The Amish are a small and somewhat enigmatic group of Americans who differentiate themselves by living simply and separately from mainstream society.
The Amish believe in non-violence, forgiveness, and structure in their personal lives. But they also lean heavily into the ideas of group identity and social punishments.
As a result, the Amish have some fascinating consequences for leaving the Amish church.
In this blog, we’ll cover some of those consequences to help paint a picture of what happens when an Amish person chooses to leave his or her community — and the extent of the fallout that occurs when they do.
Podcast: What Happens When Someone Leaves the Amish Church?
Disclaimer: Information Sources
Before we get into things, I have a disclaimer to mention: The series of events, consequences, motivations, etc. that are expressed in this blog post are exclusively experiential.
There isn’t any academic research that went into this — it comes from me, knowledge of my Amish family, and observations of the consequences (or lack thereof) that followed. If you’re looking for an academic exploration of the Amish and how they function as a microcosm of society, this is not the blog post that will satisfy that motivation.
With that said, let’s jump into things.
How Does an Amish Person Leave the Church?
Despite the fact that they Amish appear uniform in thought, appearance, and practice, it’s possible for any member of an Amish church to leave that community at any point.
Typically, this is an action that is reserved for rumpsringa, the point of an Amish person’s life where they can experience mainstream society and make a choice to stay Amish or join the rest of the world.
But the option to leave the Amish faith is never truly gone, just as a non-Amish person may change their community identity several times in their lives.
In that regard, leaving the Amish church begins with the choice to leave.
Often, this choice is motivated by some form of necessity. The consequences for leaving the church are extreme — some may even call them harsh.
This means an Amish person declaring their separation from their community is a serious and far-reaching decision.
The need for medical insurance, dire financial straits, and other family-related issues are the common drivers behind someone leaving an Amish church, but they’re not the only options.
Others may choose to leave the Amish because they’ve grown tired of the Amish way of life, they want to experience modern life, or they’re seeking to distance themselves from abuse.
(The presence and extent of abuse among the Amish will vary from community to community. One of the most recent and high-profile cases was covered well by NPR.)
Regardless of their choice, they have to take this decision to the community leader or leaders. Often, there’s one Amish head of the church who may rotate his — and it is always a man — responsibilities with others in the community. This person is called a “bishop.”
That person has to oversee issues like leaving the community. They also may have to confer with the community’s leadership council, which is similar to any other church’s collection of elders.
Some communities may have to approve someone leaving the community, and others may only have to determine the extent of the consequences that should happen. Some communities may require a single decision from the bishop, a council decision from the elders, or even a full community vote from every member of the church.
Either way, the end result is often the same — someone who was Amish is no longer.
So what’s going to happen to that person?
Consequences for Leaving the Amish Church
The exact consequences for leaving an Amish community will vary by the church in question.
However, Jakob Ammann — the founder of the Amish — laid out several strict and essential rules to help future generations of Amish navigate the turbulent waters of someone leaving the community.
Here are some of the more common consequences (and punishments) that someone may experience.
Excommunication is the practice of banning someone from a church. The Catholics invented this concept, and it’s something that Jakob Ammann himself treasured as a form of punishment for those who broke with the standards of the Amish.
Excommunication alone isn’t a novel concept. Almost every community has its own form of excommunication, whether that be a true excommunicative measure or a simple refusal to engage with someone.
For the Amish, excommunication means that someone is no longer accepted into the society of their community. This prohibits them from being considered a member of a family unit within that society as well.
For all intents and purposes, a person is “removed” from the church, their family, and their support structure.
However, this alone isn’t necessarily destructive, though it’s certainly an exceptionally challenging obstacle for an Amish person’s life.
It’s the fact that excommunication is only the beginning that’s truly scary.
The second consequence of leaving the Amish church is truly heartbreaking.
Meidung is a German term adopted by Jakob Ammann to describe a phenomenon that is today known as “shunning.”
Shunning, at least for the Amish community, is not a simple measure of ignoring someone or giving them the silent treatment.
Meidung is the complete removal of someone from a society, so thoroughly that they’re left with no family relations, friends, finances, or education to allow them to adapt to the modern world with any form of support.
Instead, they’re essentially kicked to the curb.
It’s easy to think that everyone has friends and family who will stick with them through thick and thin.
But for meidung, this is often not the case.
Someone leaving the Amish church brings a massive amount of consequences. Being associated with that person after their removal from the church also carries consequences, though not as extreme in terms of comm7unity abandonment.
Still, someone who knew a shunned person would be prohibited (and reminded of that prohibition) from speaking to a shunned person.
