Last evening we went to a historical meeting where Leroy Beachy, from Holmes County, Ohio, introduced his new two-volume set of books entitled Unser Leit (Our People). In these books he traces the history of the Amish from Europe to the present day in Holmes County. In addition to writing the text, he drew by hand all of the pictures in the books. Since my ancestors were pretty solidly Mennonites rather than Amish, I did not go to buy the books but to hear what he had learned in his research.
Almost every source you find will tell you the Amish separated from the Swiss Mennonites in 1693 due to a disagreement between the leaders of the Mennonites and Jacob Amman who led the Amish. In the Archives in Bern, Leroy Beachy found some documents which do not fit that story. He has a document which lists the "Amish" in Switzerland who were taxed half the value of their properties in 1673 for being Anabaptists. Their leader was Ulrich Muller (Miller). He also has a court record from 1674 showing Ulrich was imprisoned at Thun for 16 months on a diet of bread and water. The surnames of Ulrich's followers are "Amish" names although they did not begin to be called Amish until later when Jacob Amman became their bishop. This group of Anabaptists came out of the Reformed Church in Switzerland, independent of the Mennonites in Switzerland and Holland. They had some different practices (such as shunning and feet washing) from the Swiss Mennonites. They never were part of the same group and the Amish did not form as the result of a church split.
Amos Hoover says we should have known by their surnames that the Amish and Mennonites always were two separate groups of Anabaptists. If they formed from a church split the surnames on both sides would have been fairly equal. But the surnames among the Amish are distinctly different from those of the Swiss Mennonites. Common surnames among the Swiss Mennonites are Weaver, Martin, Sensenig, Hoover, etc. while Amish surnames are King, Glick, Zook, Hostetler, Stoltzfus, etc.
Changing a story that has been believed for more than a hundred years is not easy. But it has been done before when documents surfaced which proved the previous story was based on assumptions rather than facts.
In his book Leroy tells how he became interested in the history of the Amish when he was eleven years old. This is how it happened.
Leroy's parents invited Felty Burkholders for dinner one Sunday. After they finished eating Felty pushed his chair back from the table, tipped it on the two back legs, and said (in PA German), "You know, it always wondered me where the Amish came from." None of them really knew but Elsie was there and she knew something. She said:
Long ago the only people who lived in America were Indians. They were always fighting and killing each other so they never amounted to much and there weren't many of them. In Europe it was just the opposite. The land was full of people and there was not enough land to go around. To alleviate the overcrowding they decided to send some people to America. The ones who were chosen to go were called Pilgrims. In 1492 they got on three ships called the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria and sailed to America. John Smith was their captain. One ship load was Amish, the second Conservatives, and the third Mennonites. They settled in Lancaster County and from there they spread across America.
Felty considered her story and had another question. If all the settlers were some kind of Mennonites or Amish, where did the auslanders (non-Mennonite) come from? Elsie said, "Oh they were people who defected from the Mennonites."
With this as his starting point, Leroy Beachy has come a long way in sorting out fact from fiction.