Amish Community: Model for Community Life
Panjim-Goa: Amish, also called Amish Mennonite, member of a Christian group in North America. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, Christian pacifism, and slowness to adopt many conveniences of modern technology, with a view to not interrupt family time, nor replace face-to-face conversations whenever possible. The Amish value rural life, manual labour, humility, and Gelassenheit, all under the auspices of living what they interpret to be God’s word.
History and Church Structure:
The history of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann (c.1644-c.1730). Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish. In the second half of the 19th century, the Amish divided into Old Order Amish and Amish Mennonites. When people refer to the Amish today, they normally refer to the Old Order Amish. Amish communities sprang up in Switzerland, Alsace, Germany, Russia, and Holland. The Amish began emigrating to North America early in the 18th century; they first settled in eastern Pennsylvania, where a large settlement remains. Schism and disruption occurred after 1850 because of tensions between the “new order” Amish, who accepted the social change and technological innovation, and the “old order,” or traditional, Amish, who largely did not. During the next 50 years, about two-thirds of the Amish formed separate, small churches of their own or joined either the Mennonite Church or the General Conference Mennonite Church.
Most traditional Amish are members of the Old Order Amish Mennonite Church. As of 2020, over 330,000 Old Order Amish live in the United States and about 10,000 live in Canada, a population that is rapidly growing, as the Amish do not generally use birth control. Amish church groups seek to maintain a degree of separation from the non-Amish world. Non-Amish people are generally referred to as “English”. The largest groups were located in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, and others were found in Wisconsin, Maine, Missouri, and Minnesota. Their settlements are divided into church districts, autonomous congregations of about 75 baptized members. If the district becomes much larger, it is again divided, because members meet in each other’s homes. There are no church buildings. Each district has a bishop, two to four preachers, and an elder.
Beliefs and Way of Life:
Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their rejection of Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and the high value they place on Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit (calmness, composure, placidity), often translated as “submission” or “letting-be”. Gelassenheit is perhaps better understood as a reluctance to be forward, to be self-promoting, or to assert oneself. The Amish’s willingness to submit to the “Will of Jesus”, expressed through group norms, is at odds with the individualism so central to the wider American culture. The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labour-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on the community. Modern innovations such as electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity.
Humility, family, community, and separation from the world are the mainstays of the Amish. Everyday life and custom are governed by an unwritten code of behaviour called the Ordnung, and shunning (Meidung) remains an integral way in which the community deals with disobedient members. Members who do not conform to these community expectations and who cannot be convinced to repent are excommunicated. In addition to excommunication, members may be shunned, a practice that limits social contacts to shame the wayward member into returning to the church.
Amish lifestyle is regulated by the Ordnung (rules), which differs slightly from community to community and from district to district within a community. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. The Ordnung is agreed upon or changed within the whole community of baptized members prior to Communion which takes place two times a year. The Ordnung include matters such as dress, permissible uses of technology, religious duties, and rules regarding interaction with outsiders. In these meetings, women also vote on questions concerning the Ordnung.
Religious Practices :
In formal religious doctrine, the Amish differ little from the Mennonites. Holy communion is celebrated twice each year, and foot washing is practiced by both groups. Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 16 and 23. It is a requirement for marriage within the Amish church. Once a person is baptized within the church, he or she may marry only within the faith. Church districts have between 20 and 40 families and worship services are held every other Sunday in a member’s home or barn. The district is led by a bishop and several ministers and deacons who are chosen by a combination of election and cleromancy (lot). Religious services are conducted in High German, and Pennsylvania Dutch (an admixture of High German, various German dialects, and English) is spoken at home and is common in daily discourse. The services are held on a rotating basis in family homes and barns. A large wagon, filled with benches for the service and dishes and food for the meal that follows, will often be pulled to the host’s property. In most Amish homes a special place is reserved alongside the Bible for the Martyr’s Mirror, a book chronicling Amish history and honouring the many Amish, Mennonite, and Anabaptist forebears who died for their faith.
Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbours and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family. Amish typically believe that large families are a blessing from God. Farm families tend to have larger families because sons are needed to perform farm labour. Community is central to the Amish way of life. Working hard is considered godly, and some technological advancements have been considered undesirable because they reduce the need for hard work. Machines such as automatic floor cleaners in barns have historically been rejected as this provides young farm hands with too much free time.
The Amish are best known for their plain clothing, most of it self-made and sewn by hand, and nonconformist lifestyle. Men and boys wear broad-brimmed black hats, dark-coloured suits, straight-cut coats without lapels, broad fall pants, suspenders, solid-coloured shirts, and black socks and shoes. Their shirts may fasten with conventional buttons, but their coats and vests fasten with hooks and eyes. Men grow beards after they marry to symbolize manhood and marital status, as well as to promote humility, but are forbidden to have moustaches because moustaches are seen by the Amish as being affiliated with the military, which they are strongly opposed to, due to their pacifist beliefs. Women have similar guidelines on how to dress, which are also expressed in the Ordnung, the Amish version of legislation. They are to wear calf-length dresses, muted colours along with bonnets and aprons and black socks and shoes.
Prayer caps or bonnets are worn by the women because they are a visual representation of their religious beliefs and promote unity through the tradition of every woman wearing one. The colour of the bonnet signifies whether a woman is single or married. Single women wear black bonnets and married women wear white. The colour coding of bonnets is important because women are not allowed to wear jewellery of any kind, such as wedding rings, as it is seen as drawing attention to the body which can induce pride in the individual. Amish women never cut their hair, which is worn in a bun. The Amish attire, which is essentially that of 17th-century European peasants, reflects their reluctance to change, their respect for tradition, and their interpretation of biblical strictures against conforming to the ways of the world (e.g., Romans 12:2).
