The year 1993 marked the existence of 300 years of Amish life. Extinct in their European homeland, today they live in more than 200 settlements in 22 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. The Amish are one of the more distinctive and colorful cultural groups across the spectrum of American pluralism. Their rejection of automobiles, use of horse-drawn farm machinery, and distinctive dress set them apart from the high-tech culture of modern life.
Amish roots stretch back to sixteenth-century Europe. Impatient with the pace of the Protestant Reformation, youthful reformers in Zurich, Switzerland, outraged religious authorities by baptizing each other in January 1525. The rebaptism of adults was then a crime punishable by death. Baptism, in the dissidents' view, was only meaningful for adults who had made a voluntary confession of faith. Because they were already baptized as infants in the Catholic Church, the radicals were dubbed Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, by their opponents. Anabaptism, also known as the Radical Reformation, spread through the Cantons of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The rapid spread of Anabaptist groups threatened civil and religious authorities. Anabaptist hunters soon stalked the Reformers. The first martyr was drowned in 1527. Over the next few decades, thousands of Anabaptists burned at the stake, drowned in rivers, starved in prisons, or lost their heads to the executioner's sword. The 1,200-page Martyrs Mirror, first published in Dutch in 1660 and later in German and English, records the carnage. Many Amish have a German edition of the Martyrs Mirror in their homes today.
The Swiss Anabaptists sought to follow the ways of Jesus in daily life, loving their enemies, forgiving insults, and turning the other cheek. Some Anabaptist groups resorted to violence, but many repudiated force and resolved to live peaceably even with adversaries. The flames of execution tested their faith in the power of suffering love, and although some recanted, many died for their faith. Harsh persecution pushed many Anabaptists underground and into rural hideaways. Swiss Anabaptism took root in rural soil. The sting of persecution, however, divided the church and the larger society in Anabaptist minds. The Anabaptists believed that the kingdoms of this world anchored on the use of coercion clashed with the peaceable kingdom of God.
By 1660 some Swiss Anabaptists had migrated north to the Alsace region of present-day France, which borders southwestern Germany. The Amish came into the picture in 1693 when Swiss and South German Anabaptists split into two streams: Amish and Mennonite. Jakob Ammann, an elder of the Alsatian church, sought to revitalize the Anabaptist movement in 1693. He proposed holding communion twice a year rather than the typical Swiss practice of once a year. He argued that Anabaptist Christians in obedience to Christ should wash each others' feet in the communion service. To promote doctrinal purity and spiritual discipline Ammann forbade fashionable dress and the trimming of beards, and he administered a strict discipline in his congregations. Appealing to New Testament teachings, Ammann advocated the shunning of excommunicated members. Ammann's followers, eventually called Amish, soon became another sect in the Anabaptist family.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
Searching for political stability and religious freedom, the Amish came to North America in two waves—in the mid-1700s and again in the first half of the 1800s. Their first settlements were in southeastern Pennsylvania. Eventually they followed the frontier to other counties in Pennsylvania, then to Ohio, Indiana, and to other Midwestern states. Today Amish settlements are primarily located in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest regions of the United States. Very few Amish live west of the Mississippi or in the deep south. In Europe, the last Amish congregation dissolved about 1937.
Flowing with the rising tide of industrialization in the late nineteenth century, some clusters of Amish formed more progressive Amish-Mennonite churches. The more conservative guardians of the heritage became known as the Old Order Amish. In the twentieth century some Old Order Amish, hankering again after modern conveniences, formed congregations of New Order Amish in the 1960s. The small numbers of New Order Amish groups sometimes permit their members to install phones in their homes, use electricity from public utilities, and use tractors in their fields.
At the turn of the twentieth century the Old Order Amish numbered about 5,000 in North America. Now scattered across 22 states and Ontario they number about 150,000 children and adults. Nearly three quarters live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Other sizeable communities are in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and Wisconsin. A loose federation of some 900 congregations, the Amish function without a national organization or an annual convention. Local church districts—congregations of 25 to 35 families—shape the heart of Amish life.
Acculturation and Assimilation
The Amish have been able to maintain a distinctive ethnic subculture by successfully resisting acculturation and assimilation. The Amish try to maintain cultural customs that preserve their identity. They have resisted assimilation into American culture by emphasizing separation from the world, rejecting higher education, selectively using technology, and restricting interaction with outsiders.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
The word Amish evokes images of buggies and lanterns. At first glance Amish groupings across North America appear pressed from the same cultural mold. A deeper look reveals many differences among Amish groups. Some affiliations forbid milking machines while others depend on them. Mechanical hay balers widely used in some areas are taboo in others. Prescribed buggy tops are gray or black in many affiliations but other groups have white or yellow tops. Buttons on clothing are banished in many groups, but acceptable in others. The dead are embalmed in one settlement but not in another. Some bishops permit telephones in small shops, but others do not. Artificial insemination of livestock is acceptable in one district but not in another. In some communities virtually all the men are farmers, but in others many adults work in small shops and cottage industries. In still other settlements Amish persons work in rural factories operated by non-Amish persons. Practices vary between church districts even within the same settlement. Diversity thrives behind the front stage of Amish life.
Several distinctive badges of ethnic identity unite the Old Order Amish across North America: horse-and-buggy transportation; the use of horses and mules for field work; plain dress in many variations; a beard and shaven upper lip for men; a prayer cap for women; the Pennsylvania German dialect; worship in homes; eighth-grade, parochial schooling; the rejection of electricity from public utility lines; and taboos on the ownership of televisions and computers. These symbols of solidarity circumscribe the Amish world and bridle the forces of assimilation.
