About the American Protestant group known as the Amish, their history and descent from European Anabaptists and their 19th century way of life.
Last updated 2009-06-23
About the American Protestant group known as the Amish, their history and descent from European Anabaptists and their 19th century way of life.
The Amish (pronounced 'Aahmish') are an American Protestant group with around 200,000 members descended from European Anabaptists who came to the USA more than two centuries ago to escape persecution.
They are best known for their 19th century way of life that was portrayed in the 1985 Harrison Ford film Witness, in which violent crime clashed with their peaceful existence.
Their old-fashioned traditions are not what is now called a 'lifestyle choice'. Amish believe that their religious faith and the way they live are inseparable and interdependent.
The Amish originated in Europe after splitting from Mennonite Swiss Brethren in 1692 over the treatment of members who had been found guilty of breaches of doctrine.
The first Amish arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1730s to escape persecution in Europe.
Amish believe that the community is at the heart of their life and faith, and that the way to salvation is to live as a loving community apart from the world. Individualism is avoided.
Members of the community help each other, and the whole community will work together to help a member in trouble. They do not accept state benefits or use insurance, but rely on community support instead.
The Amish believe that it's essential to keep themselves separate from the 'world', so they live in their own small communities and differ from other Americans in their dress, language, work, travel and education.
The Amish are not exclusive, and have many contacts with outsiders, who they call 'English'.
Each Amish district is fully independent and lives by its own set of unwritten rules, or Ordnung. The Old Order is the strictest of these groups. There is no central authority.
The Amish stress simplicity and humility. They avoid anything associated with self-exaltation, pride of position or enjoyment of power.
Amish believe that God is pleased when people work in harmony with nature, the soil, the weather, and care for animals and plants. Amish always live in rural communities.
Some modern 'conveniences', such as cars, electricity and telephones are avoided. They only avoid technology where it might damage the community, not because they are Luddites or think technology is inherently evil.
Amish are pacifists and conscientious objectors. They avoid all violence - including angry words or going to law.
The Amish community governs itself strictly. Baptised members are morally committed to church rules. Erring members may be shunned until there is repentance, forgiveness and restoration to full fellowship.
Amish use three languages, a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch at home, High German for worship and English with outsiders.
Amish only marry other Amish and don't divorce. They have large families averaging 7-8 children.
Amish children are educated in their own schools. Schooling stops at 14 after which they learn practical skills on the job.
Amish celebrate the same holy days as other Christians.
After 16 Amish children can experience life outside the community for a few years to decide whether they wish to become full baptised members of the community. 90% decide to do so.
Partially based on The Amish In Northern Indiana, by Samuel L. Yoder
Amish live in small rural communities where strong family and social ties allow them their own distinctive and separate way of life. The family is the heart of Amish community, individual identity and spiritual life.
However in recent times they've diversified from farming and in some communities more than 80% work in small businesses making things like indoor and garden furniture, small sheds, quilts and leather goods.
The Amish produce many of their needs, rearing animals to produce meat, growing corn for food and for feeding animals, and growing vegetable both for food and for sale. Amish women make most of the clothes. But they are not totally self-sufficient and rely on the outside community for other requirements.
The Amish keep themselves separate, but not exclusive, following the Biblical text "be not conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2).
Amish live like this not because they dislike or fear other human beings but because they believe that salvation comes from the redeeming power of living a loving life in a pure community of believers who live in separation from the world.
We must not forget that in the Middle Ages important values of the civilization of the Western World were preserved by members of religious orders who isolated themselves from all worldly influences against great obstacles. There can be no assumption that today's majority is "right" and the Amish and others like them are "wrong."
A way of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different.
U.S. Supreme Court, Judgement in Wisconsin v Yoder, 1972
The Amish keep themselves apart from the communities around them in several ways:
Although the Amish separate themselves from the mainstream communities around them, they aren't exclusive and do business with their neighbours. The ideal Amish occupation is to be a farmer, but Amish men also do factory work.
The Amish interpret their beliefs pragmatically. They adapt to the world in order to be able to continue to continue their redeeming life in a pure community separate from the world.
The doctrine of separation is regarded as an ideal, but is interpreted in a practical rather than a rigid way. This permits the Amish to build productive working relationships with the outside world, and to establish a network of contacts that they can use for the benefit of their community.
Stephen A Marglin gives an example of how the Amish rejection of one modern practice, insurance, is entirely in line with the preservation of the community:
...they forbid insurance precisely because they understand that the market relationship between an individual and the insurance company undermines the mutual dependence of the individuals that forms the basis of the community.
