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The Definitive Guide to Amish Culture

Everything you need to know about the Amish in America

Yes, the Amish are known for their conservative beliefs and reluctance to adapt to modern technology, however, this tradition stems from much deeper religious divisions beginning in the 1500s. The Amish can sometimes seem like a mysterious people, and much of their culture goes under recognized or misinterpreted.

The Amish have traveled a long, at times troubled road to get where they are today. It wasn’t until recently that insiders gained a look into these quiet communities. Now, you can find Amish communities spread across the United States, and many rely on tourism for income. In light of recent television shows like Breaking Amish and Amish in the City, there’s even more confusion about how these people live their everyday lives.

To understand Amish culture as it exists today, you need to consider the breadth of history that brought this unique belief system to light. Only then can you recognize how important Amish traditions, inventions, and ideas have been throughout the rest of the country. They’ve suffered a long, often persecuted past, yet they remain dedicated to their communities. Unfortunately, the persistent stereotypes and misconceptions about this resilient group of people prevent many Americans from taking a closer look into Amish culture. Most would be surprised to learn that not only do beliefs vary widely by region and community, but many are willing and able to adapt to necessary technology under certain circumstances. Living Amish today means a lot more than using gas lights and churning butter. It’s a complex, strong belief system that stems back centuries.

A Brief History of the Amish

Because these early adopters of this new belief system were seen as undermining the power of the State church, they were frequently threatened. Many were tortured and killed, and this led to them worshiping in secret across Europe.

There was a big split in the Anaba ptist religion in the 17th century. A leader by the name of Jakob Amman believed there needed to be a stricter observation of shunning for those who sin. The group split i1693, and the more conservative group following Jakob Ammann called themselves “Amish.”

We all learned about the Protestant Reformation in history class, but most of us have never heard of Anabaptism, a fringe movement on the cusp of the Reformation.

A critical belief separating Anabaptists from other religious movements of the time was the push for adult baptisms. The standard practice in the 16th century was only to baptize newborns and infants. In fact, any other form of baptism was a crime punishable by death in most parts of Europe. Thus, the name Anabaptist literally means “re-baptizer.”

The believers of this new reformation met in secret in towns along the Swiss-German border. These people saw the church as something that should be self-governing. That’s why they held services in the homes of believers rather than in an official church building. Together, the first leaders of this religion created 7 principles for their religious union.

These are the same 7 principles that the Amish belief system still rests on today. The term used for these guiding beliefs is Ordnung, taken from the German word for “order.”

Adult Baptism

Baptism is only performed during adulthood after a confession of faith. This is because children do not have the knowledge of good and evil, so they can’t benefit from baptism.

Shunning

Members who sinned are warned twice in private. In the third instance, they will be notified publicly and banned from the group for good.

Heaven

Only baptized adults are allowed to attend the Lord’s Supper.

Shepherds

Leaders in the church are known as shepherds, and they all must be of good character.

Pacifism

They reject violence, even if it means separating themselves from society.

Separation

Because the rest of the world and politics are seen as corrupt, they do not participate in public office or civil affairs.

Oaths

Because words are not sufficient, members do not give promises.

The Amish in America

Faced with pervasive religious persecution, the Amish people sought refuge in the New World. William Penn, a Quaker from England, created the state of Pennsylvania in what he referred to as a “holy experiment” of religious tolerance.

At the time, this was a pretty revolutionary concept and one that drew the Amish across the Atlantic. While early records are hard to find, the majority of first-wave immigration took place before 1770. Across the colonies there were over 12 settlements, and many of these communities still exist today.

Unfortunately, the persecution did not stop in the New World even amidst the religious tolerance of Pennsylvania. The Amish experienced a number of conflicts that continued into modern day. During the early years, these problems were related to local wars like the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. As outlined in the Ordnung, the Amish are sworn to pacifism. That placed them in a complicated position during any large scale conflict when they tried to remain neutral.

The Amish were also a major target of many of the American religious movements. Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelists attempted to convert members into their new faiths, and this took a significant toll on the Amish communities. Luckily, a new wave of immigration began in the 19th century which helped restore these numbers.