Amish life pivots on Gelassenheit (pronounced Ge-las-en-hite), the cornerstone of Amish values. Roughly translated, this German word means submission, yielding to a higher authority. In practice it entails self-surrender, resignation to God's will, yielding to others, self-denial, contentment, and a quiet spirit. The religious meaning of Gelassenheit expresses itself in a quiet and reserved personality and places the needs of others above self. It nurtures a subdued self, gentle handshakes, lower voices, slower strides, a life etched with modesty and reserve. Children learn the essence of Gelassenheit in a favorite verse: "I must be a Christian child, / Gentle, patient, meek, and mild, / Must be honest, simple, true, / I must cheerfully obey, / Giving up my will and way."
Another favorite saying explains that JOY means Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between. As the cornerstone of Amish culture, Gelassenheit collides with the bold, assertive individualism of modern life that seeks and rewards personal achievement, self-fulfillment, and individual recognition at every turn.
The spirit of Gelassenheit expresses itself in obedience, humility, and simplicity. To Amish thinking, obedience to the will of God is the cardinal religious value. Disobedience is dangerous. Unconfessed it leads to eternal separation. Submission to authority at all levels creates an orderly community. Children learn to obey at an early age. Disobedience is nipped in the bud. Students obey teachers without question. Adults yield to the regulations of the church. Among elders, ministers concede to bishops, who obey the Lord.
Humility is coupled with obedience in Amish life. Pride, a religious term for unbridled individualism, threatens the welfare of an orderly community. Amish teachers also remind students that the middle letter of pride is I. Proud individuals display the spirit of arrogance, not Gelassenheit. They are pushy, bold, and forward. What non-Amish consider proper credit for one's accomplishments the Amish view as the hankerings of a vain spirit. The Amish contend that pride disturbs the equality and tranquility of an orderly community. The humble person freely gives of self in the service of community without seeking recognition.
Simplicity is also esteemed in Amish life. Simplicity in clothing, household decor, architecture, and worship nurtures equality and orderliness. Fancy and gaudy decorations lead to pride. Luxury and convenience cultivate vanity. The tools of self-adornment—make-up, jewelry, wrist watches, and wedding rings—are taboo and viewed as signs of pride.
The Amish do not actively evangelize. They do welcome outsiders, but few make the cultural leap. Membership in some settlements doubles about every 20 years. Their growth is fueled by a robust birth rate that averages seven children per family. The defection rate varies by settlement, but is usually less than 20 percent. Thus, six out of seven children, on the average, remain Amish.
Beyond biological reproduction, a dual strategy of resistance and compromise has enabled the Amish to flourish in the modern world. They have resisted acculturation by constructing social fences around their community. Core values are translated into visible symbols of identity. Badges of ethnicity—horse, buggy, lantern, dialect, and dress—draw sharp contours between Amish and modern life.
The Amish resist the forces of modernization in other ways. Cultural ties to the outside world are curbed by speaking the dialect, marrying within the group, spurning television, prohibiting higher education, and limiting social interaction with outsiders. Parochial schools insulate Amish youth from the contaminating influence of worldly peers. Moreover, ethnic schools limit exposure to threatening ideas. From birth to death, members are embedded in a web of ethnicity. These cultural defenses fortify Amish identity and help abate the lure of modernity.
The temptations of the outside world, however, have always been a factor in Amish life. Instead of forbidding contact outright, the Amish tolerate the custom of rumschpringen, or running around. This custom allows Amish teenagers and young adults to flirt for a few years with such temptations as drinking, dating, and driving cars before they accept baptism and assume their adult responsibilities within the Amish community. Though such behavior is, for the most part, relatively mild, in recent years it has included more extreme activities. In 1998, for example, two Amish men in Lancaster County were charged with selling cocaine to other young people in their community. And in 1999, as many as 40 Amish teenagers turned violent after a drinking spree and seriously vandalized a Amish farmstead. While community elders express increasing concern about such events, they stress that most youthful behavior does not exceed reasonable bounds.
The survival strategy of the Amish has also involved cultural compromises. The Amish are not a calcified relic of bygone days, for they change continually. Their willingness to compromise often results in odd mixtures of tradition and progress. Tractors may be used at Amish barns but not in fields. Horses and mules pull modern farm machinery in some settlements. Twelve-volt electricity from batteries is acceptable but not when it comes from public utility lines. Hydraulic and air pressure are used instead of electricity to operate modern machines in many Amish carpentry and mechanical shops. Members frequently ride in cars or vans, but are not permitted to drive them. Telephones, found by farm lanes and shops, are missing from Amish homes. Modern gas appliances fill Amish kitchens in some states and lanterns illuminate modern bathrooms in some Amish homes.
These riddles of Amish life often baffle and, indeed, appear downright silly to outsiders. In reality, however, they reflect delicate bargains that the Amish have struck between their desire to maintain tradition while enjoying the fruits of progress. The Amish are willing to change but not at the expense of communal values and ethnic identity. They use modern technology but not when it disrupts family and community stability.
Viewed within the context of Amish history, the compromises are reasonable ways of achieving community goals. Hardly foolish contradictions, they preserve core values while permitting selective modernization. They bolster Amish identity while reaping many benefits of modern life. Such flexibility boosts the economic vitality of the community and also retains the allegiance of Amish youth.
Food preferences among the Amish vary somewhat from state to state. Breakfast fare for many families includes eggs, fried potatoes, toast, and in some communities, commercial cereals such as Corn-flakes and Cheerios. Typical breakfast foods in Pennsylvania also include shoofly pie, which is sometimes dipped in or covered with coffee or milk, stewed crackers in warm milk, mush made from corn meal, and sausage. Puddings and scrapple are also breakfast favorites. The puddings consist of ground liver, heart, and kidneys from pork and beef. These basic ingredients are also combined with flour and corn meal to produce scrapple.
For farm families the mid-day dinner is usually the largest meal of the day. Noontime dinners and evening suppers often include beef or chicken dishes, and vegetables in season from the family garden, such as peas, corn, green beans, lima beans, and carrots. Mashed potatoes covered with beef gravy, noodles with brown butter, chicken potpie, and sauerkraut are regional favorites. For side dishes and deserts there are applesauce, corn starch pudding, tapioca, and fruit pies in season, such as apple, rhubarb, pumpkin, and snitz pies made with dried apples. Potato soup and chicken-corn-noodle soup are commonplace. In summer months cold fruit soups consisting of strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries added to milk and bread cubes appear on Amish tables. Meadow tea, homemade root beer, and instant drink mixes are used in the summer.
