Saloma Miller Furlong
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Anabaptist History Coming Alive

Before I left the Little House on the Farm, I went next door to say good-bye to Elizabeth and Martin. I felt I had made a good connection with them, and I was grateful for the information Elizabeth shared about the history of their farm, Hockboden, as it has been called for centuries. Just before I left, she gave me a copy of another document she’d found. I had no idea how this document would make Anabaptist history come alive for me. The connections I made while in Switzerland are nothing short of a miracle to me.

First of all, I made mistakes in the name of the farmer who owned Hockboden back in the time that the “Spycher” was built. His name was Peter Habegger, not Hans Hapegger, as I had written in one of my earlier posts. I have corrected the name in that post to be consistent. He and his wife, Lucy Aarm had this granary built.

Elizabeth and Hadassah by the “Spycher”

Photo by Saloma Furlong

I will come back to the document that Elizabeth gave me concerning Peter Habegger. However, first I want to outline the schism that that took place among the Swiss Brethren in the Emmental Valley in Switzerland, beginning in the summer of 1693. When I first read about this schism, it was thought that Jakob Ammann was the cause of the split. He was reputed to have been a hot-headed recent convert to the Anabaptist movement when he challenged other leaders to meet with him and discuss church matters he considered important. When these leaders tried to evade him, he excommunicated them on the spot. Some years later, he repented for acting rashly, and excommunicated himself from the church as a way of showing remorse. Unfortunately, forgiveness was not forthcoming, and the schism caused the Amish to separate from the other Anabaptists, often known by then as Mennonites.

In 2002, the book Letters of the Amish Division: A Sourcebook, translated and edited by John D. Roth, offered more of a context for the division that took place. In the introduction, Roth wrote:

…[I]t would be a mistake to assume that one can understand the origins of the Amish on the basis of these letters alone. While offering a sense of immediacy and drama, the letters by their very nature are intensely personal; in the past, historians who have relied on them as the primary record of the division have tended to reduce the schism to a series of personality differences and character flaws. This has been especially true of the standard historical portrayal of Jakob Ammann, whose assertive style of writing has fostered a caricature of him as arrogant, dogmatic, and overbearing. To be sure, Ammann’s letters are full of confidence and resolve, but the roots of the division went far deeper than the personality of a single individual.

Roth goes on to provide the context for the division. The beginning of the Anabaptist movement is thought to have taken place in Zurich in 1525, when Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz boldly baptized one another as “believers,” in defiance of the state church. State and church authorities tried to suppress the movement and by the mid-1600s they had become partially successful in the urban areas of Switzerland. But in hamlets and villages throughout the Bernese Oberland and the Emmental Valley, descendants of the Anabaptists, known as the Swiss Brethren, survived. Roth writes that a tension-filled compromise slowly emerged between the Swiss Brethren and state authorities and that it appears as if the Swiss Brethren were remarkably well integrated into local community life. They were often assisted by neighbors who were not members of the Swiss Brethren themselves, but who were sympathetic to their cause. They were called the Treuherzige (Truehearted).

There were waves of persecution that took place throughout the second half of the 1600s, and some of the Swiss Brethren showed passive compliance by attending services in the state church, taking communion with their neighbors, and allowing their infants to be baptized. At the same time, they maintained their place in the Swiss Brethren movement. Other Swiss Brethren emigrated to the Palatinate and the Alsace, where they were welcomed by the territorial lords to help farm the fallow land that had been plundered during the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648). So the Swiss Brethren living in these regions enjoyed more religious freedom than did their brothers and sisters back in the Canton Bern.

In 1660, a group of Swiss Brethren in the Alsace adopted the Dordrecht Confession, which was written in Holland in 1632. I have had one Amish bishop tell me that he believes that it was at the heart of the division and why the Amish believe in shunning, even to this day. He actually told me he wishes that the Dordrecht Confession had never been adopted by the Swiss Brethren. Though shunning was one of the issues that caused the schism, there were other issues as well. They were: frequency of communion; the practice of footwashing; procedures in church discipline; and the question of salvation of the Truehearted.

In the late summer of 1693, the Swiss Brethren churches in the Alsace commissioned Jakob Ammann and others to make a journey to the Emmental to try to clarify the ministers’ positions regarding church discipline or the Ordnung. Their perception was that the Bernese Swiss Brethren were “drifting,” and they wanted to admonish them for it.

Roth writes that the deeper causes of the division is suggested by geography. The majority of Ammann’s supporters came from the emigrant communities, rather than from the Swiss Heartland. The Swiss Brethren who lived in the Palatinate and the Alsace enjoyed more religious freedom than those in Bern. This new freedom blurred the boundaries between church and civic communities. In the absence of external pressure from the state, these boundaries needed to be imposed from within. Hence, the sharper focus on church discipline.

The debate over the salvation of the Truehearted further highlights the regional differences: The Alsatian and Palatine groups had fewer personal and long-standing relationships with neighbors who were not members of their church. On the other hand, the Swiss Brethren had relationships with their Reformed neighbors in Switzerland that had been forged over decades.

As one can imagine, the leaders of the Swiss Brethren in the Canton Bern did not take kindly to Ammann and his compatriots questioning their ways. The meeting that caused the split took place in Niklaus Moser’s barn. Hans Reist, a senior minister in the Emmental region, said he didn’t have time for the meeting. He was out doing field work that day. Ammann became upset with Reist and excommunicated him, along with several other leaders. He claimed that these leaders had expressed agreement with him earlier, and now when they asked to meet with their congregation before responding to his questions, Ammann perceived that they were changing back.

This brings me back to the document that Elizabeth gave me when I was saying good-bye. I do not know who pulled this information together about Peter Habegger, so I do not know who to credit. The first thing mentioned is that in the summer of 1693 when Jakob Ammann first spoke with him about church matters, Peter Habegger agreed with Ammann, and then later changed his mind. That is how I discovered that one of the ministers Ammann shunned that day on the Moser farm was Peter Habegger from the farm Hockboden. What a small world!

The second thing in the document mentions that Peter Habegger was one of the people who signed a letter renouncing Ammann’s views in Ohnenheim in the Alsace. Lo and behold, Letter 4 in Letters of the Amish Division is signed by ten leaders from Switzerland, and seven from the Palatinate who met in Ohnenheim and drafted the letter. The first person listed from Switzerland is Hans Reist, and the second is Peter Habegger.

The current farmer of Hockboden, Martin (middle), with Miriam and Marco

Photo by Saloma Furlong

There is much more to convey about Peter Habegger, but I will leave it here for now. What I am so amazed by is that when I went to visit the Kochs, I had no idea that I was visiting the farm owned by one of the prominent leaders of the Swiss Brethren. And when I started out on the Golden Pass Line that Friday morning, I had no idea that I would be visiting the village of Erlenbach, where Jakob Ammann was born and be able to take pictures of the church where he was likely baptized as an infant.

Photo by Saloma Furlong

I also had no idea there was a connection between Jakob Ammann and Peter Habegger. I’ll say it again: What a small world! These connections make the land of my ancestors come alive with history. How beautiful!

At the Hockboden Farm

By Saloma Furlong


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