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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Pennsylvania's Colonial Plain People: Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites

After my post last month, which touched on Quaker disownment, one reader mentioned how it seemed similar to shunning, a practice most commonly seen in Anabaptist (primarily Old Order Amish and some Mennonite) communities. So I thought this month I’d talk some about these plain communities, their similarities, and their differences during Pennsylvania’s colonial times.


Friends (Quakers) first came to America in 1655. The first two settlers were women, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, from Barbados. The Puritans persecuted and imprisoned them, but a local man, Nicholas Upsall, was converted to Quakerism by them and helped establish the first Monthly Meeting of Friends in Massachusetts. Twenty years later, Quakers settled in New Jersey, and with William Penn’s holy experiment, throngs of Quakers who were being persecuted by the crown in England immigrated to America.

Like the Friends, the Amish and Mennonites also came to America fleeing persecution due to their religious beliefs. The first group, Northern German Mennonites, arrived in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia) in 1683, and a much larger migration (this time from Switzerland and Southern Germany) began in 1707, also with Pennsylvania as their destination. The Amish, a more conservative sect who broke away from the Mennonites in 1693, began coming to America in the early eighteenth century.


Friends came primarily from England, so they spoke English. That said, they employed “plain speech”—using thee, thou, thy, and thine, as well as some other speech differences, as a denial of any caste system in human interactions. While plain speech is used much less now, some Friends still speak it while interacting with other Quakers.

Amish and Mennonites generally spoke German, as well as a dialect of it called Pennsylvania Deitsch (commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch now). Pennsylvania Dutch is still used by Old Order Amish people, as well as by many in the Old Order and conservative Mennonite communities.


In colonial times, Quakers didn’t have a prescribed dress. However, they did clothe themselves differently from those around them. During the eighteenth century, they tended to wear clothing that had been in fashion ten to fifteen years prior, mainly due to their frugality. They dressed well (many were quite wealthy), took care of their clothing, and wore it for as long as it lasted. As well, adornments (of which there were many in high society) were discouraged. Some Friends were more “plain” than others, and in the nineteenth century the dress became more distinct. Plain dress among Quakers is fairly uncommon now, although there are some Friends in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia who have taken up dressing plainly again (as well as using plain speech regularly).

Not much description is given of colonial-era Amish and Mennonite clothing, although author Daniel Rupp, in his book on Lancaster County, reported that in 1727, “a number of Germans, peculiar in their dress” had settled in the county. Of course, no specifics on this peculiar dress are given. Clearly, they dressed differently from those around them, but that could mean several things. We know they eschewed adornments, like the Quakers, and that by the nineteenth century, dress became prescribed. Today, the Old Order Amish follow (fairly) strict dress codes that differ some by community, and the Old Order and more conservative Mennonite groups do as well.


Christianity: Colonial Quakers were Christians. They believed in the deity of Christ, and that their salvation came only through Him. As well, they gave great attention to the “Inner Light” (God’s presence within a person), a belief that is unique to Friends. While not all Friends are Christians today, Quakers still hold fast to their belief in the Inner Light.

Amish and Mennonites were and are Christians as well. They believe in the deity of Christ, although some of the most conservative groups don’t believe in assurance of salvation. They definitely have never espoused the Inner Light, and some sects would consider it blasphemous.

Worship Services: The Inner Light resulted in Friends’ “meeting for worship,” which was quite different from Amish and Mennonite church services (or any other Christian service, really). During meeting, Friends sat in silence—praying, meditating on Scripture, and listening for the Inner Light—then stood up and speak if so led. These meetings often went on for hours during colonial times. While the earliest meetings were held in Friends’ homes, meetinghouses were generally built soon after families settled in an area.

Amish and Mennonites differ among themselves on worship. The Old Order Amish have never had meetinghouses, instead meeting in members’ homes. Historically and currently, Old Order and conservative Mennonites meet in meetinghouses, and hold services of up to three hours. (Side note: their wooden benches are equally as uncomfortable as Quaker wooden benches ).

Nonresistance: Drawing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Friends, Amish, and Mennonites hold nonresistance as a stalwart tenet. This includes not fighting in or contributing to war in any way, turning the other cheek, and rejecting capital punishment, among other things. For this reason, Pennsylvania had no militia until the 1750s. Somewhat connected, all groups also contributed to the care of the less fortunate. The Amish have always tended to be more insular in this way, whereas Friends have been very generous in their care of others. Mennonites vary from more insular to very generous, depending on which group they belong to.

Discipline: Friends, Old Order Amish, and Old Order Mennonites (and some conservative Mennonite sects) have historically used some form of discipline on members who step out of bounds. Friends called it disownment, and while it rescinded membership, those who were disowned could still interact with family and friends, attend meeting, etc. The Old Order Amish called it shunning, and a shunned member’s relationship with the family and community was basically completely severed. The Old Order Mennonites called it excommunication, and while it was generally not as severe as shunning, it resulted in much distress.  Disownment is rare among Quakers today, but the Amish and Old Order Mennonites still practice shunning and excommunication respectively.

Three of Pennsylvania’s plain communities—all come to the state as a result of religious persecution—similar and yet different. If you have any other questions, I’d be happy to answer them.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the information on the similarities and differences. Very helpful!

  3. Very interesting. Thank you.


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