The Amish are an Anabaptist Christian denomination found primarily in the United States and Ontario, Canada, that are known for restrictions on the use of modern devices such as automobiles and telephones. The Amish separate themselves from civil society for religious reasons: they do not join the military, draw (nor are forced into) Social Security, or accept any form of assistance from the government, and many avoid insurance. Most speak a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch (or Pennsylvania German), which the Amish call Deitsch.
The Amish are divided into dozens of separate fellowships, which are each broken down in turn into districts or congregations. Each district is fully independent and has its own Ordnung, or set of unwritten rules. This article primarily discusses the conservative Old Order Amish fellowships that observe strict regulations on dress, behavior, and the use of technology. There are many New Order Amish and Beachy Amish groups that use electricity and automobiles, but still consider themselves Amish.
An Amish girl (left) and a married Amish woman in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
In 2000, Raber's Almanac estimated there were 198,000 Old Order Amish in the United States. There are Old Order communities in 21 states; Ohio has the largest population (55,000), followed by Pennsylvania (47,000) and Indiana (37,000). The largest Amish settlements are in Holmes County, Ohio; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and LaGrange, Indiana. Significant populations are also seen in Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. With an average of seven children per family, the Amish population is growing rapidly, and new settlements are constantly being formed to obtain sufficient farmland. Some Beachy Amish have relocated to Central America, including a sizable community near San Ignacio, Belize.
Most Old Order and conservative Amish groups do not proselytise, and conversion to the Amish faith is rare. The Beachy Amish, however, do pursue missionary work.
The Amish movement takes its name from that of Jacob Amman (c. 1656 – c. 1730), a Swiss Mennonite leader. Amman believed the Mennonites were drifting away from the teachings of Simons and the 1632 Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of Faith, particularly the practice of shunning excluded members (known as the ban or Meidung). However, the Swiss Mennonites (who, because of unwelcoming conditions in Switzerland, were by then scattered throughout Alsace and the Palatinate) never practiced strict shunning as the Lowland Anabaptists did. Amman insisted upon this practice, even to the point of a spouse's refusing to sleep or eat with the banned member until he/she repented of his/her behavior. This strict literalism brought about a division in the Swiss Mennonite movement in 1693 and led to the establishment of the Amish. Because the Amish are the result of a division with the Mennonites, some consider the Amish a conservative Mennonite group.
The first Amish began migrating to the United States in the 18th century, largely to avoid religious persecution and compulsory military service. The first immigrants went to Berks County, Pennsylvania, but later moved, motivated both by land issues and by security concerns tied to the French and Indian War. Many eventually settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Other groups later settled in or spread to Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Maine, and Canada. The Amish congregations left in Europe slowly merged with the Mennonites. The last Amish congregation to merge with the Mennonites was Ixheim Amish congregation which merged with the neighboring Mennonite Church in 1937. Some Mennonite congregations, including most in Alsace, are descended directly from former Amish congregations.
No Old Order movement ever developed in Europe and all Old Order communities are in the Americas.
Most Amish communities that were established in North America did not ultimately retain their Amish identity. The original major split that resulted in the loss of identity occurred in the 1860s. During that decade Dienerversammlungen (ministerial conferences) were held in Wayne County, Ohio, concerning how the Amish should deal with the pressures of modern society. The meetings themselves were a progressive idea; that bishops should get together to discuss uniformity was an unprecedented notion in the Amish church. By the first several meetings, the conservative bishops agreed to boycott the Dienerversammlungen. Thus, the more progressive Amish within several decades became Amish-Mennonite, and were then later absorbed into the "Old" Mennonites (not to be confused with Old Order Mennonites). The much smaller faction became the Amish of today. As the non-Amish world's usage of electricity and automobiles increased, a tourist industry sprung up around the Amish in places such as the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Hochmut and Demut
Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their revulsion of Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and the high value they place on Demut or "humility" and Gelassenheit — often rendered "submission" or "letting-be," but perhaps better understood as a reluctance to forward or 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 so central to the wider American culture. The anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on neighbors, or which, like electricity, might start a competition for status-goods, or which, like photographs, might cultivate individual or family vanity. It is also the proximate cause for rejecting education beyond the eighth grade, especially speculative study which has little practical use for farm-life but which may awaken personal and materialistic ambitions. The emphasis on competition and the uncritical assumption that self-reliance is a good thing, cultivated in American high schools, are in direct opposition to core Amish values.
