The Rise of Christianism
After the death of Christ, the followers of the Christian religion shot up as mushrooms. Around the year 330, after much persecution and many martyrs, Christianity or Catholicism became the state religion of the (already declining) Roman Empire.
The empire was further decimated by barbarians such as the Vandals, the Goths, the Visigoths, etc., but the Catholic religion, fully linked to the state, was irrepressible and after many wars it dominated practically the whole of Europe.
As early as in 600, the monk Benedict found that religion had become too worldly, which fostered many monasteries. Actually, this created two different Catholic religious experiences ; the worldly experience with political leaders, and the more religious experience in monasteries, where once again people lived in poverty and simplicity.
Around 1300, the first Reformants appeared. They demanded the return to the religious faith in simplicity and according to the Bible, and they wanted to distance themselves from the appalling worldliness of the Church. Obviously, these souls met with heavy resistance from those in power, who were very much afraid of losing their standing...
During the 1500's, the Catholic Church was completely at odds, with endless squabbling over the most futile theological details. Much of all this wrangling didn't concern religious beliefs, but rather political and religious dominance, since church and state were one.
The Protestant Reformation
This feeling rippled on, until in 1517 the German Luther was finally fed up with the many scandals and the general corruption in the Church, after 1,000 years of uninterrupted rule. One of his complaints was the sale of indulgences to finance the building of Rome's St Peter's Cathedral...
However, the Pope didn't agree with Luther's views, and the latter was immediately excommunicated, which lead to the secession of the Protestant Reformation.
Switzerland's Zwingli followed the same course of reformation. Yet both of them maintained many Catholic foundations, such as the close relationship between church and state, and the concept of baptism at birth.
In 1525, a new theological development came to life in Switzerland, which dropped both the notion that Church and State were one, as well as baptism at birth. Instead, they opted for the baptism of the adult, out of a personal conviction. These people called themselves the Anabaptists or "re-baptized".
The Anglican Church
In 1527, Henry VIII of England, after several other romances, met the beautiful Anne Boleyn . He became lovestruck and immediately wanted to get rid of his Spanish wife, Catherine. Unfortunately for him, she happened to be the niece of Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. A cancellation of his marriage by the Pope was not politically acceptable , given her public stature. Henry VIII literally moved heaven and earth, but without avail.
In 1532 however, Anne Boleyn became pregnant and The King's Great Matter could no longer wait... So Henry VIII simply started "his own" Anglican Church , that would allow him to divorce and remarry. Upon this, the Pope was forced to excommunicate him, and since Church and State were one, all of the English people were kicked out of the Catholic Church at the same time...
In 1535, the French John Calvin reset the stage in Switzerland with the introduction of Calvinism. This led in Scotland to the Presbyterian Church , in France to the Huguenots , in Holland to revolt against the Spanish rule, and in England to the Puritans , who considered that the Anglicans were not radical enough...
The secessions weren't over yet, because the Protestants continued squabbling among themselves. In 1537, a fraction of the Anabaptists came to the conclusion that the true faith was not followed strictly enough, and therefore they separated once more and called themselves the Mennonites, after the Dutch priest Menno Simmons.
They swore off any state interference and completely depended on the Bible for their convictions, to cut themselves off from dissent and out of fear of "contamination". To escape persecution, and since they were mainly farmers, they dispersed throughout Europe and lived in sparsely populated areas. The two largest groups were the Swiss Brethren, who were heavily persecuted in their own country, and the Dutch Mennonites.
Over time, the Mennonites split into several sects, each with a tiny difference in the interpretation of their faith.
Church leader Jacob Amman however was still worried about the general lapse of faith and its experience, and so once more, he seceded from the Mennonites. His followers called themselves the Amish.
Their main objectives are faith, charity, the rejection of modern inventions, since sophisticated mechanical contraptions may cause the decline of morality, and the experience of religion within the community.
During the next 200 years, all of these people were mercilessly persecuted and even killed by both Catholics and Protestants. They represented a threat to the leaders, they required the separation of church and state, and they didn't fully accept the total authority of the state. Not that it had anything to do with religious convictions...
In 1693, both the Mennonites and the Amish excommunicated each other (...), and went their own separate ways.
The New World
Around 1720, the situation in Europe became so bad through war, poverty and persecution, that both the Amish and the Mennonites preferred to leave to the New World, attracted by William Penn's offer in Pennsylvania (the forests of Penn).
In Europe there are no longer any Amish. Mennonites still live in Europe, even though they have spread throughout the world.
The various sects merrily continued to squabble among themselves about obscure theological details, usually in the field of practical religious experience. Around 1880, the Amish once more divided into the more conservative Old Order Amish and the Amish-Mennonites , which later merged back into the Mennonites.
Another, rather reserved, religious society that was born of the Anabaptists is that of the Hutterites. Their name comes from Jacob Hutter. Their movement is the oldest of the group, and it is based on similar convictions as the Amish and the Mennonites.
However, they live in total community, and they have no personal property. Which makes them the longest established and most successful community in history !
It used to be difficult to find any information about the Hutterites, but recently they established a very extensive website at http://www.hutterites.org.