However, the second wave of immigration brought its own challenges .The European immigrants were notoriously more progressive than those already established in Pennsylvania. This even included a more flexible reading on the Ordnung. While their deviations seem small to us now, things like buttons on coats or owning fancy furniture were viewed as offensive by more conservative members. Lines started to be drawn in Amish tradition that are still seen today.

Boundaries in Amish Tradition

Despite attempts to bridge the gaps between conservative and liberal groups, there was another split. This separation took decades in the making, but it’s had a lasting impact on Amish culture. By the late 19th century, the Amish had split into 5 distinct groups.

Old Order Amish

As the most conservative branch, they closely follow the Ordnung. Old Order Amish still have communities today, particularly in Maryland.

The Egly Amish

This group split from the Amish Mennonites and named themselves after their founder Bishop Henry Egly. The main belief separating them is that people can only be baptized after undergoing a salvation

Amish Mennonites

This group was the most liberal until they merged with Mennonites in the early 20th century.

Stuckey Amish

Another group that broke away from the liberals in the 19th century named themselves after Bishop Joseph Stuckey. This was a relaxed belief system in which believers could

Sleeping Preachers Amish

Finally, this subgroup started amongst the Amish Mennonites who split after developing an unusual method of preaching sermons. This method was known as “spirit preaching” and involves preachers who appear to fall asleep and rise in a trance to preach a sermon. Though the practice of spirit preaching is no longer in use, these congregations are still alive in Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas.

While many of these no longer exist in their original forms, these subdivisions form the basis for all Amish communities and beliefs today. As you can see, there is a spectrum between liberal and conservative, and no two communities are the same.

Amish Communities Today

While these splits in tradition helped Amish people create communities across the country, this did not end the persecution. In the last century, we’ve seen continued challenges for the Amish people. This was most strikingly recorded during World War I and II. During World War I, young Amish men were drafted and forced to report for duty despite refusing to take up arms. Many were physically and mentally abused in prisons like Alcatraz, but little is spoken of this abuse today.

During World War II, those who objected to the draft were still required to work under a program known as 1-W, or alternative work. Many suffered emotional trauma and cultural shock from being exposed to the outside world. On the other end of the spectrum, some assimilated into American culture and never returned to their families. World War II shows that even hundreds of years after leaving Europe, the Amish commitment to pacifism still causes problems.

Today, the rising costs of farmland have led to many Amish people needing to look into jobs outside of agriculture. That’s opened the door to many advancements that these communities haven’t embraced in the past. Some have their own businesses, some turn to traditional crafts, and others find jobs in local factories.

One of the biggest changes in recent years is the introduction of tourism. If you visit Pennsylvania, for instance, you’ll see endless advertisements for Amish communities. Hoards of tourists are flocking to these sights hoping to catch a glimpse into this never before-seen lifestyle. This is both a blessing and a curse. While it brings in a lot of revenue to the community, this also means a loss of privacy.

Amish Beliefs

Now that you understand the long road the Amish have taken to get where they are today, let’s dive deeper into their conservative belief system. We’ve already talked about their belief in adult baptism which is done only after one has made a commitment to the church, but there is much more to recognize about their religious and cultural life.

You’ll notice a lot of similarities between the Amish and other conservative Christian faiths.
  • Holy
    Trinity

    They believe in the Trinity and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

  • Heaven
    and Hell

    Like many other fundamentalist groups, they believe in life after death through Heaven or Hell.

  • Salvation

    According to the Amish, salvation is a gift from God. For the Amish, salvation is an everyday experience.

These key beliefs form the foundation of their daily lifestyle and commitment to God. Let’s examine how these influence Amish separation and governance.

Separation

One of the biggest facets that lead to the confusion surrounding Amish culture is their separation. The Amish try to remain separate from the rest of the world. This is both a physical and social separation. The Amish refer to people in the non-Amish world as "English," and these people have the potential to corrupt the community.

While many find this perplexing, consider the history we just outlined. Since the start of the Anabaptist movement up until the modern day, the Amish have experienced endless persecution at the hands of outsiders. With this in mind, it’s understandable why they don’t trust "English" people.

