Amish Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
The Amish are a Christian group with roots in the European Reformation that has become well known for its efforts to maintain its separatist agricultural life, resisting involvement with the state and modern technology. Although the Amish give the impression of living like 19th-century villagers, they have been changing. The Amish scrutinize change and will accept modern gadgetry into their lives, provided doing so does not change their simple lifestyle, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
They live by a set of written and unwritten rules called the Ordnung. They prefer horses and buggies to cars, do not have electricity in their homes, and send their children to small private schoolhouses.
The Amish pay school taxes but do not allow their children to continue their education past the eighth grade. Indeed in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major decision excusing the Old Order Amish and connected groups from state compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade. However, progressive Amish, along with many Mennonites, attend high school, and some go on to college.
Another point of controversy has been military service, because the Amish are pacifists. During World War II the Amish were given permission to serve their military obligation in civilian public service jobs. This period of public service was awkward for them. After exposure to the conveniences of secular society, they found it difficult to readjust to the Amish way of life once they had completed their service.
Over time the scarcity and rising price of farmland has forced the Amish beyond their historical boundaries in order to find work, making contact with modernity and technology unavoidable and inevitable. As a result of having to abandon farming, some Amish have started their own businesses, while others have accepted “luxuries” such as telephones and, in some cases, even cell phones. A good number of the Amish work in nonagricultural jobs.
The Amish way of dressing, however, has remained untouched by modern influence. To the Amish, their clothing is an expression of their faith.
Their clothing is made from solid colors. Women have the responsibility of making clothes for the family. They wear simple dresses with long sleeves and full skirts. Capes and aprons generally cover their dresses and are fastened with snaps or pins.
Amish women do not cut their hair because they believe the Bible discourages the practice.
A man’s good clothing requires a three-piece suit, with hooks and eyes fastening the vest and jacket. The Amish refuse to wear buttons; they believe buttons make their suits resemble military uniforms.
As a rule the Amish avoid anything military because of their pacifism and their persecution by the military in Europe. Men do not shave after marriage, save for the portion above their upper lips, because moustaches also remind them of military harassment.
Choosing a bride is the most important decision of an Amish man’s life. Boys and girls begin to look for partners at the age of 16. By the time a young woman turns 20 and a young man is in his early 20s, their wedding day is imminent; so it is imperative for the prospective couple to become members of the church. They are baptized into the Amish faith and take on the responsibility of following the Ordnung. When he proposes the man may give the woman a clock or a piece of china, not a diamond ring. It is customary for the couple to keep their engagement secret until July or August, when the girl tells her parents about her intentions.
October 11 is Fast Day in Amish communities.
It is also the signal for hectic activity to begin. Fall communion occurs the following Sunday, and the second Sunday after the Fast is a big day for the church, because all the couples who want to get married are “published.” This means that after the service the deacon announces the names of the girls to be married and their partners. The fathers then announce the wedding dates. Weddings are set on a Tuesday or Thursday in November or December.
The bride wears a blue dress covered by an apron and a cape. Her wedding outfit will become her Sunday church attire, and she will be buried in the same dress when she dies. After the wedding, the couple visits friends’ and relatives’ houses, where gifts await them. The gifts are generally practical items intended for everyday use.
The Amish community is a tightly knit group.
They are opposed to buying insurance, and the only indemnity is the fund supported by the church. In case of a disaster, the whole community helps the victim. If an Amish man is sick, and his work needs to be completed, his neighbors get together to do it for him, before they complete their own tasks.
While the Amish keep a distance from the outside world, the commercialization of their culture has no doubt benefited them. Tourism is one major factor. Initially it was resented, and people started moving away from heavily populated areas. But tourism has brought the Amish great economic benefits. The public’s growing interest in them has earned the Amish some sympathy, and as a consequence the government has been discouraged from infringing on their rights.
Ultimately, commercialization has not done much to change the simple Amish way of life. They continue to adhere to their beliefs, and their communities are still growing.
