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 reinforced a theology of nonconformity that has been central to Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren identity ever since.

The most radical journey

Anabaptists have always assumed that following Christ is a decision with life-changing consequences. Unlike most churchly folk, they did not believe infant baptism made one a Christian. Rather, they taught, each person must actively accept Christ's invitation to a life of discipleship. As Peter, James, and John discovered when they dropped their nets by the Sea of Galilee, following Jesus is a conscious decision to embark on a journey of faith that leads to a new way of life. The decision to follow Jesus has profound consequences—it is not child's play. Indeed, it could even cost you your life.

Disciples of Jesus, the Anabaptists believed, are called to let go of old habits and assumptions in order to reshape their entire lives around the model of Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus frequently reminded his followers of the radical nature of the Kingdom he was inaugurating. "You have heard it said," Jesus claimed repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount, "but I say unto you …"

In his Kingdom it is not the rich and the powerful who will be blessed, but the poor, the meek, the gentle, the persecuted, and the peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-10). In his Kingdom, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Mark 9:35); anyone who wants to save their life must be prepared to lose it (Mark 8:35). Here, disciples are called to love their enemies, to do good to those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44), and to repay evil with good (Romans 12:21). Jesus turned the assumptions of the world upside-down. He invited his followers to choose a narrow path (Matthew 7:14) that was bound to be misunderstood by the world and arouse hostility from those in power.

Anabaptists believed that Jesus' disciples do not take that journey alone—in fact, that it is possible only within the context of a community of believers. This community was not so much an institution as it was an alternative society whose life reflects, albeit imperfectly, the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated. In their understanding, Christian faith always has a concrete, collective social form that is visibly distinct from the world around. Thus, the true church would be characterized by such radical practices as economic sharing, mutual accountability (discipline), and a love for others that extended to even the enemy. "Love not the world," 1 John 2:15 instructs, "or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."

The Anabaptist Brotherly Union of 1527—sometimes called the "Schleitheim Confession"—expressed this conviction with simple clarity: "Truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who have come out of the world, God's temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other" (Article IV). The true church is therefore a light on the hill, shining in a world of darkness, inviting those who are lost to find their way to refuge.

The cost of being different

Although martyrdom had largely ceased by the end of the 16th century, descendants of the Anabaptists continued to experience other forms of persecution. Mennonites in the Netherlands, for example, could not proselytize and were forced to meet in "hidden" churches. In the territories of southwest Germany, Mennonites had to pay a special "recognition tax," they could not enter the professions, and they generally could not own property. And the Brethren met with hostility from state church authorities from their beginnings in 1708.

This situation changed dramatically in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries as waves of Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren began to migrate to the United States and Canada. Lured by the promise of cheap land, economic opportunities, and religious freedoms, descendants of the Anabaptists gradually established flourishing communities. Here they were free to build their own meetinghouses and to practice their faith on the same footing as their Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed neighbors.

No longer persecuted by a hostile world, Anabaptist groups in America were now challenged to define the boundaries between the church and world in a more self-conscious way. Although not all groups agreed on precisely where those boundaries should be drawn, several themes emerged. Most Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren groups, for example, emphasized the virtue of Christian humility—expressed in simple speech, reticence to self-promote, and reluctance to define Christian faith in the sharp-edged language of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Most groups also developed standards of dress—emphasizing simplicity, modesty, and uniformity—as a way of reinforcing the boundaries of group identity. Over time, the Amish maintained these visible markers of nonconformity more rigorously than did the Mennonites and Brethren. But all three groups struggled throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to retain a clear sense of separation from the world.

The principle of nonconformity has been tested most sharply during times of war. Mennonites and Amish have been especially hesitant to serve in the armed forces or to support the war effort, in the conviction that Christians are to demonstrate God's gracious and generous love to all people.

At times, hostility toward nonresistant Christians has spilled over into outright violence against them, especially during World Wars I and II. In the summer of 1917, my grandfather was ordered to appear at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, for basic training. Like others from his Mennonite community, he reported to camp but refused to wear a uniform or participate in military training exercises. One night, he and several other men were awakened, given shovels, and told to dig their own graves in preparation for their executions at sunrise. Other friends told of being forced into cold showers and then surrounded by men who scrubbed their skin raw with heavy brooms. Some 60 years later, he could vividly recall the scornful taunts directed at him: coward, slacker, traitor, yellow-bellied parasite.

The persistent challenge

The principle of nonconformity has occasionally been problematic for Anabaptist groups in other ways as well. Sometimes an earnest desire for ethical consistency can become legalistic and oppressive. Disagreements within the fellowship over the appropriate boundary lines between the church and the world have frequently led to divisions within Anabaptist groups, so that the Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren are all sub-divided into smaller groups, some of whom refuse to have fellowship with others. At times, a desire to be "separated from the world" has overshadowed the higher ideal of being "separated unto God."

Despite these challenges, the Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren continue to regard nonconformity as an important—indeed, inevitable—expression of their Christian faith. For the Amish, conscious restrictions on dress, transportation, and technology bear visible witness to their conviction that followers of Jesus walk a different path. Contemporary Mennonites and Brethren, by contrast, are more likely to express nonconformity in their commitment to simple living, voluntary service, peacemaking, and a faith perspective that challenges the modern tendencies toward individualism, nationalism, and cultural conformity.

Though nonconformity takes many different expressions among Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren today, all share a common conviction that Christian faith must find tangible expression in daily life. Each regards the voluntary church as a countercultural alternative to modern secularism; and each testifies to the radical power of Christ's love as an active, transformative reality in a broken and needy world.

John D. Roth is professor of history and editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review at Goshen College, Indiana.