The Amish

Karen Johnson-Weiner



1517:  Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenburg Church, setting off the Protestant Reformation.

1525:  Conrad Grebel (ca.1498-1526), the son of a prominent Zurich family; Felix Manz (ca.

1498– 1527 (January 5):  Another well-educated Zurich native; and Georg Blaurock (ca. 1492-September 6, 1529), a former priest, met secretly with some of their followers at the Zurich home of Felix Manz on January 21, 1525, where they rebaptized each other, launching the Anabaptist movement.

1527:  Michael Sättler (ca. 1495- May 21, 1527), a former priest from Freiburg, led a secret Anabaptist conference in the town of Schleitheim, north of Zurich. Here they formulated the Schleitheim Confession , which put in writing for the first time Anabaptist beliefs about how the church would function as a community within worldly society, but separate from it.

1632:  The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was adopted by Mennonites meeting in conference in Dordrecht, Holland.

1660:  Thieleman J. van Braght published The Bloody Theater; or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians , popularly known as The Martrys Mirror. The second edition of the book, published in 1685, contained 104 engraved illustrations by the Dutch Mennonite artist Jan Luyken.

1693:  Alsation minister Jakob Ammann excommunicated Mennonite preachers and congregations that rejected his call for greater separation from the world. Twenty of the twenty-three Alsatian ministers, one minister in the Palatinate region, and five in Germany support Ammann. These congregations became known as “Amish Mennonites.”

ca. 1717-1750:  The first wave of Amish immigration to North America took place.

ca. 1815-1861:  The second wave of Amish immigration to North America took place.

1862-1878:  The Diener Versammlungen, a series of ministers’ meetings, were held to confirm Amish unity, but the result was a division between traditionalists who wished to keep the “Old Order” and those desiring changes. After 1865, there was a distinct “Old Order” Amish movement.

1890:  The Budget (Sugarcreek, Ohio) began publication. Presenting correspondence from “scribes” in Old Order communities across North America, it linked Amish communities.

1910:  A schism in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resulted in the formation of the Peachey church, which soon adopted such mainstream Protestant practices as Sunday School.

1913-1918:  The ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish group formed in Ohio, separating itself from the Old Order churches.

1925:  The first private Amish school, the Apple Grove School, was founded in Dover, Delaware.

1927:  A church division occurred in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, resulting in the formation of the Beachy Amish (after their leader, Bishop Moses Beachy). The group maintained plain dress but soon adopted the automobile and electricity. Other affiliations, both conservative and progressive, evolved over the next century.

1937:  Writing to “our Men of Authority” in the Pennsylvania state government, a group of Old Order church members from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, present a petition (signed by over 3,000 Amish and Mennonites) to state officials, protesting a new law that would extend the school year from eight months to nine and raise the age at which children could leave school from fourteen to fifteen years old.

1937:  The Ixheim Amish congregation, the last remaining in Europe, merged with the nearby Ernstweiler Mennonite congregation.

1939:  Frustrated by school struggles, a group of Amish, led by Stephen F. Stoltzfus, left Pennsylvania to establish a new community in Maryland.

1940 – present:  Following World War II, social and economic changes in mainstream society began to challenge Amish communities. In some Amish communities, factory work offered a means of dealing with population growth, less (and more expensive) farmland, and increased competition from non-Amish farmers, who were increasingly relying on technological innovation. Other communities turned to entrepreneurship. Still others began to start new settlements where there was more available farmland.

1948:  The Old Order Book Society of Pennsylvania was formed to discuss, among other topics, the standardization of books to be used by the Old Order schools of in Pennsylvania.

1950s:  Increasingly, the Amish were starting their own schools in reaction to school consolidation and curricular change in public schools. While the Old Order Book Society was influencing the standardization of Old Order schools in Pennsylvania, a group of Old Order Amish teachers in Ontario, Ohio, and Indiana began a circle letter to help each other with classroom issues and provide support to new teachers.

1957:  The teachers’ circle letter became The Blackboard Bulletin , a monthly teachers’ journal devoted to developing Old Order schools.

1963:  Uria R. Byler wrote Our Better Country , an eighth grade history text specifically designed for Amish schools. An Amish letter to The Budget calls it “the first book ever written by an Amishman as a textbook for Amish children.”

1964:  The Pathway Publishing Company was incorporated by the Amish as a non-profit organization.

