The Amish people in America are an old religious sect, direct descendants of the Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Europe. Following the promise of religious tolerance in America, the Amish settled within the U.S. There are several groups of Amish, which follow different rule sets pertaining to dress, technology, and family life.
In general, the Amish value a simple life, centered around family, following devout Christian beliefs. Amish separate themselves from American society—and disavow intermarriage with non-Amish—as a way to preserve their values.
Anabaptists, Mennonites, and the Amish
Not to be confused with the term anti-Baptist, Anabaptist Christians—the earliest Amish— challenged the reforms of Martin Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism in favor of baptism (or re-baptism) as believing adults. Also, they taught separation of church and state, something that was unheard of in the 16th century. Later known as the Mennonites, after the Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons (1496 to 1561), a large group of Anabaptists fled to Switzerland and other remote areas of Europe to escape religious persecution.
During the late-1600s, a group of devout individuals led by Jakob Ammann broke away from the Swiss Mennonites, primarily over the lack of strict enforcement of meidung or shunning—an excommunication of disobedient or negligent members. Also, they differed over other matters such as foot washing and the lack of rigid regulation of costume. This group became known as the Amish and, to this day, still share most of the same beliefs as their Mennonite cousins. The distinction between the Amish and Mennonites is largely one of dress and manner of worship.
Amish Settlements in America
The first sizable group of Amish arrived in America around 1730 and settled near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as a result of William Penn's experiment in religious tolerance.
The Pennsylvania Amish are not the largest group of U.S. Amish as is commonly thought, however. The Amish have settled in as many as 24 states, Canada, and Central America, though about 80 percent are located in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. The greatest concentration of Amish is in Holmes County, Ohio, and adjoining counties in northeast Ohio about 100 miles from Pittsburgh. Next in size is a group of Amish people in Elkhart and surrounding counties in northeastern Indiana. Then comes the Amish settlement in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
The Amish population in the U.S. numbers more than 150,000 and is growing, due to large family size (seven children on average) and a church-member retention rate of approximately 80 percent.
All aspects of Amish life are dictated by a list of written or oral rules, known as Ordnung or "order" in German, which outlines the basics of the Amish faith and helps to define what it means to be Amish. For an Amish person, the Ordnung may dictate almost every aspect of one's lifestyle, from dress and hair length to buggy style and farming techniques. The Ordnung varies from community to community and order to order, which explains why you will see some Amish riding in automobiles, while others do not accept the use of battery-powered lights.
By some estimates, there are as many as eight different orders within the Amish population, with the majority affiliated with one of five religious orders: Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Andy Weaver Amish, Beachy Amish, and Swartzentruber Amish. These churches operate independently from each other with differences in how they practice their religion and conduct their daily lives. The Old Order Amish are the largest group. The Swartzentruber Amish, an offshoot of the Old Order, are the most conservative.
Symbolic of their faith, Amish clothing styles encourage humility and separation from the world. The Amish dress in a very simple style, avoiding all but the most basic ornamentation. Clothing is made at home of plain fabrics and is primarily dark in color.
Amish men, in general, wear straight-cut suits and coats without collars, lapels, or pockets. Trousers never have creases or cuffs and are worn with suspenders. Belts are forbidden, as are sweaters, neckties, and gloves. Men's shirts fasten with traditional buttons in most orders, while suit coats and vests fasten with hooks and eyes. Young men are clean-shaven prior to marriage, while married men are required to let their beards grow. Mustaches are forbidden.
Amish women typically wear solid-color dresses with long sleeves and a full skirt, covered with a cape and an apron. They never cut their hair, and wear it in a braid or bun on the back of the head concealed with a small white cap or black bonnet. Clothing is fastened with straight pins or snaps, stockings are black cotton, and shoes are also black. Amish women are not permitted to wear patterned clothing or jewelry. The rules of the specific Amish order may dictate matters of dress as explicit as the length of a skirt or the width of a seam.
Use of Technology
The Amish are averse to any technology which they feel weakens the family structure. Conveniences like electricity, television, automobiles, telephones, and tractors are considered to be a temptation that could cause vanity, create inequality, or lead the Amish away from their close-knit community and, as such, are not encouraged or accepted in most orders.
Most Amish cultivate their fields with horse-drawn machinery, live in houses without electricity, and get around in horse-drawn buggies. It is common for Amish communities to allow the use of telephones, but not in the home. Instead, several Amish families will share a telephone in a wooden shanty between farms.