Food preservation and preparation for large families and sizeable gatherings is an enormous undertaking. Although food lies beyond the reach of religious regulations, each community has a traditional menu that is typically served at large meals following church services, weddings, and funerals. Host families often bake three dozen pies for the noontime meal following the biweekly church service. Quantities of canned food vary by family size and preference but it is not uncommon for a family to can 150 quarts of apple sauce, 100 quarts of peaches, 60 quarts of pears, 50 quarts of grape juice, and 50 quarts of pizza sauce.
More and more food is purchased from stores, sometimes operated by the Amish themselves. In a more progressive settlement one Amishwoman estimates that only half of the families bake their own bread. The growing use of instant pudding, instant drinks, snack foods, and canned soups reflects growing time constraints. The use of commercial food rises as families leave the farm and especially as women enter entrepreneurial roles.
The Amish church prescribes dress regulations for its members but the unwritten standards vary considerably by settlement. Men are expected to wear a wide brim hat and a vest when they appear in public. In winter months and at church services they wear a black suit coat which is typically fastened with hooks and eyes rather than with buttons. Men use suspenders instead of belts.
Amish women are expected to wear a prayer covering and a bonnet when they appear in public settings. Most women wear a cape over their dresses as well as an apron. The three parts of the dress are often fastened together with straight pins. Various colors, including green, brown, blue, and lavender, are permitted for men's shirts and women's dresses, but designs and figures in the material are taboo. Although young girls do not wear a prayer covering, Amish children are typically dressed similar to their parents.
Sharing some national holidays with non-Amish neighbors and adding others of their own, the Amish calendar underscores both their participation in and separation from the larger world. As conscientious objectors, they have little enthusiasm for patriotic days with a military flair. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July are barely noticed. Labor Day stirs little interest. The witches and goblins of Halloween run contrary to Amish spirits: pumpkins may be displayed in some settlements, but without cut faces. And Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday slips by unnoticed in many rural enclaves.
Amish holidays earmark the rhythm of the seasons and religious celebrations. A day for prayer and fasting precedes the October communion service in some communities. Fall weddings provide ample holidays of another sort. Amish without wedding invitations celebrate Thanksgiving Day with turkey dinners and family gatherings. New Year's Day is a quiet time for family gatherings. In many communities a second day is added to the celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The regular holiday, a sacred time, flows with quiet family activities. The following day, or second Christmas, Easter Monday, and Pentecost Monday, provides time for recreation, visiting, and sometimes shopping. Ascension day, the day prior to Pentecost, is a holiday for visiting, fishing, and other forms of recreation.
Christmas and Easter festivities are spared from commercial trappings. Families exchange Christmas cards and gifts. Some presents are homemade crafts and practical gifts, but are increasingly store bought. Homes are decorated with greens but Christmas trees, stockings, special lights, Santa Claus, and mistletoe are missing. Although eggs are sometimes painted and children may be given a basket of candy, Easter bunnies do not visit Amish homes. These sacred holidays revolve around religious customs, family gatherings, and quiet festivities rather than commercial trinkets and the sounds of worldly hubbub. Birthdays are celebrated at home and school in quiet, pleasant ways, with cakes and gifts. Parents often share a special snack of cookies or popsicles with school friends to honor a child's birthday.
Contrary to popular misconceptions the Amish use modern medical services to some extent. Lacking professionals within their ranks, they rely on the services of dentists, optometrists, nurses, and physicians in local health centers, clinics, and hospitals. They cite no biblical injunctions against modern health care nor the latest medicine, but they do believe that God is the ultimate healer. Despite the absence of religious taboos on health care, Amish practices differ from prevailing patterns.
The Amish generally do not subscribe to commercial health insurance. Some communities have organized church aid plans for families with special medical costs. In other settlements special offerings are collected for members who are hit with catastrophic medical bills. The Amish are unlikely to seek medical attention for minor aches or illnesses and are more apt to follow folk remedies and drink herbal teas. Although they do not object to surgery or other forms of high-tech treatment they rarely employ heroic life-saving interventions.
In addition to home remedies, church members often seek healing outside orthodox medical circles. The search for natural healing leads them to vitamins, homeopathic remedies, health foods, reflexologists, chiropractors, and the services of specialized clinics in faraway places. These cultural habits are shaped by many factors: conservative rural values, a preference for natural antidotes, a lack of information, a sense of awkwardness in high-tech settings, difficulties accessing health care, and a willingness to suffer and lean on the providence of God.
Birthing practices vary in different settlements. In some communities most babies are born at home under the supervision of trained non-Amish midwives. In other settlements most children are born in hospitals or at local birthing clinics. Children can attend Amish schools without immunizations. Some parents follow the advice of family doctors or trained midwives and immunize their children, but many do not. Lax immunization is often due to cost, distance, misinformation, or lack of interest. Occasional outbreaks of German measles, whooping cough, polio, and other contagious diseases prompt public health campaigns to immunize Amish children. Amish elders usually encourage their people to cooperate with such efforts. In recent years various health providers have made special efforts to immunize Amish children.
Marriages within stable geographical communities and the influx of few converts restricts the genetic pool of Amish society. Marriages sometimes occur between second cousins. Such intermarriage does not always produce medical problems. When unique recessive traits are common in a closed community certain diseases simply are more likely to occur. On the other hand, a restricted gene pool may offer protection from other hereditary diseases.
A special type of dwarfism accompanied by other congenital problems occurs at an exceptionally high rate in some settlements. Higher rates of deafness have also been found. In the late 1980s, Dr. Holmes Morton identified glutaric aciduria in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish community. Unrecognized and untreatable before, the disease is a biochemical disorder with symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. Approximately one in every 200 Amish infants inherits the disease. By 1991, Dr. Morton had organized a special clinic that tested some 70 percent of Amish infants and treated those diagnosed with the disease in the Lancaster settlement.
