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The Amish Experience During the War of Independence

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By John Gingerich

As the dark clouds of war gathered over the American colonies during the 1770s, the Amish were faced with many of the same challenges they had faced in the “Old Country.” They, and many similar “peace churches” such as the Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren and Schwenkfelders, would neither pledge an oath of allegiance nor bear arms.  

In fact, since the Amish residing under British colonial rule enjoyed greater freedom than they had ever previously experienced, they tended to be more sympathetic to the British rather than the colonial “rebels.”  They weren’t certain that the colonists would grant them the same freedoms if they gained independence.  These fears were somewhat warranted, considering the actions taken by the continental “patriots.”

There was great pressure to join the colonial militias and to swear oaths of allegiance. For example, in 1778, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law requiring all males 18 years of age and over to swear an oath of allegiance. Those refusing to take the oath were subject to heavy fines, double taxation and confiscation of property. In some cases, Amish men were arrested, and some of those imprisoned were actually sentenced to be executed! It was only through the intercession of a local Reformed minister that the sentence was not carried out. Historical records show that John Hertzler, Jacob and Stephen Kauffman, John and Christian Zug [Zook], and Jacob Mast were among those imprisoned.  

In 1776, soldiers of the Continental Army confiscated approximately 150 unbound copies of the first German edition of the “Märtyer-Spiegel “(“Martyrs’ Mirror”), printed by a Pietist group at the Ephrata Cloister in 1748/1749. This important history of Anabaptist martyrs, and also the largest book printed in Colonial America, was to be used as gun wadding to kill British soldiers. The Old Order Amish Heritage Historical Library in Aylmer, Ontario, has a copy of this massive 1512-page work that was owned by an Amish man named Joseph von Gundy.  In it he records not only the seizure of these books, but also how remaining copies were returned by Congress in 1786. The Geauga Amish Historical Library has a copy of the 1748/1749 Ephrata “Märtyer-Spiegel “that belonged to Jacob Y. Byler (1857-1934), who moved to Geauga County in 1901 and is an ancestor to many local Amish.

According to some sources, British soldiers invading Germantown, Pa. in 1777 confiscated copies of the German Bible printed by Christopher Sauer for use as gun wadding and horse bedding. Saur, a pacifist and member of the Church of the Brethren, printed a wide variety of books and pamphlets for the American German-speaking population. Copies of the so-called “Gun Wad” Bible are relatively rare and fetch high prices at auction today. The Geauga Amish Historical Library has a 1763 Sauer German Bible owned by Amish immigrant Christian Blough (1743-1777), who is an ancestor to a number of Amish in Holmes, Wayne and Geauga counties.

Ironically, in 1778, the same year the Amish men mentioned above were arrested, Sauer was also imprisoned by the Pennsylvania colonial government for refusing to take the oath of allegiance. He later recounted how he and other pacifist prisoners were treated: “They frequently struck me in the back with their bayonets till they brought me to Bastian Miller’s barn, where they kept me till next morning. Then they strip’d me naked to the skin and gave me an old shirt and breeches so much torn that I could hardly cover my private parts, then cut my beard and hair, and painted me with oil colors red and black, and led me along barefooted and bareheaded in a very hot sunshiny day.” Sauer’s printing press was shut down and all his property sold at auction. Thus ceased operations of one of the most significant printers of the colonial era.

It goes without saying that the War of Independence was very challenging for the Amish. They were few in number, with small clusters of families often separated by great distance. A single bishop frequently had to travel between the various settlements to perform marriages, communion, and serve the needs of the members. Although most held firm to their nonresistance beliefs, their ranks were thinned before, during and after the war by the proselytizing efforts of other religious groups. As historian John A. Hostetler noted in his book “Amish Society,” “To the Amish community the Revolutionary War was more disruptive than the assaults of the Indians. Had the early Amish not relocated in order to solve their problems, such as finding stability and unanimity in church discipline, and leaders who were committed to Amish principles, it is doubtful that they would have survived at all. The early settlements are illustrative not of failure, but of the trial-and-error process integral to ongoing community building.”

Thus, as the Revolutionary War came to an end and relative stability returned, the Amish once again began their search for new opportunities, not only economic, but also to preserve their faith and heritage.  The ongoing tension between the “Old Order” and the adjustments necessary for daily life and survival of the church would often result in contentious discussion about what it means to be “Amish” and separate from the world, sometimes resulting in divisions between various groups of these Swiss Anabaptist descendants. 

This desire for religious survival and economic opportunities led a number of the Amish to migrate westward to Ohio, the subject of our next article.

The Geauga Amish Historical Library is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation, located at 15240 Shedd Road, Middlefield.  We can be contacted by calling 440-682-0606 or sending me an email at
GAHL@windstream.net

John is a life-long and fourth generation Geauga County resident.  As a child, he used to enjoy listening to his Amish grandparents tell stories about their ancestors, which led to an interest in genealogy and history in general, as well as a special appreciation for the story of the Amish.  After years of collecting books, documents and artifacts relating to Amish history, and associating with those of like interest, it gives John special joy to be part of the Geauga Amish Historical Library.

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