A Beginner's Guide to Dissenters

Like many family historians, I’ve found it hard to differentiate all the non-conformist sects which sprang up in the wake of the Reformation.  This Glossary is an attempt to record my findings so far, as a kind of aide-memoire.

The list is by no means comprehensive: I’ll continue to add to the Glossary as I find out more.

Inevitably a quick checklist of belief systems will tend to be superficial; I hope any reader whose religion has been contorted by my precis will forgive me.  Where possible, I’ll signpost websites which offer more serious analysis.


The name Amish comes from founder Jakob Amman, who led a split from the Mennonites (see this page) in 1693; the faith has its roots in Anabaptism.  No Amish remain in Europe – they were saved from extinction by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, who gave them refuge in America.

The Amish preserve their separation from the world.



Anabaptists were radical Christians who wanted to return to the purity of the early church set up by the apostles and based on communalism.  Groups of believers were first identified in the sixteenth century.  Anabaptists rejected infant baptism: for them, only adults could be baptised - by choice - into the community. They rejected both the Catholic church and mainstream Protestant reformers, believing that state religion was beyond redemption.

Anabaptist opposition to state governance and coercion by the state meant that they were generally seen as subversive – they refused military service and some were against private ownership of property.  Many were persecuted and martyred for their beliefs: to be baptised into the faith was to knowingly join a society of martyrs.

Contemporary groups originating from Anabaptists include the Amish, Mennonites and some Brethren groups.



Mennonites are named after Menno Simons (1496-1561), a Dutch priest who left the Catholic Church in 1536 to become an Anabaptist.  Simons organised disparate Anabaptists in Northern Europe into congregations, and formalised the teachings of the faith’s Swiss founders in his writings.

Early Mennonites established their own communities so that they could completely separate themselves from the world.  They did carry out missionary and charity work; they were one of the Protestant denominations most active in helping American slaves to escape via the “Underground Railroad”.


Other Sects

This page is still being developed. I'll shortly be adding notes on the following sects amongst others:

  • Congregationalists
  • General Baptists
  • Lutherans
  • Methodists
  • Pentecostalists
  • Plymouth Brethren
  • Presbyterians
  • Puritans
  • Quakers
  • Quietists
  • Shakers
  • Strict Baptists
  • Unitarians

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