The Amish are a Christian people whose movement is descended directly from the Anabaptists of the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In the early years of the 1700s, many of them emigrated from their homeland in Europe to take up farming in colonial Pennsylvania, in the present-day territory of the United States of America. From there, they spread to other areas of the U.S. and Canada and today number about 200,000 adherents, most of whom are concentrated in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
The Amish are divided into several major sub-groups all of which share the same precepts of simple living and adherence to the basic principles contained in the Schleitheim Articles, an early Anabaptist document which sets forth the concept of a "Christian brotherhood living in a viable community" (Hostetler, Amish Society, page 28). They are also united by their common ancestry, language, and culture. The major Amish groupings differ from one another in the details of how they implement their ideas concerning simple living, that is, how they live their lives and define their relationship to the rest of the world and to modern society, in particular, their relationship to modern technology.
It is this latter aspect of Amish life which has, more than anything else, fired the interest of the larger society around them. For, in stark contrast to that larger society, the Amish have steadfastly resisted the encroachments of modern conveniences and technology, eschewing even the most ubiquitous aspects of modern civilization, such as the automobile, electric appliances, and the computer. Instead, the Amish have retained many of the key elements of the past, including horse-drawn vehicular transportation, horse-powered farming, and what seems to the society around them, an oddly anachronistic form of dress.
By standing as an almost singular exception to the reducing forces of the American "melting pot", the Amish have inspired reactions ranging from distrust and hostility to an idealized, Romantic notion of pastoral simplicity. In this latter connection, the Amish have become the centerpiece of a burgeoning tourist industry in those areas where they can be found, an industry which feeds upon and nourishes the Romantic image while at the same time it may subtly be undermining the very lifestyle they idealize.
The pressures towards conformity and modernity on the Amish emanating from the larger society around them will continue to exert themselves raising the question as to whether the Amish will be able to survive in the long run or whether they will eventually succumb to those pressures or be fundamentally changed by the process of dealing with them.
Origins and history
Prior to 1865, there was, essentially, one Amish church and all Amish were in communion with one another. In particular, they all shared a common history and heritage up to that point in time. In that year, tradition-minded and change-minded Amish began a process of separation. Since then, numerous Amish groupings, or affiliations, have developed, with the tradition-minded groups becoming known, collectively, as Old Order Amish.
Reformation and Anabaptist roots
Although the Amish trace their spiritual origins back to the time of Christ, it is the Anabaptist movement of the early 16th century, which in turn grew out of the Protestant Reformation, to which we must look to find the roots of their social origins as a distinctive people. Throughout the 15th century, economic and social pressures which threatened the existing social order had been mounting. Adding to the pressures, dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church and calls for widespread reform had surfaced in many forms and were given voice by a number of critics, including John Hus, John Wycliffe, and others. These forces came to a head, especially in regards to the Church, when Martin Luther, in 1517, posted his famous 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, calling for broad reforms in the Church.
Most of the early Protestant reformers favored the institution of an official, state religion under the auspices of a Reformed Church which was intended as a replacement for the Roman Catholic Church. In such an approach, the church would be territorially defined in conjunction with a temporal power. This was the case in Zurich, in present day Switzerland, where a Reform Church led by Huldrych Zwingli was established in conjunction with the Zurich Council.
In contrast to this approach towards reform, a number of people, dissatisfied with what they felt to be interference in church affairs by the Zurich Council, and Zwingli's acquiesence therein, proposed that the Church should be completely independent of the state. In particular, they rejected the practice of infant baptism, asserting that an infant could not have the capacity to understand Christian doctrine. They held that, instead, the church should be composed of practitioners who were voluntarily baptised as adults.
The rejection of infant baptism struck at the very basis of religious and civil life in a way which can be difficult for modern people in the West to understand. In the early 16th century in Europe, the concept of separation of church and state was not well established. In such a case, membership (as indicated by baptism) in the church, which in both Catholic and Reform models, was a state church, was closely akin to the modern concept of citizenship.
