Amish and Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Thought

I just finished reading the book The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler by C. Arnold Snyder. This is a scholarly book, and dense at times, but I feel I have gotten a better understanding of who Michael Sattler was and what contributions he made to Anabaptist thought and consequently to the Amish ways that shaped my childhood.

Michael Sattler was a monk at St. Peter's monastary at Staufen in the Breisgau (northeast of Freiburg). The monastary was taken over by troops during the peasant revolt. Snyder believes that Sattler was influenced by the plight of the peasants. 

Sattler left the monastary, became an Anabaptist, and married sometime around 1525 and 1526. His life after he became an Anabaptist was short. But he left quite a legacy. He is credited for authoring the Schleitheim Confession which was the first time Anabaptist doctrine was documented. Snyder points out the monastic influences that run through Sattler's writings, especially in the Schleitheim Confession.

Sattler was in communication with other thinkers of his time. In a letter to church reformers, Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito in 1526, Sattler wrote:

The devil is the prince of the whole world, in whom all the children of darkness rule. Christ is the Prince of the Spirit, in whom all who walk in the light live. The devil seeks to destroy, Christ seeks to save. The flesh is against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. Those who are spiritual are Christ's; those who are carnal belong to death and the wrath of God. (p. 114)

Snyder claims that this radical polarity is Sattler's hallmark and stems from his monastic background. Through his careful research, Snyder leads the reader to the same conclusion.

I had a more immediate reaction to reading Sattler's polarities, though. I was startled by how I had heard these beliefs, almost verbatim, articulated by Amish preachers. Sattler's beliefs were carried across continents, passed down through nearly five centuries, and have survived pressures from the surrounding cultures and times. That is nothing short of amazing.

Sattler contributed to Anabaptist thought in several other ways. Foremost is that of Nachfolge Christi (the following of Christ). In the conclusion of a letter to a church in Horb he wrote: "May the peace of Jesus Christ, and the love of the heavenly Father and the grace of Their Spirit keep you flawless, without sin."

Sattler's writings clearly convey the belief that "all those who have given themselves to the Lord to walk after Him and his commandments" could live free of sin. In fact, it seemed like Sattler expected no less from those who had chosen to take up their cross and follow Jesus.

There was a similar expectation of perfection in my Amish community. This manifested itself outwardly when preparing to attend a worship service. We would wear our best "Sunday clothes" that had been washed and ironed to perfection. The horse would be well groomed, and the buggy spotless. And whoever had the responsibility of hosting the church service had cleaned and polished every corner of their home.

There was also an expectation that we should be a good example to those around us. We were taught that God saw (and judged) everything we did. Our conduct was expected to be flawless. I see now that this expectation for perfection has deep roots.

Sattler believed that in following Christ we will suffer, as Christ himself suffered. "Those who follow Christ, who are visible members of his body, will live as Christ their head lived, i.e., they will submit to the will of the Father, will take up their cross daily, and will follow Jesus into the suffering that must come."

By his own definition, Sattler was a true Christian. He held fast to his convictions through imprisonment, brutal torture, and finally death. He was martyred on May 20, 1527, less than three years after he had become an Anabaptist.

The Amish are still a martyr culture. They "remember" the suffering of their ancestors as if it were their own. In sermons of my childhood, I remember preachers questioning whether we could be as faithful, if our faith were tested as our ancestors' had been.

Snyder claims that Sattler's thought was was not monastic and not Protestant — rather it was a blend of the two and therefore Anabaptist. I think Snyder is right, and I think is also true of Amish beliefs to this day. I think this is most obvious in Sattler's Nachfolge Christi thought. The Roman Catholic church has often been accused of placing too much emphasis on works. The Protestants' following of Luther's belief "in faith alone" is the opposite of that. Sattler's is a synthesis of these two polarities. Likewise, an Amish bishop told me a few years ago that faith and works are like the two parts of a pair of scissors — you need both for the scissors to work. I think most Amish would agree with this.

I agree with Snyder that Sattler made significant contributions to sixteenth-century Anabaptist thought. I would add the insight that comes from living an Amish childhood — that the core Amish beliefs remain largely unchanged from sixteenth-century Anabaptist thought.

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7 thoughts on “Amish and Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Thought”

  1. This is really interesting. For some reason, it just makes a lot of sense to me that there is a monastic component to the Amish heritage.

    For no particular reason, it also brought to mind an ancient parchment that I learned of in graduate school, called The Plan of St. Gall. It is believed that this parchment illustrates an ideal monastic community during the time in which it was created (8th or 9th century–well before the Anabaptists). I did a little looking around and, as it turns out, it seems The Plan originated on or near the Swiss-German border. So, maybe it will be interesting to you:

    1. It does make sense, doesn’t it? David made this connection before I did when he was reading the Benedictine Rule. We later confirmed that some of the articles in the Schleitheim Confession were almost lifted from the Benedictine Rule.

      Wow, how fascinating about this parchment! I zoomed in, and I cannot make out the language it is written in. Likely Latin, which I don’t know. David is going to love this… he is so fascinated by these kinds of relics of ancient history.

      What a great connection… thank you very much!

      1. Wow, that’s an amazing discovery–great researching, David! “Benedictine Rule” is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think “Amish,” but boy does it make sense!

        I found an English diagram of the plan last night:
        Apparently, as a Carolingian monastery, St. Gall was among the first monasteries organized by Charlemagne in an attempt to “civilize” the world.

        Wow, I’m going to get drawn into an internet black hole if I don’t get up now! I’ll leave it to your husband! Happy learning to him!

        1. This is fascinating! Being able to understand where things are makes me able to imagine this “compound.” It’s also interesting to know the history of St. Gall.

          David was reading back into his own Roman Catholic roots when he discovered the connection between the Amish and the monastics. He was as surprised as you and I were.

          Thank you again for sending the links.


  2. Reading this post I am reminded that I should try to reorder that book on amazon. :-) I am looking forward reading it. Thank you for your wonderful insights on it.

  3. Pingback: About Amish | Birthplace of the Schleitheim Confession

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