The Amish for “Magic, Science, and Religion,” Winter 2003
The Amish are a peace-loving, upright, religious group of people, settled happily in different parts of the U.S. and Canada. They disregard the modern way of life, and are content to live their life preparing for death and heavenly rewards by going without modern conveniences such as electricity. However, despite their simple way of life, the Amish have thrived since their founding.
The Scope and Purpose of the Amish Tradition
Anybody who has driven through Pennsylvania has undoubtedly seen Amish farms and settlements. In some towns, one can encounter a group of Amish people selling their hand-crafted quilts and wicker baskets on the street to non-Amish folk, as this is one way that they earn money. The Amish stand out. They make no effort to conform to contemporary society, and they are perfectly happy as such. Even if one does not know of the Amish people, or anything about what they stand for, it is obvious that their simple way of life comes from a deeply engrained belief in the Bible and its principles, and that they believe that their way of life is the ‘right’ way to live, although they are not missionaries and do not believe in imposing their beliefs upon others. The Amish people purposely stand out from society because they are proud of their beliefs, and proud of their austere way of life. The majority of Amish settlements are located in North America and Canada, but Pennsylvania in particular is famous for being “Amish country”. The main basis for the Amish tradition is a simple way of life, strict adherence to the teachings of the Bible, and a renouncement of all “worldly” goings-on or possessions. The Old Amish, or the very traditional ones, do not own telephones or automobiles. Their main method of transportation is the horse and buggy.
The Amish govern their lives by a very specific set of rules and regulations, which they seek to derive from the Bible. These regulations provide for a morally upright, hard-working way of life. There are specific standards of propriety for every aspect of life. The Amish make no effort to be integrated into society as we know it. They simply lead their own lives on their farms and settlements, and only venture into “our” world to sell their wares or if the government impinges on their traditional way of life. For example, the Amish complained loudly when the government maintained that their children be required to attend high school, above and beyond the traditional Amish-required eight years of schooling. But when it comes down to daily life, the Amish are content to simply be a part of the countryside they lovingly sow and tend to every day. They are not hermits, however. As mentioned above, they do venture out to sell their merchandise and are a major tourist attraction for modern people looking to catch a glimpse of a less complicated lifestyle.
Authority structures within the Amish community
A. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge
When talking about the Amish people, one word will always arise, and that word is “traditional”. Because that’s what the Amish are all about: preserving their traditions, and upholding the values they treasure from the Bible. Services are still held in High German, and the people themselves are tri-lingual, speaking enough High German to get through and recite Bible scriptures, conversing amongst themselves in Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of High German, and interacting with ‘outsiders’ in English, because there are not many other people who speak Pennsylvania Dutch. The majority of Amish children actually never learn English until they reach the first grade, when they are taught it at school, because their parents speak Pennsylvania Dutch to them at home. The preservation of the language, and the dialect which has evolved from it, is just one way that the Amish people ensure that they stay in touch with their roots. Although their lives revolve around their religion and belief systems, their set time for community worship is every other Sunday. Church meetings are not just for the ‘Plain People’ to worship, but they are also the main form of community gathering and social activity. Community concerns and news are discussed at the church meetings as well, and afterwards is traditionally a time to gather together and meet with other Amish families and socialize. (Schweider, pp. 23-25).
B. Methods of Inquiry
The Amish beliefs, taken directly from the Bible, are manifested in a statement called the “Dortrecht Confession of Faith.” This doctrine is basically eighteen different sections which dictate the standard of life appropriate to the Amish people, as interpreted from different parts of the Bible. Above and beyond most everything else, of extreme importance to the Amish is their desire that a member of the Amish community remain there by choice, and are thus proponents of willful baptism. By willful baptism, it means that, rather than being baptized into the faith as a child, thus implying a choice the parent makes, an Amish person is baptized at an age where they are fully capable of making their own decision about whether or not to continue their life in the faith. (Schweider, Appendix C, Article VII). Because of this choice that every Amish man or woman must make for him or herself, there is very little questioning of belief on the part of the Amish themselves. The “Dortrecht Confession of Faith” provides for every aspect of the Amish lives, including the civil government as an institution for “…the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the pious…” (Schweider, Appendix C, Article XIII), therefore there is no facet of their lives that is ungoverned by the set of guidelines in the Confession.
C. Institutions and Professional Structure
Because of the inherently religious nature of their way of life, it is not surprising that their institutions and structures come directly from the Confession, and are maintained and upheld as such. The church even dictates the layout of Amish communities. Each church district is home to approximately fifteen to thirty families who all live within a relatively close proximity to each other. These fifteen to thirty families are each other’s main source of socialization, and they all congregate at a different community member’s house every other Sunday for church meetings.