1965:  Self-employed Amish were exempted from Social Security. (Amish workers employed by other Amish were exempted in 1988.)

1967:  The Old Order Amish Steering Committee formed to serve as liaison between the Amish and the federal government, initially to address the military draft but later for other issues.

1967:  Lutheran pastor, the Reverend William Lindholm, organized the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom to provide legal assistance to Amish communities that were challenging local laws governing school attendance.

1968:  The first of the Pathway Readers appeared, a series of textbooks designed specifically for Old Order schools.

1972:  In the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, et al , the United States Supreme Court exempted the Amish from laws requiring them to send their children to high school.

1975:  Die Botschaft (Millersburg, Pennsylvania), a newspaper featuring letters only from “scribes” in Old Order communities, began publication.

1985:  The film Witness (from Paramount Pictures and starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis) helped spur popular interest in the Amish.

2006:  A shooting at the Nickel Mines Amish School resulted in the death of five young Amish girls and attracted worldwide media attention.

2011:  Members of the Bergholz Amish community attack relatives and others who had opposed Bergholz leader Sam Mullet, cutting men’s beards and women’s hair. In 2012, sixteen members of the Bergholz community were convicted of hate crimes in federal court. The case sparked discussion of what it meant to be Amish.


Today’s Amish are descended from the Anabaptists, a radical faction of the reform movement that began at the end of October 1517, when Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged Pope Leo X in Rome by nailing ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.

In 1518, the city-state of Zurich elected Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) [See painting at right], a former Catholic priest, to be its headpastor. Zwingli was popular, and many hoped that he would move quickly to do away with all rituals for which there was not a clear scriptural basis. Nevertheless, Zwingli felt that secular authority should guide reform, and he refused to proceed without the consent of the Zurich City Council, which had taken charge of the church. Zwingli’s decision seemed to privilege secular authority over scriptural and angered several of his young students, most particularly Conrad Grebel (ca.1498-1526), the son of a prominent Zurich family; Felix Manz (ca. 1498–January 5, 1527), another well-educated Zurich native; and Georg Blaurock (ca. 1492-September 6, 1529), a former priest. The conflict between students and teacher ultimately came to a head over the issue of infant baptism, a practice that not only had religious significance but also helped to ensure that children were entered into state records. In other words, it served a secular purpose as well as a religious one, creating both church members and citizens of the state. Grebel, Manz, Blaurock and their followers argued that, because infant baptism was not mentioned in scripture, it had no place in the church. They asserted baptism should be undertaken as a sign of one’s commitment to the church. Further, they argued, the church should be a believers’ church, a position that many in authority feared would bring anarchy. In January, 1525, the Zurich City Council enacted laws requiring that infants be baptized and forbidding the rebaptism of those who had been baptized as infants. In response, Grebel, Manz and Blaurock, rebaptized each other and launched the Anabaptist movement (Hostetler 1993; Hurst & McConnell 2010); Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Loewen and Nolt 1996; Nolt 2016).

Official persecution of Anabaptists did not stop the spread of the movement. Only ten years after it began, Michael Sättler (ca. 1495- May 21, 1527), a former priest from Freiburg, led a secret Anabaptist conference in February, 1527, in the town of Schleitheim, north of Zurich. From this conference came the Schleitheim Confession, the first written statement of Anabaptist belief. The Confession defined the church as a community of believers, separate from worldly society. One joined this church by voluntarily by choosing to be baptized, which ruled out infant baptism. The Confession also rejected violence, and argued that, within the church, those who sinned were to be simply banned from fellowship. Finally, the Confession proposed a ministry chosen from among the church membership (Loewen and Nolt 1996).

By the end of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists were widely known as “Mennonites” after Menno Simons (1496-1561), a Dutch priest turned Anabaptist preacher whose teachings helped to shape Anabaptist views of baptism, nonconformity, and pacifism. Simons reaffirmed the Anabaptist view of the church as pacifist, non-resistant, and separate from the worldly social order. He also helped to reinforce the notion of the church as a fellowship of believers, who, through their commitment to following Christ’s example, would maintain the purity of the church. For Simons, excommunication and shunning were the only means church members had to guard the purity of the church (Loewen and Nolt 1996; Nolt 2016).

