On the Common Roots of Pennsylvanian and Hungarian Anabaptism

The history of 17th and 18th century Anabaptism provides a unique link between the religious and cultural histories of the United States and Hungary. The common roots and shared traits of American and Hungarian Anabaptism, however, have received little scholarly attention in either country – except for isolated references in somewhat esoteric journals such as the Mennonite Quarterly Review or in Hungarian books on pottery and ceramics. Hence, in this essay I aim to shed some light on the Anabaptist connection, as it is much more than a marginal cultural oddity. The survival of the Amish in the United States and the extinction of the Habán communities in Hungary exemplify the different possibilities for the conservation of traditions in these two cultures. Thus, studying them entails breaking out from the domains of ethnography or religious history. These groups offer lessons about retaining values in our modern world, and teaching us, as John A. Hostetler, author of several definitive works on the American Anabaptists, observed, “a different form of modernity”.1


In 16th century Europe, Anabaptism belonged to the most common forms of Protestant radicalism. In an attempt to reform the reformers, the Anabaptists, who lived under no centralised structure and had no single theological leader, rejected the concepts of a united church and state as well as the practice of infant baptism held by the reform movements of both Luther and Calvin. Sydney E. Ahlstrom characterises the Anabaptists by their “widely separated yet interrelated efforts to restore or revive the primitive Church according to the biblical patterns”.2 Their basic tenets include the baptism of adult believers, the complete separation of church and state, the centrality of the Bible, non-resistance to evil, and discipleship; that is, following the example of Jesus. The name “Anabaptist” (or Wiederträufer) was first applied to them as a pejorative label, as re-baptising was condemned at the time. Not considering their practice rebaptism, they themselves refused this name; instead, they preferred to call themselves just by the name of Brüder (brethren) in German-speaking areas and Doopsgezinde (baptism-minded) in the Low Countries. For its obvious non-conformism, the movement has also been called the Radical Reformation or the Third Reformation. Indeed, as J. Denny Weaver points out, “the Anabaptists clearly were no longer Roman Catholic, neither did they fit comfortably with the multifaceted Protestant camp”, but were “outcasts from both these great traditions”.3 This separation from other religious groups of the Reformation and indeed from the rest of society was one of their earliest and most familiar experiences. Not embracing the compromise of Jesus to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s” (Luke 20: 25), they openly rejected any cooperation with earthly powers, taxpaying included.

European Anabaptism was comprised of three groups: the Dutch Mennonites (the followers of Menno Simons), the “Austrian Brethren” or Hutterites (the followers of Jacob Hutter of Innsbruck), and the “Swiss Brethren” later to be called the Amish (originally the followers of Jacob Amman). Each of these groups lived in a particular kind of diaspora, making up non-territorial “little commonwealths”. They were united primarily through their respect of old ways and their insistence on remaining “strangers” in every country and through the ages. They became known as an archaic and segregated people, conserving their most radical ideals in environments they were completely separate from. As #4 of the Schleitheim Articles, the Constitution of the Swiss Brethren puts it, “[w]e have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and wickedness which the devil has planted in the world”.4


We know a great deal about the American Anabaptists. Predominantly, Amish and Mennonite families arrived in the 1680s, not by accident to the “Keystone State” of American religious tolerance, Pennsylvania, where they acquired the name “Pennsylvania Dutch” (as the German-speaking Anabaptists were called). They set up the first permanent Mennonite settlement in 1683 in Germantown, todayasuburbofPhiladelphia.Anabaptistimmigrationpeakedtwiceinthe next two centuries: once between the years of 1727 and 1770 and again between 1815 and 1860. In the 18th century especially, the Swiss Brethren flocked to Pennsylvania; in 1737 the first “Amish ship”, Charming Nancy, brought a whole Anabaptist congregation over. By 1710 Swiss Mennonites had already bought ten acres of land in Lancaster County from William Penn, but several other settlements were formed during the colonial period. In the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the European Anabaptists arrived from Alsace, Lorraine, Bavaria, Waldeck, Hesse-Darmstadt, and the Palatinate, settling in various states such as Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, New York, and Maryland. The Hutterites arrived only in the late-19th century after making a Central- and East-European detour, via Transylvania and Russia, settling in eastern South Dakota and Canada. The family names of today’s Hutterites go back, as Ahlstrom claims, “chiefly to the Lutherans who joined them in Transylvania”.5 Today substantial Mennonite and Amish groups live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, but smaller communities are also scattered around the US; the Hutterite communities are primarily concentrated in the Dakotas and Montana (as well as in Manitoba and Alberta in Canada). Mennonites and the Amish often live in one colony or in adjacent settlements. Their total number is over 100,000, their population having doubled since the 1950s.

