As the love affair the world has for Amish quilts, Amish foods, and handmade Amish goods continues to grow, many people still know very little about these Amish quilters, Amish bakers, and Amish craftsmen. Probably one of the most misunderstood things about the Amish is their relationship with the Mennonite communities. Many people believe that both groups are one in the same, while others think that they have nothing to do with each other at all. Interestingly, these opinions about the Amish and the Mennonites are both right and wrong, depending on what you are talking about. In fact, the Amish themselves are very different from each other depending on what part of the country they are from or how strict they might be. This is perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Amish and the Mennonites. While they are grouped together into one big pot, they are just as diverse and unique as the rest of us.
The Amish and the Mennonites both come from the same radical Christian groups that challenged the Roman Catholic Church during the start of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in 1525. Many people, particularly the peasants, were disillusioned and dissatisfied with how the Roman Catholic Church was doing things, so several radicals called for a religious rebellion and many religious groups that are considered mainstream today got their starts. At this time, a group called the Brethren, or more commonly referred to as Anabaptists, banded together and started gaining a following of people who wanted a return to the basics of the Bible and to break free from the control of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, these radical Anabaptists were persecuted and killed by the thousands. This caused the Anabaptists to meet secretly for fear of persecution and is the basis for Amish and Mennonite tendencies to separate themselves from society.
In 1536, a Catholic Priest named Menno Simmons joined the Anabaptist movement and began unifying the individual groups into a larger, stronger voice. Because of his outspoken nature and leadership abilities, he became known as the unofficial leader of the group and they eventually began being referred to as Mennonites rather than Anabaptists. It was not until 1693 that a schism occurred within the Mennonite community that caused a split and the Amish broke off to form their own group. Some members of the Mennonites at the time felt that the group was already losing its focus on Christian beliefs and discipline. A Mennonite elder, Jacob Ammann, pushed for a stricter and more conservative belief system and when church leaders could not come to an agreement Ammann broke away from the Mennonites and formed the Amish church.
Today, the division between the Amish and the Mennonites can really be described more accurately as conservative versus modern. The Amish in general have tried to stay as close to their original beliefs as possible. They have chosen to live a plain and simple life focused on their beliefs and strive to remain self-sufficient and independent from modern society in order to preserve their core beliefs and remain pure. The Amish believe in JOY, the belief that Jesus comes first, You come last, and all Others come in the middle. The Mennonites, on the other hand, have in general loosened up their beliefs and have blended in with the world around them. While their core religious beliefs are similar, the Mennonites have grown with modern society rather than remained separated from it. While there are certainly Modern Amish groups who drive cars and Old Order Mennonites who use buggies, the Amish are still generally considered more conservative and the Mennonites more modern in their beliefs and lifestyles.
Take for instance the typical Amish quilter from a conservative Amish community. The Amish quilter dresses in the typical dark colored dress, white apron, white prayer cap, black stockings, and black shoes. Her hair is parted in the middle, pulled back into a bun, and covered with the white cap. The Amish quilter makes all the family meals, does most of the household chores, and takes care of all the needs of her children. After her morning chores are over, while the rest of the family is out in the field or at school, the Amish quilter will spend a few hours working on her Amish quilts that she might be making for a loved one or to be sold in one of the Amish markets in town. Making Amish quilts is both a lucrative business and one of the few areas where the Amish quilter can express her creative side with colors, shapes, and Amish quilting styles. The Amish do not meet in churches, but instead hold their Sunday services in each family home on a rotating basis. When it is time for the Amish quilter to host the Sunday services, it is a very busy day for her. Amish homes are very large for this purpose and it falls upon the Amish quilter to prepare the home when it is her turn to host. The house must be cleaned, the furniture rearranged, and the food prepared. The neighbors of the Amish quilter will come by the Saturday before the service to help her prepare the meal and complete any last minute chores in preparation for the entire Amish community showing up at her doorstep the next morning. Overall, the life of the Amish quilter is filled with work, faith, and the endless pursuit of pleasing God.
In comparison to the typical day of the conservative Amish quilter, the modern Mennonite woman may have a very different set of beliefs and daily lifestyle. The Mennonite woman may or may not wear a conservative, plain dress. In the 1950s the Mennonites as a whole chose to abandon the style of dress that is now associated with the Amish. While there are some Mennonite groups who still dress plainly, their guidelines are less strict than that of the Amish quilter. In fact, the modern Mennonite woman wears the same clothes that other modern women might wear. The Mennonite woman may or may not work outside the home. While the typical Amish quilter will only attend school through the eighth grade, the Mennonite woman will probably finish high school and is more likely to receive a college degree. This is mostly due to the fact that Mennonite communities have gradually moved away from farm life and have integrated themselves into mainstream society, requiring both Mennonite men and women to graduate from high school or college to support themselves. The Mennonite woman worships in a church building, rather than in the home like the Amish quilter. In fact, there are Mennonite churches in more than 60 countries around the world. A Mennonite woman can even become an ordained minister in the church. The Mennonite woman is just as busy as the Amish quilter, but she might not spend her days making Amish quilts, rather she might have a career outside the home.
While the comparison between the conservative Amish quilter and the modern Mennonite woman is a generalization, it does point out many of the differences that divide the two groups. There are certainly Amish women who work outside the home doing things other than making Amish quilts and there are also Mennonite women who dress in plain clothing and making Mennonite quilts. However, it is their core beliefs that keep them tied together while their interpretations of those beliefs divide them in many key ways. In the end, the Amish and the Mennonites are both similar and different at the same time.