Shunning, the social avoidance or Meidung, of those excommunicated from church fellowship, was later upheld in the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, issued by the leaders of a number of Mennonite factions who came together in the city of Dordrecht in Holland in an attempt to iron out disagreements over church practice. As affirmed in the Confession, social avoidance meant that one could not eat, drink, do business with, or interact socially with any church member who had been put out of the fellowship. The Dordrecht Confession remains the statement of faith for today’s Amish groups (Dordrecht Confession; Loewen and Nolt 1996; Nolt 2016).

In 1693, Alsatian preacher, Jakob Ammann (1644-1730) [See drawing of Jakob Ammann at right] argued that the Mennonites were becoming worldly. He lamented the apparent willingness of Mennonite church members to conform to fashions in dress and tointeract with and even marry non-Mennonites, and he chastised congregations for their apparent failure to shun expelled members. Most of the Mennonite preachers and congregations in Switzerland and the Palatinate region rejected Amman’s call for greater separation from the world, and so, in 1693, Amman excommunicated them. Twenty of the twenty-three Alsatian ministers, along with one in the Palatinate and five in Germany, supported Amman. They and their congregations became known as Amish Mennonites, or, simply, Amish (Nolt 2016).

In response to continued persecution in Europe, many Amish immigrated to the new world. there were two waves of immigration to North America, the first lasting from approximately 1717 to 1750 and the second from 1817 to about 1861. The first wave of immigrants came primarily from the Palatinate and Switzerland and settled primarily in Pennsylvania. The second wave also brought immigrants from Alsace and Lorraine, and they tended to settled further west in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and Ontario (Crowley 1978; Hostetler 1993; Nolt 2016). By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the remaining Amish congregations in Europe had rejoined the Mennonites. The Ixheim Amish Church, the last remaining Amish congregation in Europe, merged with the Ernstweiler Mennonite Church in 1937. There are no Amish left in Europe today (Hostetler 1993; Nolt 2016).

By the mid-nineteenth century, there were a number of small, isolated Amish church-communities. Spread out geographically and encountering different hardships, they began to evolve in different ways. A number of regional ministers’ meetings were held in an attempt to resolve differences between the groups, but the divide between more conservative and more progressive congregations grew. Between 1862 and 1878, church leaders met annually, but ultimately the different factions were unable to reconcile. Pledging to remain faithful to the Alte Ordnung or “Old Order” of their forebears, the conservative congregations withdrew. Then and today, these church-communities are marked by a desire to continue with as little change as possible the practices of daily life and religious observance (Hostetler 1993; Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016).

The majority of more progressive Amish congregations formed regional conferences, each of which eventually merged with the Mennonite Church. A number of more traditionally-minded congregations remained unaffiliated with either the Old Order group or with the regional conferences. In 1910, these came together to form the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt 2013; Nolt 2016).

As the lifestyle of the Old Order Amish became increasingly different from that of their non-Amish neighbors, and church-communities struggled to define their place in a changing world, schisms occurred. Increasingly, church members debated what to do about members who left the Old Order church in which they had been baptized to join more progressive Amish Mennonite congregations. Many argued that those who did so violated the vow they had taken at baptism to uphold the teachings of the church and so should be excommunicated and socially shunned in accordance with the Dordrecht Confession, a position called streng Meidung. Others disagreed. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for example, Amish opposed to streng Meidung withdrew from the Old Order in 1910 to establish an independent church. This group, which became known as the Peachey Amish, soon accepted more mainstream Protestant practices, such as Sunday school.

Others protested when streng Meidung was not observed. In 1913, arguing for streng Meidung, Sam Yoder, a bishop in the Holmes County, Ohio, Amish settlement, asserted that one must remain in the church one had joined or be subject to excommunication and social avoidance. A number of ministers’ meetings were held in an attempt to reach a compromise that would hold the different congregations together, but, by 1917, Yoder’s faction, which would come to be known as the Swartzentruber Amish, was no longer fellowshipping with the Old Order congregations in the region (Hurst and McConnell 2010; Johnson-Weiner 2010).

In 1927, yet another schism occurred, this time in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, when Bishop Moses Beachy rejected streng Meidung. Within a year, members of the Beachy Amish had adopted both automobiles and electricity. Also embracing technology but to a more limited degree than the Beachy Amish, the New Order formed in 1966 when different Amish congregations began to emphasize spiritual values and to articulate a more individualistic belief in the assurance of salvation. Perhaps more properly a subgroup of the Old Order, the New Order Amish have offered a middle way between Old Order and Beachy churches, allowing tractors in the field but forbidding automobile ownership (Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016).

