The Amish are a secluded religious group that originally came to North America to escape persecution in Europe.
While that’s a familiar story for almost every religion in America, the Amish are different in that they’ve changed very little since they first set foot in the New World.
Because they’re so separate from the modern world, a lot of people ask the question — are the Amish a cult? The short answer is yes, except they’re not outwardly malicious toward the modern world.
The long answer is much more detailed.
In this blog, we’ll go through a non-exhaustive list of criteria that often qualify a group as a “cult” and compare those criteria against the Amish.
Those criteria are:
- A charismatic leader
- A shared, singular goal
- A process of indoctrination
- A system of punishment
- A tiered system of advancement
- A system of answers to life’s questions
- An intentional isolation from mainstream society
- An emphasis on non-scriptural rules
- An opposition to critical thinking and new ideas
With all of that on the table, let’s get started.
1. A Charismatic Leader
Perhaps more than any other criterion on our list, this one is hard to name on the Amish.
The Amish are, by their nature, decentralized. They have very little communication among the different pockets of Amish populations throughout the country, and even local communities may have limited communication among one another.
So if we’re looking to nail down a single charismatic leader, we can’t really do it.
But if we go back in history, we can.
The Amish do indeed have a charismatic leader in Jakob Ammann, the ex-Swiss Brethren who created the Amish several hundred years ago.
Obviously, Ammann is long dead. But the Amish are his legacy, and it’s a legacy that spans thousands of people and miles.
Ammann earned his followers by being notoriously harsh against any form of sin, particularly pride. This led to him creating the belief of living simply — extremely simply — to the point of rejecting even mild changes in 1700s lifestyle.
This harshness, he argued, was to keep the spirit pure so that someone could enter Heaven after they die.
If you’ve studied Christian cults before, this should sound familiar. It’s the crux of many breakaway denominations that their ideas are the true ideas, and their ways are the only paths to the fabled Kingdom of Heaven.
Since then, Ammann’s followers have largely stayed true to his vision by a combination of limited education and similar harshness — both of which we’ll address in more detail later.
But this is a stretch. Ammann is no longer living, so he can’t exactly control his followers.
At the same time, you could consider his rules so stringent that they created a way to allow him to control his followers long after his death.
And in that regard, Ammann may be the most successful cult leader of all time.
Proof of this is visible in our next criterion — the shared goal of the Amish.
2. A Shared, Singular Goal
The #1 goal of the Amish is to be in the world, but not of the world.
This is an old Anabaptists adage that is used as the justification for their non-violence, and Mennonites frequently quote it as well.
In a nutshell, this is the justification for the Amish refusing to intermingle with mainstream society. By being outside of society, they’re able to remove themselves from the excess, ease, complication, and distractions from God.
(Again, this is all in theory. Practice can be a different story.)
This allows the Amish to remove themselves from all possible trappings of pride, the sin from which all other sins arise. In their eyes, this means the Amish remain spiritually pure and live a life of hard work, cleansing their spirits and readying them for the afterlife.
But why do the Amish believe that? If these beliefs are so ingrained in the Amish way of life, then what makes them accept these ideas in the first place?
The answer takes us to our next criterion.
3. A Process of Indoctrination
Indoctrination is the practice of making someone inherently accept a belief or system of beliefs on a fundamental level. It can make someone believe questionable ideas to be essential to existence, and it uses tactics like fear, shame, and guilt to ensure that no one would ever dare question those ideas.
Topically speaking, it may appear like the Amish do not have a full system of indoctrination. Despite the fact that almost all Amish are born into that way of life, the option of rumspringa means that the Amish offer their young adults a way of leaving the community.
On paper, you could argue that the practice of rumspringa means the Amish do not indoctrinate their young people into their belief system.
But in practice, rumspringa is very little more than an empty promise.
As we stated above, most Amish are born into their way of life. That means all they ever know is the Amish lifestyle, and the only people they know are Amish.
Going through school, they get to an eighth grade education and then stop. Their teacher is a member of the community — not a trained educator — so they’re really getting an education more on par with modern third graders at worst and eighth graders at best.