Over a century before the Dutch Mennonites and the Swiss Brethren arrived in America, substantial groups of the Austrian Hutterites had fled to Moravia after 1526 to escape persecution in the wake of the crushed insurrection led by Thomas Müntzer. They migrated in two directions, finding in either case refuge in Hungary. The less radical group went to Nikolsburg, Moravia, and on to the Northern Hungarian town of Nagylévárd, to set up what later were to be called the Habán communities. The more radical community travelled towards the Tyrolean and Carinthian region, soon reaching Western Hungary and settling in Sopron, Léka, Németkeresztúr, Sárvár, and Fraknó. These western groups soon dissolved; after suffering forced (re)Catholicisation, they joined the group already in Nagylévárd, where they lived in relative peace until the 1750s.

In the 1620s, growing persecution in Moravia led the Moravian group of Hutterites to move to Transylvania which was known for its religious tolerance. The group were of the belief that Transylvania was “an outpost under Turkish supervision”, and were wary about accepting the request of Prince Gábor Bethlen. However, as Friedmann in his research note indicates, their fears proved to be unfounded.

By a strange twist of fate it was to develop otherwise. What had been thought of as the very centre of Hutterite life, namely Slovakia, was finally to succumb to the attack of the intensified Counter-Reformation of the 18th century. And what was considered a hopeless branch out there almost in the Orient was miraculously saved, in face of tremendous odds, by the fusion of the old Hutterites [. . .] with Lutheran newcomers from Carinthia who brought about a complete revival and salvation of Hutterianism as a whole. Thus the story of the transmigration into Transylvania gets a new significance.6

In reality, Transylvania was far from being a “hopeless branch in the Orient”. Prince Gábor Bethlen has been praised by both contemporaries and later generations for his extraordinary tolerance in matters of faith. A Protestant himself, he recalled to Transylvania the Jesuits who had been expelled previously, financed the Jesuit György Káldi’s Bible translation project, gave autonomy (pontifical administration) to the Catholics as well as to the Orthodox Romanians, while at the same time lifting certain restrictions for the Romanian Orthodox and Jewish communities of Transylvania. As part of this enlightened policy of openness, Bethlen invited the Hutterite group of Anabaptists who were facing severe persecution in Moravia to settle in Transylvania.7

Transylvania was a pioneer in the implementation of the doctrine of religious tolerance in Europe. As early as 1557, the famous Convention of Torda had declared free practice of religion. Later in 1564, the same Convention recognised both Lutheran and Calvinist Churches, while in 1571 it also admitted as equals the Unitarian community. Transylvania’s Constitution at this time was based on the equality and freedom of three nations (Hungarians, Székelys or Seklers, and Saxons) and four religions (Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Unitarian). Thus a balance of power was achieved, that was considered a prerequisite for the internal peace of this multi-nation and multicultural land. Given the tolerant atmosphere in Transylvania, the records unsurprisingly are unanimous about the success of the transmigration of the Moravian Anabaptists, which resulted in the salvation of Hutterianism. Prince Bethlen and his Chancellor, the Sabbatarian Simon Péchy, granted them full exemption from taxes “as the expression of [Bethlen’s] real benevolence and special hospitality [. . .] and in order that they be of full use to this kingdom and find a free and peaceful home here”, as the 1625 patent reads.8 As the persecution in Moravia persisted, more groups joined the transmigrants in Alvinc, while others settled in Hungary, where they were also made welcome. The enlightened Count Ferenc Batthyány II settled many of them on his estates in Németújvár in Western Hungary,György Rákóczi also invited them to Sárospatak, while they built settlements as well in other parts of the country; Dávidháza is one example. In the course of time, however – as the various waves of the Counter-Reformation took place – Anabaptism gradually disappeared from Hungary. Both the Sárospatak and Alvinc groups suffered from the forced Catholicisation that had swept through Europe, especially affecting the countries under Habsburg rule. The Hungarian Anabaptists were given two options: either to Catholicise or leave within 48 hours. Some did indeed Catholicise while others left for Eger (a Hungarian town under Turkish rule at the time). In 1774 a small splinter group migrated to Moldavia, and when in 1777 Russian troops invaded this territory, they went on to Russia. They survived there until the 1870s when their exemption from the general draft was withdrawn. Being committed pacifists, they decided to move on to South Dakota, which some again left during and after the First World War for Canada.