Schisms have continued to separate congregations, providing evidence of the on-going struggle by Amish church-communities to apply Anabaptist principals in the face of pressure, both from the dominant, non-Amish society and from forces within the group. The Amish do not have any central organizing structure that would unite all congregations, so each Amish is a distinct and self-defined group, separate not only from the non-Amish community that surrounds it but also from most other Amish ones as well. A congregation may dien or “fellowship” with others whose Ordnungs, or church rules, are similar, meaning that ministers from one group are able to preach in church services held by the others and that a member of one church-community might marry a member of one of the others. But, although a church-community may consult with those with which it fellowships, it must ultimately find its own path (Hostetler 1993; Hurst and McConnell 2010; Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016; Nolt and Meyers 2007).


Today, the church remains the one pervasive force in Amish existence. The standard German word for church is kirche, which, like its English equivalent, refers to the building in which services are held or to the services themselves. However, the word for church in Pennsylvania Dutch, the language spoken within Amish communities, is Gmay, from the German Gemeinde, meaning community. For the Amish, the church is not the building in which one meets, or even the religious services themselves, but rather a community formed of those dedicated to putting the teachings of Christ into practice (Hostetler 1993; Hurst and McConnell 2010; Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016; Nolt and Meyers 2007).

The Old Order Amish continue to believe that God’s people must be a faithful minority, “strangers and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11), in the world but not of it. The Amish belief, asserted in the Schleitheim and Dordrecht Confessions and reinforced by centuries of persecution, is that the Christian way will not be chosen by the majority of society, and, thus, they remain “a peculiar people” (Titus 2:14), separate from the world and prepared to suffer at its hands. They interpret the command to be separate from the world literally and, in refusing to assimilate to “English” or non-Old Order society, put strict barriers between themselves and the outside world. Distinct and self-defined, separate not only from the “English” or non-Amish but from other Old Order groups as well, each Old Order group is a redemptive community formed of those dedicated to putting the teachings of Christ into practice.

The Amish are Christian and their religious life is based on discipleship and obedience. Discipleship means the attempt to follow Christ’s example in their daily lives, and to do so they must be obedient to Christ’s teaching and to the church. Thus, the Amish link personal faith to their commitment to the church-community.

Discipleship and obedience result from “giving up,” surrendering to God’s will and trusting in God so completely that one accepts whatever happens with the certainty that it is part of God’s plan. The Amish don’t believe they are saved, for this is something only God can know. But if one can yield oneself completely to God, then, perhaps, one can live a life that will be worthy of salvation. One shows this yielding by how one lives (Kraybill et al 2013).

Life within each church-community is guided by its Ordnung or church discipline, which specifies what is sinful and worldly and, therefore, not to be tolerated. Those elements in the Ordnung that can’t be scripturally supported are justified by the feeling that to do otherwise would be detrimental to the community. The Amish believe that the individual human being is weak, and that only in fellowship with others also committed to God’s service can one gain the strength to live the life that will be pleasing to God.

Such a belief necessarily calls for the subordination of individual desire to group will. This is what baptism is all about. In making one’s baptismal vow before the church, one commits oneself to the Ordnung. Baptism is a vow of obedience, a promise to God to follow Christ’s example as revealed in scripture and interpreted by the Ordnung (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016).

Ordnungs may change as the group responds to changing circumstances. Some changes may contribute to the economic viability of a community, while others may be reactions to legislation and social changes in the dominant society. Because no two communities have faced the same set of circumstances, no two Amish communities have exactly the same Ordnung. Even when there is general agreement, the outcome might be quite diverse. For example, all Old Order Amish forbid automobile ownership, but buggy styles vary from group to group, as do the rules governing when one can accept rides from a non-Amish neighbor (Hostetler 1993; Hurst and McConnell 2010; Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016; Nolt and Meyers 2007).

The Dordrecht Confession remains the statement of faith for these modern-day Anabaptists, and young people preparing for baptism study it. Among its key tenets are baptism upon confession of faith (Article 7), pacifism and non-resistance (Article 14), and excommunication and shunning (Articles 16 and 17).


 Every other week, the church-community meets in the home of a family in the church. This is approximately twenty-six church meetings, so each family can expect to host the service once a year. Families know when their turn is coming up, though circumstances (the birth of a child, illness or death in the family) may result in one family taking another’s turn. Those with large homes may host church for a family whose house is too small (Kraybill et al 2013).