For the Amish, barn-raisings are not exercises in nostalgia, but the cement which holds the community together...
...An Amishman's decision to insure his barn undermines the mutual dependence of the Amish not only by making him less dependent on the community, but also by subverting the beliefs that sustain this dependence.
Stephen A. Marglin, Development as Poison: Rethinking the Western Model of Modernity, Harvard International Review, 2003
In the last 50 years the Amish have become more pragmatic in their approach to technology, while perhaps becoming more separate as a community:
In the decades since 1960 the Old Order Amish have in many ways become more sectarian than they were before that time. In a paradoxical way this religious development has taken place simultaneously with a greater Old Order openness to negotiating technological change. Technological and religious conservatism were de-coupled, with religious life becoming more fixed even as mechanical innovation became more possible.
Steve Nolt, The Amish 'Mission Movement' and the Reformulation of Amish Identity in the Twentieth Century, Mennonite Quarterly Review 2001
Amish own horse-drawn buggies, not cars (but they can take a ride in someone else's car).
Farm machinery is generally horse-drawn, although some communities permit tractors with steel wheels as such tractors can't be used on the road.
They don't allow telephones or electricity in their houses, because both of these technologies would literally connect them to the world through their wires. Electricity and petrol/diesel power are used in barns for work purposes. Shared telephones are available outside houses in business premises or telephone booths.
Televisions, radios and stereos are not used, which helps keep the Amish unpolluted by the values advanced by the mass media. One Old Order Amish told the scholar Donald B Kraybill that "television is the sewer line that connects you directly to the cesspool of Hollywood". As with other technologies there is a compromise - listening to someone else's radio or watching the TV in a hotel might well be accepted.
For similar reasons, computers with internet access are banned, although Amish can use a computer at an outside workplace.
They don't use cameras because photos break the biblical ban on making 'graven images' (Exodus 20:4)
The Plain People are not modern day Luddites who disparage new technology.
Donald B Kraybill, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1998
The Amish avoid modern technology not because they want to live ascetic and uncomfortable lives but to preserve the uniqueness of their way of life.
New conveniences are assessed to see how they would affect the social patterns and cohesiveness of the Amish community, and anything that might damage their way of life is rejected. Less dangerous technology may be adapted to fit.
They scrutinize practices, services, and products to see whether they would generate life-style changes which would hurt community solidarity, create tension within families or between different families, or open the community to excessive dependence on outside institutions.
Anything, for example, that might suddenly create conspicuous differences between "haves" and "have nots" is a prime candidate for rejection.
John A. Hostetler, Robert L. Kidder, Managing Ideologies: Harmony as Ideology in Amish and Japanese Societies, Law and Society Review, 1990
Hostetler and Kidder point out that conveniences are accepted when it is necessary to do so - electricity is barred in the home, but accepted in farm buildings because if the Amish did not comply with regulations to refrigerate milk at the farm, they would not be able to continue as dairy farmers and the community would suffer economic damage.
Most Amish speak three languages: a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch at home, High German at their worship services, and English when talking to non-Amish (whom they call 'English').
Amish adopt traditional gender roles in which wives are subordinate to their husbands.
Men are in charge of the spiritual life of the family and are responsible for providing sustenance. Women do domestic tasks, look after the children and take on light farm work such as feeding chickens and milking cows.
Amish dress is a highly distinctive outward symbol of membership in the group, but through its plainness and simplicity rather than through any eccentricities.
The idea is that a person's clothes should reflect humility and avoid individual distinctiveness. Breaches of the Amish dress code may lead to a reproof from a community leader.
Old Order Amish women wear modest dresses with long sleeves and a full skirt, a cape and an apron. They usually wear their hair in a bun on the back of the head, often covered with a bonnet or a white organza prayer cap. Amish women don't use makeup.
Men and boys wear dark trousers, braces, straight-cut coats and broad-brimmed straw hats. Their clothes don't have stripes or checks. Amish men grow beards only after they marry and don't grow moustaches because 19th century generals wore beards and moustaches and anything military is shunned.
Dark blue, green, purple, brown and black are the most common clothing colours.
The Amish are very resourceful in tailoring commercially available products to their own needs, buying, for example, black and white jogging shoes at Wal-Mart along with a can of black paint for painting the white running strip black.
Hamilton and Hawley, in L. B. Arthur, Religion, Dress and the Body, 1999
Although the dress code is partly intended to prevent visual statements of individuality, there is scope for individual taste, as this anecdote demonstrates:
That the rules for Amish dress apply only to outwardly observable dress was first clarified when one of the authors, while baking pies with an Amish family, was asked to make a run to the basement for additional jars of peaches.