This means Amish children are phenomenally ignorant of the world around them. They’re sheltered to an extreme, and in some communities, they may not even see a car until they’re into their teens.
So why is this such a problem?
Rumspringa allows an Amish person to experience non-Amish life (to a reasonable extent) before deciding whether they want to stay Amish or leave the church.
Staying Amish means their lives continue as they’ve always thought, and they get to keep in touch with their family and friends.
Leaving the church means they’re excommunicated by the practice of Meidung, fully cut off from the people they met growing up — including their parents.
So if someone does choose to leave the Amish after rumspringa, what do they have in their futures? An elementary school education, no connections, no friends, no family, and no finances. In addition, they’re cut off from their source of “health insurance” — the Amish community funding pool that allows someone to go to a doctor, get a surgery, and more for free.
The promise of rumspringa, in practice, does nothing to alleviate the fact that the Amish indoctrinate their members.
And once indoctrinated, Amish members do everything they can to stay since the community becomes their whole life.
That means avoiding the Amish system of punishment.
4. A System of Punishment
As we mentioned before, the Amish have a system of punishment that tends to be extreme for minor infractions.
Most often, this includes the practice of Meidung in which someone is completely cut off from their friends and family. Essentially, this is a form of deep emotional torture that could easily kill someone if they don’t have the resources and knowledge to care for themselves.
And as we established in the previous section, many Amish young people do not have those resources or knowledge.
But what else is there aside from Meidung?
Corporal punishment and labor are common punishments in Amish communities, particularly for children. Self-flagellation, physical or emotional, may also be employed to some degree depending on the area.
And if someone is born a woman or differently-abled, these punishments can be even more harsh.
This isn’t to say that Amish don’t love their families. In fact, the Amish are known for having large families that are closely tied together, going to the point where they take care of elderly relatives in-home.
But it is to say that some people are treated differently in Amish society than others.
And this directly ties into the next criterion for determining whether the Amish are a cult.
5. A Tiered System of Advancement
Again, this criterion is a little murky for the Amish. There are definite community leaders, but not every community has a documented system of advancement with a list of achievements that someone must fulfill.
Still, we can take a look at the classification of individuals according to the Amish way of life.
First, there’s circumstances of birth. Men are the leaders of the Amish communities, and women are almost never given the opportunity to lead.
Women may have a voice in their community councils, but you will almost certainly never see one leading a group discussion.
The same goes for anyone who is differently-abled. The Amish way of life is predicated on hard, manual labor. If you’re not able-bodied, you’re already excluded in some way, shape, or form.
Second, there’s the issue of community standing. Amish communities are inherently political because people are often voted into position.
This is true for church elders, a council of community members who make decisions pertaining to the community, such as who can qualify for medical coverage using the community funding pool.
There’s also a church bishop, the ultimate leader of the community. Methods of choosing a bishop vary wildly by community. In some areas, they’re elected by vote of the elders. In other areas, they’re selected by someone opening the Bible, pointing to a word, and making the closest association to a community member’s name.
(This randomness is considered the will of God acting in the community.)
Third, there are children. Children are almost never considered noteworthy in important events, and they’re often left to labor, education, or church instruction.
As boys grow up, they’re given the opportunity to choose a limited amount of options for their futures.
As girls grow up, they’re married off to start families. It’s not uncommon for Amish women — even in more “integrated” areas like Lancaster — to be married for life and pregnant in their late teens.
The term “for life” is important here. The Amish church does not recognize divorce in any known communities, so when an Amish couple is married — often before either party is 20 — they’re married for life.
The man can become a community leader. The woman is forbidden from being much more than a mother.
All of this boils down to our next criterion.
If the Amish are so flawed, what makes them stick with the faith aside from threat of punishment?
6. A System of Answers to Life’s Questions
The Amish emphasize simplicity above all other ideas, especially when it comes to their way of life.
As a result, their underlying philosophy is simple as well — perhaps overly-simplistic.
The Amish view the world as a deeply flawed, chaotic, and sinful place. To separate themselves from it, they only have to do one thing.
