Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: The "Patriarche" of Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Research Note: The "Patriarche" of Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines

Article excerpt

There can be little question that Jacob Ammann was a central figure in the events leading up to the schism within the Swiss Brethren church in 1693-94 and the emergence of a new group that came to bear his name. His role as a catalyst in the tensions that erupted among Anabaptists in Alsace and Switzerland is well-documented. (1) At the time of the division, local residents and administrative authorities in the valley of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines referred to him as "Le Patriarche" (2) a label strengthened by his long beard and austere outward appearance--or simply as "der Amy." They regarded him as a skillful leader, an authority, a man who commanded the respect and obedience of his followers.

Yet, surprisingly enough, what we actually know about the person of Jacob Ammann is very scant. Until recently we could only make suppositions about his place of birth, his place of residence at the time of the schism and his death. Yet each piece of information, each fragment from the archives concerning Ammann, can help to supplement our understanding of this elusive leader.

Thanks to a series of archival studies on Ammann and the group around him, we are now able to present several new findings concerning the earliest years of the Amish movement, (3) drawn mostly from the archives in Alsace but also from Switzerland. The arguments that follow are not intended to be conclusive in every point, but they do identify traces in the archives that give credibility to certain theses and make our understanding of Ammann less dependent on the imagination. Based on these sources, a more precise portrait of this colorful personage slowly begins to emerge.

Without ignoring the theological arguments that evolved in the course of the schism, this paper will focus primarily on several details related to Ammann's itinerary and social behavior, placing them in the context of local historical circumstances.


For many years historians have been uncertain about the date of Ammann's birth. (4) The best evidence, however, suggests that Ammann was born in February of 1644 in Erlenbach (canton of Bern), the son of Michael Ammann and Anna Rupp. (5) Before 1693 he likely lived in Steffisburg or in the surrounding area, where he was later joined by his father Michael, who was seriously suspected of belonging to the Anabaptists in Erlenbach. Between 1693 and 1695 Ammann relocated to Heidolsheim in the Alsace; his father either accompanied him to Heidolsheim or joined him during this period.

The recent discovery of a death certificate in the register of the Protestant parish in the village of Baldenheim (6) strongly supports this conjecture. The entry in question reads:

   On Saturday, the 23rd of April [1695] a non-resident Anabaptist by
   the name of Michl Amme--a tailor by trade from Steffisburg--was
   buried here since this [burial] was refused him at Heidolsheim
   where he died. (7)

In spite of its brevity, this text contains several very important elements.

The first significant aspect of the death certificate is the spelling of the surname: Amme. As we shall see, Jacob Ammann himself frequently spelled his name "Amme," which strongly suggests that the Michael Amme listed here was the father of Jacob Ammann.

The second significant aspect is the location of Michael's death in Heidolsheim, located in the Alsatian lowlands, between Selestat and the Rhine River, very close to Ohnenheim. At the end of the seventeenth century it was part of a cluster of villages ruled by the lords of Ribeaupierre (Rappoltsweiler). Following the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, these lords welcomed a number Anabaptists into their territories; indeed, toward the end of the century Anabaptists represented almost half of the total population of some villages. (8) Around 1694 a large number of Swiss Brethren refugees from Bern began to settle in the region Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. …

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