Given its protestantroots,European and American Anabaptists have been, as Hostetler puts it, “a church, a community, a spiritual union, a conservative branch of Christianity, a religion, a community whose members practise simple and austere living, a familistic entrepreneuring system, and an adaptive human community”.9 The fact that they live in little commonwealths presupposes a certain unity of ideas and customs between communities living apart from each other. Their distinctiveness seems to be uniform and apparent to anyone who has visited the surviving communities or come into contact with their members: Amish farms in Pennsylvania, families waiting at Iowa Greyhound stations, or Mennonite stores in Illinois. Hostetler explains that the uniform plain clothes are both symbols of “protest to the proud and disobedient world” and “symbols of unity and community”.10

The Anabaptists have always lived in homogeneous communities, so-called “folk societies” governed by conventionalised ways. There is a strong sense of communality, of “we-ness” in such Gemeinschaft-like societies based on the brotherhood of equals. The American stories are well known: even today, after floods, earthquakes, or tornadoes far-away Amish communities travel great distances in order to help; Mennonite communities frequently join in solidarity to build barns in a few days for newly-weds; funerals provide occasions for brethren to gather and express that sense of “we-ness”. This solidarity is only strengthened by the fact that the Amish see themselves in Biblical terms as not being of this world but merely passing through as “strangers and pilgrims” (I Pet. 2:9), as God’s chosen people, “an holy nation, a peculiar people”(IPet.2:9). Religion and custom together define this way of life. Tradition is valued over innovation as the old ways of ancient customs and small-scale technologies are retained against change and modernisation. Out of insistence on the viability of the old and on self-sufficiency, neither electricity nor the automobile is allowed on Amish settlements. Pesticides are not permitted. Anyone who has visited Mennonite or Amish settlements can testify that human habitation and landscape appear to be in harmony there. “The Amish”, Hostetler says, “do not seek to master nature or to work against the elements, but try to work with them”.11

This is a very important non-mainstream-Judeo-Christian trait, one that underlines the separateness of the Amish.

The community is based on the family, which is primarily a productive (and not a consuming) unit. A congregation is made up of between 30–40 families; this is the number of people, they insist, one can know by name and who can participate in communal activities. This community is “so small”, Robert Redfield points out, “that either it itself is the unit of personal observation or else, being somewhat larger and yet homogeneous, it provides in some part of it a unit of personal observation fully representative of the whole”.12 Not only is the size of an Amish community of human scale, so is the way of measuring this size: as a rule, it is not individuals but households that are counted in such Gemeinschaft-like communities. However, their prosperity, “peculiar” customs, and separate ways have produced considerable tensions with their neighbours. The subversive and truly protesting nature of this Protestant sect continually tests America’s ideals of religious freedom. In the First World War, for example, “the Mennonites produced more conscientious objectors than other sects”, which, as Martin E. Marty points out, provoked “public scorn”.13 In 1972 they won a major victory against the US government, as they were finally allowed to run their own schools. They won this battle too without aggression, quietly and inoffensively, in tune with their name, the Stillen am Lande (the “quiet in the land”).