Another condition, Crigler-Najjar syndrome, occurs more frequently among the Amish and the Mennonites than in the general population. The condition is difficult to treat, and can result in brain damage and early death. The Amish have worked eagerly with researchers who are studying a new type of gene therapy for the treatment of this disease. In 1989, the Amish community united, barnraising style, to build the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, a facility that treats Crigler-Najjar patients.
The Amish speak English, German, and a dialect known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch. The dialect is the Amish native tongue and should not be confused with the Dutch language of the Netherlands. Originally a German dialect, Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken by Germanic settlers in southeastern Pennsylvania. The folk pronunciation of the word German, Deutsche, gradually became Dutch in English, and eventually the dialect became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Even the Amish who live outside of Pennsylvania speak the Pennsylvania German dialect. In Amish culture, the dialect is used mainly as a form of oral communication: it is the language of work, family, friendship, play, and intimacy.
Young children live in the world of the dialect until they learn English in the Amish school. Students learn to read, write, and speak English from their Amish teachers, who learned it from their Amish teachers. But the dialect prevails in friendly banter on the playground. By the end of the eighth grade, young Amish have developed basic competence in English although it may be spoken with an accent. Adults are able to communicate in fluent English with their non-Amish neighbors. When talking among themselves, the Amish sometimes mix English words with the dialect, especially when discussing technical issues. Letters are often written in English, with salutations and occasional phrases in the dialect. Competence in English varies directly with occupational roles and frequency of interaction with English speakers. Ministers are often the ones who are best able to read German. Idioms of the dialect are frequently mixed with German in Amish sacred writings. Although children study formal German in school they do not speak it on a regular basis.
GREETINGS AND OTHER POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Common Pennsylvania Dutch greetings and other expressions include: Gude Mariye— Good morning; Gut-n-Owed— Good evening; Wie geht's?— How are you?; En frehlicher Grischtdsaag— a Merry Christmas; Frehlich Neiyaahr— Happy New Year; kumm ball widder— come soon again. When inviting others to gather around a table to eat, a host might say Kumm esse.
Family and Community Dynamics
The immediate family, the extended family, and the church district form the building blocks of Amish society. Amish parents typically raise about seven children, but ten or more children is not uncommon. About 50 percent of the population is under 18 years of age. A person will often have more than 75 first cousins and a typical grandmother will count more than 35 grandchildren. Members of the extended family often live nearby, across the field, down the lane, or beyond the hill. Youth grow up in this thick network of family relations where one is rarely alone, always embedded in a caring community in time of need and disaster. The elderly retire at home, usually in a small apartment built onto the main house of a homestead. Because the Amish reject government aid, there are virtually no families that receive public assistance. The community provides a supportive social hammock from cradle to grave.
A church district comprises 25 to 35 families and is the basic social and religious unit beyond the family. Roads and streams mark the boundaries of districts. Members are required to participate in the geographic district in which they live. A district's geographic size varies with the density of the Amish population. As districts expand, they divide.
A bishop, two preachers, and a deacon share leadership responsibilities in each district without formal pay or education. The bishop, as spiritual elder, officiates at baptisms, weddings, communions, funerals, ordinations, and membership meetings. The church district is church, club, family, and precinct all wrapped up in a neighborhood parish. Periodic meetings of ordained leaders link the districts of a settlement into a loose federation.
The social architecture of Amish society exhibits distinctive features. Leisure, work, education, play, worship, and friendship revolve around the immediate neighborhood. In some settlements, Amish babies are born in hospitals, but they are also born at home or in local birthing centers. Weddings and funerals occur at home. There are frequent trips to other settlements or even out of state to visit relatives and friends. But for the most part the Amish world pivots on local turf. From home-canned food to homemade haircuts, things are likely to be done near home. Social relationships are multi-bonded. The same people frequently work, play, and worship together.
Amish society is remarkably informal and the tentacles of bureaucracy are sparse. There is no centralized national office, symbolic national figurehead, or institutional headquarters. Apart from schools, a publishing operation, and regional historical libraries, formal institutions simply do not exist. A loosely organized national committee handles relations with the federal government for all the settlements. Regional committees funnel the flow of Amish life for schools, mutual aid, and historical libraries, but bureaucracy as we know it in the modern world is simply absent.
The conventional marks of modern status (education, income, occupation, and consumer goods) are missing and make Amish society relatively homogeneous. The agrarian heritage places everyone on common footing. The recent rise of cottage industries in some settlements and factory work in others threatens to disturb the social equality of bygone years, but the range of occupations and social differences remains relatively small. Common costume, horse and buggy travel, an eighth-grade education, and equal-size tombstones embody the virtues of social equality.
The practice of mutual aid also distinguishes Amish society. Although the Amish own private property, like other Anabaptists they have long emphasized mutual aid as a Christian duty in the face of disaster and special need. Mutual aid goes beyond barn raisings. Harvesting, quilting, birthing, marriages, and funerals require the help of many hands. The habits of care encompass all sorts of needs triggered by drought, disease, death, injury, bankruptcy, and medical emergency.
Amish society is patriarchal. Although school teachers are generally women, men assume the helm of most leadership roles. Women can nominate men to serve in ministerial roles but they themselves are excluded from formal church roles; however, they can vote in church business meetings. Some women feel that since the men make the rules, modern equipment is permitted more readily in barns and shops than in homes. In recent years some women have become entrepreneurs who operate small quilt, craft, and food stores.
Although husband and wife preside over distinct spheres of domestic life, many tasks are shared. A wife may ask her husband to assist in the garden and he may ask her to help in the barn or fields. The isolated housewife is rarely found in Amish society. The husband holds spiritual authority in the home but spouses have considerable freedom within their distinctive spheres.
