A place to live,
farm, worship, and raise families
Amish began settling
in LaGrange, Elkhart counties in 1840
By DAVID BAINBRIDGE
LAGRANGE - The history of the Amish religion in LaGrange
County can be traced back to 1840.
According to information provided by Menno-Hof, a Shipshewana
museum focusing on Amish and other Anabaptist faiths, four Amish
men set out from Somerset County, Pa., in that year in search
of a new settlement for themselves and their families.
They started by traveling to Pittsburgh, Pa., where they boarded
a boat on the Ohio River, headed for Cairo, Ill.
From Cairo, the foursome journeyed up the Mississippi to the
state of Iowa, which they had thought was the most likely final
destination for and eventual home of the new community they were
They reportedly liked Iowa, but decided to look at farmland
which they heard was opening up in Indiana as well on their return
Back up the Mississippi they went, and in the small town of
Chicago they boarded a boat bound for the St. Joseph River of
far northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
Traveling along the St. Joseph, and then some distance on
foot, the little group finally arrived in Goshen.
They explored Goshen and the surrounding area and were reportedly
impressed with two major details which eventually made them decide
that this northeastern corner of Indiana - and not Iowa - was
where they wanted to live, farm, worship, and raise their families.
The four Amish men were impressed with the friendly, receptive,
non-prejudicial settlers in the area, and with the big trees
which grew in abundance throughout the area. The big trees, they
correctly believed, was indicative of good farming soil. They
reportedly decided even before they headed back to Pennsylvania
that this would be their future home.
In 1841, the four Amish men and their families, a total of
24 people, set out from Somerset County for Indiana in four covered
wagons and three spring wagons.
They left on June 3 and, with a planned one-week layover spent
visiting in Holmes County, Ohio, they arrived in Goshen on June
The Amish pioneers reportedly discovered that the prime prairie
land was too expensive for them, so they settled for areas with
a bit more woods to them. Two of these first Amish settlers bought
land east of Goshen, while the other two settled in western LaGrange
County, just east of Middlebury and the county line.
More Amish families came in October, and this is when the
first recorded worship service was held.
The first Amish child in Indiana was born Feb. 2, 1842, and
a little over a month later, on Easter Day, March 27, the first
official congregational service was held. Eight more families
moved to the area later that spring.
The next year, 1843, saw the Amish families in the area choose
their first bishop.
In 1845 the first of several splits occurred in the Amish
community, with the groups from Pennsylvania and Ohio unable
to agree on rules and regulations.
Harmony was restored in 1847, but a permanent split happened
less than a decade later, in 1854. At this point, the group desiring
change became known as the Amish Mennonites, while those resisting
change eventually became known as the Old Order Amish Church,
although that term was not generally used until about 1870.
According to the writings of conservative LaGrange County
Amishman John "Hansi" E. Borntreger, as quoted in "A
History of the Amish," a 1992 book by Steven M. Nolt, "Most
of the church members were in harmony with their (conservative)
ministers, but several preachers ... and part of the church ...
had much to say in opposition, causing the faithful ones much
concern and grief." It was Borntreger's opinion at the time
of the split that the more liberal Elkhart group had strayed
from Biblical foundations and had "started a new church
according to their own opinions."
The two groups split over four major points, and the Old Order
Amish Church eventually adopted these points into their lifestyle
and belief system. These points involved restrictions against:
· Wearing of fashionable clothes
· Serving in public office
· Operating a commercial business
· Seeking wisdom of the world (higher education).
The next split in the Amish culture came in 1928 and centered
around evangelism and the use of modern conveniences such as
the automobile and electricity. Those who chose to cling to Anabaptist
teachings but use some modern conveniences came to be known as
Another challenge to Amish ideals - especially among younger
Amish men - came during drafts in the two world wars. During
World War I, many conscientious objectors were imprisoned or
otherwise abused. By 1939, however, the American Civilian Public
Service (CPS) program offered peaceful draft alternatives. Many
young Amish men participated in Mennonite-run CPS camps.
Before his death in 1958, Bishop Eli J. Bontrager of LaGrange
County reportedly made a special effort to visit every Amish
CPS man. Nolt writes that "criss-crossing the country, Bontrager
once traveled more than 16,000 miles (mostly by rail) in only
In the early 1970s, Amish culture changed in two significant
The first change happened when it became law that a slow-moving
vehicle emblem had to be attached to horse-drawn buggies, the
primary form of transportation for the Amish.
The second change came with a 1972 Supreme Court decision
which allowed the Amish to take their children out of school
after the eighth grade.
The justices concurred that "there can be no assumption
that today's majority is right and the Amish are wrong. A way
of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights
or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different."
As part of the decision, U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger
wrote that "Amish objection to formal education beyond the
eighth grade is firmly grounded in ... central religious concepts,"
and he described the Amish way of life as emphasizing "learning-through-doing;
a life of goodness, rather than a life of intellect; wisdom,
rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than
competition; and separation, rather than integration with contemporary