Despite the fact that all Amish communities have in common their reverence to the Confession and the Bible in general, there is no nationwide, central church for the Amish to answer to. Each church district is self- governing, and each church leader – called the bishop—is the elected leader of his own community of families. He is elected by the congregation, but may only be as such if he is an ordained minister. There is a semi-strict hierarchy below the bishop, which consists of a couple of ministers and a couple of deacons whose main purposes are to assist him in his duties. The bishop, as the leader of the community, is responsible for the basic governing law of the community, although these laws are rarely, if ever, written down. The religious leaders receive no formal training for their position, nor are they paid to give their services every Sunday. All important decisions regarding the community fall to the bishop. For example, if a new Amish family desires to move into the community, it is the bishop’s job to determine whether or not they are acceptable to live within his jurisdiction. Not only is the bishop in charge of the religious and community aspects of life in Amish country, but he is also in charge of the personal and mental well-being of the individuals within the community. More often than not, if there is a problem within a family, the members will consult the bishop about it, and he will do his best to try and help them work it out, without much ado and complication about it.
The History of the Amish People
The Amish came about when a member of the Mennonite church, Jacob Ammann, became disenchanted with the lack of discipline within the Mennonite church. He favored complete isolation from the outside world, and from those who had been excommunicated. He maintained that the men should wear beards, and that the clothing should be unembellished and ordinary. His beliefs met with severe opposition in Alsace and Switzerland, where the Mennonite church was then ensconced, and he and his followers, known by then as the Amish, were required to leave the country. The name ‘Amish’ as a title for his people and their descendants is a derivation of Ammanns’ last name. Soon thereafter, migrations to America occurred, and the first Amish Mennonite settlement in Pennsylvania probably came about in 1730. (Hostetler, pp. 1-2). One might argue that because they came from the same roots, Mennonites and Amish are inherently similar, however this is not the case. Mennonites are largely concerned with maintaining their ideals to a less severe degree, while also preaching their beliefs to the world at large. They publish books, they partake in missionary activities, and they have colleges devoted to teaching young Mennonites. In short, they are in close contact with the outside, modern world. The Amish are not. They do not have any desire to convert others to their beliefs, because they believe that the belief system a man follows is that of his own choice, but they do desire to make clear to the world that which they believe and follow strictly. The Amish are upstanding and moral, and they are good farmers. That is all that they believe needs to be known about them, dismissing the need for any complicated doctrine or teaching. They are pious and upright, and bear little resemblance to today’s Mennonites, with whom they are frequently confused and compared. Their history and founding is as unremarkable and simple as the lives they lead today, and have lead since their settlement in Pennsylvania’s Amish country and other places. In the 1950s there were an estimated 35,000 Amish people in the country, which is a large sum for such a modernized country as America is.
Conflicts with the Outside World
If a belief system requires that its followers maintain a way of life and methodology that places them outside of mainstream lifestyle, they are inevitably going to come into conflict with the outside world. The Amish understand the ‘outside world’ to be that society which does not follow their beliefs and practices of a simple life, devoid of any complications unnecessary for survival. As mentioned earlier, the main source of conflict with society is the Amish’s beliefs towards education. They believe that an eighth grade education is sufficient for any successful Amish person, and after the eighth year of schooling is completed, girls are instructed in household duties such as sewing, cooking, and making bed, whereas the boys are given enough information to ensure that they will be able to be successful farmers when they are old enough. Traditionally, Amish children have been educated in one-room schoolhouses, with all eight grades in the same room. While one grade recites their lessons, the others study their own. This form of education came under national scrutiny because of the law that says at the age of 15 an adolescent can legally drop out of school, whereas an Amish child is typically finished with their schooling at age 14. Because of this conflict with the American government, it is not rare for Amish children to go to public school until such time as they can legally drop out and become a full-fledged member of the Amish community. Some one-room schoolhouses remain, but they are usually run by a non-Amish, state-certified teacher. Some Amish have been led to found Amish-run parochial schools, which ensures less contact with the outside world for their children.
A main source of concern and conflict within the Amish community is the increasingly modern economy. An Amish man’s greatest concern aside from providing for his family is to buy more land and secure a farm for his son when he marries. Typically, this land would have been purchased from non-Amish farmers, but today they can get a better price from real-estate developers. Thus, the Amish have to some extent been forced to abandon some of their largely farming-oriented lifestyle. Some Amish men now work in construction, and the women sometimes run restaurants, advertising “Amish style” cooking, thus exploiting the mystery with which we “modern” people associate the Amish.
Suggested Position in Comparative Scales
The Amish are easy enough to understand as a people, and as a belief system. There is a rather heavy emphasis on traditional knowledge, rather than some religions’ belief and reliance on its followers’ testimonies of experience. The Amish take the Bible and their Confession as the final word, and the only testimonies of experience they would encounter would be the pleasure they derive from a hard day’s work. In short, they do not seek out ways to ‘prove’ their beliefs. They simply let their beliefs govern their daily lives, and trust that their faith will lead them correctly. Also, in comparison to many popular religions today, there is no central authority, like the Pope in Catholicism for example. There is no supreme ruler, just God. They rather favor a decentralized structure, with individual communities each having its own bishop and small governing council. The Amish believe in the derivation of their faith from the everyday enacting of it. Basically, they are their beliefs personified. They do not believe in spiritual entities, and the like, as many religions do. Rather, they believe that the Earth itself is a manifestation of God’s will, and that they should live as close to it as possible. The main objective in the Amish doctrine is not enlightenment, or the ability to heal somebody. Rather, they toil over the earth and lead morally good lives in order to reap the benefits in the afterlife. They have faith in the rewards that are to come, and have no need for earthly proof that their faith is not unfounded.