Governance

Each congregation is known as a district, and it remains completely autonomous. Believe it or not, the Amish do pay taxes on both a state and federal level. The only tax they don’t pay is the Social Security tax since they refuse its benefits as it’s seen as a form of insurance.

Each Amish district includes around 30 families. There can be several districts within a single settlement. The community itself is led by a bishop, several ministers, and a deacon. They all play a unique role in the church, which is the spiritual center of Amish life. The Bishop leads the community by deciding which issues need to be voted on, while the ministers and deacon are more involved with church life.

The ministers are the ones who do the actual preaching in Sunday church services. Most districts have 2-3 ordained ministers, and these individuals have the full respect of the community. Amish preachers do not use notes or rehearse their sermons. Instead, they rely entirely on the Holy Spirit to draw words from them. Finally, the deacon collects money for the community and talks privately with members about transgressions or other broken rules.

The choosing of these leaders is particularly unique. While members of the community nominate their spiritual leaders, the final choice is random. Those who receive the most nominations are gathered into a single room, and, depending on the tradition, are chosen randomly.

In one ceremony, a verse is written on a piece of paper and inserted into a hymnbook. The nominee who chooses the one with the verse is the elected leader. These traditions of random selection are based on the idea that God should have the final say in their leadership.

Amish Cultural Practices

Amish beliefs tie into every aspect of their life. Because they believe salvation is an everyday experience, they take great care to protect their conservative values. One of the biggest differences between the Amish and other religious fundamental groups is the lack of evangelicalism. There is no push within the Amish to recruit other members since they’re confident only knowledge of salvation can bring one to the light.

This is why they keep themselves so separate from the rest of the English world, and it’s also why so many of us have misconceptions about their practices. The Amish base their culture on the tradition of the past. While much of it seems like a time capsule from centuries ago, that’s because it is. They take great pride in respecting the tried-and-true, and they take a skeptical eye to innovation.

There are differences in cultural practices depending on the community and Amish belief system, but they’re all committed to following the Ordnung in some capacity. Let’s examine these practices individually to see why they’re fundamental parts of the entire culture.

Language

Agriculture & Farming

The Amish actually speak two languages. The most common language is German, but most members speak a dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch. During worship, they use something known as High German. The other language is English which is spoken and learned in school.

While there is one small collection of Amish in Indiana who chooses to speak Bernese Swiss German rather than Pennsylvania German, they’re a minority. Where did this German blend develop in the first place? The primary cause is the sheer number of German speakers who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century. This resulted in a mashup of dialects creating Pennsylvania Dutch as it’s spoken today. This language is kept alive as a way to feel connected to their spiritual heritage.

Rumspringa

While not much is openly known about Amish culture, many American people have heard of the term Rumspringa. This is probably because of the popularity of the show Breaking Amish on American television. Like most “reality” TV, Breaking Amish is hardly a sound example of real-life experiences.

Rumspringa is an Amish youth tradition, usually for boys, in which they’re allowed more freedom. Because they haven’t been baptized yet, they aren’t under the authority of the church. The specific practices, once again, vary depending on the community. In most cases, these youth are free to explore the world beyond Amish communities. This might mean wearing non-Amish clothing, going to the movies, or even buying a car.

It’s easy to think rumspringa is an Amish paradox. Why would such a conservative community encourage young people to explore beyond their traditions, especially if it means trying things that are forbidden by the Ordnung? It all comes down to rebaptism. The Amish people base their faith on the concept of choice. People must choose for themselves if they want a place in the church.

Education

Education has long been a source of contention between the Amish and local governments. While the Amish strongly believe in the value of education, they think it’s only necessary up until 8th grade. Beyond learning essential reading, writing, and math skills, they’re schooled in Amish history and ideals.

Other than these basics, education is seen as no longer useful for living a life devoted to God, and children will be expected to learn a vocation like farming, carpentry, or factory work. Though most states require students to stay in school until they reach 16, many states allow an exception for the Amish based on their religious beliefs.

