Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pennsylvania, land of sects

Have you ever seen "Witness"? Amish and Mennonites are Christian communities that reject certain aspects of modern society and, by own decision, do not follow its pace of life nor many of the habits related to technology and progressis ideas. But where did they come from, and how their particular way of understanding religion arose? And, why did they settle such deep roots in Pennsylvania (USA)?

Religious unrest in Europe

It all started in the Swiss city of Zurich, in January 1525. They were the years of the religious reformation started by Luther. In every European city, new Christian theologies, interpretations and trends arose that questioned the Roman doctrine. The priest Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the reformist movement in Zurich, had a quarrel with a group, led by Conrad Grebel, that wanted a faster, more radical reform. They called theirselves "anabptists" (re-baptizers), as they opposed children baptism for considering that unvolunteer, and claimed all baptism to be made during the adult life. However, they also defended the total separation between Church and State, and this led them to problems. The Zurich Council supported Zwingli and banished them from the city.

Faced with the bad welcome from the governors towards the new community, in 1527 the "Martyrs Synod" was held in Augsburg, where the main followers of the movement settled the theological bases for the Anabaptism. Little after its celebration, most of its participants were arrested and executed.

From this moment, Anabaptists (called thereafter Mennonites, on behalf of Menno Simons, one of its Dutch spiritual leaders) were persecuted as much by Catholics as by Lutherans, and murdered by thousands. This forced them to gather in secrecy at night, in caves or in their homes. Little by little, they closed their minds towards society, and changed their intention for evangelization to living in a humble way, "evangelizing with the example". One of its groups joined, during the 17th Century, the official Swiss State Church, and achieved a ceasement of prosecutions. Because of this, the rest of the Mennonites split. In 1693, the young Jacob Amman broke up with his community, accusing it of being tolerant with the Mennonites integrated in the Church. He eventually formed, together with some followers, the Amish community, representing since then the radical trend of Mennonite ideology.

America: freedom and fiscal exemptions? Let's go then!

During the 17th Century, the existence of Amish and Mennonites in Europe was more or less accepted, but never ceased to disturb the princes, and in fact, in some territories prosecutions lasted until 1710. These comunities roamed from country to country, subject to the tolerance of Gonvernments and the usefulness they could see in them. In effect, Mennonites were famous by their tenacity in work, their pacifism and lack of interest in politics. Thus, if they could be conveniently isolated from society, they would become useful to recover empoverished soil and plow wild lands. Governors just had to invent laws to force them not be seen from the public: they were forced to build their churches in the back streets, and were forbidden to toll the bells before the masses. Higher taxes than the rest of the population finished to cut off their influence power.

In the middle of the 17th Century, most Mennonites fled the Netherlands, were they had enjoyed a relative calm for years. Harder living conditions led them to move to Germany, in the regions of Westphalia, Saxony and Hamburg, where they joined a group of existing Quakers, also confined to those lands. Quakers were had recently appeared in puritan England, as a movement that defended a free, personal meditation about religion, and were appropiatedly persecuted by the Anglican Church.

It was among this group of discriminated Quakers and Mennonites that land owner William Penn (also a Quaker) asked for settlers for his new colony. Penn had received in 1681, thanks to his influential family, the lands of the region named Sylvania by him (later switched to Pennsylvania on his name), and he there created a territory with its own laws that guaranteed freedom of cult and an equitative tax fee. The first American colony of this kind was a Mennonite family and twelve Quaker ones, who founded Germantown, outside Philadelphia, in 1683. During the next years, 2500 Mennonites and 500 Amish reached the region, slowly moving to the western Lancaster County, of wilder and cheaper lands. A variant of Dutch and German was, and is still today in some groups, their official language.

Among these communities, new splits soon happened, contrary to their European analogues, who eventually merged into a single Mennonite Church. In America, the Old Order Mennonite eventually differentiated from other communities. Those became the typical, simple farms inhabited by long-bearded characters, reluctant to the use of technology, even using buttons, and the high education of their children. Their values have always been the feeling of belonging to a community, love for the land, and a religious education oriented to craft jobs.

Amish have been, since their appearing, exempt from military service and out of the social security system, as they believe themselves as the only ones with the right to take care of the community. This also happens in other services, almost every church has a life insurance for the community members. Mennonite Disaster Service is an American network of volunteers who act in national or local emergencies. The example of Amish Lancaster County is curious, as they created their own firemen brigade in 1885.

Dissident Mennonites

The rest of Mennonite groups (Hutterites, Mennonites of the Church of God in Christ, Brethren in Christ) , some more puritan and others more progressist, share most of their doctrine with th first, but varying some behaviours or interpretations from some Bible versicles. Probably, the oddest of these is the one that founded the Ephrata Cloister, in Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) in 1732. These descended from a pietistic branch of German Mennonites settled in Germantown, from which in 1728, the Seventh Day Dunkers had split. They only differentiated from the first in their use of Saturday as sacred rest day.

Among them, charismatic Conrad Beissel founded the hermit community of which he self-proclaimed the leader. This community tried to live as similarly as possible to the imagined life in Heaven. Living in the monastery was subject to a very harsh discipline, involving a six hour sleep per day in a wooden box, and eat a single vegetarian meal per day (although the Bible never mentions that in Heaven one must eat, it was thought that without that, the community would not last long). Life expectancy in the cloister was always quite low. Beissel was convinced that Christ would come back to the World while he would still be alive, and He would do it "as a robber in the night". So, every night, the whole monastery had to wake up from 0 AM to 2 AM to watch fir His arrival. At the leader's death in 1768, the community lost its meaning and most of its members were integrated into the Baptist Seventh Day Church, which actually was the closest to their doctrine.