Who are the Amish?
The Amish (sometimes called Amish Mennonites) are members of an Anabaptist Christian denomination who are especially known for their separation from society, for living in isolated Amish communities, for the rejection of most modern technology, and for their distinctly conservative dress.
In the United States, Amish communities are mostly found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
The denomination originated in Switzerland, with the strict teachings of Jacob Amman that led to a split from other Mennonites in 1693.
History of the Amish
The Amish are one of several denominations that developed out of the Radical Reformation in 16th-century Europe. The Anabaptists, as the radical reformers came to be called, differed from mainstream Protestants in their rejection of all church authority, belief that a church consists only of baptized believers and rejection of infant baptism. Anabaptist denominations include the Mennonites, Hutterites and the Amish.
The Amish arose from a schism among Swiss Mennonites in 1693. Mennonite leader Jakob Amman (1656-1730) and his followers applied the Mennonite practice of shunning very strictly and condemned other Mennonites for not doing so.
Amish communities sprang up in Switzerland, Alsace, Germany, Russia and Holland, but there are no Amish remaining in Europe today. Many emigrated to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries and those who stayed behind gradually assimilated with Mennonite groups.
Amish began emigrating to North America early in the 18th century, in large part to avoid religious persecution and compulsory military service. They first settled in eastern Pennsylvania, where a large settlement remains today.
In 1850, there was a schism between the traditional Old Order Amish and the "New Order" Amish, who accept social change and technological innovation but retain most other Amish practices.
There are now about 200,000 Old Order Amish living in more than 200 settlements in the United States and Canada; the largest communities are in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, and others exist in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota.
As conservative Protestants, the Amish value the Bible alone as the source of religious authority. But in most Amish homes a special place is reserved alongside the Bible for the Martyr's Mirror, a book chronicling Amish history and honoring the many Amish, Mennonites, and Anabaptists who died for their faith.
The Budget, established in 1890, is the national newspaper serving the many Amish and Mennonite communities; it is published in Sugarcreek, Ohio.
Amish religious beliefs are virtually the same as that of the Mennonites and other religious reformers. They believe in the importance of individual Bible study and the necessity of living a life free of sin after adult baptism. The Amish are primarily set apart from other Mennonites in their great emphasis on the values of humility, family, community, and separation from the world.
Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their revulsion of Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and the high value they place on Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit (calmness, composure, placidity). This all translates into a reluctance to be forward, self-promoting, or to assert oneself in any way. The willingness to submit to the will of God, as expressed through group norms, is at odds with the individualism that is central to general American culture.
Amish Religious Services
As in Mennonite communities, the Amish celebrate Holy Communion twice each year and practice foot washing. Persons are baptized when they are admitted to formal membership in the church, about the age of 17 to 20 years.
Amish religious services are conducted in High German. Pennsylvania Dutch (which is not Dutch but a mixture of High German, various German dialects and English) is spoken at home and in daily discourse. Children learn English at school.
Religious services are held on a rotating basis in family homes and barns. A large wagon, filled with benches for the service and dishes and food for the meal that follows, will often be pulled to the host's property.
The use of musical instruments is not permitted in an Amish church service or at any time, as it is considered wordly and vain. Singing, however, is important to Amish life, whether at work or at play, at home or in church. Selections from the Ausband (the Amish hymnal) are commonly sung. Group singing is always in unison and never harmonized.
Amish children attend one-room schools run by the community and they attend school only through the eighth grade (this was deemed acceptable by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling). School classes are in English and focus on the basics of reading, writing, and math, along with Amish history, farming techniques and homemaking skills.
Rumspringa ("running around") is the general Amish term for adolescence and the period leading up to serious courtship during which rules may be relaxed a little. As in non-Amish families, it is understood as a practical matter that there will likely be a certain amount of misbehavior during this period, but it is neither encouraged nor overlooked.
At the end of this period, Amish young adults are expected to find a spouse and be baptized. But in accordance with Anabaptist doctrine, this must be a free and personal decision. At this point, some young people choose not to join the church and instead live the rest of their lives in a different community or wider society. If a young man joins a Mennonite church or other less exacting religion, the Amish will often say “he got his hair cut.” If a young person abandons the faith altogether, they say that person “went English.”
Some communities will actively shun (see below) those who decide to leave the community, even those going to a different Amish congregation with different doctrines. Still other communities practice hardly any shunning, keeping close family and social contact with those who leave.