Separation from the outside and between groups
The Amish often cite three Bible verses which encapsulate their cultural attitudes:
"Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (II Corinthians 6:14)
"Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." (II Corinthians 6:17)
“And be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
The Amish prefer to have minimal contact with non-Amish. However, increased prices for farmland and decreasing revenues for low-tech farming have forced many Amish to work away from the farm, particularly in construction and factory-labor, and, in those areas where there is a significant tourist trade, to engage in crafts for profit. The Amish are ambivalent about both the consequences of this contact and the commoditization of their culture. The decorative arts play little role in authentic Amish life (though the prized Amish quilts are a genuine cultural inheritance, unlike hex signs), and are in fact regarded with suspicion, as a field where egotism and vain display can easily develop.
Amish lifestyles vary between (and sometimes within) communities. These differences range from profound to minuscule. "Black bumper" Beachy Amish drive chromeless automobiles and are rejected as non-Amish by most other groups, while conservative fellowships may disagree over the number of suspenders males should wear (only one is needed, so two could be seen as vanity) or how many pleats there should be in a bonnet. Groups with similar policies are held to be "in fellowship" and consider each other members of the same Christian church. These groups can visit and intermarry with one another, an important consideration for avoiding problems with inbreeding. Thus minor disagreements within communities over dairy equipment or telephones in workshops can create splinter churches and divide multiple communities.
Some of the strictest Old Order Amish groups are the Nebraska Amish, Troyer Amish, the Swartzendruber Amish, and Amish communities in Webster County, Missouri. Stricter groups tend to use Deitsch more, while more progressive groups often use English in the home. Amish who leave the old ways often remain near their communities, and in general, there are levels of progression from strict Amish to more liberal groups (usually Mennonite).
Baptism, rumspringa, and shunning
The Amish and other Anabaptists do not believe that a child can be meaningfully baptized; this is, in fact, reflected in the name Anabaptist (which means "rebaptizer", as the Anabaptists would baptize adults). Amish children are expected to follow the will of their parents in all issues, but when they come of age, they are expected to make an adult, permanent commitment to the church.
Rumspringa (Deitsch, "jumping around") is the general term for adolescence and the period leading up to serious courtship. 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 expected nor overlooked. At the end of this period, Amish young adults are expected to find a spouse and be baptized. Some choose not to join the church, but to live the rest of their lives in the society at large. Some communities will actively shun those who decide to leave the church, 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 the church. Some communities have split in the last century over how they apply the shunning, as in the case of the Holmes County (and area) Amish settlement. Shunning is also sometimes imposed by bishops on church members guilty of offenses such as using forbidden technology. Church members may also be "called to the carpet" to confess before the congregation.
The Old Order Amish have worship services every other Sunday at private homes. Since the average district has 168 members, they are often seated in several different rooms, men separate from women. Worship begins with a short sermon by one of several preachers or the bishop of the church district, followed by scripture reading and silent prayer, and another, longer sermon. The service is interspersed with hymns, sung without instrumental accompaniment or harmony. Singing is usually very slow, and a single hymn may take 15 minutes to finish. Worship is followed by lunch and socializing. The service and all hymns are in Deitsch. Amish preachers and deacons are selected by lot (based on Acts 1:23–26) out of a group of men nominated by the congregation. They serve for life and have no formal training. Amish bishops are similarly chosen by lot from those selected as preachers.
Typically, the Amish hold communion in the spring and the fall, and not necessarily during regular church services. As with regular services, the men and women are in separate rooms. After receiving the elements, the members each wash and dry another's feet.
The Amish practice adult baptism, as part of the admission into the church. Admission is taken seriously, for to leave the church after joining it means one's friends and family must shun you. On the other hand, those who do not join the church are not shunned. Those who come to be baptized sit with one hand over their face, to represent their submission and humility to the church. Typically, a deacon will ladle water from a bucket into the bishop's hand, and the bishop will sprinkle the head three times, in the name of father, son, and holy ghost, after which he will bless each new male member of the church and greet them into the fellowship of the church with a holy kiss, and his wife will similarly bless and greet each new female church member.
Weddings are typically held on Thursdays in late fall, after the harvest is in. The father of a husband-high daughter ritually announces that she is available for courtship by painting a door blue, but given the reluctance of many fathers and the eagerness of many teenaged girls, she may have chosen her partner for life long before the paint is applied. The bride typically wears blue. It will be a new dress for the wedding, but she will wear it again on other formal occasions, and of course, she wears no makeup. She will have no engagement ring, and no wedding ring will be exchanged, for the Ordnung prohibits personal jewelry. The marriage ceremony itself may take several hours, after which the community celebrates with the newlyweds, sharing food, drink, stories and laughter. Those who live in Amish country drive carefully on such evenings; they know that horses pulling buggies through the night can find their way home by themselves, but if the driver isn't awake and alert, the horse may wander all over the road, instead of staying to the right side. Newlyweds typically spend the wedding night in the bride's mother's home. A sudden abundance of celery crops also hints at a near-and-coming Amish wedding. Celery is the main food used in the wedding feast and is also used as decoration throughout the house. Celery is used because of its abundance due to economic dependences on farming. It is not uncommon for the family of the bride to pay for a wedding in stalks and acres of celery.