In preparing to host church, families clean their homes and farms. Generally others in the community, especially married daughters or sisters, will lend a hand as the hosting family scrubs down walls, cleans out cupboards, washes floors, and prepares the communal meal that will be served after the service (Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013).

Finally, the evening before the service, all of the furniture is moved aside, and the benches [See photograph of church benches at right] are brought in. In some communities,the Ausbunds (hymnbooks) are put out on the benches as well.

Church services begin between eight or nine in the morning, and they last three to four hours. All attend, and there are no nurseries or special services for children. Men and women sit separately. While the congregation sings, the ministry meets in a separate room to decide who will give the opening sermon and the main sermon. There will be silent kneeling prayer after the opening sermon and affirmations (Zeugnis) by ministers or elderly men after the main sermon. Then church members kneel again in prayer before they stand for the final benediction. If a meeting of church members is needed to discuss some important issue, then children and anyone not baptized is excused. Finally, all gather for a fellowship meal, which follows a menu that varies from community to community. While the Swartzentruber Amish always serve bean soup, other Amish groups serve sandwiches with a special “church” spread (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).

The Amish celebrate Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Pentecost, Whitmonday, Ascension Day, Christmas, and, in some groups, “Old Christmas” or Epiphany.

Communion, held in the spring and in the fall, is the most important celebration of church life. Communion Church ( Gros Gmay ) is preceded by Council Church (Ordnungs Gmay). Council Church, attended only by baptized church members, is a time for reviewing the Ordnung and for individuals to recommit to it. This is also the time to purge any ill feelings, confess sins, and forgive others, for, if there is not unity and harmony in the church-community, communion cannot be held two weeks later (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).

Communion is a day-long service that peaks with the retelling of Christ’s suffering and the sharing of bread and wine. It closes with members washing each other’s feet, giving the holy kiss, and providing offerings. It is the only time an offering is collected. Finally, if a church-community needs a new minister (or deacon or bishop), then this generally happens at the close of the communion service (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).

Baptism is the most important rite in any Amish person’s life, for it signals the individual’s confession of Christian faith and devotion to the church. It has important consequences, for, if the individual acts in such a way that he or she violates the Ordnung, then there will be public confession, and possibly excommunication and shunning. Prior to baptism, candidates meet with the ministers and bishop to study the eighteen articles of the Dordrecht Confession. The baptismal service itself takes place after the second of the sermons at a Sunday service. The deacon pours a small amount of water into the bishop’s hands, who, in baptizing the individual, releases the water over the candidate’s head. If the candidate is male, the bishop then shakes his hand and gives him the kiss of peace. If the candidate is female, then the bishop’s wife makes these gestures(Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).


The church district, or congregation, is the central unit of Amish authority. Limited in size by geography and the number of families that can reasonably meet in an Amish home, the church district is governed by athree-part ministry whose officials are chosen by a combination of democracy and faith. There is a deacon (called in German Armen-Diener or “minister to the poor”), whose responsibilities include assisting in marriage arrangements and seeing to it that the material needs of all in the community are met. Two to three preachers (Diener zum Buch or “minister of the book”) are responsible for preaching and counseling. Finally, there is a bishop (Voelliger-Diener or “minister with full powers”), who performs marriages, baptisms, excommunications, and funerals. When a new clergyman is needed, all members of the church, male and female, are consulted. Each is asked to nominate someone (a baptized male, married and settled enough to be a stable leader). Those receiving a sufficient number of nominations (depending on the size of the congregation) take part in a lottery. While the candidates withdraw into another room, church members set out on a church bench as many Ausbunds, the Amish hymnbook, as there are candidates, placing in one of the hymnals a piece of paper on which is written a Bible verse. When the candidates come out, each chooses a hymnal, and the one choosing the hymnal containing the Bible verse rises to church office. Each Amish person, thus, has a say in the spiritual stability of the church and, by extension, in the stability of the community as a whole. But God has the final word (Hostetler 1993:106; Kraybill et al 2013).

Having been chosen by God, the ministry has considerable authority, and appointments, while unpaid, are generally for life. Nevertheless, an ordained deacon, preacher, or bishop may be silenced if the members of the church feel that he has transgressed or violated the Ordnung. Ultimately, decision-making within the community is subject to der Rat der Gemein or a vote of all church members. All those baptized in the church-community have a say in determining, for example, whether a member is to be excommunicated or reinstated or what actions the church-community should take on particular matters (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).