Everyday life and customs in the Amish community are governed by an unwritten code of behavior called the Ordnung. The Ordnung began as a basic outline of Anabaptist faith in the 16th century, and since then, details and new rules have been added that help define what it means to be Amish. It now governs everything from clothing and child bearing to occupational activities and how the weekend is spent.
The enforcement of the rules depends on the bishop, who is charged with upholding Amish values. An Amish minister has explained of the Ordnung:
A respected Ordnung generates peace, love, contentment, equality, and unity. It creates a desire for togetherness and fellowship. It binds marriages, it strengthens family ties to live together, to work together, to worship together and to commune secluded from the world. (Quoted in Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, 98.)
Shunning (Meidung, "avoidance") was the practice that set the Amish apart from the Mennonites several centuries ago, and it remains the fundamental way in which the community deals with disobedient members. Amish differ considerably from community to community in the severeness and strictness of the shunning, but in light of the closeness of the community and separation from the outside world, it is invariably a painful experience for the one shunned.
An Amish person may be shunned for a variety of offenses, ranging from major moral offenses to using improper technology. In accordance with the teachings of Jakob Amman, an Amish person in good standing may buy from, sell to, eat with or sleep with a shunned person, even if the person is one's spouse or close relative.
The use of electricity is fervently avoided by Amish, because it is a prime connection to the world that could lead to temptations and worldly amenities detrimental to the community and family life. There are occasional exceptions to this general ban, such as adding electric flashers to buggies when required to drive legally and certain types of farm equipment such as milking equipment and electric fences to contain cattle.
Bottle gas is often used to operate appliances, even barbecue grills, and gas-pressured lanterns and lamps might be used for indoor lighting. Amish buggies may also be equipped with such modern conveniences as heaters, windshield wipers, and upholstered seats. The New Order Amish permit the use of electricity, the owning of cars, and telephones in the home.
Clothing, Dress, and Personal Appearance of the Amish
The Amish are especially known for their distinctive self-made clothing, which is essentially that of 17th-century European peasants. The distinctive attire reflects the Amish resistance to change, respect for tradition and interpretation of biblical instructions against conforming to the ways of the world (e.g., Romans 12:2). Its plainness also reflects the great importance of humility in Amish communities.
Men and boys wear broad-brimmed black hats, dark-coloured suits, straight-cut coats without lapels, broadfall pants, suspenders, solid-colored shirts and black socks and shoes. Their shirts may fasten with conventional buttons, but their coats and vests fasten with hooks and eyes. Men must grow beards after they marry but are forbidden to have mustaches.
Amish women and girls wear bonnets, long full dresses with capes over the shoulders, shawls, and black shoes and stockings; their capes and aprons are fastened with straight pins or snaps. Amish women never cut their hair, which is worn in a bun, and they are not allowed to wear jewelry of any kind.
Amish in the World: Buggies, Product Sales and Photography
The Amish do not live in complete isolation and are often seen making regular trips into their local town for groceries. They reject the use of automobiles and use either bicycles or horse-drawn buggies instead. The buggies are box-like and usually black, but some are white, gray, or even yellow, and many groups can be distinguished by their chosen color of buggy. The Amish may also travel, for which they usually prefer to use buses.
The Amish are excellent farmers and most communities are almost entirely self-supporting. However, some have to sell produce and crafts to outsiders in order to make a sufficient living. Amish products are widely prized for their quality and craftsmanship.
The Amish typically accept the photographing of their way of life, but they forbid photos of themselves because they believe such things are graven images in violation of the Second Commandment. (For this same reason, the dolls of young Amish girls are traditionally faceless.) It also comes too close to vanity to allow one's portrait to be taken.
Amish and Politics and Government
The Amish are not involved in state or national politics, they do not vote, and they do not serve in the military. They also reject social security and most types of insurance. Instead, they pool their resources to help Amish families in need and will visit doctors, dentists, and opticians when necessary.
Amish and Recreation
The Amish may be reserved and humble, but they are not always solemn and enjoy common pastimes and games. Volleyball and softball are popular with many Amish families, but they are played strictly for enjoyment and not in a spirit of competition. Flower gardens, if kept simple, are also permissible. Once the daily chores are finished and the schoolwork completed, Amish families will often read or sing together in the evenings, before turning in early.
The Amish community is divided into church districts, autonomous congregations of about 75 baptized members. This small number is necessary because congregations meet in member's homes — there are no Amish churches. Each district has a bishop, two to four preachers, and an elder and is very independent; there are no Amish general conferences or cooperative agencies.
- "Amish." Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
- "Amish." Wikipedia (accessed January 2007).
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