LETTER FROM EUROPE
Lessons From the Amish

November 1993By John Warwick Montgomery

The Rev. John Warwick Montgomery, a Lutheran, is a practicing barrister and Professor of Law and Hu­manities at the University of Luton in England. He divides his time between London and Strasbourg.

West of Strasbourg, my home city on the French-German border, lie the Vosges mountains. Unlike the Alps or the Rockies, but like the Appala­chians, they present no towering peaks: The centu­ries have worn them down into a magical landscape of undulating hills and valleys. In the Middle Ages -- indeed, to the end of the Thirty Years War -- they were the epitome of political decentralization, dot­ted with hundreds of castles and dependent villages under the aegis of petty and competing territorial lords. The fairytale villages and the castle ruins con­tribute mightily today to the charm of the area for locals and tourists alike.

Ideologically and religiously, the Vosges have also been characterized by decentralization: a region of the out-of-the-ordinary, the mystical, the unique. The area is rich in folklore, centering on semi-transcendent beings (giants, ogres, fairies, and their ilk). The medieval monastery of Sainte Odile is a kind of local Lourdes, with emphasis upon miraculous healings. In the obscure village of Waldersbach in the late 18th century, Lutheran pastor Jean Frederic Oberlin set forth his remarkable educational techniques for the religious (later, secular) instruction of children. And in those same mountains the Amish sect developed one of its most important centers of influence prior to resettlement in America.

On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Amish schism from mainline Anabaptism, a ma­jor international symposium on the Amish contri­bution has just taken place in the Alsatian village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines (August 19-22, 1993). This Inter­national Amish Colloquium gives us an opportunity to consider the Amish phenomenon and to draw some theological lessons from a fascinating byway in the history of Christian thought.

The roots of Alsatian Anabaptism lay in the Swiss radical pacifists of Zurich at the beginning of the 16th century. Ejected by Swiss political authori­ties, these Anabaptists (so-called, of course, because they rejected infant baptism in favor of adult con­version) spread up the Rhine as far as the Nether­lands. Their settlements were invariably rural, so as to avoid the temptations, pressures, and persecu­tions of city life. The Alsace was an especially hospi­table location, owing to the fact that Strasbourg was a free city of the Holy Roman Empire; its dependen­cies were therefore less subject to hierarchical po­litical and ecclesiastical control. Many of the dissi­dents settled in the valley of Liepvre and eventually took over land abandoned during the Thirty Years War. The result was a thriving agricultural commu­nity, characterized by industry, thrift, and the de­velopment of advanced farming techniques.


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