There, along with various pieces of underwear drying on the line, were several pair of bright, colourful men's boxer shorts with Disney characters on them, clearly too commodious to fit anyone other than the only adult male living at home at that time.
When asked about them later in private, the wife acknowledged that her husband wore them, that after all, nobody could see them and complain.
Jean A Hamilton and Jana M Hawley, in Linda B Arthur, Religion, Dress and the Body, 1999
The Amish are pacifists who refuse military service and who try to live peacefully with each other and with outsiders.
They have a policy of 'non-resistance', which means that when governments instruct them to do things that are against their faith, they refuse to do them, but accept the consequences of their refusal without argument.
They don't go to law, regarding this as confrontational, although they have used lawyers to defend themselves if they are involved in a lawsuit started by someone else. In the famous case of Wisconsin v Yoder the Amish got round the issue of not going to law by letting a committee of non-Amish defend the case pro bono.
Internal disagreements are usually resolved by the community as a whole.
Although the Amish present a unified face to outsiders, communities are sometimes troubled by disputes which may lead a family to join another community or found a new one.
Some have polarized over the shape or colour of a garment; the style of a house, carriage or harness; the use of labour-saving farm machinery or the pace of singing...
Beneath the surface are extended families, frequently fraught with envy or jealousy, that take opposing sides...
The Amish tend to suppress their feelings since no one wishes to be the cause of disunity or division. Typically, dissatisfied members migrate to a more compatible Old Order community or start a new settlement.
John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 1993
The Amish have their own private education system of around 1,200 schools which stresses the 'four Rs' of reading, writing, arithmetic and religion.
A typical school has between 25 and 35 pupils, with only one room and one teacher to cover all ages. Teaching is in English. Teachers are usually younger women without specialist training. Children will often do farm work before and after school.
Amish children are educated in schools until they're 14 (eighth grade). This exemption from US law which generally requires schooling until age 16 is the result of a Supreme Court Case (Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), see related links), in which the Amish successfully argued that education beyond aged 14 exposed their children to modern values that clashed with their beliefs and might put their salvation at risk.
Formal high school education beyond the 8th grade is contrary to Amish beliefs, not only because it places Amish children in an environment hostile to Amish beliefs with increasing emphasis on competition in class work and sports and with pressure to conform to the styles, manners, and ways of the peer group, but also because it takes them away from their community, physically and emotionally, during the crucial and formative adolescent period of life.
U.S. Supreme Court, Judgement in Wisconsin v Yoder, 1972
Amish education has some unique strengths, described by Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.
Amish schools exhibit a social continuity rarely found in public education. With many families sending several children to a school, teachers may relate to as few as a dozen parents.
... Amish schools are unquestionably provincial by modern standards. Yet in a humane fashion they ably prepare Amish youth for meaningful lives in Amish society... They reinforce Amish values and shield youth from contaminating ideas afloat in modern culture.
Quoted in the Washington Post
After they leave school Amish boys learn work skills such as farming and carpentry on the job, while Amish girls concentrate on practical domestic matters.
The Amish will not accept any form of state benefit because they believe that the community should care for its members.
They don't use public or private health insurance, and join together to pay for outside medical treatment.
At the age of 16 Amish children are given a great deal of freedom which they can use to experience the outside world. Some may even choose to 'live English', as it's known. This practice is called rumspringa, which means 'running around'.
After this period, most children prefer to return to the full Amish lifestyle with both its restrictions and rewards, and are baptised into full membership.
Some Amish decide to move to another Amish community rather than remain in the one where they were brought up. The main reasons for doing this are to acquire less expensive farm land or to live in a community that is either more or less strict.
Amish only marry other Amish, although not necessarily from their own community. They may not marry a first cousin, and are discouraged from marrying a second cousin.
The Amish are closest to the Anabaptists: Protestant Christians who believe in adult baptism, pacifism, the separation of church and state and the importance of the community to faith. The denomination is closely related to the Mennonites.
They base their daily life and religious practice on a literal interpretation of the Biblical instruction "be not conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2). Their separateness may also have been a reaction to the persecution they has suffered in Europe.
A way of living is more important than communicating it in words. The ultimate message is the life.
An Amish person will have no doubt about his basic convictions, his view of the meaning and purpose of life, but he cannot explain it except through his life.
John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 1993
Although the Amish are sometimes painted as people who live an old-fashioned life because they are welded to their traditions or because they fear the modern world, those are both misunderstandings.
The Amish way of life grows out of the belief that salvation comes from the redeeming strength of living a loving life in a pure community of believers who live in separation from the world.