The church and the Ordnung allow Amish families to live as a community within a community, surrounded by non-Amish society and yet separate from it. The physical boundaries of the community are reinforced by the Ordnung’s limitations on use of the telephone, electricity, the automobile, and all other technological innovations that could disrupt the daily face-to-face that reinforces personal ties.

Ordnungs govern language, strengthening the community by clearly marking the boundaries between those who belong and those who do not. Pennsylvania Dutch or Deitsch, also called Pennsylvania German, is used for oral communication within the group. English is used for writing and to talk to outsiders. Young children, who often do not begin to learn English until they enter school, may be bashful in front of outsiders who communicate in a strange tongue (Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill et al 2013; Louden 2016).

Plain dress further distinguishes members of the church-community from outsiders, identifying the group and giving the wearer a sense of belonging. After Jakob Ammann broke with the other Mennonite congregations, his followers were soon distinguishable by dress. Ammann argued that men should not trim their beards and that church members should wear plain clothing. Locally, his followers became known as Häftler (“hook-and-eye people”) because they often chose to use this simple means of fastening their clothing rather than buttons, which were considered more worldly. The Mennonites were called Knőpfler (“button people”) (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016).

The Amish don’t think of plain dress as Christian clothing, but rather as Amish clothing, essential not to salvation but to carrying out the full will of God. Thus, in getting dressed in the morning, each Amish person follows the Ordnung. In not ever cutting her hair and in keeping it hidden under her cap, the woman acts in accordance with Paul’s advice to the Corinthians (11:1-14). In cutting his hair according to the Ordnung and shaving off his mustache, the Amish man signals church membership. Whether boys’ shirts have collars, whether women’s capes are the same color as their dresses, whether the capes are crossed or straight, whether the caps are pleated or plain all indicate one’s membership in a particular church-community.

Homes [See photo at right] and their interiors are also shaped by the Ordnung. In fact, the church-community’s Ordnung
regulates much of daily life. While church members will acknowledge that not everything in the Ordnung is scripturally based, what cannot be supported by reference to the Bible is justified by the feeling that to do otherwise would be worldly and disruptive to the community.

For example, all Old Order Amish groups forbid automobile ownership and regulate when members can hire drivers. The Amish know that with fast, easy transportation readily available, family members are apt to be away from home more often than not, and the church community is likely to become very scattered.

Other machinery is similarly evaluated. [See photo of Amish buggy at right] Just because a piece of machinery or a household
appliance saves the owner time does not necessarily recommend it, nor does it being “modern” condemn it. The question is simply how it will affect the church-community. Most Amish communities use some battery-powered devices, notably flashlights, as well as diesel motors. Some Amish communities have even permitted solar power. Nevertheless, all have determined that connecting the Amish home to power lines “could lead to many temptations and the deterioration of church and family life” (Hostetler 1993; Hurst and McConnell 2010; Johnson-Weiner 2010; Kraybill 2001; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016; Nolt and Meyers 2007).

Daily life, shaped by the Ordnung, is bound by scripture. The father reads the scripture in the morning when the family rises and again before they retire for the night. Every meal begins and ends with silent prayer. Every day practice reinforces the scripture lesson. The father sits at the head of the table, and children in order of age, boys on one side and girls on the other. Each child knows his or her place in the family, and, thus, in the community.

The family is the church in microcosm, its formal structure reflecting the formal structure of the church community, which is the larger family of those in the body of Christ. In the Old Order community, one is, in a sense, always in church, in the world but not of it.

The importance of this is even clearer when one realizes that few life cycle functions leave the home (Kraybill et al 2013; Scott 1998):

● The Old Order use modern medicines, but they are often more comfortable with chiropractors or even home remedies.

● Birth, marriage, retirement, illness, and death all ideally occur at home and are often intensely private. Burial is in cemeteries on land owned by the community.

● The family is responsible for its own expenses, but others in the community help through the donation of funds or labor (e.g. barn raisings).

