Our Ancestors, both Ackerman and Belsley, share a common heritage for most if not all, were of the Mennonite faith when they came to America. They were also descendants of Swiss families who lived near Berne, a group often referred to as “Berenese,” who were forced to emigrate because of their non-conformist religious beliefs.
The name “Anabaptis” was applied to nearly all the Reformation groups who were not classed either with the Lutheran or Reformed movements. They were so n amed because they did not believe in infant baptism, but believed baptism should occur when mature and upon confession of faith. They were the radical element in that they felt Luther’s or Zwingli’s reforms did not go far enough. Because they despaired of reforming the old church, they sought to build anew on the foundation of scripture literally interpreted. And so, being neither Catholic or Lutheran or Reformed, they were often discriminated against.
Menno Simons, born in the Netherlands, was the most outstanding Anabaptist leader of the low countries in the 16th century, and his followers were know as Mennonites. He aimed to establish a true and Christian apostolic church – on in which the followers would keep themselves pure and clean and keep the world out of the church through church discipline, including using the ban with avoidance. Besides their belief in baptism by confession of faith and commitment to discipleship, they also supported the symbolic view of the sacraments and prohibited taking of oaths because a Christian does not make any special effort to be truthful for he always seeks to live in the highest truth. Since the oath was held to be essential to the existence of the state, their refusal brought them into conflict with the government, and they were forced to move.
Early emigration from Switzerland was to Strasbourg, a university city on the Rhine River, which was more tolerant to new ideas and so became a haven for Anabaptist refugees even though they were not given complete liberty. Some fled to southern Germany and settled in remote areas, frequently moving to escape persecution because of their beliefs. Others spread along either side of the Rhine.
Most principalities in the middle European area were ruled as church-states, and because of the frequent wars the religion in the Rhineland areas often changed, depending upon the religious preference of the current ruler, but the Anabaptists never had equal standing. Sometimes conditions improved but more often they worsened. In spite of punishment, including death sentences the number of Anabaptists grew.
During the Thirty year war (1618-1648) the Platinate was laid waste and nearly depopulated, and so persons who previously had been banished were welcome back to rebuild the devastated land, which then included a portion of present day north Baden located on the eastside of the Rhine, including the cities of Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Sinsheim.
Even so, life was not easy for them. They were good workers and farmers, and their economic contribution was appreciated, but their religion was feared under state governments. Sometimes they were made to pay additional taxes, could not hold meetings in groups of more than twenty and their marriages were not valid unless performed in the state church. Often they could only rent their lands.
When Alsace became French in 1948 at the end of the Thirty year war, the Mennonites who came from Switzerland to Alsace were given some rights of citizenship and exemption from military service. But in 1712 the Anabaptists were ordered expelled, and they fled in all directions -- south around Montbeliard, east into the German lands, and west into Lorraine. Their property, their privileges, and their non-conformist position attracted the ill will of their neighbors.
The Mennonites of Lorraine were widely scattered and had difficulty maintaining any sort of church life; meetings were held monthly. It also became more difficult for the young men to obtain assignment to non-combative service when forced to serve in the army. Because of such difficulties many moved often, locating farther away from existing communities and higher in to the mountains. In France they lived apart from the native population and tended to retain their own culture and language.
Alsace and Lorraine are two distinct provinces. Alsace is a broad plain bounded on one side by the Rhine and on the other by the Vosges Mountains. It includes the cities of Belfort, Strasbourg, and Colmar. Lorraine, west of where the Vosges Mountains end, is more hilly than mountainous. Above half the entire land is arable, one-tenth pasture, and one third forests. It is in the vicinity of Sarrebourg that Belsley’s lived and most like not to far away were the Ackermans.
Jacob Ammann and his followers created a division among Anabaptist in 1693 when he visited many congregations in Alsace and Switzerland, which he thought were too lax, and sought to introduce stricter church discipline and a firmer policy on avoidance or shunning. They also wanted more u niformity of dress and untrimmed beards. Several years after the division feet washing was introduced into the services of the Amish group as part of the Lord’s Supper. Greater strictness in the plainness of dress followed.
The amish division quickly spread to churches in Lorriane and the Palatinate where it found great acceptance. Congregations in Alsace and Lorraine became Amish and remained so. In Frech speaking areas they were known as the Anabaptist, and in German speaking villages as “Taufer.” In the United States they were known as Old Amish or Old Order Amish. They people were almost always of Bernese origin and spoke some form of German.
A stream of Amish and Mennonite European immigrant began in 1817 as a result of the hardships resulting from the NNapoleonic wars and because of the great prosperity which the American people enjoyed during this time. The availability of inexpensive land and freedom of worship were great incentives. Many went first to the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania area where friends and relatives had preceded many of them. Then, in search of more and less expensive land, they pushed on to Butler County, Ohio and finally to the Tazewell and surrounding counties in Central Illinois.
The Amish Mennonites were noted for their plainness of dress. Their beliefs denied pride, ostentation, and show of wealth, but since their communities were also rural and often isolated, they would naturally have been slow to accept fashion modes. They were an industrious people, and between their religion and work there was little time for other interests.
The first Amish Mennonites settled at Wesley City in 1831. The first German-speaking church was formed in 1833 when Christian Engel, the first Amish bishop west of Ohio, arrived in Spring Bay and settled near Metamora. They were used to meeting in their homes in Europe, and they continued to meet in homes and barns for many years, the Sunday services being held alternately in various communities, including Partridge, Wesley City, Dillon, Rock Creek, and Slabtown. Not until 1854 was the small brick Partridge Creek meeting house built near the Hickory Point cemetery west of Metamora.
Each congregation was autonomous, headed by a bishop or elder and assisted by one or more ministers and one or more deacons, but related to each other through visiting. These positions were for life unless removed for misconduct or disability. No church official received a salary. Each was expected to earn his own living.
The ministers were chosen by lot, each member voting for candidates to be placed in the lot. The bishops were chosen from those who were already ministers. The duties of the bishop included the ordination of the ministers, the administration of communion, maintenance of the church discipline and conducting marriages.
Ministers did the preaching and interpretation, helped keep discipline, acted as mediators and conducted funerals. The deacons assisted the bishop with baptism and church discipline, and help primary responsibility for the church finances.
The “New Amish”
Benedict Weyeneth first came to Woodford County in 1852. He was a follower of Samuel Heinrich Froehlich founder of the Apostolic Christian Church in Switzerland. Froehlich had dialogued with Anabaptists, and the churches he founded eventually resembled their experience and baptism by immersion. About one-half of his first members had an Anabaptist Background.
Benedict Weyeneth had been ordained specifically to go to America where he established the first church of his faith among a group of Amish Mennonites in Lewis County, New York in 1847. He was an especially gifted speaker who was particularly adept at evangelizing among persons of Mennonite and Amish backgrounds. Many of his first converts in Illinois were made from the Black Partridge Amish congregation in 1852q, and he later started the Roanoke AC Church.
While today the majority of Ackerman and Sauder descendents are of the Apostolic Christian faith, many also serve in other Christian denominations.