Through the years, the American Anabaptists have been primarily farmers, but also craftsmen, as they had to build their own houses, and make their own furniture and utensils. Mere survival demanded that they excel in craftsmanship since their separation from their environment prevented them from hiring other craftsmen. They themselves became experts of various crafts and trades out of necessity, for there were, as Henry J. Kaufman in his book on Pennsylvanian folk art points out, “such things on the farm as wheel bands to be welded, carpentry of a crude sort to be done, harnesses to be repaired and so on”.14

Their domestic craftsmanship comprised mostly of utilitarian objects of (sgraffito) pottery, glass, metalwork, and cross-stitched needlework, employing motifs (such as the tulip and the peacock) which originated in Central Europe.

All the Gemeinschaft-traits which Hostetler uses to describe the Amish – distinctiveness, smallness of scale, homogeneous culture patterns, and a tendency toward self-sufficiency – hold for the Central European communities as well. In fact, their “we-ness” was seen as so essential that it was used as the name of the only Anabaptist community in the Danube–Carpathian region, the Habáns. The Hungarian word Habán is of Slovak origin, deriving from the German haushaben, meaning “household”, “estate”, “(Moravian) Anabaptist settlement”.

Their communities were self-contained colonies based on the principle of common property and the communality of goods. As homogeneous societies, they were structured according to uniform principles of separation. The two- and three- storey houses were built by the Habán settlers themselves on the lands received from the landlords, with high brick walls separating the haushaben community from the neighbouring houses. A contract, signed by the landlord and the eldest man in the community (Brüder Eltösten), was drafted each year, in which the landlord guaranteed their safety, well-being, and freedom to leave if necessary. They were also allowed to have their own teacher (priest), cobbler, weaver, tailor, and schoolmaster. An important article of the contract made it clear that the landlord had no power of jurisdiction over them; instead, the brethren were granted the very special privilege to exercise the collective’s own jurisdiction. They were known to have good doctors, surgeons, and barbers. For example, Susanne Caroline, the first wife of Gábor Bethlen, was treated by a Hutterite barber-surgeon in Kassa (or Kaschau; today Košice), who supposedly saved her life.

The Habán communities of Hungary were known for their pottery and ceramics, which can still be found in antique stores today. They became masters of pottery and ceramics15 for the simple reason that, apart from around Sárospatak in the 1650s, where they had their own vineyards to cultivate, the Habáns of Hungary did not own land. The crafts they excelled in were in fact identical to those of the American Anabaptists: glass, pottery, ceramics, wrought iron, and carved wood objects. The Habán centres for pottery and ceramics were in Holics in Northern Hungary and Alvinc in Transylvania, as well as in Szobotist, Nagylévárd, Modor, Jókő, and Trencsén. Each craft and trade was organised communally: they purchased their tools and raw materials (mud, clay, wool, dye, paint, leather, wood) in a wholesale manner and distributed their goods in a similar superbly organised way. Within this communal and wholesale arrangement they were not affected by periodic economic crises.

By the mid-18th century, Anabaptism as a religion had disappeared in Central Europe. Even as Catholics, the Habáns continued to live in haushaben and Gemeinschaft-like communities for more than 150 years afterwards. They practised communal living until the late 19th century, when the group finally became extinct, leaving behind a myth of secrecy and mystery, as well as some beautiful pieces of pottery, almost identical in (sgraffito) technique and motif (tulip and peacock, for example) to those of the Amish and Mennonites in America.

What has kept the Anabaptist colonies together in the United States? Is it some basic affinity and inner need for living in small communities? Is it a particular combination of land and climate familiar from Europe? Why have they so overwhelmingly accepted the traditions and customs handed down by their forefathers? Have they not been courageous or imaginative enough to leave the past and introduce new norms? Or is it that they have simply had no alternatives?

When several years ago I spent some days in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I had the occasion of speaking to a number of Amish men and women. I came to realise that things were simpler than they seemed: theirs was a good life, and the Amish knew it. They valued their principles and knew that the key for their survival lay in the conservation of a life based on family farming. They believed that the more conservative a community, the stronger its guaranteed survival. They have no use for innovation; the old ways have proved to be good for so many centuries that change does not make sense. “The old is the best and the new is of the devil”, as their saying goes. But what if somebody wants to go to college, I asked, or if a woman falls in love with an outsider? No, they smiled, it does not happen. “You don’t want to be your own gravedigger”, they replied.

