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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19 thoughts on “Anabaptist History Coming Alive”

  1. Talk about ‘history coming alive’! It sure does- and I thank you.

    I have a question, though, regarding the name. My German dictionary, among other meanings, defines ‘boden’ as landed property or soil but I don’t find “hock” at all. On the other hand, we know, of course, that ‘hoch’ means high or tall. Why is the farm called “hocKboden”?

    1. Elva, thanks for your comments and your question. I can only speculate about the name Hockboden. “Hoch” would mean high more than “hock.” “Boden” means floor in high German. I asked Miriam and Marco if it means the same in Swiss German and they said it did. I asked what “hock” means in Swiss German. They said it means to hit or switch. David knows the history of barns well, and he’s talked about a “threshing floor” in a barn. Farmers would lay the grain on the floor and hit it with a flail, and then they would winnow it (separate the grain from the chaff). I don’t know for sure, but I am thinking “Hockboden” could be naming the farm after the “threshing floor.”

      This is my best guess as to how the farm got its name.

  2. Wow!!!! So much information I had to read it twice just to take it all in. With all the divisions and excommunicating of people I’m surprised that the Amish and Mennonite religion survived. Jakob Ammann was quit the character, wasn’t he. Though he seemed rather bull headed I got the impression that he was trying in his own way to do right by God. I see this in how he excommunicated himself to show remorse, though forgiveness wasn’t forth coming. I thought what the Amish bishop told you about how he wished the Dordrecht Confession had never been adopted by the Swiss Brethren was enlightening to say the least. Finding out that Hans Reist and Peter Habegger signed the letter renouncing Amman’s views had to have been a moment you will never forget. What an amazing journey you have been on.

    1. Pamela, I am glad you had time to read this twice. I didn’t want to overwhelm people with too much information, and yet this schism had many dimensions to convey.

      Yes, many believe Jakob Ammann was hot-headed, but in recent years, researchers are discovering that he was part of a larger movement, and not acting on his own. And yes, I do believe he was sincere about his beliefs. Like the Amish bishop, I do wish the Dordrecht Confession would not have been confusing the issues. I have to wonder if they would have managed to work things out otherwise? I’m not sure why they couldn’t leave one another alone, rather than trying to convince one another they were “right.”

      You bet… I will never forget turning the page in the book to see Peter Habegger’s name listed in one of the key letters written during the schism. A wonderful moment indeed.

      Thank you for your interest, Pamela. (As always!)

  3. You made a great point, why did they feel the need to convince the others that their way was the best, the most “Godly” or perhaps the most “bible based”. Do you think it was all just a simple case of self pride? My mom always told me pride goeth before the fall!
    I always thought that Jakob was the one and only person responsible for the Amish faith and breaking away from the Mennonite. Boy was I wrong! People and religious beliefs certainly aren’t black and white. They both can be extremely complicated and extremely fascinating.

    1. I am certainly a believer in that quote about pride, and it could be that there was pride on both sides. John Roth, in the Letters book refers to Hans Reist’s “dismissive arrogance.” That is evident in his refusal to attend the meeting, when he chose to work in the fields instead. By the same token, Jakob Ammann and his compatriots really had no business calling the meeting in the first place.

      I am a firm believer that things happen as they should. (That is sometimes difficult to accept in situations like this, but who knows whether the Amish would have all assimilated into the mainstream culture by now and would no longer exist, had it not been for that split? And then the question is: Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? As the Germans would say, “Es kommt darauf an.” (It all depends) on one’s perspective.

  4. I am in total agreement with you that things happen as they should. In the case of the Amish faith I am glad they did not slowly intertwine and eventually become unrecognizable. Though I do not put the Amish on a pedestal (they are a complicated people), I do admire their determination to be in the world and not of it. They are, sometimes, a calm within the storm we live in today. From the fast moving technology that we haven’t even considered the long term effects of to constant threats of terrorism home and abroad. The Amish with their visible outward signs of living a simpler life give us English cause to stop and think about what’s really important in life. I know I have. Thank you again Saloma for taking us on this journey with you, I have so enjoyed it!

    1. Pamela, you have described my feelings exactly about the Amish culture. I agree, they are a complicated people. And I agree that they cause the rest of us to pause and reflect on the life we choose… sometimes it is much more complicated than it needs to be… not the least of which are all the choices we are bombarded with daily.