Funeral customs appear to vary more from community to community than other religious services. In Allen County, Indiana, the Amish engage Hockemeyer Funeral Home, the only local funeral director who offers a horse-drawn hearse, to embalm the body. They hold funeral services in the home, however, rather than using the funeral parlor. Instead of referring to the deceased with stories of his life, eulogizing him, services tend to focus on the creation story, and biblical accounts of resurrection. After the funeral, the hearse carries the casket to the cemetery, for a reading from the bible, perhaps a hymn is read (rather than sung) and the Lord's Prayer. The Amish usually, but not always, choose Amish cemeteries, and purchase gravestones which are uniform, modest, and plain; in recent years, they have been inscribed in English. After a funeral, the community gathers together to share a meal.
Quilting is perhaps one of the best-known talents of Amish women. Amish quilts are made from scraps of worn clothing and therefore, incorporate those colors. The Pennsylvania Star, Idaho Star, and Shoo-Fly patterns are some of the more popular among their quilts. Most quilts are completely hand-sewn and passed down through each generation. They are often sold at auctions, along with Amish furniture and canned goods.
Picture shows Amish and modern transportation in Pennsylvania.
Many Amish, especially those of the Old Order, are renowned for their avoidance of modern technologies. The avoidance of items such as automobiles and electricity is largely misunderstood. The Amish do not view technology as evil. Individuals may petition for acceptance of a particular technology in the local community. In some communities, the church leaders meet to review such proposals. In others, it is done whenever necessary. Because the Amish, like other Mennonites, and unlike the Catholic or Anglican Churches, do not have a top-down governing structure, differing communities often have different ideas as to which technological items are acceptable.
Picture shows a telephone booth set up by an "English" farmer for emergency use by local Amish families.
Electricity, for instance, is viewed as a connection to the "World", the "English", or "Yankees" (the outside world). The use of electricity also could lead to the use of household appliances, which would complicate the Amish tradition of a simple life, and introduce individualist competition for worldly goods that would be destructive of community. However, in certain Amish groups, electricity can be used in very specific situations. In some groups, for example, electricity can be produced without access to outside power lines. Twelve-volt batteries are acceptable to these groups. Electric generators can only be used for welding, recharging batteries, and powering milk stirrers. The reasoning behind the twelve-volt system is that it limits what an individual can do with the electricity and acts as a preventive measure against potential abuses. Most twelve-volt power sources cannot generate enough current to power what are viewed as worldly, modern appliances such as televisions or hair dryers. In certain situations, outdoor electrical appliances may be used: lawn mowers (riding and hand-pushed) and string trimmers, for example. Many Amish families have non-electric versions of vital appliances, such as kerosene-powered refrigerators.
Amish communities often adopt compromise solutions involving technology which may seem strange to outsiders. For example, many communities will allow gas powered farm equipment such as tillers or mowers, but only if they are pushed by a human or pulled by a horse. The reasoning is that Amish farmers will not be tempted to purchase more land and outcompete other farmers in their community, if they still have to move the equipment manually. Many Amish communities also accept the use of chemical pesticides and GM crops.
The Ordnung is viewed as a guide to community standards, rather than doctrine that defines sin. The four Old Order Amish communities of Allen County, Indiana, are more conservative than most; they use open buggies, even during the winter, and they wear black leather shoes even in the hot summer. However, in the 1970s, a farmer near Milan Center, Indiana was ordered by his bishop to buy a conventional tractor. He had progressively severe arthritis and, with no sons to harness the horses for him, the tractor was seen as a need, rather than a vanity. The rest of the community continued farming with horses.
The Amish will hire drivers, for example, for visiting family, monthly grocery shopping, commuting to the workplace off the farm, though this too is subject to local regulation and variation. Hiring a taxi is forbidden on Sundays (as is any transfer of money). The practice increases the geographic reach of the Amish, and decreases isolation: a horse can travel only about 25 miles and then must rest for a considerable period, restricting the Amish to a radius of 12.5 miles from home. Moreover, a horse and buggy can only sustain 10 MPH over an extended distance. A 25 mile ride in a buggy takes almost 4 hours, whereas a taxi ride of the same distance in rural areas requires only 30 minutes. Regular bus service between Amish communities has been established in some areas.