Electricity is sometimes used in certain situations, such as electric fences for cattle, flashing electric lights on buggies, and heating homes. Windmills are often used as a source of naturally generated electric power in such instances. It is also not unusual to see Amish using 20th-century amenities as inline skates, disposable diapers, and gas barbecue grills because they are not specifically prohibited by the Ordnung.
Technology is generally where you will see the greatest differences between Amish orders. The Swartzentruber and Andy Weaver Amish are ultraconservative in their use of technology—the Swartzentruber, for example, do not allow the use of battery lights. Old Order Amish have little use for modern technology but are allowed to ride in motorized vehicles including planes and automobiles, though they are not allowed to own them. The New Order Amish permit the use of electricity, ownership of automobiles, modern farming machines, and telephones in the home.
The Amish believe strongly in education, but only provide formal education through the eighth grade and only in their own private schools. The Amish are exempt from state compulsory attendance beyond the eighth grade based on religious principles, the result of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
One-room Amish schools are private institutions operated by Amish parents. Schooling concentrates on basic reading, writing, math, and geography, along with vocational training and socialization in Amish history and values. Education is also a big part of home life with farming and homemaking skills considered an important part of an Amish child's upbringing.
Amish Family Life
The family is the most important social unit in the Amish culture. Large families with seven to 10 children are common. Chores are clearly divided by sex roles in the Amish home—the man usually works on the farm while the wife does the washing, cleaning, cooking, and other household chores. There are exceptions, but typically the father is considered the head of the Amish household. German is spoken in the home though English is also taught in school. Amish marry Amish. No intermarriage is allowed.
Divorce is not permitted and separation is very rare.
Amish Daily Life
The Amish separate themselves from others for a variety of religious reasons, often citing the following Bible verses in support of their beliefs:
- "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)
Because of their religious beliefs, the Amish try to separate themselves from outsiders, in an effort to avoid temptations and sin. They choose, instead, to rely on themselves and the other members of their local Amish community. Because of this self-reliance, the Amish don't draw Social Security or accept other forms of government assistance. Their avoidance of violence in all forms means they also don't serve in the military.
Each Amish congregation is served by a bishop, two ministers, and a deacon—all male. There is no central Amish church. Worship services are held in community members' homes where walls are designed to be moved aside for large gatherings. The Amish feel that traditions bind generations together and provide an anchor to the past, a belief that dictates the way they hold church worship services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
The Amish practice adult baptism, rather than infant baptism, believing that only adults can make informed decisions about their own salvation and commitment to the church.
Prior to baptism, Amish teenagers are encouraged to sample life in the outside world, in a period referred to as rumspringa, the Pennsylvania Dutch word for "running around." They are still bound by the beliefs and rules set by their community, but a certain amount of disregard and experimentation is permitted or overlooked. During this time many Amish teenagers use the relaxed rules for a chance at courting and other wholesome fun, but some may dress "English," smoke, talk on cell phones, or drive around in automobiles.
Rumspringa ends when the youth requests baptism into the church or chooses to permanently leave Amish society. Most choose to remain Amish.
Amish weddings are simple, joyous events that involve the entire Amish community. Amish weddings are traditionally held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in late fall after the final autumn harvest. A couple's engagement is usually kept secret until just a few weeks before the wedding when their intentions are publicized in church. The wedding usually takes place at the home of the bride's parents with a lengthy ceremony followed by a huge feast for the invited guests.
The bride typically makes a new dress for the wedding, which will then serve as her "good" dress for formal occasions after the wedding. Blue is the typical wedding dress color. Unlike most of today's elaborate weddings, however, Amish weddings involve no makeup, rings, flowers, caterers, or photography. Newlyweds typically spend the wedding night in the bride's mother's home so they can get up early the next day to help clean up the home.
As in life, simplicity is important to the Amish in death as well. Funerals are generally held in the home of the deceased. The funeral service is simple with no eulogy or flowers. Caskets are plain wooden boxes made within the local community. Most Amish communities will allow the embalming of the body by a local undertaker familiar with Amish customs, but no makeup is applied.
An Amish funeral and burial are typically held three days after death. The deceased is usually buried in the local Amish cemetery. Graves are hand dug. Gravestones are simple, following the Amish belief that no individual is better than another. In some Amish communities, the tombstone markers are not even engraved. Instead, a map is maintained by the community ministers to identify the occupants of each burial plot.
Meidung or shunning means expulsion from the Amish community for breaching religious guidelines—including marrying outside the faith. The practice of shunning is the main reason that the Amish broke away from the Mennonites in 1693. When an individual is shunned, it means they have to leave their friends, family, and lives behind. All communication and contact are cut off, even among family members. Shunning is serious and usually considered a last resort after repeated warnings.