Infant baptism, as understood in the early 16th century, like the modern concept of citizenship, was based on the idea that one could be a member of a group (church, or state) without their consent. This is a direct consequence of such a group (state, church, or both in the case of a state church) claiming suzereignty of some kind over a territory and all the inhabitants thereof. The concept of church put forth by the Anabaptists, as those who rejected infant baptism came to be known, was that of a union of believers, that is, those who voluntarily ascribed to the religious tenets of the group, rather than a union of residents of a particular territory. The two concepts are incompatible.
Adult, voluntary baptism, with its rejection of infant baptism, thus appeared to the state and its associated state church as a form of sedition in that the practitioners were, in effect, denying loyalty to the sovereign state (and its associated church) which claimed such allegience based on territorial considerations. This was compounded by the early Anabaptists' rejection of military service as well as the fact that they accepted foreigners to their communion.
The issue was joined in early 1525 when a small group of religious believers baptized each other into a "believers' church"; the Swiss Brethren were formed. For their views, and their refusal to recognize the state church, they were persecuted. In fact, none of the three who formed the original Swiss Brethren survived more than a couple of years, with two of them being executed, one by drowning, the other burnt. Many of the Brethren fled to Alsace and the German Palatinate.
The Anabaptists worshipped in secret, in small groups. This dispersed, decentralized form of "organization" served as a survival strategy in view of the persecution. However, though it may have served as a survival strategy, it also carried with it the possibility that the group as a whole would lack unifying identity since each group of worshippers was self-standing.
It was to combat this possibility that a number of Anabaptist leaders met at Schleitheim, a small village near the Swiss - German border, in 1527 to adopt a set of unifying principles. Early in that year, at a conference of Swiss Brethren, the Schlietheim Articles were adopted; this is still the guiding document of both the Mennonites and the Amish today.
The Schleitheim Articles embodied overall general principles of agreement among all those who subscribed thereto. In addition, the document was designed to draw clear lines of distinction between the "Brotherly Union" of believers, on the one hand, and both the Roman Church and the mainstream Protestant Reformers, on the other.
Addressing such issues as adult baptism, the ban (excommunication), the Lord's Supper, the relationship between church leaders and the congregation, separation from the world, the use of force, and oath-taking, the framers of the document sought to build a church modeled on what they believed to be the church of the early New Testament times.
In considering the history of the Anabaptist movement, it is important to remember that the term Anabaptist was the appellation given to them by their opponents to whom the chief characteristic of the movement was that they were re-baptisers (the name itself meaning second baptism). The Anabaptists themselves did not consider that they were re-baptisers since they did not consider their first, or infant, baptism to be valid. But their opponents did not always trouble themselves with any fine (or not so fine) distinctions between one Anabaptist group and another.
Thus, while the Schleitheim Articles provided a general framework of agreement (and one not accepted by all), Anabaptism remained a hererogenous movement consisting of numerous loose groupings often centered around or identified with a particular leader. This was especially evident as the ideas of the movement spread out from its place of origin into the Netherlands and northern Germany beginning about 1530.
In 1534, one group of Anabaptists, infused by apocolyptic millenarian ideas, led an uprising which resulted in the seizure of the important center of Münster in northwestern Germany. Coming to power under the banner of "religious toleration", they established an Anabaptist state which soon descended into a theocratic dictatorship in which all other religious views were suppressed by violence. Later, even internal dissent was violently suppressed. After a year long siege, Münster finally fell to combined Catholic and Lutheran Protestant forces.
Even though the actions of the Münster rebels were evidently contrary to the principles accepted by other Anabaptists (the concept of an Anabaptist state being a virtual contradiction in terms), following the Münster Rebellion, there was a major intensification of persecution and suppression of Anabaptism wherever it had arisen in Europe. As an important consequence of this, Anabaptists everywhere were compelled to define their views with respect to Münster and, in general, to more sharply clarify their own internal definition of themselves and who was, and who was not, one of them. This in turn put the question of shunning (that is, the ban, as considered in Article II of the Schleitheim Articles) on the front burner. This was to become an important issue for Anabaptists for many years to come and would eventually lead to a major split (the Amish Division) around 1700.