Simplicity of Life:
The Old Order Amish shun personal home-based telephones but will occasionally use a communal one. They also deliberately avoid automobiles. They ride bicycles and drive horse-drawn buggies instead, though many of them will, on occasion and in emergencies, ride in cars, trains, and buses operated by others. Although the buggies are traditional boxlike vehicles, they are not always black, as commonly thought; some of them are white, grey, or even yellow, and many Amish and Mennonite groups can be distinguished by their chosen colour of the buggy. The buggies may also be equipped with such modern conveniences as heaters, windshield wipers, and upholstered seats.
The use of electricity, however, is strongly avoided, as it is a prime connection to the world that could lead to temptations and worldly amenities detrimental to the community and family life; occasional exceptions to this ban have involved Amish who must use electric flashers on their buggies in order to drive legally in their communities and certain farm equipment that could not be operated without a minimal amount of electricity and without which the community’s economic livelihood would be threatened; for example, certain milking equipment may be impossible to operate without some electricity, and electric fences may be deemed critical for keeping cattle. Bottle gas is often used to operate appliances, even barbecue grills, and gas-pressured lanterns and lamps might be used for indoor lighting.
The Amish are considered excellent farmers, growing and storing the majority of their food and purchasing in stores only staples such as flour and sugar. The Old Order Amish refuse to use most modern farm machinery, preferring the sweat of their brow over the ease of modern conveniences. What modern machinery they do use will often be operated not by electricity but by an alternative power source. The Amish are famous for their barn raisings. These cooperative efforts often involve hundreds of men, as well as scores of women who feed the workers. These custom-made barns are a constant reminder of Amish tradition, community, industry, and craft. The hex signs that often adorn the barns (the round geometric emblems painted to ward off evil) are synonymous with the agricultural communities of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”
The Amish typically accept the photographing of their way of life, but they forbid photos of themselves, believing such things are graven images in violation of the Second Commandment. For this same reason, the dolls young Amish girls play with are traditionally faceless. Musical instruments are also forbidden by the Old Order Amish, as playing these, they believe, would be a “worldly” act contrary to the critical Gelassenheit: Amish may play an instrument in private, such as the accordion or harmonica, but never in public. Singing, however, is important to Amish life, whether at work or at play, at home or in church. Selections from the Ausband (their hymnal) are commonly sung. Group singing is always in unison and never harmonized. Hymn singing is popular on Sunday evenings, especially among young Amish, and on these occasions, a separate hymnal (with “faster tunes”), called the “thin book,” is used.
Craft and Cuisine:
Amish quilts, meticulously stitched by groups of Amish girls and women, are popular with tourists and highly praised by collectors. The quilting bees are a form of socialization and relaxation for Amish women, and the group effort reflects the Amish virtues of community and cooperation. The quilts can be intricate in design with colourful patterns but may not contain representational images, which are considered fancy and prideful. The selling of quilts, handmade crafts such as hex signs, and their famous baked goods such as friendship bread and shoofly pie is a common source of income for Amish families. Amish cuisine is noted for its simplicity and traditional qualities. Food plays an important part in Amish social life and is served at weddings, fundraisers, farewells, and other events. Many Amish foods are sold at markets including pies, preserves, bread mixes, pickled produce, desserts, and canned goods. Many Amish communities have also established restaurants for visitors. Amish meat consumption is similar to the American average though they tend to eat more preserved meat.
Amish children typically attend one-room schools run by the community with teachers (usually young, unmarried women) from the Amish community. They attend school only through the eighth grade and generally discontinue formal education after grade eight, at age 13 or 14. Almost no Amish go to high school and college. Instruction is in English and concentrates on the basics of reading, writing, and math. Amish history and practical farming and homemaking skills are also taught. As in many of the separatist branches of Protestantism, convincing the children of believers to stay in the faith community can often be a challenge. If a young man joins a Mennonite church or other less exacting religion, the Amish will often say “he got his hair cut.” If a young person abandons the faith altogether, they say that person “went English.”
The quiet, reserved manner that the Amish try to maintain does not prevent them from partaking in common pastimes and games. Volleyball and softball are popular with many Amish families, but they are played strictly for enjoyment and not in a spirit of competition. Flower gardens, if kept simple, are also permissible. Once the daily chores are finished and the children’s schoolwork completed, Amish families will often read or sing together in the evenings, before going to bed early in preparation for their next day’s chores.
Out of Politics:
The Amish are not involved in state or national politics, and, as pacifists, they do not serve in the military. They also avoid social security and most types of insurance, often pooling their resources to help Amish families in need, but they will visit doctors, dentists, and opticians. As has often been said, the Amish are in the world but not really of it, as they try, in their simple and placid ways, to maintain the greatest possible separation from the rest of society.
As time has passed, the Amish have felt pressures from the modern world. Issues such as taxation, education, law and its enforcement, and occasional discrimination and hostility are areas of difficulty. On occasion, this has resulted in sporadic discrimination and hostility from their neighbours, such as throwing of stones or other objects at Amish horse-drawn carriages on the roads.
Amish community truly is a model for all of us to show how to live a simple but cheerful life based on high morals and protecting the earth from destruction. Are we ready to follow their good example?