Amish children start school at about age six and attend through the eighth grade. Although many Amish children still attend localpublic schools, most attend small one or two-room schoolhouses in their own communities, where they are taught by teachers of their own faith [See photograph of Amish school at right]. While teachers’ meetings in many communities provide teachers with some training and support, in the most conservative Amish settlements, teachers are likely to be young, unmarried, girls from the community with little or no formal training. In their eight years of formal education, Amish children learn English, arithmetic, German, and maybe geography and health. The important lessons (how to manage the farm and the household, how to raise the children, how to be responsible and work hard) are learned at home, where children participate in work, play, and ceremony to the extent of their abilities (Dewalt 2006; Johnson-Weiner 2007).

At age sixteen or seventeen, depending on the practices of their church-community, Amish teens join the Young Folk or Youngie. This is Rumspringa or the “running around period,” when young people have a social life with each other distinct from family activities. In very conservative groups, the young folk gather in the evenings on a church Sunday to have supper together and sing hymns. In more progressive Amish communities, young folks may dress in non-Amish clothes and buy forbidden objects such as cameras, radios, or even cars and store them at the homes of English neighbors (Stevick 2014).

During Rumspringa , a young Amish person must make the most important choice of all, whether to be baptized or not. Baptism is vowing to God to follow the teachings of the Bible as taught in the Amish church and interpreted in the Ordnung. As did the first Anabaptists, the Old Order Amish see the church as a fellowship of believers; an Amish young person does not become truly Amish until he or she is baptized and joins the church. If a young person does not join the church, he or she will not be encouraged to stay in the community, but he or she will certainly not be thrown out. If a young person does become baptized and then violates the baptismal vows, falls into sin, violates the Ordnung, or refuses to heed the counsel and concern of the fellowship, then he or she must be excommunicated and shunned (Kraybill et al 2013; Stevick 2014).

Young folk gatherings are also the context for dating. Amish marriages can only unite church members from fellowshipping communities. Rumspringa ends with marriage.

Visiting is frequent and important in Amish society, further affirming and reinforcing familial and church ties. The ill and infirm receive many visits as do the elderly and those who are grieving a death. Sometimes the young folk or young married couples sing favorite songs for the elderly or those confined to their home. During childbirth, a funeral, fire, or accident, people assist by making meals, doing chores, running errands, doing childcare and other tasks. Adult children may set up a weekly rotation to assist an elderly parent who needs constant care. Circle letters are a common way of connecting with others who have experienced a similar illness (heart surgery, breast cancer) or accident, such as parents of children who suffered a sudden death, or died by drowning. Periodic country-wide or regional gatherings for people with a certain disability or disease are also an important source of support that stretches beyond the family circle. Finally, family, church and friends typically provide financial support when bills, especially high medical bills, threaten to overwhelm a single family (Kraybill et al 2013).

The Amish world is diverse, but the different church-communities share important similarities. For all Amish congregations,scripture is the final authority. Amish church services are conducted in German, and all Amish sing from the Ausbund [See scan of pages from Ausbund at right], a hymnbook first printed in 1564 that contains songs written by early Anabaptists. The Lobelied, a hymn of praise, is always the second song in the service, but more conservative congregations sing it far more slowly than more progressive ones. The Ausbund does not contain melodies for the songs, and tunes are passed down from one generation to the next, further uniting the community (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013).

Also uniting church-communities are two weekly newspapers, The Budget (Sugarcreek, Ohio) and Die Botschaft (Millersburg, Pennsylvania), which publish letters from “scribes” within each community, detailing the weather, who had church, what visitors were there, and who might be ill, as well as births, deaths, travels, and everyday events. A monthly newsletter, The Diary , gives further information including summaries of those who have moved and community events (Kraybill et al 2013).

In addition, church-community newsletters are read far beyond the geographic borders of the settlements in which they’re published, and Old Order Amish magazines focus on a variety of topics, from home-making to clock-making and bird-watching. The Pathway Publishing Corporation, an Amish-owned publishing company in Aylmer, Ontario, publishes three widely read monthly magazines, Family Life, Young Companion, and The Blackboard Bulletin, this last a publication aimed at Old Order teachers (Johnson-Weiner 2007; Kraybill et al 2013).

Finally, uniting the diverse Amish communities are regular gatherings of ministers and others who meet to discuss issues of concern in the Amish world. Although the Amish remain congregationally based, many church-communities send representatives to the meetings of the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, which formed in 1966 to negotiate a response to the military draft. At other times, Amish communities have worked together on educational issues, and, in a number of states, a state-wide committee regulates Old Order schools (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill et al 2013; Nolt 2016).

