The premise of "Amish in the City," a recent TV reality show, is simple. Ask a group of Amish youth to move into a Los Angeles "party house" with some hip urban teenagers and watch what results from the ensuing cultural clash.

The Amish these days have become positively chic—fascinating cultural anomalies in a world obsessed with high-tech gadgetry, marketing hype, and the ever-shifting tastes of fashion. How is it possible that a group who has lived in the United States for nearly two centuries continues to practice a way of life that looks as if it came straight out of the 18th century? Moreover, why would people deliberately choose to dress so oddly or reject the conveniences of the modern world?

The Anabaptists, forerunners of such groups as the Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, emerged out of the yeasty ferment of the Protestant Reformation. Along with most of the Reformers, these "radicals" zealously promoted the principle of Sola Scriptura, and they rejected the authority of the pope and much of traditional Catholic theology. But the Anabaptists' radical interpretation of the New Testament quickly led Luther, Zwingli, and other early Reformation leaders to denounce the movement as a threat to the order of European society. The Anabaptists, for example, insisted that Christians could not swear oaths, or wield the sword, or serve as judges or magistrates. They emphasized a life of daily discipleship that included loving their enemies; and they envisioned the church as a voluntary community, separate from the state and from secular society.

Protestant and Catholic authorities alike responded to these unconventional teachings with imprisonment, torture, and even execution. For the Anabaptists, however, persecution only ...

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