Meidung

ne of the more misunderstood aspects of Amish culture is the practice of shunning, known as Meidung. The Ordnung promotes the shunning of those who continue to reject key values of the community, but it is not something the Amish enforce lightly. Instead, it’s intended to be a last resort for those who have already received several warnings.

After being shunned by the community, the Amish can no longer give any form of aid or help to the ex-member. The most common example of sinful behavior resulting in shunning includes the use of forbidden technology. This practice of shunning sinners from the community is intended to preserve the integrity of the entire church, once again returning to the common thread of separatism.

Clothing

We’ve all seen photos of traditional Amish people. It’s easy to mistake these men and women for people of decades or even centuries ago. The women wear long, modest dresses with the characteristic bonnets covering their hair. The men are always dressed in similarly conservative outfits like dark suits and wide-brimmed hats. While it might look like an exaggerated costume, the Amish style of dress is just another way to express their faith.

Unlike much of our American fashion of today, there is a purpose behind everything the Amish wear and how they choose to style themselves. Women, for example, must never cut their hair which is only to be worn in a bun pinned to the back of their heads. The bonnet is actually a prayer covering, and the color says something about the woman’s marital status. White prayer coverings are for married women, and black prayer coverings are for single women. Amish women never wear jewelry, and their clothing is always a modest, full-length skirt with a cape and an apron.

Men are held to similarly strict standards. They wear dark suits with straight-cut coats. They’ll also wear suspenders and black or straw hats. They do not use lapels, and their shirts only use conventional buttons or hooks and eyes. Amish men are not permitted to grow mustaches, but they do grow beards only after they’ve married.

As you can see, every Amish outfit and style choice is indicative of their devotion to faith and their status within the community (married or single). Like in all things, the Amish want their clothes to be a reflection of their humility and separation from the non-Amish world.

Transportation

One of the most iconic Amish images is that of the horse and buggy. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that the Amish actually have developed many new ways to travel, and they probably aren’t what you think. Yes, the buggy is the standard form of getting around, so this icon isn’t completely misplaced. That being said, there are a lot of other ways the Amish travel today.

All Amish households have one (or more) carriages or buggies. These buggies are only used for short distances. For instance, they’ll use them to travel to church or to visit neighbors, but never more than 20 miles at a time. For longer distances, the Amish actually use cars. That’s right, the myth that the Amish never use cars is not true at all. While the Amish object to owning automobiles or even just operating one, they are permitted to ride as passengers.

Because there are a lot of limitations to riding in a buggy (like needing to rest the horse), the Amish understand that cars are a necessary form of travel. They’re usually driven by friends or non-Amish employees, but there has recently been a new service appearing in these areas. This new service is for so-called "Amish taxis" which are offered by non-Amish people.

Besides buggy and automobile travel, the Amish are permitted to travel by train, especially when visiting relatives or other Amish communities. Travel by water is also openly accepted. As you can see, the Amish utilize many forms of transportation. This newfound mobility allows them to explore other communities and even work in nearby locations. While they still value the horse and buggy, they recognize the need to permit different types of travel.

Technology

Finally, let’s talk about the most misunderstood facet of Amish life: technology. Most know that the Amish reject modern technology, but things today aren’t the same as they were decades ago. Technology is changing rapidly, and the world is changing with it. The Amish, adverse to change as they are, have stumbled into some unexpected updates.

First of all: the Amish do not reject all new technology. NPR perfectly hit the nail on the head when they described the use of technology amongst the Amish as “thoughtful” instead of frivolous. While Americans are quick to assume new technology is always better, the Amish ask fundamental questions about how necessary a change is before accepting it into their community.

Not all Amish communities come to the same agreements on how technology should be used.In general, any technology that is seen as a threat to the community is not permitted. This means anything that provides easy contact with the non-Amish world or threatens community values is not welcome.

Common Amish Technology:

  • #

    Battery electricity

  • #

    Gas grills

  • #

    Farm equipment

  • #

    Community phones

  • #

    Hydraulic or pneumatic systems to power equipment

The Amish aren’t as stuck in the time capsule as you might have thought. Though they use new technology selectively, they are willing to embrace changes that are necessary to modern living. Because the Amish value tradition, they don’t feel the need to search for new innovations in order to lead a happy life.

