When a large group of Amish immigrants came to the United States in 1737, they built their lives with the work of their hands, bringing the land to life with true horse power. To this day the Amish choose to live a life of separation consistent with the traditions that have lasted for generations. The Amish remain separate from the rest of the world by living their lives in the age-old traditions and religion which they uphold.
Donald B. Kraybill, Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at Elizabethtown College, wrote The Riddle of Amish Culture. In it he explains many of the “riddles” of their culture which most who are not Amish do not understand. According to Kraybill, the history of the Amish began in sixteenth-century Europe with the Protestant Reformation. Rooted in the beliefs of the Anabaptists, who were considered heretics by the Catholic Church, the Amish were persecuted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (4).
The Amish eventually emerged from the Anabaptists (then called Mennonites after their leader Menno Simons) who fled Catholic persecution to the relative safety of Switzerland during the late 1600’s (5).
K Catholicism Catholics
1517 (Germany) Protestants
1525 (Switzerland) Mennonites
1693 (Alsace region) Amish
To Present Day
(Source: Figure 1-1 in Donald B. Kraybill, Riddle 7raybill’s “European Roots of the Amish” )
After bitter quarreling within the Mennonite church, a split occurred in 1693 between Simons and a young Mennonite leader named Jacob Ammann. Ammann taught that foot washing should be practiced regularly with communion and that shunning should be included with excommunication (6). The dominant issue of their conflicting views was the practice of shunning. According to the more lenient Swiss Anabaptists, excommunication only involved separation from communion and church activities. Ammann taught that the excommunicated should be shunned or suspended from all social interaction including family, marital relations, and any inter-community activities. This split gave birth to the Amish church.
The new Amish members excommunicated their former leaders until several years later when they apologized and attempted a reconciliation. However, by 1711 all attempts to repair the relationship were disbanded and their separation became permanent (6).
Due to renewed wars, persecution, and political upheaval, the Amish left their Swiss homeland and migrated to other nations. The ship Charming Nancy brought the first large group of Amish people to the United States in 1737. Many settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania which is still a growing community of Amish believers.
n the late 1700’s the United States had only two Amish settlements consisting of approximately 150 total adults (8). These groups continued to grow and spread across the nation, and according to John A. Hostetler’s book The Amish, they had grown from those 150 to more than 90,000 members by 1982 (8). In the Pennsylvania communities alone, there were 400,000 in 1989, and they are expected to reach 450,000 by year 2000 (Kraybill, Riddle 9). Large families, with as many as ten children, are the main contributors to their continued growth. Nearly 4 out of every 5 children join the Amish church. They are reproducing themselves and repopulating their quiet society (Kraybill, Puzzles 6-9). The Amish have grown out of those communities in Pennsylvania and migrated to more than twenty-three states all across the nation (Schwieder and Schwieder 6).
The Amish believe in a simple faith which permeates their daily lives, keeps them busy with practical work, and prevents devices of temptation from invading their society. Amish young people must decide whether or not to join this society between ages sixteen and twenty-one. This is no small decision. When they decide, they make a lifelong decision. Church elders stress the difficulty of this way of life and tutor the applicants for five months as preparation for their baptismal ceremony. During this ceremony the candidates kneel before a deacon and reply “yes” to three questions:
- (1) Are you willing, by the help and grace of God, to renounce the world, the devil, your own flesh and blood, and be obedient only to God and his church?
- (2) Are you willing to walk with Christ and his church and to remain faithful through life and until death?
- (3) Can you confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? (Kraybill, Riddle 100)
The Ordnung, which best translated means “ordinances” or “discipline,” is the unwritten order for Amish daily life. The Ordnung may differ slightly from community to community, but all contain the basic “do’s and don’ts” of Amish life. These ordinances vary from how hair should be combed to not allowing a telephone in the house (although some communities allow a phone outside and separate from the house). The Ordnung is passed from one generation to the next by example, habit, and word of mouth. The beliefs, regulations, and standards of “Amish life” are contained in the Ordnung. The younger Amish are taught anything outside these standards are not Amish and therefore taboo (Kraybill, Riddles 95-97).
Actions which are prohibited include:
- using tractors for field work
- owning and operating an automobile
- filing a lawsuit
- high school education
- jewelry, including wedding rings and wrist watches
- divorce (Kraybill, Riddles 98).
Sue Bender wrote, Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish, about her experiences while living with in an Amish community. This book describes Bender’s observations of the Amish lifestyle and faith in action. Before a child reaches the age of two years, he receives no discipline or punishment of any sort. At the age of two a child begins his training and discipline which will stay with him for life. The age of two is when the Amish believe that children can understand the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Therefore, they must be disciplined and taught to live “the good way.” As soon as they are able, children are given house and farm chores, so they quickly learn to find joy in their work which is the prevalent attitude throughout Amish society (61).
Shunning was the main controversy causing separation between Amish and Mennonite leaders in 1693, and still remains a part of Amish life (Kraybill, Riddle 115). Within the church, members are kept within the faith by their baptismal vows and strong family ties. When a member falls into sin, refuses to listen to his superiors, or disobeys the rules of his settlement, that member must be excommunicated. This involves shunning by the church and total separation from communion, all family and social conversation, and association with any Amish. Most Amish believe that the unpleasantness of shunning keeps the church pure and unified (Good 109). Amish church leaders base shunning on two verses found in the Bible:
First Corinthians 5:11 refers to several forms of sin and says “not to keep company with anyone [who sins]…–not even to eat with such a person.”