Menno Simons - the Mennonites
Meanwhile, In the Netherlands, a Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons, who had been an Anabaptist sympathizer, finally converted to Anabaptism around 1536, renouncing his clerical role. His views and writings on behalf of the Anabaptists, or the non-violent portion thereof, became so influential that his very name began to be used as an identifier, and in this way arose the term Mennonites'.
The Amish division
In 1693, a church elder and Anabaptist spokesman, Jacob Ammann, who had earlier migrated from Switzerland to the Alsace, raised a number of issues regarding church discipline and attitudes towards the salvation of the "true hearted".
There were two principal issues involved. The first related to the question of the social avoidance. or shunning (German: Meidung) of those members who had come under the ban (excommunication) as prescribed in the Schleitheim Articles). The second major issue concerned the question as to the salvation of the "true hearted". These true-hearted people were Anabaptist sympathizers who aided the Anabaptists, sometimes at personal risk to themselves, but who were not members of any Anabaptist church congregation.
Although the Schleitheim Articles had only prescribed the ban as a means of church discipline, later, in 1632, the Dordrecht Confession enjoining social avoidance in re those excommunicated members was adopted by a number of Dutch Anabaptist congregations . In 1660, several Swiss congregations adopted the Dordrecht Confession, though by no means all. And even those that did adopt it sometimes never put all of its prescribed measures into effect.
The Amish immigration to America
In 1681, William Penn received a royal land grant to establish a colony in the New World. The colony which he founded eventually became known as Pennsylvania (Penn's Woods) and was to be a "holy experiment" based on religious toleration. Eventually, along with thousands of other European immigrants (many of whom were German speakers), numerous religious groups which, in the Old World, were persecuted, outcast, or otherwise marginalized, arrived at the port of Philadelphia to take up residence in Penn's new colony. Among the immigrants were large numbers of Mennonites and, later, Amish.
The first Mennonite immigrants to North America arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 17th century. Later, by 1736, and possibly earlier, Amish immigrants had definitely arrived and established a settlement in present day Berks County, Pennsylvania. In 1737, the first large-scale Amish arrivals, consisting of approximately 21 families, came over on the Charming Nancy.
Overall, during the 18th century, approximately 500 Amish immigrants arrived in the New World, with most settling in Amish ethnic commmunities in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Amish and other German-speaking immigrants came to be referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch) by their English neighbors.
The Amish immigration had been motivated primarily by a desire for religious freedom and the possibility of economic betterment. Most arrived as "free labor" rathter than indentured servants or redemptionists and took up farming upon arrival.
The American Revolution posed great challenges for the Amish in America. Being pacifists, they asserted a stance of neutrality. However, there was little middle ground between the two warring factions, with neither side recognizing such a stance. The situation was complicated by the fact that the German immigrants of pre-Revolutionary years had sworn an oath of loyalty to the British Crown as a condition for their being allowed to settle in the English colonies. Thus, to many Amish, support for the Revolutionaries would make them oath-breakers.
In the result, some Pennsylvania Amish were either jailed or fined, and those who did not pro-actively support the Revolution were disenfranchised (until 1790). In addition, there were defections, especially among younger Amish.
By the end of the century, the position of the Amish in America was precarious. In spite of the fact that the Amish tended to have large families, retention of the younger generation was a problem, with losses due to the allure of revivalism, defections during the Revolutionary years, and the difficulties of establishing new homes. By the year 1800, there were only about 1000 Amish in North America .
19th century: growth, and growing tensions
The first half of the nineteenth century were years of growth and prosperity for the Amish in North America. At the same time, these years saw a growing divide within the Amish community over the relationship of the Amish to the larger society around them.
Spurred in part by the economic dislocations following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Amish immigration to North America picked up steam. By centuries' end, over 3000 Amish would immigrate from Europe to America, often assisted with their passage and establishment of households by those Amish who were already in the New World. Once in the Americas, the Amish participated in the general westward migration of the larger society, moving into western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in addition to establishing a colony in Ontario, Canada in the 1820s.
