Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Gerhard Roosen and the Amish division

The year was 1697. Mennonites fleeing persecution in Switzerland had been living in Alsace for some time. There was danger without because Louis XIV had sent his troops to annex Alsace to France. There was trouble within because Jacob Amman, one of the Mennonite ministers, accused the church of apostasy and worldliness. He demanded a strict conformity to a certain form of clothing and other outward things. Jacob Amman excommunicated all the Mennonites in Alsace, Switzerland and the Palatinate who did not see things his way. He and his followers were in turn excommunicated by the Mennonites. The followers of Jacob Amman came to be known as Amish.

In the midst of all this confusion, someone wrote to the aged elder Gerhard Roosen of Hamburg. The paragraphs below are excerpts from his reply. Roosen was 85 years old when he wrote this and remained active until his death in 1711 at the age of 99.

It should be noted that the original Mennonite settlers in Pennsylvania had fled from Switzerland to Holland before the division and later emigrated to America. Thus they had no part in this unedifying affair.


I am heartily sorry that you have been disturbed by some that think highly of themselves and make laws about things that are not required in the Gospel. Had the apostolic writings stated how and wherewith a believer should clothe himself, and a person travelling in other countries would find people living contrary to these rules, then this stand might be valid. But to contradict the Gospel in binding the conscience to a certain form in hats, clothes, shoes, stockings or hair, which forms differ from country to country, and to take upon himself to ban those that  who will not accept such rules; also to cast out of the church as leaven those who will not avoid such, is something that neither the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, nor the holy apostles have commanded, to be bound by these outward things, and have given neither law nor rule in this matter.

In all of Paul’s letters we do not find a single word that he has given commandments to believers what form or style of clothing they should have, but rather he admonishes to condescend to them of low state, in all humility. I consider it to be proper and right to conduct oneself like the customs of the country in which you sojourn. But it is reasonable and just that all luxury, pride, highmindedness and fleshly lust be avoided (1 John 2), and not quickly accept new styles of clothing nor alter them to conform to fashion. That is something to be disciplined. But where it has become common usage in a country it is honourable and proper to accept such usage, but to walk in humility.

Thanks be to God, I do not want lust of the eyes nor pride of this world, but have always worn nearly the same pattern of clothing. But if I put on another style, according to the usage of the country, should I have been banned because of it? That would have been unreasonable and contrary to Scripture.

The Lord has ordained, of course, that there should be discipline in the Church of God for stubborn members and such as resist the law of God in the Gospel. Therefore it must arise whether that which we intend to bind will also be bound there, or is commanded to be bound.

The Holy Scriptures must be our measuring standard. To them we must submit; not run ahead but follow them, not too rashly, but in carefulness, fear and affliction; for it is a perilous thing in the judgment of God to bind that which is not bound in heaven.


Plain clothes

Clothing as a status symbol is not a new thing. In fact, a few hundred years ago there were laws to define what clothes a person could wear to fit his status in society. These were called sumptuary laws, and they made it possible to instantly discern whether a person was a priest, a bishop, a duke, a knight or a a peasant. There was a moral, or religious, impulse behind these laws, a desire to avoid costly or showy clothing. However, those at the top of the heap could wear many of the things forbidden to the lower classes. Silk and purple dye, for example, were forbidden to most people.

Along with this came certain rules of conduct. If a man met someone of higher status on the street he had to remove his hat. He could address his equals, and those of lesser status, as thee or thou, but those of higher status had to be addressed with the more respectful “you”.

By the time the Quakers came along in the 17th century, the sumptuary laws were no longer on the books in England, but people’s attitudes about maintaining the prerogatives of their status had not changed. The Quakers decided they would all wear the same cut of clothing, whatever their trade or civil status. They declared they would not remove their hat for any man, and adopted a broad-brimmed style to emphasize the point. They also refused to address anyone as “you.”

Towards the end of the 17th century, Jacob Amman, the spiritual leader of the Mennonites in Alsace, decided the Mennonites had slipped too far into following the fashions of the world. He imposed strict rules about the cut of clothes, more or less settling on the Alsatian peasant style. This brought about a separation from the Mennonites in Switzerland and Amman’s group became known as Amish.

Many Quakers and Amish emigrated to Pennsylvania and the similarity in outlook led to them becoming known as “the plain people.” Quakers have dropped the plain clothes, but there are now a bewildering variety of “plain” Mennonite and Amish groups, each with their own set of rules governing what cut of clothes they may wear. The differences between groups are often quite minor, but they are strictly enforced.

In 1697, shortly after the Amish division, Gerhard Roosen, an aged Mennonite elder of Hamburg, Germany, wrote the following words to those involved:

“I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things that are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country, and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church as leaven all those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel, or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 2 (verse 16) that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink” nor in this or that in the form or pattern of clothing, to which external things our Saviour does not oblige us.

“I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts (1 John 2, verses 16, 17), not immediately adopting the latest style of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common use then it is honourable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility.

“The Holy Scripture must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.”

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