Romans 16:17 says, “…note those who cause divisions and offenses,… and avoid them.”
The members of the Amish community know that shunning is the next harshest punishment to expulsion, and they will make every effort to allow the accused to prevent being shunned by repenting.. If he does not repent, then a vote is taken at the next church service, and only when it is unanimous will that member be shunned. The member who has been shunned is in a most uncomfortable situation. If he continues his behavior, then the church may extend the ban to that member’s whole family. This provides an even larger incentive for repentance. To be reinstated in the church, they must repent before the entire congregation during a church service, this too is highly embarrassing (Schwieder and Schwieder 66-67). The purpose of shunning is to show the backslider his mistakes in hopes that he will mend his ways and repent. Those who fail to repent will be expelled and shunned by their own families and all Amish communities ( Kraybill, Puzzles 33). In reality a very small number of Amish members are ever actually shunned because disobedience rarely goes to such extreme (“Ask the Amish”).
Required schooling has been an issue over which the Amish have come into conflict, not with each other but with state and local governments. In the 1960’s, cases led by non-Amish defendants eventually reached the Supreme Court where the Amish won exemption from mandatory education above the eighth grade (Schwieder and Schwieder 123). Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “Amish objection to formal education beyond the eighth grade is firmly grounded in central religious beliefs” (Good 28). The main reason that the Amish object to education above the eighth grade is because they feel that enough education for their simple lifestyle has been provided by this grade level. Also, higher education exposes the children to values which threaten Amish religious beliefs (Kraybill, Puzzles 90). Due to the help of many “English,” as the Amish call outsiders, the Amish are now allowed to teach their children vocational skills instead of a regular high school education after the eighth grade. These skills better prepare them for a lifetime of manual labor within their community.
From birth Amish children are taught three languages: Pennsylvania “Dutch”, English, and High German. Pennsylvania “Dutch” is a form of the German language which was spoken by their Swiss ancestors and is still spoken fluently in their everyday conversation. They do not use this language in writing and must learn English as soon as they are old enough (Hostetler 18). English is used only when they go into the “English” community or speak with any non-Amish. It is not uncommon to hear an Amish person switching between languages when “English” people are present. High German is only used in association with worship. They read the Bible, pray, preach, and sing hymns in this tongue. The High German is usually taught only well enough for these purposes and is not used in everyday conversation (Hostetler 18). In the Amish community, communication plays a large part in knitting them together. Because of the general ban on the telephone, if they want to talk, they do so face to face and spend time together fellowshipping.
Even without speaking a word, the Amish portray their simple beliefs through their clothing. These simple and practical styles originated during the 17th and 18th centuries in southwest Germany. Their clothing is homemade and shows their refusal to have any show of luxury or wealth. To the Amish, any form of pride is considered sin. Therefore, they keep all their clothing plain and simple (Browning 106). Amish men wear homemade suits, vests, home-sewn shirts, practical pants, and suspenders. The straw hat completes their outfit in the summer, and a plain-brimmed, flat-topped hat in the winter. Women wear full dresses from neck to ankle and a prayer “Kapp” (cap) covering their hair bun (Browning 106-108). The Amish clothing reflects their simple life and the practicality which they apply to every aspect of life.
In The Amish, John A. Hostetler writes about the Amish family as a “strong social unit, notable for its stability and the contentment of its members” (12). Since divorce constitutes immediate excommunication, separations are extremely rare and marriage is for a lifetime (14). Families tend to be large and have an average of 8.6 children. Many families have as many as ten children. Even with large families, the cost of raising children in an Amish home is low. Families do not have to pay for clubs, college, cars, or fad clothing, and each child assumes their role as a family worker, supporting the family economy (Kraybill, Riddle 74). Family closeness is spawned by their daily activities together, and the security which the children receive comes from knowing they have their own part in everything the family does (Good 38). Family ties play a large part in joining the church. A young husband described this tie: “…the close family ties are the thing that really draws you back. If you grow up with it [Amish life], there really is something here that just kind of draws” (Kraybill, Riddles, 99-100).
At a young age the children learn the joy and value of hard work which is a trait they will be putting to use every day for the rest of their lives. The Amish believe it is their God given job to take care of the land, so they enjoy their daily work and consider it their way of getting close to Him (Bender 63-64). Everything they do is practical. They are either making something, sowing or reaping, but most of all working together to help the family’s welfare increase. By performing practical work, they find true satisfaction in seeing their projects completed. Many times families will work as a group, creating a close relationship. Amish work integrates everyone into a community “family” which willingly helps whenever one of its members is in need (Kraybill, Riddle 38-39).
The Amish carry on a legacy which has been upheld for over 300 years and still continues in each family. By upholding their beliefs and the unwritten Ordnung, they have separated themselves from the world and continue to live the life they hold dear.
Bender, Sue. Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish. New York: HaperCollins, 1989. Browning, Clyde. Amish in Illinois. Clyde Browning,
“Frequently Asked ‘Ask the Amish’ Questions!.” Ask the Amish FAQ. Action Video Inc., 1996.
Good, Merle. Who Are the Amish?. Intercourse: Good Books, 1985.
Hostetler, John A. The Amish. Scottdale: Herald, 1982.
Kraybill, Donald B.. The Puzzles of Amish Life. Intercourse: Good Books, 1990.
—. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1989.
New King James Version, Holy Bible . Personal Study Edition, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN Copyright 1995.
Schwieder, Elmer, and Dorothy Schwieder. A Peculiar People: Iowa’s Old Order Amish. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1975.
Note: I originally wrote this for my English 101 class in 1996.