Lesson 7 Table of Contents Lesson 9

L e s s o n 8


1. Key personalities

Menno Simons (1492-1559). A former Catholic priest who became an Anabaptist during the Reformation. He founded the conservative Anabaptist sect which came to be known as the Mennonites.

Jacob Ammann. Swiss Mennonite leader of the late 17th century who founded the Mennonite sect known as the Amish.

Moses M. Beachy (d. 1946). A bishop of the Amish church in Somerset County, PA who began in 1927 to lead some of the local congregations away from the rest of the church. His followers, the so-called Beachy Amish, now number more than 5,000.

2. Main trends

The Amish are an Anabaptist sect which split away from the other Mennonites at the end of the 17th century. The founder of the sect was a Mennonite minister in Switzerland named Jacob Ammann. He strongly felt that certain transgressions, such as lying, justified excommunication from the church and that excommunication should involve social ostracism. He visited different Mennonite congregations throughout Switzerland and aggressively demanded that the leaders of each congregation state their views on these issues. In the end, his actions forced a schism among the Mennonites in Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany. Those Mennonites who adhered to Jacob Ammann's views came to be known as Amish Mennonites or simply as the Amish.

Jacob Ammann eventually settled in Alsace, now part of France, where he found a considerable following. By 1727 members of the sect had begun to immigrate to America, as had other German Mennonites. The Amish are no longer a distinct religious denomination in Europe, where they were eventually reabsorbed into the larger community of Mennonites.

From the beginning, Jacob Ammann insisted that the members of his church conform to a particular style of dress and that men leave their beards untrimmed. Even before coming to America the Amish had adopted the custom of using hooks and eyes rather than buttons to fasten clothing.

The Amish church is decentralized. The basic unit of Amish society is the district, or congregation, consisting of several dozen families. Religious services are held in rotation at the homes of different church members. Ministers and deacons are elected by the members of the local congregation and bishops are elected by the ministers of a local area. The decentralization of the church has resulted in a general lack of uniformity with regard to church doctrine. The majority of the Amish, known as the Old Order Amish, refuse to drive automobiles or have electricity in their homes. A smaller group, the Beachy Amish, are less strict about such matters. They wear Amish dress but meet in churches rather than homes.

There are about 60 Amish communities in North America with the greatest concentration being found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. There are also significant numbers of Amish in Illinois, Iowa, and Ontario, with scattered settlements in Missouri and other states. By means of The Budget, a national Amish newspaper with over 10,000 readers, the scattered communities manage to maintain some contact.

We must keep in mind that the Amish are not just a religious denomination but that they represent a distinct society which strives to pursue its traditional ways in the face of a rapidly changing outside world. The Amish keep aloof from the outside world. They are suspicious of technological progress and try to keep to the old ways. They avoid urban life, automobiles, and education beyond elementary school. They live as hard-working farmers, lending each other mutual support but wary of outside interference. They refuse to become involved in politics or serve in the military. Due to their strong family and community orientation, they want nothing to do with social security, life insurance, and public schools. In many ways their communities have preserved a lifestyle from a past age, making their own clothes, living mainly from the produce of their own farms, and living within a closely-knit community.

One of the things that sets the Amish apart is their language. The Pennsylvania German dialect is still the chief means of everyday communication, though English is also generally known and taught and on the rise. For church matters, a form of standard German is used. The ability to read standard German is cultivated and considered important because of the significance attached to such religious books as the Martyrs' Mirror, the Ausbund (their hymnal), and Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht (a prayer book).

The kind of clothes that may be worn is carefully prescribed, hair must be cut in a certain way, and frivolity in dress must be avoided. Sportswear and leisure wear are concepts alien to the Amish. Children dress exactly as do adults. Work skills are acquired early in childhood and children's games are often related to the Amish lifestyle. Only a few leisure activities, such as group singing, are permitted. One can go to a zoo to admire God's creatures but one cannot go to a theater or movie.

Singing in unison is a part of the traditional Amish religious service. The Amish hymnal, the Ausbund, contains the texts of the hymns, but no musical notation. The melodies have been orally transmitted and are of a peculiar, unmelodic character. They are sung very slowly at the cue of a song leader, usually an older male member of the congregation appointed to the task. No musical instruments are used by the Amish, either at religious services or otherwise.

The Sunday evening hymn singing, which is an important social activity for young people, is quite different from the singing which forms part of religious services. The hymns sung on Sunday evenings are found in a separate hymnal known as the "thin book," which contains a selection of popular hymns of the sort commonly in use among Protestant churches. One favorite is "Gott ist die Liebe" (God is Love).

Amish religion has not traditionally been concerned with evangelism, missionary work, or Sunday schools. Contact with evangelical Christian groups has exposed the Amish to these ideas and some Amish congregations, particularly among the Beachy Amish, have been disposed to accept them. Although the Amish are taught from childhood that it is a terrible thing to leave the Amish faith, there are a certain number of people in each generation who feel impelled to do so. This is not a particularly serious matter for a young person who has not yet accepted baptism, but a person who has been baptized in the Amish faith may be shunned by the congregation if he converts. Many of those who decide to leave the church do so because of disagreement with the church authorities over such issues as the use of automobiles or the propriety of shunning (Meidung). Such persons usually join a Mennonite church. There are others, however, who leave to join some evangelical group. For them, the Amish church does not

put enough emphasis on study and discussion of the scriptures or on personal conversion. During World War II many young Amish men who did alternative service as conscientious objectors were brought into contact with such evangelicals. The leaders of the Amish church regard some evangelical doctrines, such as personal assurance of salvation, as downright heresy. Some evangelical customs, such as Bible study classes, have been taken up by some of the Amish, particularly among the young. The bulk of the community, however, takes a dim view of such practices.

The Amish are exposed to various pressures toward change. In some areas, for example, many of their members are unable to acquire farms and wind up in some other occupation. If, for example, an Amish man finds a job in a cheese factory, he may find that some of the people he works with every day are not Amish. Disputes within Amish congregations are common and can lead to schisms. Sometimes the group that splits from the parent community happens to be the more conservative group. Some of the Amish congregations in Ontario, for example, were formed when religious conservatives left Pennsylvania because they disapproved of liberalizing trends in the parent community.

The Amish do not seek converts from the outside, but occasionally someone will ask to become a member of the church. Usually this is a young man who has worked as a hired man on an Amish farm and has become attracted to the Amish way of life. Because there are so few outsiders who join the Amish community, certain family names (such as Hostetler, Graber, Yoder, Wagler, and Stolzfuss) are extremely common. To help distinguish persons with similar names, nicknames such as "Pennsylvania Joe" are in common use. Because the Amish represent a distinct gene pool, they have been of some interest to geneticists. Certain genetically transmitted disorders, e.g. a type of anemia, are peculiar to the Amish.

3. Suggested further reading

John Andrew Hostetler. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.

Fred L. Israel. Meet the Amish.New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

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Created: 4 August 1998, SEL
Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: Eberhard Reichmann, reichman@ucs.indiana.edu
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