Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Keeping the faith

Most Amish trace their families back to Mennonites from the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. An Old Order Amish bishop once said to me, “There must have been a special strength of character in those Bernese Anabaptists that has enabled their descendants to keep the faith for hundreds of  years.”

The Amish divided from the Mennonites after some of them fled from persecution in Switzerland and resettled in Alsace. Some of the main issues were that  church members should not wear moustaches or buttons. (Soldiers had moustaches and buttons in those days were much like jewellery, made of silver, gold and other costly materials.) In my friend’s view, the fact that the Old Order Amish still shave their upper lip and fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes was evidence that they were keeping the faith.

John Holdeman was also descended from Mennonites who originated from the Canton of Berne and was also concerned about keeping the faith. His idea of the essentials of the faith was quite different, though. The concerns he mentioned were that only truly born again people should be baptized and that parents should have a proper love and care for their children that would guide them to avoid the dangers of youthful immorality.

John Holdeman’s concerns were shared by a few others in the Mennonite church of his day, but most seemed to think all was well. Almost 160 years ago those who felt that the old church was drifting away from the faith began holding separate services. That was the beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

John Holdeman’s first book was entitled The Old Ground and Foundation. That title portrays his concern to maintain the purity of the faith that has been handed down since Apostolic times. The essentials of that faith never become stale and outmoded, it can be adapted to every nation and era, yet still be the same faith. We cannot bind it to fashions and forms of a past era without deforming the faith and rendering it powerless.

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.


What is our heritage?

One day, about twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were visiting in the home of an Old Order Amish couple. The husband was not ordained at the time, but is now the bishop of his Old Order Amish community. He is a fine man with many admirable qualities, kind, warmhearted, industrious, knowledgeable about many things.

Most Amish today are descended from Anabaptists who lived many years ago in the canton of Berne, Switzerland. During the course of the visit, our friend volunteered the thought that there must have been something special in the character of the old Bernese Anabaptists that has enabled their descendants to keep the faith for so many generations.

I don’t think I responded to that thought, but wished afterwards that I had enquired into how he would define faith. The Old Order Amish have indeed maintained many outward forms from centuries ago, but is that the faith that their forefathers had? It seems to me that the essence of the faith is missing.

The Swiss Anabaptists were concerned about the salvation of their neighbours, to the point of risking property and life. The Old Order Amish tend to look with suspicion on anyone who wants to join them. The maintenance of precise standards of clothing and lifestyle requires that the Amish watch each other closely for any deviation from those standards. Slight variations in these standards from one Amish settlement to another make it difficult for people to fellowship freely with each other. There is not one Old Order Amish church, but an innumerable number of churches and in most cases ministers from one church are not allowed to preach in another because of the small differences in outward standards.

What it boils down to is that the Old Order Amish have tried to maintain spiritual life by human effort, rather than by the leading of the Holy Spirit. They have failed in this; not many among them can tell of being born again or of knowing that the Holy Spirit is giving direction for their lives. They have succeeded only in preserving a lifestyle that from the outside looks something like the old Anabaptist faith.

We must never confuse our ethnic heritage with our spiritual heritage. Seeking to maintain a semblance of the faith of our ancestors may cause others to look upon us with admiration in this life, but carries no promise for eternity. Those who seek salvation through the blood of Jesus and live solely to please their Saviour will often be misunderstood in this life but they have the promise of a home with the redeemed in the world to come. This is the true spiritual heritage.

A light shining in the darkness

In 1671 there arose a severe persecution of the Mennonites in Switzerland, causing many to flee the country.  Brethren in the Netherlands came to their aid and gave them refuge.  In all, about 700 persons, among them some very aged, fled Switzerland.  They were destitute, their lands and properties having been seized by the Swiss authorities.

Some of the leaders, however, delayed leaving Switzerland for a period of time.  When asked the reason, this was their reply:

“They say that the churches greatly waxed and increased, so that though under the cross, they nevertheless flourished as a rose among thorns, and that further increase could daily be expected, because many persons manifested themselves, who saw the light shine out of darkness, and began to love the same and seek after it; that the ministers considering this in their heart, found themselves loath to leave the country, fearing that thereby this promising harvest may be lost, and thus many fall back from their good purpose; and hence they chose rather to suffer a little than to leave, in order that they might yet rescue some souls from perdition, and bring them to Christ.”*

About twenty years later, many of these Swiss Mennonite refugees and their children left the Netherlands to cross the ocean and settle in Pennsylvania, thus beginning the history of the Mennonites in North America.

*This paragraph comes from material added to the second edition of the Martyrs Mirror.

Who was Benjamin Eby?

Benjamin Eby was a great-great-grandson of Jacob Eby, who was ordained bishop of the Mennonites at Zurich, Switzerland in 1663.  Jacob’s son, Theodor us Eby, left Switzerland in 1704 to escape the persecution of the Mennonites that was going on there.  This Eby family settled in Lancaster County Pennsylvania in 1715.  Benjamin Eby’s older brother, Peter, served as bishop of the Mennonites in Lancaster County from 1800 ro 1843.

There is a family tradition that the Ebys, and many other Swiss Mennonite families, had originally been Waldensians Christians from the area of the Po valley in Italy and were of Celtic origin.  They came to Switzerland in the 13th century to escape the persecution of the Waldenses.

On February 25, 1807, Benjamin Eby married Mary Brubacher and that same year they left Pennsylvania to make their home in Waterloo County, Ontario where some other Lancaster County Mennonites had begun settling around 1800.  Benjamin was ordained minister of the Waterloo county Mennonites in 1809 and bishop in 1812.  In both instances, his brother Peter came to perform the ordination.

Besides being a spiritual leader, Benjamin Eby was a farmer, school teacher, writer and historian. Whatever it would take to establish the families of his congregation and to serve their neighbours, he undertook to do.  A town soon grew up around his farm, known at first as Ebytown.  In 1833 it was renamed Berlin and in 1914 it became Kitchener.

He organized the first school in Waterloo county and taught in that school for many years.  He compiled two German schoolbooks, combination grammar and readers.  He compiled a German hymnal.  He was also concerned that his English-speaking neighbours should have a clear explanation of the history and faith of the Mennonites, so his booklet entitled Origin and Doctrine of the Mennonites was made available in both German and English.

Benjamin Eby has been described as an effective preacher, having a profound knowledge of the Bible, an equally profound grasp of the spiritual needs of ordinarily people and the ability to bring the two together in a manner that touched the hearts of those who heard him.  He was a meek and gentle man, a friend to all, yet a staunch defender of the faith.

He was sometimes called upon to help resolve difficulties and disputes in other Mennonite congregations in Ontario, in the Markham and Niagara areas.  He always worked to establish and maintain peace among the brethren, yet never at the cost of compromising the faith that he loved and had promised to uphold.

Benjamin Eby, like Menno Simons, did not like the term Anabaptist, as it means re-baptisers.  The Mennonite faith recognizes only one baptism, a baptism performed upon the confession of faith of one who has truly been born again.  Benjamin Eby was not referring to the denominations now known as Baptist when he used that name, as those churches were virtually unknown in Ontario in his day.

Today, most of us accept the designation of Anabaptist to avoid confusion and because of the long history of the use of that name to describe people of our faith.

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