Nevertheless, the church-community remains the center of Amish authority. Because something is done in a particular way in one district is no guarantee that it will be done that way in any other. This doesn’t make one Old Order community any more authentic or another any less. All are Old Order Amish, and, as they are likely to say, “That’s just our way.”


There are always those who are raised in Amish communities but choose not to join the Amish church. A survey of the world’s largest Amish settlement, the diverse community in the Holmes County area of Ohio, found that nearly forty percent of New Order Amish left the church community, while only 2.6 percent left the far more conservative Andy Weaver affiliation. Nationally, roughly ten to fifteen percent of Amish young people choose not to be baptized in the Amish church. The percentage of baptized church members who leave (and thus are subject to excommunication and shunning) is much smaller. In general, the more conservative the community, the higher the retention rate (Kraybill et al 2013).

Although they do accept converts, the Amish do not proselytize, and the number of outsiders who join Amish church-communities is small.

Maintaining the health of the church ultimately depends on keeping young folk from leaving the community. To do so, churches must successfully reconcile faith, tradition, and history with current community and individual needs and with the requirements of the surrounding, non-Amish society. This has become increasingly difficult. In some Amish communities, factory work has offered a means of dealing with population growth, less (and more expensive) farmland, and increased competition from non-Amish farmers, who are increasingly relying on technological innovation. Other communities have turned to entrepreneurship. Still others have started new settlements where there is more available farmland. Each of these paths has had implications for the different church-communities, and today the Amish world is more diverse than ever.

Perhaps the most important challenges facing today’s Amish are changes in mainstream society. New laws requiring photo IDs to accomplish such everyday tasks as opening a bank account pose formidable barriers to more conservative Amish groups whose Ordnungs forbid photographs. Requirements that tax documents be filed on line also stymy the individual Amish farmer, who likely lacks not only a computer but a phone and phone line. Other developments, such as changes to building codes or new regulations regarding child labor and insurance, have also resulted in charges against members of Amish churches.


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Dewalt, Mark. 2006. Amish Education in the United States and Canada. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Accessed from,_1632) on 7 March 2016.

Hostetler, John A. 1993. Amish Society. Fourth Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hostetler, John A. and Thomas J. Meyers. January 2012. “Old Order Amish.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Accessed from on 3 March 2016.

Hurst, Charles E. and David L. McConnell. 2010. An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community . Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Johnson-Weiner, Karen M. 2010. New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Johnson-Weiner, Karen M. 2007. Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kraybill, Donald B. 2001. The Riddle of Amish Culture . (rev. ed.) Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kraybill, Donald B., Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Steven M. Nolt. 2013. The Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Loewen, Harry and Steven Nolt. 1996. Through Fire and Water. An Overview of Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

Louden, Mark. 2016. Pennsylvania Dutch. The Story of an American Language. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nolt, Steven. M. 2015. A History of the Amish, Third Edition. New York: Good Books.

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Stevick, Richard A. 2014. Growing Up Amish. The Rumspringa Years, Second Edition. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


 Huntington, Gertrude E. 2001. Amish in Michigan. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

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Kraybill, Donald B. and Carl F. Bowman. 2001. On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kraybill, Donald B., Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher. 2010. Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Kraybill, Donald B., Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher. 2010. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Mackall, Joseph. 2008. Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish. Boston: Beacon Press.

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Weaver-Zercher, Valerie. 2013. Thrill of the Chaste. The Lure of Amish Romance Novels. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wesner, Erik. 2010. Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Image #1: This image is a painting of Ulrich Zwingli, the elected mayor of city-state of Zurich whose support of secular authority led to the launching of the Anabaptist movement.
Image #2: This image is a drawing of Jakob Ammann, who led the breakaway from the Mennonites to form the Amish Mennonites.
Image 3: This image is a photograph of church benches outside of an Amish home. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Karen Johnson-Weiner.
Image #4: This image is a photograph of a Swartzentruber Amish home. Ordnungs dictate architecture. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Karen Johnson-Weiner.
Image #5: This image is a photograph of Nebraska Amish buggies in Pennsylvania’s Big Valley region. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Karen Johnson-Weiner.
Image #6: This image is a photograph of an Amish School in Ashland, Ohio. Photograph taken by and used with the permission of Karen Johnson-Weiner.
Image #7: This image is a document fragment from a document by an anabaptist songwriter (scan from book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Post Date:
12 March 2016

Updated: — 5:45 pm

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