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As with any religious group there are varying forms of Anabaptism, of which the Amish and Mennonites are most prominent. To those outside the subculture looking in, this is often confusing. In the greater Holmes County community there are as many as ten different groups of Amish that have some distinctive elements that define them within the Amish family. It would take much more than one column to define those distinctions and the various interrelated elements of the Amish world! The same is true of Mennonites, who may range from those who still drive horses and carriages, to those who are totally assimilated in American culture.
While there are anomalies in any group there are several features that are common to both groups. First, is the idea that at its essence Christianity is about discipleship and a willingness to follow Christ at any cost. Second, is there common idea that non-resistance or pacifism is the answer to conflict, and most Amish and Mennonites refuse service in the military. Instead, during times when the draft was in use they served as conscientious objectors and give to the world in meaningful ways without the use of force. These two ideas are the common binding factor in Anabaptism regardless of whether one is Amish or Mennonite.
How then can a visitor tell whether the person they meet are Amish or Mennonite? A helpful way to think about this is that all Amish have eschewed the ownership of automobiles as their primary form of locomotion. The Amish have retained the practice of some form of horse-drawn vehicle. This is not meant to be quaint, rather, it is a means to foster a sense of community where one connects to the people and the community within a reasonable radius of travel. While there are a few small groups of Mennonites that do not own automobiles, there are none in the Holmes County community that do not permit ownership of the automobile. There are many Mennonites who wear distinctive garb and beards without mustaches as do the Amish, so in this community automobile ownership is one of the ways one can define the two groups.
Most Mennonites meet for their church services in meeting houses. The Amish however retain the practice of meeting in in their homes, shops or barns for their Sunday services. Most Amish still use the German or the common dialect of German, Pennsylvania Dutch, as the primary language of the church services. Most Mennonites use English and some of their services use modern practices such as worship teams and audiovisual tools in their services.
Each family in an Amish Church is expected to take a turn in hosting the service at their home. With this arrangement and their non-use of automobiles this limits the size to about 30 households in each "district" that live in near proximity to each other. When a district becomes too large they will often choose a geographical dividing line, such as a creek or road, and divide the district and the two will become two distinct groups that share a common belief, but now meet in two places. Most Mennonites do not practice this form of replication and instead will focus on missions or outreach and some grow to large sizes similar to the Protestant model of church growth.
If you wish to learn more about the differences between the Amish and Mennonites plan a visit to the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the Executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from the Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.