember looking at the illustrations in horror, hardly believing that this was done by the Catholic church. It’s no wonder that so many Mennonites carry a deep-seated resentment towards Catholicism. (For those who are curious, the illuminations can be seen here)

My point with this post is twofold. The first is to share with you my heritage. For those who feel I’ve been unfair to the Mennonite and Amish traditions- understand that I am not speaking of something that is unknown to me. I grew up inside the borders of an Amish settlement. I see Amish people at my family reunions. My grandmother has Amish brothers and sisters. My mother speaks Pennsylvania dutch. The church I currently attend is affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee. These people are not strangers to me.

My second goal is to remind us that we must be careful with our own hearts and with our own churches. A faith is only as good as the people in it. Like a car with a leaky hose- the hose is not equal to the entirety of the car, but the car is only as dependable as it’s hoses. Extremism, fanatacism and cruelty are not outside our reach. We must keep our faith in check, we must temper it with love.

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8 thoughts on “My Anabaptist Heritage

  1. This post sent chills down my spine. Wow! Thank you for this. Your eloquent words will be ones that will stay with me for a long time. You are truly gifted.

  2. It wasn’t just Catholics who persecuted Anabaptists – other Protestants did it, too. My background is German Lutheran, which means that… well, you already know.

    VERY sobering post.

  3. Amber: Thank you. I debated all weekend over whether or not to post this. I’m glad I did.
    e2c: Ah, yes, Lutheran. It’s sad to me that so many people are so familiar with Luther, but not Menno Simons. I kind of get that if I said, “Jacob Amman and his followers” everyone would look at me weird, but the Anabaptist movement is pretty far-reaching and a lot of their doctrine has been adopted by the modern Non-Denominational and New Progressive Christian movements.

  4. Oh, and this is random, but I never knew that the Dunkard Brethren are a more obscure Anabaptist movement, and there’s a Dunkard Brethren church out in the middle of nowhere near here. Every time I see it I think it says “the Drunkard Brethren fellowship” and it makes me giggle.

  5. I know who Menno Simons was, but that’s probably more about where I’m from than anything else! (Lots of Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, etc. folks.)

  6. When living in a different city, we attended a neighbourhood church that happened to be part of a Mennonite denomination and I learned more about this history which helped to fill in the blanks from my own upbringing which had, what I like to call, a Menno-enclave just a ways down the road (old-orders included).

    For the time we were there, we received the denomination’s quarterly magazine and I enjoyed learning more about the history and culture of Mennonites; I began to see how much denominations are about a time and place as much as doctrine. One edition stands out in my mind: one that explored the persecution. Tongue-screws in particular stayed with me.
    But the focus was not on “poor us” but to simply remember that many believers have gone before us, we (the North American church) have our challenges and struggles, but God is not ‘new’ to this, and neither is the Church. You’re right, Shush, a faith (and could I also add church?) is as good as the people in it. Instead of being arrogant, thinking we know exactly how all things ecclesiastical should be done, we need to recall like the article did (I cut out this section) – “We are not the first to live as Christians.”

  7. Tryphaena: If anything, the tone in which I was taught about the history was “don’t complain- others have held onto joy through worse”. We learned about the tongue screws in music class, when we were singing traditional hymns. The teacher talked about how they would adapt bar songs so that when they were singing it wouldn’t be recognizable as hymns, and so people would easily remember the harmonies. And then the tongue screws… ick.

    But it was never in a tone of misery or mournfulness, just “God has been faithful, we are here, we are together.”

  8. Thank you for this history lesson. I always enjoy learning these things and thinking on them. I want to just think on this one, so I don’t really have much of a comment.

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