The Amish life is a wonderful story to tell because it is so complex yet simple. It begins with their history which you can read below. The Amish are not locked in the past; they value their history, but they make a personal choice to limit their exposure to the world and divisive things within the world. This choice to live in the world, but separate is based on gelassenheit – submission to God, to others, and to the church (Romans 12:2, Titus 2:11-14). This means they strive to live out the words of Jesus in everyday life – forgiveness, kindness, slow to anger, quick to listen. They have their community for support and encouragement. With this as their base, they choose to accept or reject what modern society has to offer. While they do live separate from society as a whole, they are very friendly with neighbors and visitors. Close friendships with non-Amish neighbors or co-workers is common.
The Amish hold their traditions and beliefs dear, so many of their lifestyle choices are drawn from this commitment. As you can read from their history, most early Amish settlers who migrated to America came from the areas around or near present day Germany, Switzerland and France. Because of this, German was the most common language spoken. They held on to their native tongue, but over the years this has evolved into their everyday language commonly known as “Pennsylvania Dutch” which is similar to the German language.
Pennsylvania Dutch is the language spoken in the home and among friends, but they switch to English if an English-speaking person is among them. Because young children spend most of their time at home, they too speak Pennsylvania Dutch until the age of five. When they start school at age five or six, only English is spoken in the Amish school, so they quickly learn to converse easily in both languages.
There are several groups within the Amish faith. The largest, and what we most typically think of as Amish, is the group known as Old Order Amish. This is one of the more conservative groups, who use horses and buggies for personal transportation and choose not to use electricity in their homes. Schwartzentruber Amish, primarily found in large communities in Ohio, are in some ways more conservative than the Old Order Amish. Because they do not use many “modern” conveniences, they need to live close together in large groups to provide for all their needs. There are also New Order Amish and Beachy Amish who tend to be less conservative in their lifestyles, somewhere between traditional Amish and Mennonites.
Three priorities guide the Amish culture: God, community and family. Many of the choices they make that may seem unusual to outsiders are based on preserving one of these three key commitments. Because each Amish community is run individually, with no Amish “pope” or national church leadership, decisions are made within guidelines for what is considered best for the community. When making these decisions, they look to examples in the Bible and how Jesus lived. They also look at how their choice would impact their community, always looking for unity. And they question how something would affect the family unit, asking whether the issue in question will bring them closer or push them apart.
The foundational “heart” of their Christianity is Gelassenheit, which basically means submission to God, others, and the church. In other words, striving for a life of humility and putting others before self. From this foundation, church leaders and members built the Ordnung, which are their unwritten rules and guidelines to live by. The Ordnung was created hundreds of years ago and every year it is reviewed. Because of this, it varies from church district to church district but is often similar and foundationally the same.
From the Ordnung springs the many choices the Amish make that seem unusual on the surface, but stem from a deeper meaning.
Horse and Buggy
From the Amish point of view, faster is not always better. When the car was introduced, they saw how it made it very easy for families to be separated by great distances. Keeping family and community unity is so important, that sacrificing this convenience was worth the gain for retaining the family and community unit. While they do not drive cars themselves, most Amish will hire a driver to attend a wedding or funeral in a different state, take a vacation to visit a natural landmark, go to the doctor, and (in some communities) even be driven to work on a daily basis. While working far from home is not the Amish ideal, many men have found small farms unable to compete with large farming companies and are therefore unable to generate enough income to support a large family.
When electricity first became available to the public, the Amish chose not to purchase this convenience, choosing instead to rely on their own power sources. For them, getting hooked into the electricity grid meant relying on outside agencies, something they have avoided since the time of their persecution. They preferred not to be dependent on others, but to work together as a community.
Also, simple family time is critical to maintaining the Amish faith and traditions. Family stories, Amish history, Bible reading, and older siblings spending time with younger brothers and sisters all contibute to their strong sense of family. There was no way the Amish could have foreseen all the drawbacks of having electricity in the home, but time has demonstrated that television, the Internet, and video games have the effect of pushing families apart, drawn away into isolated rooms spending less and less time together.
When the telephone was introduced, the Amish community chose to allow it into their homes. But in a short time the negative impacts became apparent. As with electricity, telephones caused time away from family and work, and the phone was often used for idle chatter and gossip. Nothing is more personal than face-to-face conversations. The phone took away the need to visit a neighbor if a call would do. Because there were fewer visits, relationships were less personal, causing less reliance on each other and increased isolation. However, a phone can be critical in a life-threatening situation, and most Amish communities allow phone shacks, with the phone located in a small outbuilding outside of the home.
Horse and Plow Farming
Most Old Order Amish do not use tractors on their farms. During the persecution of the Amish in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Amish were forced onto poor-quality, unwanted land. This forced them to figure out methods of farming where no one thought it possible. It is from these trials that the Amish came up with innovative ways to make soil productive and gave them a reputation as excellent farmers. It is this history that keeps them close to the soil and connected to nature. They feel a personal obligation to God to care for the gift of earth that sustains their life. So producing as much as possible as quickly as possible is not as important as what is best for the responsibility they have been given to care for the earth.