Of course, some Anabaptists, those of the old continent, were capable of adapting to change when it was unavoidable. In Europe, where land was not in abundance and could not be “had for the taking”, the Habáns were able to switch from agriculture to various trades and crafts – if their skills as craftsmen were required and valued. Here lies the essential question: did the more adaptable group bring about its own downfall? Why could the Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite communities survive in the United States for hundreds of years after the same Anabaptist communities dissolved in Central and Eastern Europe?

Most probably, since the Anabaptists conducted their lives in identical or at least similar ways on the two continents, the answer lies less within Anabaptism itself. As agents of stability, they kept their religious distinctiveness and customs, and ways of everyday living in a uniformly conservative way over the centuries. Their “little commonwealths” consisted of colonies that were cut off from non-Anabaptists (whose assimilating influence they successfully resisted) but tied to one another. The Gemeinschaft-spirit which permeated the communities created a very strong group identity. Whether farming in Pennsylvania or making ceramics in Transylvania, their lives were of a human scale, with large families for a haushaben household, and with extended family members and members of the congregation forming “society” as a whole.

But could the American Anabaptists and the Habáns disregard the outside world to the same degree? Survival probably does not only depend on the determination of the separate community to continue being cut off from the society it is surrounded with, but also on the willingness of the outside world to remain outside. The American social context was more favourable: here, the separation of church and state has been guaranteed and enforced by the US Constitution for over 200 years. In Hungary, however, a special relation of church and state has survived into quite recent times (as evidenced by the state overseeing church appointments during the years of communism and state subsidies to the churches in post-communist times). Here the self-sufficiency and self-reliance of small alternative churches was not assisted by tax benefits, for example.

Finally, I would like to point to another cluster of reasons for the disappearance of Anabaptism in Hungary. The persecution and assimilation of the Anabaptists is, I would suggest, mistakenly described as religious persecution. For under the cover of religion, Anabaptism was really a social movement that advocated some very radical and daring principles. They tested the tolerance of their neighbours through their social, not religious, convictions. To me, here lie the major differences between tolerance as understood and practised by the two societies. While the United States can boast a rich history of communal and alternative living (from Brook Farm and the Quakers, Shakers to the Oneida communities), such attempts had, or would have had, very different meanings in a country under foreign rule. Struggles for national freedom in Hungary preceded struggles for individual freedom in the national psyche (and, for that matter, were not realised for centuries). Moreover, while in the United States pacifism has been officially recognised in the form of conscientious objector status since the Civil War, no such alternatives have been tolerated in Hungary (unlike in other parts of Europe, where the doctrine of conscientious objection was developed by the Mennonites as early as the 16th and 17th centuries). For such political and cultural reasons, the centralised powers of Hungarian society were unable to tolerate a small, self-sufficient social group that was founded on ideas of cultural separation and resisted assimilation, while at the same time accumulated some wealth and attained some measure of prosperity.

In this region this communal yet individualistic spirit – that of being united in separation – was to find other outlets than religion or lifestyle: namely, Hungarian culture, the arts and sciences.


1 John Hostetler, Amish Society. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. p. 12.

2 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972. p. 82.

3 J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist. The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald P, 1987. p. 18.

4 See Hostetler, p. 29.

5 p. 235.

6 Robert Friedmann, “A Newly Discovered Source on the Transmigration of the Hutterites to Transylvania, 1621–1623”. The Mennonite Quarterly Review X (1961): 309–314. p. 310.

7 See Péter Hanák, ed., One Thousand Years. A Concise History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina, 1988. p. 59.

8 Imre Katona, Habán művészeti emlékek Magyarországon (Habán artefacts in Hungary). Budapest: Múzsák, n.d. p. 16.

9 p. 14.

10 p. 234.

11 p. 10.

12 Robert Redfield, The Little Community. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955. p. 4.

13 Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land. 500 Years of Religion in America. Middlesex: Penguin, 1985. p. 365.

14 Henry J. Kaufman, Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art. New York: Dover, 1964. p. 11.

15 They also had their famous tinsmiths and iron smiths, glaziers, and carpenters, operated mills and made wine.

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