When you’re in Oakland or Grantsville, MD, you’re in Old Order Amish territory. If you’re not Amish yourself, you may be wondering just how that group got its name. You’d have to go back to the Zurich, Switzerland of the 1690s and make the acquaintance of one Jakob Amman. Amman’s roots were in the Anabaptists, a movement that had sprung up in 1525, in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholics practiced infant baptism; the Anabaptists believed solely in adult baptism.
Originally known as Swiss Brethren, the Zurich group soon became referred to as Mennonites—a like-minded group led by one Menno Simmons had formed about the same time in the Netherlands, and the tag stuck with the Swiss Brethren as well.
By Jakob Amman’s time, a serious dogmatic dispute had arisen amidst the Mennonites over the practice of Meidung, or shunning of excommunicated members. This practice had been more important in former times, but had lapsed.
Amman, determined that the Meidung should be observed strictly, traveled extensively throughout Switzerland and Alsace between 1693 and 1697 preaching exactly that, and was so insistent that his followers formed a separate camp, excommunicating all other Mennonites who did not practice shunning.
Amman’s conservative Anabaptist followers became known as “ammanasch,” a name which was corrupted eventually to the present “Amish.”
Hounded constantly by the Catholic Church, the Amish immigrated to Pennsylvania, where other religious groups had fled, seeking religious freedom. Many Amish settled first in Lancaster County, PA, and subsequently migrated westward to other parts of Pennsylvania and down into western Maryland. Later Amish immigration from Germany in the 1800’s had more to do with avoiding military conscription than with physical persecution.
There is a difference of opinion as to whether the Amish are a church or an ethnic group, as they do not actively evangelize, and conversions to the group are not common.
The Amish prefer to let their strong and silent lifestyle serve as an example of Christian living. The most important institution within the Amish community is the church. The Bible is interpreted literally and directly. The Mennonite hymn book, the “Ausbund,” is believed to have appeared in 1564 and is still used today by the Old Order Amish.
The worship service includes the singing of four hymns in High German. The German dialect used in everyday discourse, and the more formal German or High German used in worship services, tend to make the group exclusive, although everyone is welcome to attend church or convert to the faith.
Garrett County, MD has two communities of Old Order Amish. German immigrant Peter Gortner purchased property four miles south of Oakland in 1850 and established a farm in an area that is today known as Pleasant Valley.
The Old Amish congregation was probably organized in 1855. Church services were held in Gortner’s house in the 1850’s-1860’s, and Peter Gortner is identified as the first minister of the church located there. Peter Gortner Jr. later enhanced the original farm by constructing grist and saw mills, a store, and a post office that was officially designated Gortner.
Joseph Slaughbaugh had a significant influence on the town when he purchased 723 acres in approximately 1857, referred to as Ashby’s Discovery Tract at a tax sale in Cumberland, MD. Slaughbaugh’s siblings moved to the area and developed farms on the expanse of land.
Joseph Slaughbaugh’s house served as the worship center during the 1860s. The Slaughbaugh family donated land for construction of Union Church in Gortner, aptly named as it combined Mennonite and Old Order Amish congregations. Through the preaching of John Holdeman several families left, including two preachers. Daniel Beachey was the first bishop in the congregation. After his death in 1897, bishops from the Somerset churches served the congregation until 1908, when Bishop Lewis M. Beachey was ordained.
Other families who settled in Gortner include Pfeil and Miller from Germany, and Yutzy, Slabach, Selder, Beachey, Gnagey, Schrock, and Petersheim from Somerset and Cambria counties, Pennsylvania.
The settlement always considered itself as one church district, even though in the early days of the settlement several families lived about ten miles west of Oakland, near Aurora and Eglon, WV.
The second western Maryland Old Amish community formed as an integral part of the Amish settlement along the border of Somerset County, PA. Grantsville was the Maryland side center of the settlement; it began in a small way about 1770. This area was in the valley of the Casselman River and so has long been called the Casselman Valley district.
The original settlement here was largely built up by German immigrants from Hesse and Waldeck in 1830-1860. Since numerous Grantsville Amish families moved westward to Holmes County, OH, and Johnson County, IA, before 1860, the community never grew large. The Grantsville Amish community ultimately became almost totally Conservative Amish or Beachy Amish.
Sources: Old Order Amish Settlement: Diffusion and Growth, by William K Crowley, Annals of the Assn of American Geographers, Vol. 68, No. 2, June 1978