Origins and History
The Amish movement was started in Europe in 1693 by a Swiss named Jacob Amman (b. 1644), from whom the group gets its name. The movement was in many ways an attempt to restore the early practices of the Mennonites. Menno Simons (1496–1561), Dutch Anabaptist leader, began the Mennonite movement because he believed that the Catholic Church had lost touch with the New Testament message and was concentrating too much on legends and fables. The Anabaptists (also called Rebaptizers) opposed baptizing children. They believed that only those who were old enough to confess their faith should be eligible for baptism and that they must be isolated from the greater society. This was a declaration that aroused the ire of both Catholics and Protestants, who put them to death for heresy, causing many Anabaptists to flee to the mountains of Switzerland and southern Germany. That was when their tradition of holding church services at home and taking up farming began.
Jacob Amman established the Amish religion because he believed that the Mennonites were drifting away from their original beliefs and practices and paying less heed to the writings of Menno Simons. The Amish faith was created when his group split from the Mennonite movement. Amish practice differed from that of the Mennonites in three ways: Amman wanted the rite of Communion to be performed twice instead of once a year (as was the practice in his time), because he believed that it would help the Amish become more diligent Christians if they received Communion every six months.
He also reintroduced the practice of washing the feet of others that Jesus had inspired by washing the feet of his disciples. Third, Amman advocated a tougher, more consistent stance in shunning nonconforming members, those who had strayed from the laws of the Bible.
After a few years as a distinct breakaway group, Amman and his followers unsuccessfully tried to reconcile with the Mennonites. In the early 18th century, some of the Amish started immigrating to the North American British colonies, which would soon become the United States. However, most of them remained in Europe and rejoined the Mennonites. In 1937, when the last Amish stronghold merged with the parent organization in Germany, the Amish ceased to exist in Europe as an organized movement.
The Amish who immigrated to America went to Pennsylvania, a colony that had become a refuge for persecuted religions. Most Amish groups settled in Lancaster County, which is still home to one of the more prominent Amish communities. Now, however, the Amish live in settlements in 22 states across the United States and in Ontario, Canada.
The Amish advocate humility, community spirit, and separation from the world. Notwithstanding their numerous disagreements, they still share a lot with the Mennonites, particularly in matters of baptism, pacifism, and adherence to biblical doctrine.
Their differences concern beliefs regarding how to dress, the proper form of worship, the use of technology, their relationship with the world, and the interpretation of the Bible (the Amish interpret the Bible literally). The Amish are arguably the more old-fashioned and rigid of the two, while the Mennonites have been more open to embracing a modern way of life.
Holidays and Religious Observances
The Amish celebrate traditional Christian holy days-Easter and Christmas, for example-but their observations are very simple because they do not use electricity or any of the other technological conveniences many people now take for granted. They also observe a Fast Day on October 11. The Amish do not hold their religious services in a special church building.
Instead, they usually meet in each other’s homes every other week. These services include singing, two prayers, Bible reading, a short opening sermon, and a main sermon, after which each baptized male is expected to comment on the sermons’ biblical correctness.
Each congregation is autonomous; there is no centralized “authority” that makes rules or enforces beliefs and observances.
Instead, each community follows its own Ordnung, an oral tradition of rules regarding the proper way to live an Amish life. These Ordnung are periodically reviewed and revised when the community comes to an agreement about a change. Communion services are held twice a year, in the spring and fall. Before the service, a meeting is held in which the participants resolve any disagreements that they have with each other and discuss matters pertaining to proper lifestyle and conduct.
The Amish do not baptize their children when they are born because they believe that making a commitment to the church community is something to be done only after one has become an adult and is capable of making an informed decision.
Instead, some Amish communities have a tradition called rumspringa (“running around”). Because they have not been baptized and have not committed to the extremely strict behavioral restrictions and community rules imposed by the religion, they can explore various aspects of the outside world. It is a period of several years when teenagers of 16 years and older are given some freedom and allowed to make their own choices. They continue to live at home, but are no longer under the complete control of their parents. They can date, hang out with their friends, go out into the non-Amish world, attend parties, drink alcohol, wear jeans, and so on. Rumspringa ensures that young people are giving their informed consent should they decide to be baptized and accept the strictures of living within an Amish community.
Like other aspects of Amish religious life, funerals are held in the home without a eulogy, flower decorations, or other display. The casket is plain and unadorned. When she dies, an Amish woman is usually buried in her bridal dress. A simple tombstone marks the grave following burial.