Various social gatherings bring members together for times of fellowship and fun beyond biweekly worship. Young people gather in homes for Sunday evening singing. Married couples sometimes gather with old friends to sing for shut-ins and the elderly in their homes. Work frolics blend work and play together in Amish life. Parents gather for preschool frolics to ready schools for September classes. Endof-school picnics bring parents and students together for an afternoon of food and games.
Quilting bees and barn raisings mix goodwill, levity, and hard work for young and old alike. Other moments of collective work (cleaning up after a fire, plowing for an ill neighbor, canning for a sick mother, threshing wheat, and filling a silo) involve neighbors and extended families in episodes of charity, sweat, and fun. Adult sisters, sometimes numbering as many as five or six, often gather for a sisters day, which blends laughter with cleaning, quilting, canning, or gardening.
Public auctions of farm equipment are often held in February and March and attract crowds in preparation for springtime farming. Besides opportunities to bid on equipment, the day-long auctions offer ample time for farm talk and friendly fun. Games of cornerball in a nearby field or barnyard often compete with the drama of the auction. Household auctions and horse sales provide other times to socialize. Family gatherings at religious holidays and summer family reunions link members into familial networks. Single women sometimes gather at a cabin or a home for a weekend of fun. Special meetings of persons with unique interests, often called reunions, are on the rise and attract Amish from many states: harnessmakers, cabinetmakers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, businesswomen, teachers, the disabled, and the like. The disabled have gathered annually for a number of years.
Among youth, seasonal athletics are common: softball, sledding, skating, hockey, and swimming. Volleyball is a widespread favorite. Fishing and hunting for small game are preferred sports on farms and woodlands. In recent years some Amishmen have purchased hunting cabins in the mountains where they hunt white-tailed deer. Deep-sea fishing trips are common summertime jaunts for men in Pennsylvania. Others prefer camping and canoeing. Pitching quoits is common at family reunions and picnics.
Leisure and pleasure have long been suspect in Amish life. Idleness is viewed as the devil's workshop. But the rise of cottage industries and the availability of ready cash has brought more recreational activities. Amish recreation is group oriented and tilted more toward nature than toward taboo commercial entertainment. The Amish rarely take vacations but they do take trips to other settlements and may stop at scenic sites. Some couples travel to Florida for several weeks in the winter and live in an Amish village in Sarasota populated by winter travelers from settlements in several states. Trips to distant sites in search of special medical care sometimes include scenic tours. Although some Amish travel by train or bus, chartered vans are by far the most popular mode. Traveling together with family, friends, and extended kin these mobile groups bond and build community life.
INTERACTION WITH OTHERS
Amish culture and religion stresses separation from the world. Galvanized by European persecution and sanctioned by scripture, the Amish divide the social world into two pathways: the straight, narrow way to life, and the broad, easy road to destruction. Amish life embodies the narrow way of self-denial. The larger social world symbolizes the broad road of vanity and vice. The term world, in Amish thinking, refers to the outside society and its values, vices, practices, and institutions. Media reports of greed, fraud, scandal, drugs, violence, divorce, and abuse confirm that the world teems with abomination.
The gulf between church and world, imprinted in Amish minds by European persecution, guides practical decisions. Products and practices that might undermine community life, such as high school, cars, cameras, television, and self-propelled farm machinery, are tagged worldly. Not all new products receive this label, only those that threaten community values. Definitions of worldliness vary within and between Amish settlements, yielding a complicated maze of practices. Baffling to outsiders, these lines of faithfulness maintain inter-group boundaries and also preserve the cultural purity of the church.
The wedding season is a festive time in Amish life. Coming on the heels of the harvest, weddings are typically held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from late October through early December. The larger communities may have as many as 150 weddings in one season. Fifteen weddings may be scattered across the settlement on the same day. Typically staged in the home of the bride, these joyous events may involve upwards of 350 guests, two meals, singing, snacks, festivities, and a three-hour service. The specific practices vary from settlement to settlement.
Young persons typically marry in their early twenties. A couple may date for one to two years before announcing their engagement. Bishops will only marry members of the church. The church does not arrange marriages but it does place its blessing on the pair through an old ritual. Prior to the wedding, the groom takes a letter signed by church elders to the bride's deacon testifying to the groom's good standing in his home district. The bride's deacon then meets with her to verify the marriage plans.
The wedding day is an enormous undertaking for the bride's family and for the relatives and friends who assist with preparations. Efforts to clean up the property, paint rooms, fix furniture, pull weeds, and pave driveways, among other things, begin weeks in advance. The logistics of preparing meals and snacks for several hundred guests are taxing. According to custom, the day before the wedding the groom decapitates several dozen chickens. The noontime wedding menu includes chicken roast—chicken mixed with bread filling, mashed potatoes, gravy, creamed celery, pepper cabbage, and other items. Desserts include pears, peaches, puddings, dozens of pies, and hundreds of cookies and doughnuts.
The three-hour service—without flowers, rings, solos, or instrumental music—is similar to an Amish worship service. The wedding includes congregational singing, prayers, wedding vows, and two sermons. Four single friends serve the bride and groom as attendants: no one is designated maid of honor or best man. Amish brides typically make their own wedding dresses from blue or purple material crafted in traditional styles. In addition to the groom's new but customary black coat and vest, he and his attendants often wear small black bow ties.
Several seatings and games, snacks, and singing follow the noon meal. Young people are paired off somewhat randomly for the singing. Following the evening meal another more lively singing takes place in which couples who are dating pair off— arousing considerable interest because this may be their first public appearance. Festivities may continue until nearly midnight as guests gradually leave. Some guests, invited to several weddings on the same day, may rotate between them.
