Historical and biographical sketches/00 Preface

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The philologist, who seeks to know something of the language of the primeval man of Europe, finds amid the mountains of the Pyrenees, the Basques, who have preserved down to the present time the tongue of these remote forefathers. The ethnologist studies the habits of prehistoric races not by the uncertain light of early legends, but by going to the Islands of the South Pacific, where savage life still exists, as it was before the dawn of civilization. The historian, who pursuing the same methods of investigation, would stand face to face with the Reformation, need only visit the Mennonites of Lancaster County, in Pennsylvania, where he can see still rigorously preserved, the thought, the faith, the habits, the ways of living, and even the dress of that important epoch. The hymn book in ordinary use by the Amish was written in the 16th Century, and from it they still zealously sing about Felix Mantz, who was drowned at Zurich, in 1526, and Michael Sattler, who had his tongue torn out and was then burned to death at Rottenburg in 1527. Whether we regard their personal history, or the results of their teachings, the Mennonites were the most interesting people who came to America. There is scarcely a family among them which cannot be traced to some ancestor burned to death because of his faith. Their whole literature smacks of the fire. Beside a record like theirs, the sufferings of Pilgrim and Quaker seem trivial. A hundred years before the time of Roger Williams, George Fox and William Penn, the Dutch reformer Menno Simons contended for the complete severance of Church and State, and the struggles for religious and political liberty, which convulsed England and led to the English colonization of America in the Seventeenth Century, were logical results of doctrines advanced by the Dutch and German Anabaptists in the one which preceded.

About ten years ago I formed the design of writing the history of the Mennonites in America. It was for many reasons a task of extreme difficulty. It required a preliminary knowledge of the German and Dutch languages. No collection of their books had ever been made in this country, nothing of value had been published concerning them except some papers in the "Pennsylvania Dutch," which were descriptive rather than historical, and the structure had to be erected from its foundation. More than all, the conviction entertained by them that fame is only one of the vanities, and the desire for it but a form of worldliness, has led them in the past to destroy, rather than to preserve, those materials which are the ordinary sources of historical information. When a book was written the name of the author did not appear; when a meeting house was built, no tablet told the date; and when a man was buried, no stone was raised to his memory. These difficulties and the exacting demands of a professional life have so far retarded, if not prevented, the completion of the design, and the results up to the present time have been a somewhat full collection of their books and manuscripts, and the first seven papers gathered into this volume.

Though a torso, I believe the work so far as it has gone to be thorough, and if it should not progress to the end, I shall at least have the satisfaction of having contributed something to the history of a people who are in every way worthy of the most careful study, and who will sooner or later attract wide attention.

The circumstances under which the other papers were written are for the most part explained in the notes accompanying them. All of those which have heretofore appeared in the magazines of the day are so described in the sub-titles, and they have all been here corrected and enlarged. Full credit has been given in the notes and elsewhere for the use made of the labors of other investigators. It ought, however, to be said, that I am much indebted to Mr. F. D. Stone for assistance and suggestions in the preparation of the article upon David Rittenhouse.

Philadelphia, April 5th, 1883.