      I am glad I grew up Amish, even though that life was not the one I chose to live in for the rest of my life. I feel like I am of the Amish, but not in their world… just the opposite of them their perspective that they are in the world, but not of it.

  5. Nobody has the complete totally correct perspective of any given happening that involves a group of people. I came to this realization when I was asked to share about our life in Cookeville Tennessee. This was a community of twenty or so families living a very simple lifestyle on a 200 acre farm. During my six years there I kept a very detailed journal. When I paged through my journals for the main points to share, I realized that I have only my perspective of our lives in Cookeville. Other members have a different perspective of the very same happenings I saw or experienced.

    1. Katie, these are wise words. We only have our own perspective. History is even more subjective (especially history told from someone’s personal perspective), which is all we have of the Amish division with these letters.

      Thanks for your comments, Katie.

  6. Welcome back To America Pilgrim

    What an awesome Blog!

    Boden can mean floor or ground in our old language so it is possible that the farm was known as “High Ground” or “High Elevation”

    The Ammann-Reist debate is being duplicated over and over again in both the Amish and especially in the Mainstream Mennonite Church in Canada and USA to this very day. There is another HUGE schism in the works right now in both the mainstream Canadian Mennonite and USA Mennonite Conferences. It was and is a spiritual war between good and evil. Strong personalities/individuals will always be used by both good and evil spirits. What makes it complicated and extremely deceptive is that sometimes unfortunately both spirits manifest (at different points) even in a single individual like what happened with both Bishop Reist and Bishop Ammann. The truth is; both Jacob Ammann and Hans Reist made accurate and valid Biblical points and unfortunately because of freewill they also made some mistakes. I passionately believe they both started out on solid ground but the evils of divide and conquer took over.

    A crucial dynamic to also consider is that 1. Hans Reist was older/senior to Jacob Ammann and 2. that both were Bishops would have increased the tension level for individuals and the congregations and 3. Some researchers say that Bishop Hans Reist ordained Jacob Ammann and this by itself would have added a lot to the dynamics.

    After analysis many issues surfaced such as (communion to be increased to twice yearly) and (to allow trimmed beards and long hair) and whether it was ok to give leniency to maintain unanimous unity…etc. Many of these issues could be interpreted in different ways no matter whose debate one heard, so the focus on truth became blurry.

    From my own analysis of many Ammann and Reist researchers I believe that the main issue/most critical issue for both sides was “Meidung” aka SHUNNING (avoidance of the excommunicated and NOT having meals and close association with the excommunicated)

    The second most critical issue was whether a “true- good hearted” persons would be/could be “saved” without being In Communion and or under the authority with the church congregation family.

    My final opinion is 1. that Bishop Ammann was right that we should NOT be “worldly” and 2. Bishop Reist was right that we all have freewill. The critical part is that the very same fight between good and evil is still happening to this very day. I passionately advocate that this is even more important to know the truth about than attempting to simply make decisions on what seems to be determined by man to be good or bad. The CHALLENGE is: what is more important, to be unanimously united OR to be obedient to the Bible, or to confess that the BEST thing is to stick to personally stick to the truth.

    I respect John Ruth as an author greatly but I believe that Geography had a lot more influence on the fact that the Amish and the Mennonite did nor re-unify in Europe than that geography caused their schism initially. I passionately believe that both groups had/have a grip on a certain amount of the Truth.

    Bottom Line; both Jesus and Satan came on this earth to cause divisions. I am entirely convinced that the Biblical Truth that unites the Amish and Mennonites are much greater and more noble than any of the issues that divide us.

    So what questions do you still have on your ancestry/your people???please let me know so I can check my old books and files to see if I can help.

    Best Regards;
    Delmer B. Martin

    1. Delmar, thank you for your comments. I actually think that John Roth is right that geography had a lot to do with how people were coming at the church issues. If the Swiss Brethren were still being hounded by the authorities and those who emigrated to the Palatinate and the Alsace were not, then their approach would have been different, especially concerning the Truehearted.

      The more I read, the more I also realize that the influence coming from the north (Holland Mennonites), was a factor in all of this. They were very generous in helping out those who emigrated with nothing but the shirts on their backs. But they were also quite generous with advice about what they should believe and how they should be living their lives. This was in two+ decades before the schism occurred. So yes, I think that the different needs created the differences in their beliefs and how they practiced the faith.

      I will email you with questions concerning one family in my ancestry, to find out if you have any information on them. Their surname was Rickenbach.