Newly married couples usually set up housekeeping in the spring after their wedding. Until then the groom may live at the bride's home or continue to live with his parents. Couples do not take a traditional honeymoon, but visit relatives on weekends during the winter months. Several newlywed couples may visit together, sometimes staying overnight at the home of close relatives. During these visits, family and friends present gifts to the newlyweds to add to the bride's dowry, which often consists of furniture. Young men begin growing a beard, the functional equivalent of a wedding ring, soon after their marriage. They are expected to have a "full stand" by the springtime communion.
With the elderly living at home, the gradual loss of health prepares family members for the final passage. Accompanied by quiet grief, death comes gracefully, the final benediction to a good life and entry into the bliss of eternity. Although funeral practices vary from community to community, the preparations reflect core Amish values, as family and friends yield to eternal verities.
The community springs into action at the word of a death. Family and friends in the local church district assume barn and household chores, freeing the immediate family. Well-established funeral rituals unburden the family from worrisome choices. Three couples are appointed to extend invitations and supervise funeral arrangements: food preparation, seating arrangements, and the coordination of a large number of horses and carriages.
In the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, settlement a non-Amish undertaker moves the body to a funeral home for embalming. The body, without cosmetic improvements, returns to the home in a simple, hardwood coffin within a day. Family members of the same sex dress the body in white. White garments symbolize the final passage into a new and better eternal life. Tailoring the white clothes prior to death helps to prepare the family for the season of grief. Women often wear the white cape and apron worn at their wedding.
Friends and relatives visit the family and view the body in a room on the first floor of the home for two days prior to the funeral. Meanwhile community members dig the grave by hand in a nearby family cemetery as others oversee the daily chores of the bereaved. Several hundred guests attend the funeral in a barn or home typically on the morning of the third day after death. During the simple hour-anda-half-long service, ministers read hymns and scriptures, offer prayers, and preach a sermon. There are no flowers, burial gowns, burial tents, limousines, or sculpted monuments.
The hearse, a large, black carriage pulled by horses, leads a long procession of other carriages to the burial ground on the edge of a farm. After a brief viewing and graveside service, pallbearers lower the coffin and shovel soil into the grave as the bishop reads a hymn. Small, equal-sized tombstones mark the place of the deceased in the community of equality. Close friends and family members then return to the home for a meal prepared by members of the local congregation. Bereaved women, especially close relatives, may signal their mourning by wearing a black dress in public settings for as long as a year. A painful separation laced with grief, death is nevertheless received gracefully as the ultimate surrender to God's higher ways.
The Amish supported public education when it revolved around one-room schools in the first half of the twentieth century. Under local control, the one-room rural schools posed little threat to Amish values. The massive consolidation of public schools and growing pressure to attend high school sparked clashes between the Amish and officials in several states in the middle of the twentieth century. Confrontations in several other states led to arrests and brief stints in jail. After legal skirmishes in several states, the U.S. Supreme Court gave its blessing to the eighth-grade Amish school system in 1972, stating that "there can be no assumption that today's majority is 'right' and the Amish and others are 'wrong. "' The court concluded that "a way of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different."
Today the Amish operate more than 850 parochial schools for some 24,000 Amish children. Many of the schools have one room with 25 to 35 pupils and one teacher who is responsible for teaching all eight grades. A few Amish children attend rural public schools in some states but the vast majority go to parochial schools operated by the Amish.
A scripture reading and prayer opens each school day, but religion is not formally taught in the school. The curriculum includes reading, arithmetic, spelling, grammar, penmanship, history, and geography. Both English and German are taught. Parents want children to learn German to enhance their ability to read religious writings, many of which are written in formal German. Science and sex education are missing in the curriculum as are the other typical trappings of public schools: sports, dances, cafeterias, clubs, bands, choruses, computers, television, guidance counselors, principals, strikes, and college recruiters.
A local board of three to five fathers organizes the school, hires a teacher, approves curriculum, oversees the budget, and supervises maintenance. Teachers receive about $25 to $35 per day. The cost per child is roughly $250 per year, nearly 16 times lower than many public schools where per pupil costs often top $4,000. Amish parents pay public school taxes and taxes for their own school.
Schools play a critical role in the preservation of Amish culture. They not only reinforce Amish values, but also shield youth from contaminating ideas. Moreover, schools restrict friendships with non-Amish peers and impede the flow of Amish youth into higher education and professional life. Amish schools promote practical skills to prepare their graduates for success in Amish society. Some selective testing indicates that Amish pupils compare favorably with rural peers in public schools on standardized tests of basic skills.
Amish teachers, trained in Amish schools, are not required to be certified in most states. Often the brightest and best of Amish scholars, they return to the classroom in their late teens and early twenties to teach. Amish school directors select them for their ability to teach and their commitment to Amish values. Frequently single women, they typically drop their occupation if wed. Periodic meetings with other teachers, a monthly teachers' magazine, and ample common sense prepare them for the task of teaching 30 students in eight grades. With three or four pupils per grade, teachers often teach two grades at a time. Pupils in other classes ponder assignments or listen to previews of next year's lessons or hear reviews of past work. Classrooms exhibit a distinct sense of order amidst a beehive of activity. Hands raise to ask permission or clarify instructions as the teacher moves from cluster to cluster teaching new material every ten or 15 minutes. Some textbooks are recycled from public schools while others are produced by Amish publishers. Students receive a remarkable amount of personal attention despite the teacher's responsibility for eight grades. The ethos of the classroom accents cooperative activity, obedience, respect, diligence, kindness, and the natural world. Despite the emphasis on order, playful pranks and giggles are commonplace. Schoolyard play in daily recesses often involves softball or other homespun games.
Amish schools exhibit a social continuity rarely found in public education. With many families sending several children to a school, teachers may relate to as few as a dozen households. Teachers know parents personally and special circumstances surrounding each child. In some cases, children have the same teacher for all eight grades. Indeed, all the children from a family may have the same teacher. Amish schools are unquestionably provincial by modern standards. Yet in a humane fashion they ably prepare Amish youth for meaningful lives in Amish society.