One of the most common misconceptions about the Amish is that they are ignorant. While they do stop traditional school after the eighth grade, in most cases, their pursuit of learning never ends. In the 1950’s, as schools became larger and further away, the Amish saw their children greatly influenced by the focus on pursuing personal gain and monetary possessions. For a child to leave for college and never return home is devastating to a group committed to keeping the family close and whole.
After eighth grade, girls usually stay home with their mothers and learn how to run a home and garden, make their own clothes, and care for their family. It is also common for them to help family and neighbors during illness, injury or after a new baby is born. As the girls get older, they often find a job nearby in addition to helping around the house. Similarly, most boys help their father around the farm or in his trade until they choose their own career.
Throughout these years and into adulthood, the Amish are usually avid readers (far easier without the distraction of television), often reading history, novels, newspapers, books on caring for their livestock, trade publications and books to improve their trade or hobby skills. They also may need to study if their chosen occupation requires continued learning (tax preparers, etc.).
Other Means of Travel
Beyond the horse and buggy or hiring a someone to drive them in an automobile, some Amish choose to travel by train. This would be the choice if they needed to travel a great distance for vacations, medical treatment, or family visits. The Amish almost never travel by air; again, this goes back to the notion of keeping the family close and not making it too easy to be separated.
Closer to home, methods of getting around vary from community to community. In the more densely populated communities in Pennsylvania, the Amish choose rollerblades or scooters and do not use bicycles. But in communities where there are greater distances between each other, like in Indiana, they have chosen the bicycle. For example, to get to school children might walk, ride a pony cart, or choose one of the above options depending on their community. Also, a young man who lives fairly close to work might choose one of these wheeled options instead of walking to work.
History of the Amish
To understand the Amish you must reach back to 1517, when Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The letter spelled out Luther’s grievances against the church, in particular the notion that, according to God’s Word (the Bible), we are saved by faith alone, and no amount of good works will “earn” our way into heaven.
A small group of devout Christians, located in what is now France, Switzerland and Germany, embraced these radical ideas, including the rejection of infant baptism. They believed that baptism should be a conscious choice, made as an adult. At that time, infant baptism was extremely important to the church and the state, as the baptismal records generated by the church were used by the state to determine tax rolls, among other things. Without those records, the church and state lost a measure of control. These Christians also took “Thou shalt not kill” very literally, refusing to serve in the military.
These beliefs led to their severe persecution and the derogatory nickname, “Anabaptists,” which mean “re-baptizers”. During the next century over 4,000 Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. The story of their couragous stance and adhereance to their beliefs was recorded in book called The Martyrs Mirror, which contains an important part of the Amish history and is found in most Amish homes.
Anabaptists were later renamed “Mennonites” after an early leader within the movement, Menno Simons. In the late 1600’s a fervently devout leader named Jakob Ammann emerged, who called for a return to more traditional and conservative Anabaptist values. He felt the church had drifted away from its core beliefs and many agreed with him, causing the church to split into two groups, Mennonites and the newly named Amish.
Ostracized by their surrounding communities, they were compelled to hold church services secretly. With ongoing persecution they were forced to leave their homes, surviving on the outskirts of society. They were pushed into areas with notoriously poor soil, forcing them to learn how to produce food from unproductive land, which lead to the development of excellent farming skills.
In the early 18th century they took their horticultural abilities with them as they followed other Europeans who were migrating to the newly formed American colonies. They settled primarily in Pennsylvania due to the reputation of William Penn and the Quakers for having inexpensive, productive soil and an attitude of religious freedom.
Throughout the 1800s, as Pennsylvania became more and more crowded and land more expensive, Amish families began to migrate west to start their own communities in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
While the Amish agree that the law must be obeyed, there are certain areas they will not bend and, in their minds, break God’s law. They feel military service breaks the commandment “thou shalt not kill” and have refused to service in the military from the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. With each new war they are faced with governments which must choose how to handle this refusal. During almost all American wars some Amish men have been imprisoned for this choice. Now they are assigned to non-combat service as conscientious objectors.
After the Great Depression, the Amish found themselves in a difficult situation. Schools were being consolidated and one-room schoolhouses closed down, and the Amish became concerned about the effects of putting their children on busses and sending them away to schools that taught secular beliefs. In addition, the Amish believed that an eight-grade education was sufficient to get started in life, and they objected to state demands for high school education. Many Amish fathers were jailed for refusing to bow to the state. Finally in a 1972 Supreme Court ruling they won the right to open their own private schools, re-opening the one-room schoolhouses that had been shut down years before. Many of these schools still remain in use by Amish schoolchildren.
Today Amish communities are found in several states and their population stands at approximately 250,000. The largest communities remain in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
To be continued…
The Amish, like all of us, are ever-changing. There is so much to tell about their past, present and future. We add to this section, come back to learn more! Or, you can choose to join our mailing list and we will let you know when another chapter has been added.