These years were also years of enormous changes, economically and sociologically, in American society, changes which left the Amish in conflict not only with that larger society, but to an increasing extent, in conflict internally.
The developing Industrial Revolution, with its enormous increase in productive power and a concommitant development of a consumer culture, posed a fundamental challenge to Amish values. In contrast to the "other-worldly" focus of Amish culture and heritage, the new forces of capitalist expansion were connected with an entirely different mind-set.
American society of that time idealized individualism and freedom of choice while the Amish felt that man properly functioned only within a religious community which constrained his behavior and attitudes in various ways. The developing capitalist forces also promoted an ethic of consumption (called "refinement" at the time) which many Amish saw as being at variance with the simplicity which their church enjoined upon its members. In general, the Amish questioned the then-prevailing attitudes towards technological and economic progress with a countervailing attitude based more on tradition and the idea that not everything which was new was necessarily better. In this latter regard, other voices, such as that of Henry David Thoreau, were raised questioning the wisdom of progress, though from more of a philosophical rather than a religious perspective.
The Amish also stood in stark opposition to the tendencies of the larger American society which sought to assimilate immigrants into common patterns of behavior, thought, and lifestyle at the expense of their native traditions and folkways. In this connection, what seemed to outsiders as mere "ethnic folkways" were, to the Amish, much more fundamentally connected with their religious life which was predicated on being "in the world, but not of the world".
However, the pressures and allures of the world brought about divisions within the Amish community itself as some members adopted a more tolerant attitude towards change and the ways of the larger society. By 1850, the Amish were generally of two mind-sets, the change-minded and the tradition-minded, with resulting tensions between the two ways of thinking.
Some of the changes which were adopted by the more liberal minded Amish were the introduction of separate mmetinghouses for worship (rather than holding worship sessions in members' homes), sending their children to special Suday schools, and some limited particiipation in so-called "refined" living (somewhat fancier clothing, household furnishings, anc more elaborate carriages, for example). The more tradition-minded Amish found the adoption of these cahnges unsettling and, to some extent, contrary to their religious precepts.
The Amish today
While the Amish represent a distinctive culture and lifestyle, they are first and foremost a religious community. As such, they make a conscious effort to maintain faithfulness not only to their vision of the nature of the early Christian church community, but also to the religious precepts of their early 16th century founders. In addition to their basic Christian beliefs, the Amish place major emphasis on the following precepts which they regard as nothing more than a reflection of those beliefs:
- separation from the world
- centrality of the family
Many of those aspects of Amish life which seem peculiar and inconsistent can be understood by a reference to these central aspects of their religious expression.
Religious beliefs and practices
In stark contrast to the trend towards mega-churches, the Amish continue to worship in small groups of families that reside in relatively close proximity to one another. In fact, worship takes place in member's homes rather than in separate church buildings.
Each local congregation, or church district, consists of between about 20 to 30 extended families who also interact socially and in other ways outside of church. Thus the worshippers are all quite well acquainted with one another. When a district grows to the point where it is no longer possible to accommodate the worship service in private homes, the district is divided, thus keeping the congregations numerically small and preserving the personal nature of the services.
The congregations, which are formally independent of one another and self-governing, are led by a team of ordained men, including a bishop, a deacon, and 2 or 3 ministers. These men are chosen from among the members of the congregation and serve in a voluntary capacity.
The congregations express themselves through their own understanding of what it means to be Amish within the congregation and this understanding is embodied in each communities' Ordnung. Reflecting the fact that the congregations are independent of one another, each will have its own Ordnung, though there are certain basic features in common to all of them which justifies speaking of a class of Old Order Amish.
On certain matters, the Ordnung, which is unwritten, can be very detailed and specific. It is the Ordnung which regulates such matters as attire and hari styles, education, allowable usages of technology, the style of buggies, and the ceremonial life of the community. In short, the Ordnung defines and regulates the whole way of life of the Amish community.