At first glance the Amish appear quite religious. Yet a deeper inspection reveals no church buildings, sacred symbols, or formal religious education even in Amish schools. Unlike most modern religions, religious meanings pervade all aspects of Amish lives. Religion is practiced, not debated. Silent prayers before and after meals embroider each day with reverence. The Amish way of living and being requires neither heady talk nor formal theology.
The Ordnung, a religious blueprint for expected behavior, regulates private, public, and ceremonial behavior. Unwritten in most settlements, the Ordnung is passed on by oral tradition. A body of understandings that defines Amish ways, the Ordnung marks expected Amish behavior: wearing a beard without a mustache; using a buggy; and speaking the dialect. It also specifies taboos: divorce; filing a lawsuit; wearing jewelry; owning a car; and attending college. The understandings evolve over the years and are updated as the church faces new issues: embryo transplants in cattle; using computers and facsimile machines; and working in factories. Core understandings, such as wearing a beard and not owning a car, span all Old Order Amish settlements but the finer points of the Ordnung vary considerably from settlement to settlement.
Although ordained leaders update the Ordnung in periodic meetings, each bishop interprets it for his local congregation. Thus, dress styles and the use of telephones and battery-powered appliances may vary by church district. Once embedded in the Ordnung and established as tradition, the understandings rarely change. As new issues face the church, leaders identify those which may be detrimental to community life. Non-threatening changes such as weed-whackers and instant coffee may be overlooked and gradually slip into Amish life. Battery-powered video cameras, which might lead to other video entanglements with the outside world, would surely be forbidden.
Children learn the ways of the Ordnung by observing adults. The Ordnung defines the way things are in a child's mind. Teenagers, free from the supervision of the church, sometimes flirt with worldly ways and flaunt the Ordnung. At baptism, however, young adults between the ages of 16 and 22 declare their Christian faith and vow to uphold the Ordnung for the rest of their life. Those who break their promise face excommunication and shunning. Those choosing not to be baptized may gradually drift away from the community but are welcome to return to their families without the stigma of shunning.
Worship services held in Amish homes reaffirm the moral order of Amish life. Church districts hold services every other Sunday. A group of 200 or more, including neighbors and relatives who have an "off Sunday," gather for worship. They meet in a farmhouse, the basement of a newer home, or in a shed or barn. A fellowship meal at noon and informal visiting follow the three-hour morning service.
The plain and simple but unwritten liturgy revolves around congregational singing and two sermons. Without the aid of organs, offerings, candles, crosses, robes, or flowers, members yield themselves to God in the spirit of humility. The congregation sings from the Ausbund, a hymnal of German songs without musical notations that date back to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. The tunes passed across the generations by memory are sung in unison without any musical accompaniment. The slow, chant-like cadence means a single song may stretch over 20 minutes. Extemporaneous sermons, preached in the Pennsylvania German dialect, recount biblical stories as well as lessons from farm life. Preachers exhort members to be obedient to Amish ways.
Communion services, held each autumn and spring, frame the religious year. These ritual high points emphasize self-examination and spiritual rejuvenation. Sins are confessed and members reaffirm their vow to uphold the Ordnung. Communion is held when the congregation is at peace, when all members are in harmony with the Ordnung. The six- to eight-hour communion service includes preaching, a light meal during the service, and the commemoration of Christ's death with bread and wine. Pairs of members wash each others feet as the congregation sings. At the end of the communion service members give an alms offering to the deacon, the only time that offerings are collected in Amish services.
Baptism, worship, and communion are sacred rites that revitalize and preserve the Ordnung. But the Amish, like other human beings, forget, rebel, experiment, and stray into deviance. Major transgressions are confessed publicly in a members meeting following the worship service. Violations of the Ordnung—using a tractor in the field, posing for a television camera, flying on a commercial airline, filing a lawsuit, joining a political organization, or opening a questionable business—are confessed publicly. Public confession of sins diminishes self-will, reminds members of the supreme value of submission, restores the wayward into the community of faith, and underscores the lines of faithfulness which encircle the community.
The headstrong who spurn the advice of elders and refuse to confess their sin face a six-week probation. The next step is the Meidung, or shunning—a cultural equivalent of solitary confinement. Members terminate social interaction and financial transactions with the excommunicated. For the unrepentant, social avoidance becomes a lifetime quarantine. If their stubbornness does not mellow into repentance, they face excommunication.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Amish life is rooted in the soil. Ever since European persecution pushed them into rural areas, the Amish have been farmers. The land has nurtured their common life and robust families. Since the middle of the twentieth century, some of the older and larger Amish settlements in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have shifted to nonfarm occupations because of the pressure of urbanization. As urbanization devoured prime farmland, prices soared. Land, for example, in the heart of Pennsylvania's Lancaster Amish settlement sold for $300 an acre in 1940. In the 1990s, the same land sold for $8,000 to $10,000 an acre. If sold for development, prices can double or even triple.
The shrinking and expensive farmland in some of the older settlements has forced a crisis in the Amish soul. The Amish have also contributed to the demographic squeeze with their growing population. The community has coped with the crisis in several ways. First, farms have been subdivided into smaller units with intensive cropping and larger concentrations of livestock. Second, some families have migrated to the rural backwaters of other states where farms could be purchased at much lower prices. Third, in some settlements a majority of families no longer farms, but works in small shops, rural factories, or in various trades. But even ex-farmers insist that the farm remains the best place to raise a family.
The rise of cottage industries and small shops marks an historic turn in Amish life. Mushrooming since the 1970s, these new enterprises have reshaped Amish society. By the late 1990s, such small industries employed more than half the Amish adults in Lancaster County. Amish retail shops sell dry goods, furniture, shoes, hardware, and wholesale foods. Church members now work as carpenters, plumbers, painters, and self-trained accountants. Professionals, like lawyers, physicians, and veterinarians, are missing from Amish ranks because of the taboo on high school and college education. The new industries come in three forms. Home-based operations lodged on farms or by newly built homes employ a few family members and neighbors. Bakeshops, craft shops, hardware stores, health food stores, quilt shops, flower shops, and repair shops of all sorts are but a few of the hundreds of home-based operations. Work in these settings revolves around the family. A growing number of these small cottage industries cater to tourists but many serve the needs of Amish and non-Amish neighbors alike.
Larger shops and manufacturing concerns are housed in newly constructed buildings on the edge of farms or on commercial plots. These formal shops with five to ten employees manufacture farm machinery, hydraulic equipment, storage barns, furniture, and cabinetry. Some metal fabrication shops arrange subcontracts with other manufacturers. The larger shops are efficient and profitable. Low overhead, minimal advertising, austere management, modest wages, quality workmanship, and sheer hard work grant many shops a competitive edge in the marketplace.
Mobile work crews constitute a third type of industry. Amish construction groups travel to building sites for commercial and residential construction. The construction crews travel in hired vehicles and in some settlements they are permitted to use electric tools powered by portable generators and on-site electricity.
The rise of cottage industries may, in the long run, disturb the equality of Amish life by encouraging a three-tier society of farmers, entrepreneurs, and day laborers. Parents worry that youth working a 40-hour week with loose cash in their pockets will snub traditional Amish values of simplicity and frugality. The new industries also increase contact with the outside world which will surely prompt even more changes in Amish life. Despite the occupational changes, virtually no Amish are unemployed or receive government unemployment benefits.
Politics and Government
The Amish view government with an ambiguous eye. Although they support and respect civil government, they also keep a healthy distance from it. On the one hand, they follow biblical admonitions to obey and pray for rulers and encourage members to be law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, government epitomizes worldly culture and the use of force. European persecutors of the Anabaptists were often government officials. Modern governments engage in warfare, use capital punishment, and impose their will with raw coercion. Believing that such coercion and violence mock the gentle spirit of Jesus, the Amish reject the use of force, including litigation. Since they regulate many of their own affairs they have less need for outside supervision.
When civil law and religious conscience collide, the Amish are not afraid to take a stand and will obey God rather than man, even if it brings imprisonment. They have clashed with government officials over the use of hard hats, zoning regulations, Workers' Compensation, and building codes for schools. However, as conscientious objectors many have received farm deferments or served in alternative service programs during times of military draft.
The church forbids membership in political organizations and holding public office for several reasons. First, running for office is viewed as arrogant and out of character with esteemed Amish values of humility and modesty. Second, office-holding violates the religious principle of separation from the world. Finally, public officials must be prepared to use legal force if necessary to settle civic disputes. The exercise of legal force mocks the stance of nonresistance. Voting, however, is viewed as a personal matter. Although the church does not prohibit it, few persons vote. Those who do vote are likely to be younger businessmen concerned about local issues. Although voting is considered a personal matter, jury duty is not allowed.
The Amish pay federal and state income taxes, sales taxes, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes. Indeed, they pay school taxes twice, for both public and Amish schools. Following biblical injunctions, the Amish are exempt from Social Security tax. They view Social Security as a national insurance program, not a tax. Congressional legislation, passed in 1965, exempts self-employed Amish persons from Social Security. Amish persons employed in Amish businesses were also exempted by congressional legislation in 1988. Those who do not qualify for the exemption, Amish employees in non-Amish businesses, must pay Social Security without reaping its benefits. Bypassing Social Security not only severs the Amish from old age payments, it also closes the spigot to Medicare and Medicaid.
The Amish object to government aid for several reasons. They contend that the church should assume responsibility for the social welfare of its own members. The aged, infirm, senile, and disabled are cared for, whenever possible, within extended family networks. To turn the care of these people over to the state would abdicate a fundamental tenet of faith: the care of one's brothers and sisters in the church. Furthermore, federal aid in the form of Social Security or Medicare would erode dependency on the church and undercut its programs of mutual aid, which the Amish have organized to assist their members with fire and storm damages and with medical expenses.
Government subsidies, or what the Amish call handouts, have been stridently opposed. Championing self-sufficiency and the separation of church and state, the Amish worry that the hand which feeds them will also control them. Over the years they have stubbornly refused direct subsidies even for agricultural programs designed for farmers in distress. Amish farmers do, however, receive indirect subsidies through agricultural price-support programs.
In 1967 the Amish formed the National Amish Steering Committee in order to speak with a common voice on legal issues related to state, and especially, federal government. The Steering Committee has worked with government officials to resolve disputes related to conscientious objection, zoning, slow-moving vehicle emblems, Social Security, Workers' Compensation, and the wearing of hard hats at construction sites. Informally organized, the Steering Committee is the only Amish organization which is national in scope.
THE FUTURE OF AMISH SOCIETY
The future shape of Amish life escapes prediction. Particular outcomes will be shaped not only by unforeseen external forces, such as market prices, government regulations, and rates of urbanization, but also by internal politics and the sentiments of particular Amish leaders. Without a centralized decision-making process, let alone a strategic planning council, new directions are unpredictable. Migrations will likely continue to new states and to the rural areas of states where the Amish presently live.
The willingness of many Amish to leave their plows for shops and cottage industries in the 1970s and 1980s signalled a dramatic shift in Amish life. Microenterprises will likely blossom and bring change to Amish life as they increase interaction with the outside world. These business endeavors will probably alter the class structure and cultural face of Amish society over the years. But the love of farming runs deep in the Amish heart. Faced with a growing population, many families will likely migrate to more rural areas in search of fertile soil.
The cultural flavor of twenty-first century Amish life may elude forecast, but one pattern is clear. Settlements which are pressed by urbanization are the most progressive in outlook and the most updated in technology. Rural homesteads beyond the tentacles of urban sprawl remain the best place to preserve traditional Amish ways. If the Amish can educate and retain their children, make a living, and restrain interaction with the larger world, they will likely flourish into the twenty-first century. But one thing is certain: diversity between their settlements will surely grow, mocking the staid stereotypes of Amish life.