The punishments for communing with shunned individuals are often social in nature, but with so many Amish communities living in isolated areas of Central Pennsylvania and the Midwest, it’d be naïve to assume that the consequences couldn’t lead into violence, which would be all but impossible for an Amish person to report in such remote locations.
Because of excommunication and meidung, there are several indirect consequences of leaving an Amish church as well.
We’ll dig into those next.
The first major result of excommunication and meidung is that someone no longer has access to a family’s resources.
In the Amish, this is a major deal. The primary unit of community is the family, which includes paents, children, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Households the Amish can exceed 10 people, depending on the size of teh nuclear family and the longevity of grandparents.
As a result, everyone in a family is known to be in that family and associated with it.
In addition, all of those people can piool their oncomes in order to live in the large, multi-acre farms that so many Amish call home.
Once someone is no longer able to engage with their family because of excommunication and meidung, that support vanishes.
That includes the finances.
Instead of having a somewhat comfortable income (some Amish families can become exceptionally wealthy), it’s an enormous challenge for an Amish person to find work that can support them financially.
Consider that each Amish person only has an education up to 8th grade. Once removed from a family unit that pools their cash, their career opportunities are limited mostly to minimum wage jobs. If they’re lucky, an Amish person would have learned a trade by the time they were excommunicated, such as carpentry, so that they could have that as a primary career.
But if an Amish person leaves the church young, that’s not an option.
Incidentally, this is a major reason why you don’t see many Amish teens on rumpsringa choose to leave the church after their time is over.
Instead, they join the church and continue to perpetuate the family unit.
There’s another reason so many Amish people choose not to leave the church, and it’s also a side effect of excommunication.
Social isolation is an intimidating proposition for anyone.
Humans are naturally social individuals, with a few exceptions thrown in the mix. Generally speaking, being isolated from a peer group, family unit, or community is one of the most stressful and challenging events that someone can encounter in their lives.
As a result, isolation isn’t necessarily a consequence — it’s more of a looming threat.
Not only does someone who’s removed from an Amish church dealing with excommunication, they’re also shunned, financialoly destitute, and unable to contact annyone from their former lives who may be able to help them.
This, in a nutshell, is the reason why so many may choose to stay with the Amish church.
The consequences for leaving are so harsh that many may consider death to be more agreeable.
Perhaps the most grievous consequence levied against someone for leaving the Amish church is that they’re prohibited from seeing their family in every way — even after death.
It’s common for Amish families to have burial plots where successive generations of a family will rest forever.
When someone is excommunicated and shunned, that option is taken from them by the bishop, elders, and / or community.
There are some exceptions. It’s possible to negotiate with Amish leaders sometimes, allowing a deceased individual to be buried with his or her family.
It’s also possible that someone is entirely left to their own devices, buried elsewhere and carrying no hallmark of their family history except for their last name.
Does This Really Happen?
Now for perhaps the mo0st important part of our blog — does this kind of thing actually happen in Amish communities, or is it something that’s invented for the captivation of audiences whenever Amish people are included in movies or TV shows?
The short answer is that yes, this happens. My family has a story that reinforces what I’ve written in this blog.
I’ve mentioned before that I had a great uncle named Uri. Uri was of age to fight in World War II by the time that the US declared war on the Nazis.
Once it became apparent what was happening in Europe with concentration camps and persecution, my great uncle chose to waive his classification as a conscientious objector and joined the United States Army Air Force as a soldier. He eventually became a ball turret gunner on flying fortresses because of his short height (5’4).
Uri actually enlisted to fight the Nazis, and when he did that, he was excommunicated from the local Amish church. After surviing his first tour of duty, he was shot down over Germany, loaded onto a German prison train, and killed by an Allied bomber when they mistook the prison train for an ammunition suplp[y train.
When his personal effects were returned to my family, obviously Uris’ siblings and parents were distraught wiht grief. They wanted to bury what they could in the family plot, which was a small cemetery in the flax field where my family originally came to this country in the 1700s.
The Amish bishiop at the time denied that privilege to Uri, who was no longer a member of the community or, as far as the bishop was concerned, any Amish family.
My family rallied for Uri though. After long stretches of arguments, the bishop finally relented and allowed Uri to be buried in the family plot on one condition.
He had to be buried far outside the plot, away from other members, so that pe9ople could know that he was not an actual Amish person at the time of his death.
Fast forward 80 years, and today my great Uncle Uri is now surrounded by the graves of those who loved him and those who came after him. He’s as much a member of the family and community in death as he was in life, and he gave his life in the service and sacrifice as others.
Today, his bomber jacket is on loan to a lcoal Mennonite museum — not Amish.
Every Memorial Day, members of the local WVF now clean and tend to Uri’s tombstone, complete with a commemorative flag.
Try as much as the Amish did, they couldn’t keep Uri from his family.
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