      Otherwise, I am just enjoying making new discoveries about my ancestors as I stay open to their stories.

      1. I appreciate your response and I like the way you laid it out (good writing) and I agree with your explanation re; the Geographic differences causing issues but once the individuals and remnant congregations became even further separated by geography there would have been less chance of positive association.

        I completely failed to mention in my initial response how sad I felt when I found in writings that Old Jacob Ammann wrote a letter “7 February 1700, confessed his wrong to the Reist group, requesting their forgiveness.But it was too late; the schism could not be healed.” (Gameo.org) What a sad statement! I have travelled and been blessed with fellowship extensively in the old areas of Pennsylvania and I found the good hearted old order Mennonite folks to be so very similar in heart and wisdom to the old order Amish whereas the main noticeable difference that outsiders notice is the beard issue and the color of the buggies. Ironically one of my best old order neighbor’s last name is actually Reist and we were in the same crop gang for many many years. We live in a big world and in yet in many ways a very Small world.
        Say Hello To David.
        Best Regards;
        Delmer B. Martin

  7. Arida van oudenallen

    It is a plaesure to read your story’s. I was nearbij visiting Merk in 2012 and was visiting the farm! Veryimpressijve .i did met John d .Roth….laterthat week. We where also to philadelfia in 2015. Also very good times there My writing is not so good because i am from the Netherlands..keep on writing!!!!greetings, Arida

  8. Saloma, so much info on this one it will take me a few days to absorb it all. Nice work with the writing of it.

    I was wondering if you have traced your personal family history back to a certain time period in Germany or Switzerland. BTW, our Amish neighbor is a Miller. Eli, with him team of horses, plowed our garden section. Amazing to watch those horses work together. I will be meeting the family when our daughter comes to visit and can push me in my all terrain wheelchair (with my husband and her boyfriend) to meet them all. No paved driveways!

    Also, where does “Swartzentruber” fit in with all of this? This local community is of the Swartzentruber community.

    1. Denise, someone did a whole family “wheel” of my ancestors, and I know several families who were immigrants on my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. Miller (Müller in German) is a very common Amish name… more than half of the families in my home community had that last name.

      The Swartzentruber Amish are the strictest group of Amish. They are named after the man who caused the split from the mainstream Amish in Holmes County in the early 1900s. His followers adhered to stricter dress codes, less technology, and stricter rules of shunning. Within the Swartzentrubers, there are at least seven different groups, and only they know what the differences are. To anyone else they are minute, but to the Swartzentrubers, they are big enough issues to cause church splits.

  9. Saloma, This blog has been so interesting. My husband and I visited the Ohnenheim location in our travels following my Amish/Mennonite routes. I have now lived in the Netherlands for 50 yrs and have learned a lot in how the Dutch Mennonites practice their faith. One of the things I learned in a special course of study that teaches Dutch Mennonite beliefs and traditions was quite interesting. Menno Simons had originally agreed with the practice of shunning in church disapline but later on in his ministry, he regretted this in some ways. He said he found if “shunning” isn’t done in the right way, and if people weren’t careful it would become a power struggle. It could become a disagreement of 2 stubborn parties where one would get put out. The dutch do have a way of taking care of things in church matters without the drastic method of shunning. This can be an extremely unkind way of dealing with a problem and cause more harm than good.
    Thanks for sharing your special trip with us.
    Mary Maarsen

    1. Mary, thank you for your comments. I have often noticed that even though the Dutch Mennonites influenced the Swiss Brethren, they themselves do not practice strict shunning, nor have they ever, really, except for in the very beginning, when Menno Simons was baptized as an Anabaptist at a time when authorities were trying to paint all Anabaptists as potential revolutionaries after the Münster uprising. To demonstrate that he was not one of them, Menno Simons excommunicated the Münsterites to distance himself from them. It is my understanding that this is where shunning first became associated with the Anabaptists. I think he always knew the potential it had for being used as a divisive tool, but he apparently was trying to please both the opponents and proponents of excommunication as a church discipline.

      It seems to me there has to be some connection in history between the Jewish ways of ousting someone from their midst when they feel a person has erred… sitting shiva for that person and then acting as if that person is died, by never talking to him or her again. To me that is a much harsher form of shunning than the Anabaptists ever practiced, and yet most people associate shunning with the Amish and their ancestors. I cannot help but think there is an historical connection between these two forms of community discipline.

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