Are Quakers Mennonites? Or Amish?

Every so often we get a call at Reno Friends Meeting from someone wondering if the Quakers are Mennonites or perhaps part of the Amish faith. I used to find these questions amusing, as if people assumed we drive buggies, dress in simple clothes or wear colonial-style hats, like the smiling, white-haired guy on the Quaker Oats box. But it turns out the question is not so silly.

With some research, I began to understand the confusion. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish have similar roots. All three groups rose as Protestant religious reformers in Europe and were drawn to America to escape religious persecution. All three put down significant roots in colonial Pennsylvania and later spread into other states. All three are known as peace churches: they practice nonresistance and oppose military service. They all emphasize the importance of community, having often been ostracized in their early years by mainstream society, and they follow a principle of simplicity.

Beyond those similarities, however, is a host of difference. According to Wikipedia, the Mennonites started as an Anabaptist movement in Holland and Germany in the 16th century. The Anabaptists were Protestants who rejected baptism for infants and instead baptized adults once they accepted the faith. Today there are about 1.5 million practicing Mennonites. The Mennonite Church is complex and diverse. Most are moderate theologically and, in most forms of worship and practice, differ very little from other mainstream Protestant congregations. Worship services usually consist of singing, scripture, prayer and a sermon from the pastor. The Mennonites advocate a personal relationship with Christ and a simple life, but do not restrict use of modern technology. Some conservative Mennonites wear plain dress, but many modern Mennonites do not.

The Amish, also an Anabaptist group, share many basic principles with the Mennonites, but split from the Mennonites in 1693 and embraced a more reclusive way of living. They generally reside in closed groups of families living in rural areas. They hold worship services in private homes. They have bishops, ministers and deacons who set rules that cover many aspects of life. There are different strains of Amish, but in the most common membership in the church starts when a child comes of age and is baptized. From then on, a church member shuns outsiders, marries only within their group, and generally rejects new technology and labor-saving devices, most notably cars. They are considered one of the most conservative religious groups in the United States:  they reject birth control and higher education and prohibit women from wearing pants. They number about 225,000 members, most of whom wear plain dress.

Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, diverge from the Mennonites and Amish most fundamentally in their form of worship. Most Quakers Meetings, particularly unprogrammed Quaker Meetings such as Reno Friends, do not have ministers, as they resist having creeds or a church hierarchy. Unprogrammed Quakers also worship in silence, with no sermon or music or liturgy. Individuals occasionally rise to share a message when they feel moved by God. There are some programmed Quaker Meetings, which split off in the nineteenth century and have pastors and programmed services, but they are less common. Quakers do not baptize members or celebrate communion – they consider all moments equally sacred and so do not believe in sacraments. Most Quakers today are tolerant theologically, believing that each person’s personal experience of God is what should direct that person’s faith. There are about 360,000 adult Quakers in the world. In the United States, the Religious Society of Friends is known for its early support of abolition and for its network of top-notch schools and colleges. While there are a few conservative Quakers who wear plain dress, most Quakers wear modern clothing.

As the Protestant reformers discovered, there are many ways to worship God. But after understanding both the Mennonites and Amish better, I am pleased that some of the tenets I admire most about the Quakers – the Peace, Simplicity and Community Testimonies – are shared with these other faiths.  Maybe we’re not that different after all.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting