Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Controversy among the Amish regarding the Rebaptism of Mennonites, 1820-1845: A Newly-Discovered Document

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Controversy among the Amish regarding the Rebaptism of Mennonites, 1820-1845: A Newly-Discovered Document

Article excerpt

Abstract: The first church-wide controversy among the Amish of America focused on the question of whether Mennonites who wanted to join an Amish congregation should be rebaptized. In 1823 Mennonite John Burkholder and some of his relatives were admitted to an Amish congregation in Wayne County, Ohio without being rebaptized. In response, the Amish of Mifflin and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania objected vigorously and a sharp conflict ensued. Until 1997 the records of two Amish ministers' meetings--held in 1830 and 1831--had led historians to conclude that the dispute had been settled at that time in favor of rebaptism. But the recent discovery of a letter written in 1838 by twenty-six Wayne County opponents of rebaptism has re-opened the inquiry into this controversy. Clearly, the issue was not resolved in 1830-31 as has been previously assumed.

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Sometime in 1823 Mennonite John Burkholder, a recent unmarried immigrant to America from Switzerland, asked to be received into the membership of the Amish congregation in Wayne County, Ohio. Other members of his family joined him in this request. Burkholder and his relatives had arrived in America in 1817. In the course of the intervening years he had made extended stops in several Amish communities and had already asked for membership in the Mifflin County, Pennsylvania Amish congregation. The elders there had told him that in order to be admitted into membership he would need to submit to rebaptism by an Amish elder. Burkholder, however, refused, claiming that a second baptism was a violation of his conscience.

Evidently this rebuff did not deter Burkholder from subsequently seeking membership in the Amish congregation in Wayne County where, by 1823, he had decided to locate permanently. In 1823 the differences between the Mennonites and the Amish were not as great as they are today; in any case, Burkholder was not overly concerned about the differences. In contrast to the treatment accorded him by the elders in Mifflin County, the Amish elder in Wayne County, David Zook, accepted Burkholder and his relatives without rebaptism. (1)

Soon thereafter Burkholder and his relatives proceeded to Wayne County, Ohio, where they again found themselves in the midst of an Amish settlement northeast of Wooster. In 1823, or thereabouts, Elder David Zook admitted them to the young Amish congregation there without rebaptism.

When word of this action reached the Amish ministers in Mifflin County they were disturbed. According to oral tradition, the Pennsylvania ministers "immediately sent a letter to [Elder] David Zook ... stating their disapproval of his method of receiving John Burkholder into full membership. From henceforth, they declared, fellowship between them was to be severed." (2) Thus was initiated a controversy within the Amish Church concerning the rebaptism of Mennonites who wished to join an Amish congregation, a controversy which continued for two decades or more.

The story of the conflict which ensued has been noted in numerous accounts. (3) In brief, David Zook--the Amish elder who accepted Burkholder into his congregation without rebaptism--traveled back to Mifflin County, presumably to effect a reconciliation. However, he was rebuffed there by the Mifflin County ministers, including elders John Beiler and "Long Christian" Zook. Zook then continued his journey to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he was cordially received. (4)

But the controversy refused to go away. In 1826 Elder John Yoder moved from Center County, Pennsylvania (adjoining Mifflin County on the north), to Wayne County, Ohio, bringing with him a strong conviction that Mennonites should be rebaptized if they wanted to join an Amish congregation. That same year, a group of Amish ministers met in Somerset County to resolve the matter, but the meeting accomplished little since the Ohio ministers were absent. On October 3-4, 1830 a group of Ohio ministers traveled to the Glades in Somerset County, where they met with ministers from the Berks-Lancaster-Chester county area along with the Somerset-Mifflin county ministers in an attempt to resolve the dispute. …

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