They must avoid the sin of pride at all costs.
This is because pride is considered the sin from which all others arise. Pride is to blame for obvious sins like vanity to secret sins like envy. It contorts someone’s view of themselves and the world, and it can quickly lead to violence.
This single view is the answer that the Amish have for everything.
If you can avoid pride, your life will truly lead to Heaven.
This belief, more than any other, is the reason for our next criterion.
7. An Intentional Isolation from Mainstream Society
Because the Amish believe so heavily in being in the world (but not of the world), they intentionally segment themselves from modern life.
While this is changing in some more “integrated” places like Lancaster, the Amish generally shun electricity, reject automobiles, and more.
In more isolated, “conservative” areas, this belief is taken to such an extreme that the Amish refuse to paint their barns because color yields pride and it’s a luxury since it’s not integral to the structure of the barn itself.
Regardless of the belief’s extent, its intent is 100% clear.
The Amish are, in any number of ways, isolated from the rest of the world.
This leads us to our next criterion concerning subsequent rules.
8. An Emphasis on Non-Scriptural Rules
Amish beliefs are rooted in scripture, particularly the New Testament.
However, these roots don’t always translate to the actual rules that the Amish follow.
For an example of a justifiable belief, the Amish are Anabaptists, meaning they baptize their followers as adults instead of at birth.
This is the key difference of Anabaptist denominations like the Amish when you compare them to Catholics and Protestants. The Amish and other Anabaptists practice this because they believe children can’t make the informed decision necessary to get baptized.
Plus, Jesus Himself was baptized as an adult, which Anabaptists consider to be the prime example of life.
On the other hand, we have most of the other Amish beliefs.
Women can’t hold positions of leadership. Men can’t grow mustaches because German military officers used to grow them. Men must grow beards after getting married instead of wearing rings. Education must stop after eighth grade. Deviance from Amish lifestyle results in excommunication — also called “shunning” and natively called Meidung. There’s no use of modern technology.
These are all ideas that have absolutely no grounding in scripture whatsoever.
Instead, they’re grounded in loose interpretation of scripture. Worse yet, that interpretation came from Jakob Ammann, a man so uneducated he was illiterate for much of his life and who had many worrying issues with extreme religious punishments (like isolating someone from their family) for mild infractions (like missing church on Sunday once).
This interpretation has since been modified by individual Amish bishops, but as individuals with only eighth-grade educations themselves, there’s very little in the way of ideological innovation.
Incidentally, this brings us to our next criterion.
9. An Opposition to Critical Thinking and New Ideas
This is perhaps the easiest criterion to fulfill on our list.
The Amish refuse modern technology, create their own clothing, and use horses as their primary mode of transportation.
When it comes to new ideas, the Amish have almost entirely stopped since the 1800s — though things are changing for some Amish communities like Lancaster.
The advent of readily-available electronics and the lenience of local bishops has led some Amish communities to embrace modern technology in limited capacities. This includes electrical service in a barn, the use of smartphones to correspond with non-Amish, and more.
As a result, it’s now completely possible to see an Amish person talking on an iPhone or sending an email — depending on the community.
For more isolated communities, this kind of change is not accepted. The Amish of Central Pennsylvania — such as those in the valleys around State College — are notoriously more conservative than their cousins in Lancaster.
There, you’ll see white topper Amish, communities so conservative that they only use kerosene-powered lamps on their buggies.
(This effectively makes them invisible late at night.)
These Amish won’t even paint their barns because paint, to them, is an artificial luxury that isn’t needed to contribute to the structure itself.
It is a stark life, and it’s one that is almost always quarantined from the luxuries of modern life. In these areas, you’re more likely to see the Amish hunting with crossbows than you are to see a car on the road.
Verdict: Are the Amish a Cult?
Using our list of criteria, we can now say whether it’s fair to label the Amish as a cult.
In our opinion, yes.
However, it’s worth noting that the Amish do not actively call for any form of violence against others, including the modern world.
Still, the damage that they do to their own members may be merit enough to classify the Amish as a genuine cult.
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