“fill Yourself Up, Clean Your Plate”


Outstanding among these are the Amish, who still wear black hats and long beards, drive their buggies along Lancaster County roads, and fasten their outer clothes with hooks instead of with buttons, which were associated with the nobility and the military. Their ancestors first began to come to southeastern Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century. Conditions in the Palatinate—a province of the Rhineland in Germanyhad been nothing less than dreadful. Beginning with the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, there were persecutions of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, and—most bitterly sometimes—of Protestants by Protestants. Toward the end of the century, an especially vindictive army from France invaded the Palatinate and took pains to cut down the fruit trees, dig up the vineyards, burn the farmhouses, and turn the people out in the dead of winter. Their sufferings were observed with sympathy by William Penn, who was planning a commonwealth in the New World devoted to religious liberty—and peace. He circulated his prospectus throughout the Rhineland and twice visited the region in person to invite its distressed survivors to join him. The Mennonites—followers of Menno Simons, an early sixteenth-century religious reformerwere the first to accept. In 1683, at German town, near Philadelphia, they made the first German settlement in America.

The Mennonites were Plain People, members of the radical wing of the Reformation which disavowed all established churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, sought to recover the simplicity of New Testament Christianity, practiced pacifism, and, to emphasize their separateness from the world, dressed in plain, dark clothes. They were, of course, pleased that their new Quaker neighbors also “dressed plain,” were pacifists, and held religious views not unlike their own. Other Mennonites soon came, and other Plain People of various kinds—the Dunkards, or Brethren, who baptized by total immersion three times; Moravians from Bohemia, followers of John Huss, who was burned at the stake in 1415; and a small group called Schwenkfelders, who like the Moravians had been persecuted for centuries, driven from one country to another across the map of Europe.

They all arrived hungry, if only from the long sea voyage. The Schwenkfelders, when their ship dropped anchor in 1734 near New Castle, Delaware, obtained their first fresh water in months, along with apples and fresh bread. They still commemorate this occasion each September, sharing, after church service, a meal of the same basic ingredients—apple butter, fresh bread, butter, and water, “spiced,” as a Quaker observer noted, “with cheerful talk.”

In one way or another food became a sort of religious symbol with all of the Plain People. After worship, the Dunkards held love feasts, suppers at which the main dish was a lamb stew commemorating the paschal lamb. The House Amish, fundamentalist Mennonites who felt their brethren were backsliding, held their services in each other’s homes and followed them with a memorable dinner for all. The Moravians, at Bethlehem, became famous for their baking. Their delicate love leasts consisted of rolls and a beverage, served in church and shared in a spirit of devotion and brotherhood.

The Plain People were followed to America in the early eighteenth century by many of the “church people,” members of the Reformed and Lutheran churches, with some Catholics, too, who had remained behind in the Rhineland. (These, of course, were the “gay” or “fancy” Dutch, and their descendants in southeastern Pennsylvania came to outnumber the “plain” Dutch by ten to one.)

Conditions in the Palatinate had not much improved. In the terrible winter of 1709, it was so cold that birds allegedly froze in the air, and wild beasts, in the forest. Men looked into each other’s eyes, one historian reported, and said, “Let us go to America; and if we perish, we perish.” Pennsylvania, however, was not their original destination. Queen Anne of England invited the Lutherans and Reformed to go to New York, which the English had taken over from Holland.

This frightfully mismanaged project provided the gay Dutch with a legend of suffering almost equal to anything the Plain People had known. On ship board, with inadequate food and no sanitation and no light or air below decks, they died by the hundreds. By the time they reached New York Harbor, typhus had broken out. They were installed in tents on Governors Island, where hundreds more died of disease and as the result of the rigors of the voyage. The survivors were sent up the Hudson, told to build their own villages, and fed salty meat and short rations of bread. A minister among them wrote home that “they boil grass and ye children eat the leaves of the trees.” When a letter of invitation reached them from Pennsylvania, one hardy band accepted. After that the church people emigrated from the Rhineland direct to Pennsylvania.