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Amish Professions

If you immediately think of farming when you picture Amish professions, you aren’t wrong. Farming has its place in the Amish community, but recent changes have introduced new professions into Amish culture. In 2018, the majority of Amish people are no longer farmers. The Amish have found a place in today’s economy as carpenters, construction workers, and even small business owners.

Agriculture & Farming

While Farming is no longer the most common occupation, that’s not to say it isn’t still a reality for many Amish people. The Amish brought with them the farming skills passed down from their ancestors in Europe. Thanks to ongoing persecution in Europe, the Amish were forced to settle in parts of Europe that weren’t easy to farm. Some good came of this; they became incredibly resilient, skilled, and resourceful farmers.

They still use the majority of these older traditions, even if it means ignoring most of the new advancements in modern farming. For example, most Amish farmers use horses to plant and plow their fields. You’ll never see a tractor or a combine in an Amish community. Farming is seen as something that brings humans closer to God’s creations, therefore, it’s seen as the "best occupation" for a family to have within the community.

Furniture Crafting

The recent rise in the cost of land has pushed many Amish people into new industries. The Amish have been handy carpenters for generations. Though they’ve been making their own furniture since they first arrived in the New World, this skill was only “discovered” in the early 1920s. Historians and furniture dealers took notice of the Amish’s quality craftsmanship, and this attention only grew.

The Amish belief system prevents them from using most modern power tools, and this means they rely on tried-and-trued methods to perfect their furniture. Amish families develop their own shops to build furniture for the community and beyond. Amish furniture doesn’t adhere to any one style, and you’ll even find Amish pieces in the most modern of American homes.

Construction & Contracting

Along with furniture crafting, the Amish are also skilled builders. They work as part of construction crews to build anything from homes to commercial buildings. Once again, the Amish complete these projects by hand, working with wood without the aid of any electronic tools.

In some Amish communities, people perform construction within a factory setting. One example of this that gained media attention not so long ago is the surge of Amish people working in RV factories. Inside Indiana Business argued over 80% of global RV production is produced near some of the largest Amish communities. Their commitment to hard work and attention to detail lends itself to a diverse array of professions.

Small Business Owners

Many Amish people today own their own businesses. While they might own their own carpentry shop or construction business, many Amish people also sell their wares to the local community. These can include quilts, produce, and other handmade goods. “Made by Amish” holds a lot of weight for local Americans and tourists.

As business owners, Amish people know their strengths and they play to them. They know handmade, traditional, and rustic products are always in demand, and they stick with what they know. Overall, Amish businesses are notoriously successful. While most American businesses are destined to fail in the first 5 years, the Amish have proved to be resilient yet again. The failure rate of Amish startups is under 10%, a startlingly low percentage.

The Impact of Amish Culture

Today, the Amish population is exploding. More Amish children are choosing to stay with their families than ever before, and these communities are growing quickly in the U.S. and Canada. If you travel to parts of Pennsylvania, the region where the first Amish settlers made their homes all those centuries ago, you’ll see signs for Amish-owned businesses and tourist attractions around every corner.

Beyond welcoming tourists into the community for the first time, the Amish are making a name for themselves with their entrepreneurial spirit whether they’re building modern furniture or starting their own business. The Amish are looking outward, and so are their ideas.

This misunderstood group of people is much more than just a glimpse into the past. They’re proof that resilience and hard work pays off. Despite misconceptions, the Amish aren’t unyielding in their beliefs. They hold firm when it comes to their devotion to their faith, but they know when to adapt. Perhaps we can all learn a thing or two from their perspective on technology.

At times, the Amish seem like a paradox. They’re extremely conservative in most ways of life, yet they’re running successful businesses in their own towns. They’re old-fashioned, yet they have no problem using new technology when it’s in their best interest. This resilient, yet adaptable nature has saved the Amish from persecution time and time again, and it will be the driving force that takes them into the future.