The Amish and Mennonites are an outgrowth of the 16th century Anabaptist movement in Europe. During the Swiss Protestant Reformation, this group of people was considered radical for rejecting infant baptism and mandatory military service. They immigrated to America in hope of religious freedom. Having crossed the Alleghenies by covered wagon, where they settled, farmed, and grew, until today their descendants in Holmes and the surrounding counties constitute the largest community of Amish in the world.
From Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the first people of Amish faith came to Ohio and settled along the Sugar and Walnut creeks in 1809. Amishman, Jonas Stutzman was the first white man to settle in eastern Holmes County, making his homestead in Walnut Creek in 1809. Today 35,000 Amish live in a five-county region (Holmes, Wayne, Ashland, Tuscarawas, and Coshocton) with their population doubling about every 20 years.
The Mennonite faith began first, with the Amish sect splitting 150 years later, led by Jacob Amman, to enforce stricter discipline with regard to communion and excommunication. Although the Mennonite movement came first, most Holmes County Mennonite churches were formed by former Amish community members.
Today there are close to a dozen variations and sects among the Amish and Mennonites from very conservative in their beliefs and dress to those who dress and live much like the non-Amish. The most conservative is the Swartzentruber sect, who live as people did in 19th century Europe. This group will not ride in vehicles and thus must work at home or close enough that they can travel by horse. The largest group, the “Old Order,” travel by buggy or as a passenger in a vehicle, and as a whole, do without modern conveniences and technologies. The most progressive of the Amish sects are the “New Order Amish” who do not drive cars, but may have electricity and telephones in their homes. Although some Mennonites dress in a conservative fashion, many dress and live like modern society.
Holmes County, formed in 1824, is named for a young officer of the War of 1812, Major Andrew Hunter Holmes, who was killed while leading an attack in the Battle of Mackinac.
While specifics of practice and culture differ, five elements of belief direct all Amish and Mennonites in their lives.
They are Biblicists who live in simple obedience to the word of God.
Voluntary, adult baptism is seen as a personal faith commitment.
Peace and reconciliation are central to Christ’s life and message; defending oneself with violence is not an option.
There must be separation of Church and State.
Christians should live in distinction from the world around them.
There were no Amish schools before the 1950s. In earlier days, when one-room schoolhouses were common, Amish children attended these public schools, which emphasized rural values and basic skills. With consolidation of such schools into districts and more “worldly” studies, the Amish established their own parochial system of one-room schools in which students are taught by Amish teachers. Today there are 95 Amish parochial schools in Holmes County. In addition to the parochial schools, about 40% of Amish children attend public schools.
The Amish do not believe in the value of education beyond the eighth grade. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court in 1972, ruled that the Amish and related groups were exempt from the state compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade.
Adaptations of progress and technology grow out of life needs and experiences, and once approved by the Bishop and church leadership, define the "ordnung" – the set of rules that governs almost all aspects of Amish life. In general, the Amish avoid new technologies that they believe will erode the family structure or create inequalities or divisions in their community. Unlike the Old Order and New Order, who have adapted to compete in today’s market, the strictest sect, the Swartzentruber, are forbidden the use of power tools or to hire a driver to go to a jobsite. In cases where modernization is allowed, it is permitted with constraints. For example, some groups permit a lawn mower, but it may not be a riding mower. A church may allow those in the congregation who own businesses to use cell phones, with limitations. What might seem to be a contradiction to some, makes perfect sense to the Amish, such as their ordnung allowing the use of something, but not ownership, such as riding in a car. An Amish young person who has not yet joined the church has the liberty of using technology that would otherwise be forbidden for a church member.
While the Amish staunchly guard their identity as a people "separate from the world," they enjoy competing in the marketplace, often offering exceptional goods and services at competitive prices. Most, speaking in a distinct German accent, enjoy interacting with non-Amish. Young Amish children, not yet familiar with the English language, typically watch in quiet awe at the sight of unfamiliar people.
Booking an Amish culture tour or visiting Amish-owned businesses are good ways of interacting with the Amish without infringing on their lifestyle.
The Amish religion forbids posing for pictures and use of cameras for personal photography. Please do not photograph the Amish, especially if their faces are visible. Consider how you might feel if a stranger took your picture without your permission.
In keeping with the scripture, "Be not conformed to the world," the Amish adhere to strict rules regarding garb and lifestyle. Rejecting worldly fashions, they embrace centuries-old traditions of plain and simple clothing, free from adornment; their peasant-type garb reflects humility and commitment to their Anabaptist heritage.
Ohio Amish men grow their beards, without a mustache, at the time they join the church, typically in their early 20s. A frequent misconception is that the men grow their beards when they marry; however, an Amish person must join the church in order to be married and often grows his beard in preparation.
Bonnets and prayer caps: Derived from the writing of the Apostle Paul, the Amish hold to the belief that women should always have their heads covered with a prayer covering, signifying their acceptance of God’s order of authority in the home. This is a thin white organdy cap with strings either tied or untied. The hard black bonnet worn in public by women and girls is worn over an organdy covering and actually serves as weather protection. Often a heavier one is worn in the winter, and a lighter one is worn in the summer. Bonnets and prayer caps vary greatly in style among the various sects of Amish and Mennonites.