Monday, July 7, 2008

The Amish and Mennonite division

Here is a photo of where we stayed during our time in the Emmental. It is Unter Habegg and is a fairly traditional farm. We stayed in the Stockli, or what the Amish call a Grossdoddy house. That is, once the youngest son takes over the operations of the farm, then his parents move into a small home next to the main farmhouse. From there they help in their retirement. So the Blaser grandparents live on the ground floor and we stayed in what Europeans call the first floor, or the American second floor. It was a cozy place to stay with beautiful woodwork, especially on the ceilings.
The other building is the main farmhouse. Some accuse the Swiss of loving their cows too much, and perhaps part of it is that they live with them. This huge building is both the house and the barn. Since I do not have a wide angle lens, I could only fit the front half of the building into the photo, the human half. Humans live in the front of the house and the back is a barn where the cows stay. That is where the milking is done. Herr Blaser's milk becomes organic Gruyere cheese.
That may not sound like the introduction to the division between Amish and Mennonites but it is. It was in a farmhouse like this, called Fridersmatt, perhaps 15 kilometers from here, where the division between Amish and Mennonites took place.

In previous blogs I have given some background to the division. It was another time of more intense persecution, with the Bernese government confiscating property and exiling Anabaptists. Some would stubbornly return. It was also a time of evangelization. There were new converts to Anabaptism, such as Jacob Ammann's family and my ancestor Isaac Kaufmann's family. Many of these new converts were found in the Bernese Oberland, near Thun, whereas the oldtimers were here in the Emmental, around Langnau. Perhaps part of the new popularity of Anabaptism was from the Pietist movement that emphasized a personal piety and not just going to church for the sake of going to church.

Apparently Hans Reist, an elder among the oldtime Anabaptists, at some point appoints Jacob Ammann an elder. Eventually Ammann moves to what is today France, in Alsace, a German-speaking region, to the town of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines in French, Markirch in German. He manages to successfully sell his property in Switzerland, no small undertaking since the government assumes that all Anabaptist property belongs to it, and buy a farm in Markirch.

In Alsace Ammann is among Anabaptists that some 30 years before had adopted the Dutch Dordrecht confession of faith with its strong emphasis on shunning those excommunicated (2 articles on the subject), its inclusion of footwashing, and its greater emphasis on the authority of individual leaders. Ammann becomes concerned about the way the Anabaptist church seems to be becoming more and more like its neighbors. This might be expected in a place like Alsace where the faith is tolerated. But he also sees problems in Switzerland, where in the face of persecution the church is willing to compromise in order to stay.
We don't know a lot about Ammann, we know even less about his eventual opponent Hans Reist. Some years before he lost his property to the government and was exiled. While in exile he was part of a group that argued that one could graciously accept the aid of the Dutch Anabaptists while at the same time not acknowledging them as siblings in the faith. But Reist returned to Switzerland. He was willing to compromise in order to stay. We have official documents that show elder Hans Reist promising to attend communion at the Reformed church, in effect pretending to be Reformed.

Because of his concerns for the spiritual welfare of the church, Ammann calls the church to more strict discipline. This means observing communion twice a year instead of once. Communion is a time when everyone must examine themselves as to whether they are worthy to commune and whether there are any conflicts that would prevent them.

He also calls the church to a regular practice of footwashing with communion, something that was not part of the Swiss tradition but is found in Dordrecht.

He also believes it is not enough to simply excommunicate sinners, so that they cannot take communion but otherwise are not treated differently. They must be shunned, one should not eat ordinary meals with them either. This is the defining issue of the Amish-Mennonite division, the one that endures.

Ammann also thought leaders should have more authority to make discipline decisions. He became frustrated with the way the other Anabaptist leaders insisted on consulting with their congregations before making decisions. He thought leaders have the spiritual authority to make these decisions. Here again Dordrecht has a higher view of the leaders role than the traditional congregationally based leadership among the Swiss.

Ammann also had a specific case in mind, where a known liar was not excommunicated. He thought this proved his case that discipline was not taken seriously.
A final interesting issue, especially in the context of renewed persecution and Pietism, was the salvation of the true-hearted. The true-hearted, or half-Anabaptists, were neighbors of Anabaptists who were sympathetic to their beliefs and practices but did not become Anabaptist. However, they took many risks to protect Anabaptists from their own government. Reist said that perhaps the true-hearted were saved. Ammann saw this as just another example of how the church was becoming lax and was becoming unwilling to tell the truth.

As Ammann travelled in Switzerland, apparently on a commission from the Alsace Anabaptists, to see where the Swiss Anabaptists stood on these issues, he thought he was finding some sympathy for his concerns. For example Peter Gyger and Niklaus Moser, the owner of Fridersmatt, seemed to agree with him.
However when Ammann spoke to Reist he did not find a sympathetic listener. When Ammann asked about shunning, Reist replied, quoting Jesus, that what enters the mouth does not make one unclean. In other words eating meals with excommunicated people does not make one unclean.
When other leaders saw Reist take such a strong stand against Ammann, they followed. Ammann became frustrated when he called for a second meeting with Reist and he did not attend. So he called for a general meeting to take place at Fridersmatt near Bowil in the Emmental. He gave two weeks notice so that Reist could be there.

I am not sure how many attended but I think it was a crowd. These large Swiss farmhouses would have room for a large group particularly in the barn area . Reist and his closest leaders did not attend. They sent word that they were too busy with farming and so could not make it.
According to the sources, Ammann became enraged. On the spot he excommunicated Reist and those with him. And so the division occurred.

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