Lifestyle and culture
Education and the upbringing of Amish youth
From the beginnings of the public school movement in the United States in the early part of the 19th century, the Amish sent their children to the public schools for their education. However, the situation began to change with the onset of the move towards consolidated schools, a movement which gained steam throughout the first half of the 20th century. In addition to the closing of the traditional one room schoolhouses, the Amish also had concerns abut the lengthening of the school day and school year as well as the nature of the curriculum and objectives thereof.
Following numerous very public conflicts in several states where many Amish fathers were arrested and jailed, the issue finally made its way to the United States Supreme Court where, in a landmark decision affecting religious liberty, the Court ruled, in Wisconsin v. Yoder in favor of the Amish and their rights in re the education of their children.
In the meanwhile, the Amish had begun the process of withdrawing from the public school system and establishing their own schools centered around the traditional one room schoolhouse. At present, nearly all Amish children in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the largest population of Amish in the United States, are educated through the 8th grade in one room Amish schoolhouses.
A typical Amish school consists of about 30 pupils (called scholars by the Amish) in all 8 grades. The teacher, often a single young Amish woman, herself educated in Amish schools through the 8th grade, is sometimes assisted by one or two helpers. A school board, either elected by the Amish in the church district in which the school is located, or appointed by the Church, is responsible for managing one or at most a few schools. The schools are financially supported by members of the Amish community. Depending on the district, either the parents of the scholars will be assesed a fee, or sometimes the entire church community will contribute with the parents paying an additional fee above the general levy. The Amish community also cares for the school in terms of building and grounds maintenance. At the same time, the Amish, through land and property taxes, support the regular public school system.
The schools themselves instruct in reading, spelling, English, German, mathematics, geography, and history. Although there is a daily devotional, religion is not taught as a special school subject since it is so tightly interwoven with the life of the community itself and it is also felt that the instruction in matters of religion is best left in the hands of the parents.
Relations with the outside world
For a detailed, authoritative examination of the Amish, covering their history, culture, and traditions, the reader could do no better than turn to John Hostetler's Amish Society (4th edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Hostetler is an Amishman turned professor of sociology and anthropology and his book reflects his academic qualifications. This book, intended as a description of the Amish people for non-Amish, has been widely reviewed and highly acclaimed in academic circles, and is used as a standard text in many college level classes.
For those wishing a somewhat more accessible introduction, Steven M. Nolt's A History of the Amish can be highly recommended. While not lacking academically, many may find Nolt's work to be somewhat more readable than Hostetler's book.
A number of books explore in more detail the current lifestyles and social condition of the Amish. Among the best is The Riddle of Amish Culture by Donald Kraybill which covers such topics as the Amish relationship to technology, their interactions with the government on issues such as education and social security, their system of education and upbringing of the young, their social values and institutions, and their religious beliefs.
Over the centuries and continuing into current times, the Amish have engaged the larger society around them in ways which have raised fundamental legal and social questions. In our own times, in the United States, issues concerning child labor, private education, conscription, social programs, and the like have challenged both the Amish and the larger society. These issues are explored in The Amish and the State (edited by Donald Kraybill) which consists of a number of essay articles by leading authorities on these and other issues related to the Amish.
A very recent publication is the Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites by Donald B. Kraybill. This single volume encyclopedia offers authoritative articles, essays, and information on all the major Anabaptist groupings in North America.
- It should be noted that the various major groupings of the Amish are by no means homogeneous whether in their rules regarding acceptable technologies or other matters. Nevertheless, the rejection of the automobile and the computer, and the use of horse power, as well as their distinctive dress, are widely characteristic of most Amish groups and are certainly one of the outstanding characteristics of the Amish as a whole in the popular imagination. The differences among the various Amish groups in re technology and other matters is discussed in more detail further on in the article.
- The name comes from a Latin word meaning "second baptism"
- Estimate by Steven M. Nolt in A History of the Amish, based on a study by Hugh F. Gingerich and Rachel W. Kreider, Amish and Amish Mennonite Genealogies (1986)