For Amish and Mennonites the struggle to die to self was life-long. God's power was released only when the individual did not exercise his own will... membership in the community and participation in its rites was the means to salvation.
God did not grant salvation because of inner experience. Salvation came only by actual participation in Christ, by suffering, yielding, dying to self as he did.
They believed this was possible only in community and through the Ordnung.
Sandra Cronk, Gelassenheit: The Rites of the Redemptive Process in Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities, Mennonite Quarterly Review 1981
Amish are less concerned with achieving individual salvation through a personal belief in Jesus Christ. It's said that they regard any claim by an individual to be 'saved' as an expression of pride, and something to be avoided.
One important principle is Gelassenheit. This is the idea that a believer should surrender to God by living in a way that pleases God and by obeying legitimate religious authority.
Amish see self-denial and obedience to church authority as important virtues.
Gelassenheit is layered with many meanings--self surrender and self denial, resignation to God's will, yielding to others, gentleness, a calm and contented spirit, and a quiet acceptance of whatever comes.
Although the word rarely is spoken, the meaning of Gelassenheit is woven into the social fabric of Old Order life. It reflects the most fundamental difference between Old Order culture and modern values
Donald B. Kraybill, The riddle of Amish culture, 1989
Amish believe that they should farm as stewards of God's creation, and that this is a spiritual activity.
Because of the emphasis on community, members are expected to believe the same things and follow the same code of behaviour (called the Ordnung). The purpose of the ordnung is to help the community lead a godly life.
This unanimity of belief and behaviour is maintained by strong discipline; if a person breaks the rules they may be 'shunned', which means that no-one (including their family) will eat with them or talk to them.
Shunning (meidung) is not done to hurt the rule-breaker but to give them an experience that may redeem them and bring them back into the community.
If a person persists in rule-breaking they may be excommunicated. If a person repents they are accepted back into the community.
Shunning is based on two Bible verses, I Corinthians 5:11 and Romans 16:17.
However, if someone brought up in the Amish community decides that they do not wish to join the community and obey its rules they are not punished in any way. They often remain in the area and join similar but less strict denominations, and maintain contact with their former community.
Amish do not seek to attract new believers. Although it is possible for an outsider to join an Amish community, it would be difficult.
The Amish have a traditional code of ethics that rejects sex outside of marriage, divorce, homosexuality and public nakedness as sins forbidden by the Bible. Modesty and purity are vital virtues.
The Amish are pacifists, basing this on Jesus' instruction that one should love one's enemy. They reject all forms of violence.
The Amish admire large families and tend not to use birth control other than to control the spacing of children.
The Amish worship in their houses, which are designed to allow a large group to meet. Different households take it in turns to host worship.
A 3-hour preaching service takes place every other Sunday morning and is followed by a shared meal.
On Sunday evening there may be a meeting for young people of several communities who gather in a house to sing hymns and talk, sitting on opposite sides of a long table.
Communion services are held twice a year.
John A Hostetler describes the structure of an Amish service like this in his book Amish Society:
The Amish view of worship was summed up in the defence brief in the case of Wisconsin v Yoder:
Worship, in Amish life, whether for the old or the young, is not confined to a "prayer period" or a weekly hour of church attendance. Worship permeates Amish life, and in a variety of forms.
The Amish society is a "ceremonial community", its religious ceremonial life being governed by the days of the week, by seasons, and by the calendar.
At the time of adolescence, the Amish young adult is growing rapidly in the life of worship of the "ceremonial community" in which harvesting, sewing and all daily work, learning and activity are consciously offered in praise and love of God.
Wisconsin v Yoder court case
There are around 200,000 Amish, who live in more than 20 US states and Ontario, with the largest communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They are a growing group -- it's thought that their population doubles every 20 years.
The Amish are divided into dozens of separate fellowships, broken down into districts or congregations. Each district is fully independent and lives by its own set of unwritten rules, or Ordnung. The Old Order is the strictest of these groups.
Because Amish transport is limited to horse buggies these districts are geographically small and may include around 30 or 40 households.
The Amish do not have a professional group of ministers. Instead, lay ministers are chosen by lot from within the community. Ministers are not paid and add their religious duties to their farm or other work.
There are three ranks of minister: bishop, preacher or minister, and deacon. Amish districts usually have a bishop, a deacon and two preachers.
Districts take decisions in meetings of the baptised members.
'Organisation' is said to be 'suspect' in the Amish world (Kraybill, 1989), so there are no significant central institutions. Instead there are ad hoc groups of Amish or people who sympathise with them who can act on behalf of Amish communities when needed.