The telephone is another technology whose avoidance is often misunderstood. The telephone is despised because it eliminates face-to-face communication and with it the subtleties of facial and body language. Again, practicality has its place; most Lancaster County, PA, Amish use telephones with the restriction that the phone booth must be far enough from the house, as not to make its use too convenient. Almost all of these Amish phones have voice mail service from the phone companies. The Amish will also use trusted English neighbors as contact points for passing on family emergency messages.
In addition to English, most Amish speak a distinctive High German dialect called Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch, which the Amish themselves call Deitsch (German). Although now limited primarily to the Amish, Pennsylvania German was originally spoken by many German-American immigrants in Pennsylvania, especially by those who came prior to 1800. The so-called Swiss Amish speak an Alemannic German dialect that they call "Swiss". Beachy Amish, especially those who were born roughly after 1960, and more progressive groups tend to speak predominantly in English at home. Amish children learn German first and are taught English later. There are dialectal variations between communities, including Lancaster County and Indiana speech varieties. The Amish themselves are aware of regional variation, and occasionally experience difficulty in understanding speakers from outside their own area.
Deitsch is distinct from Plautdietsch and Hutterite German dialects spoken by other Anabaptist groups
Dress code for some groups includes prohibitions against buttons, allowing only hooks and eyes to keep clothing closed; other groups allow members to sew buttons onto clothing. In some groups, certain articles can have buttons and others cannot. The restriction on buttons is attributed in part to their former association with military uniforms, and also to their potential for serving as opportunities for vain display. Straight-pins are often used to hold articles of clothing together. In all things, the aesthetic value is "plainness": clothing should not call attention to the wearer by cut, color or any other feature. Prints such as florals, stripes, polka-dots, etc. are not encouraged in Amish dress, although these trends have been adapted by fellow Mennonites.
Women usually wear long dresses in a solid, plain color such as blue. Aprons are often worn, usually in white or black, at home and always worn when attending church. A cape which consists of a triangular shape of cloth is usually worn beginning around the teenage years and pinned into the apron. In the colder months, a wool shroud is sported and pinned to hold together. Heavy bonnets are also worn over the prayer coverings when Amish women are out and about in cold weather.
Men typically wear dark-colored pants and a dark vest or coat, suspenders, and broad-rimmed straw hats in the warmer months and black felt hats in the colder months. Typically, single Amish men are clean-shaven and married men grow a beard. In some communities, however, a man will grow a beard after he is baptized. Mustaches are generally not allowed, because they are seen as symbols of both pride and the military, a custom with origins in the religious and political persecution in 16th and 17th century Europe. Men of the nobility and upper classes, who often served as military officers, wore mustaches but not beards. The wearing of beards, however, is largely based on the same beliefs against shaving that leads Hasidic Jews and conservative Muslims to not shave their beards.
The Amish are afflicted by numerous heritable genetic disorders, including dwarfism (Ellis-van Creveld syndrome), and are also distinguished by the highest incidence of twinning in a known human population, various metabolic disorders and unusual distribution of blood-types. Since almost all of the current Amish descend primarily from the same few hundred founders in the 18th century, genetic disorders among the Amish are from founder effects exacerbated by a degree of inbreeding. However, between different communities, different family names and different disorders are prevalent. The Amish do not represent a single closed community, but rather a collection of different demes or genetically closed communities. Some of these disorders are quite rare, or even unique, and serious enough that they increase the mortality rate among Amish children. The majority of the Amish accept these as "Gottes Wille" (God's will) and reject any use of genetic tests prior to the marriage to prevent the appearance of these disorders and refuse genetic tests to the fetus to discover if a child has any genetic disorder.
There is an increasing consciousness among the Amish of the advantages of exogamy. Genetic diseases which are common in one community will often be absent in another, and genetic disorders can be avoided by choosing spouses from unrelated communities. For example, the founding families of the Lancaster County Amish are unrelated to the founders of the Perth County Amish community in Canada.
Because they refuse to take out health insurance, Amish sometimes encounter difficulty receiving medical care in the United States, where universal health insurance is not available. A handful of American hospitals, starting in the mid 1990s, created special outreach programs to assist the Amish. The first of such programs was instituted at the Susquehanna Health System in central Pennsylvania by James H. Huebert. The program has earned national media attention in the United States and has spread to several surrounding hospitals. Treating genetic problems is the mission of Dr. Holmes Morton's Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, which has developed effective treatment for such problems as maple syrup urine disease, which previously was fatal. The clinic has been enthusiastically embraced by most Amish and has largely ended a situation in which some parents felt it necessary to leave the community to care properly for their children, which normally would result in being shunned.
A second research and primary care clinic, patterned after Dr. Holmes Morton’s clinic, DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children, is located in Middlefield, Ohio. The DDC Clinic began treating special needs children with inherited or metabolic disorders in May 2002. The DDC Clinic provides treatment, research and educational services to Amish and non-Amish children and their families. The DDC Clinic is open to all children.
Most Amish do not practice any form of birth control, including the rhythm method.
The Amish do not educate their children past the eighth grade, believing that the basic knowledge offered to that point is sufficient to prepare one for the Amish lifestyle. Almost no Amish go to high school, much less to college. In many communities, the Amish operate their own schools, typically one-room schoolhouses with teachers from the Amish community. In the past, there have been major conflicts between the Amish and outsiders over these matters of local schooling. But for the most part they have been resolved and the educational authorities allow the Amish to educate their children in their own ways. Sometimes there are conflicts between the state-mandated minimum age for discontinuing schooling and the younger age of children who have completed eighth grade. This is often handled by having the children repeat eighth grade until they are old enough to leave school.
On May 19, 1972, Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller of the Old Order Amish and Adin Yutzy of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church were each fined $5 for refusing to send their children, aged 14 and 15, to high school. The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred, finding that the benefits of universal education do not justify violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court quoted sociology professor John A. Hostetler (1918–2001), who was born into an Amish family, wrote several books about the Amish, Hutterites, and Old Order Mennonites, and was then considered the foremost academic authority on the Amish. Donald Kraybill, Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, is likely the most important scholar studying the Amish today.
The Amish as a whole feel the pressures of the modern world. Child labor laws, for example, are seriously threatening their long-established ways of life. Amish children are taught at an early age to work hard. Amish parents will supervise the children in new tasks to ensure that they learn to do it effectively and safely.
The modern child labor laws conflict with allowing the Amish parents to decide whether or not their children are competent in hazardous tasks.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the Amish vote, and they have been courted by national parties as potentially crucial swing-constituencies: their pacifism and social conscience cause some of them to be drawn to left-of-center politics, while their generally conservative outlook causes others to favor the right wing. They are nonresistant and rarely defend themselves physically or even in court; in wartime, they take conscientious objector status; their own folk-history contains tales of heroic nonresistance.
Like many Mennonites, Amish rely on their church and community for support, and thus reject the concept of insurance. An example of such support is barn raising, in which the entire community gathers together to build a barn in a single day.
In 1961, the United States Internal Revenue Service announced that since the Amish refuse United States Social Security benefits and have a religious objection to insurance, they need not pay these taxes. In 1965, this policy was codified into law. Self-employed individuals in certain sects do not pay into, nor receive benefits from, United States Social Security, nor do their similarly-exempt employees. Amish employees of non-exempt employers are taxed, but they do not apply for benefits. A provision of this law mandates that the sect provide for their elderly and disabled; one visible sign of the care Amish provide for the elderly are the smaller Grossvatihaus ("grandfather house") often built near the main dwelling. The Amish are not the only ones exempt from Social Security in the United States. Ministers, certain church employees and Christian Science practitioners may qualify for exemption under a similar clause. Otherwise, the Amish pay the same taxes as other American citizens. The Amish therefore likely pay more in taxes, especially real estate taxes, than it costs for the minimal government services they receive.
Amish youth in a passing buggy.
The Amish have, on occasion, encountered discrimination and hostility from their neighbors. During the World Wars, Amish nonresistance sparked many incidents of harassment, and young Amish men forcibly inducted into the services were subjected to various forms of ill-treatment. In the present day, anti-Amish sentiment has taken the form of systematic harassment, particularly claiping, the act of pelting the horse-drawn carriages used by the Amish with stones or similar objects as the carriages pass along a road, most commonly at night. A 1988, made-for-TV film, A Stoning In Fulham County, is based on a true story involving one such incident, in which a six-month-old Amish infant girl was struck in the head by a rock and died from her injuries. In 1997, a young Amish woman in Milverton, Ontario, Canada, was struck in the face by a beer bottle believed to have been thrown from a passing car; she required thousands of dollars' worth of surgery to her face (which was paid for by an outpouring of donations from the public). It was later found that this was not a case of 'claipping'; the bottle had been thrown by another group of
Quakers are unrelated to the Amish, although the early Quakers were influenced to some degree by the Anabaptists and were also "plain people" in manner and lifestyle. Modern Quakers have since abandoned their traditional dress.
Despite the vast differences between them, the Amish are sometimes confused with Mormons, another primarily North American sect based in Christianity. The French version of the film Witness mistranslated "Amish" as "Mormon".
Amish school shooting