The Amish are a conundrum: They’re world-famous for their habit of shunning the world and (almost) all of its luxuries.
As a group, they’re relatively reserved compared to other faiths like outspoken Revivalists or Baptists. In terms of customs, they acknowledge and follow centuries-old rules to the point where their calendars revolve around their sense of religion, not unlike modern Muslims observing times of prayer throughout the day.
But all of this is “topical” in the sense that it’s what the Amish do — but not what they believe.
So with that in mind, let’s answer one of the big questions about the Amish.
What’s their religion?
1. What Religion Are the Amish?
Amish are Christians. They believe in the word of Jesus Christ and do their best to interpret the New Testament in the same strict and fundamentalist manner as their founder, Jacob Ammann.
The Amish are an offshoot of Mennonites, another Christian denomination that started around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Amish are one of the most conservative Christian sects, and they’re part of a long lineage of breakaway Christian denominations that resulted in their founding.
Mennonites belong to a collection of Christian denominations called Anabaptists. Anabaptists believe that baptism is a choice and should only be accepted by an adult — never performed on an uninformed or non-consenting person, including a child.
This differentiates all Anabaptist denominations — including the Amish — from Protestant and Catholic denominations.
If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is quite complicated. The tangled web of modern Christian denominations stretches far back into history, and new breakaway sects can form at any point.
Christianity, as an overarching religion, has birthed countless ideologies that extend far beyond the conventions of Catholicism and break into a wide variety of behavioral norms, literally including everything from Manifest Destiny to non-violence.
So with that said, how are the Amish related to Christianity at large?
2. How Are the Amish Related to Christians?
Amish are related to the grander religion of Christianity because they’re a denomination of a denomination of a denomination of Christianity. Amish ideology is essentially Christianity’s great-grandchild.
This happened around the time of the Protestant Reformation. While Martin Luther was nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of a church, likeminded visionaries like Menno Simons were discovering the ideologies of baptism-by-choice and non-violence.
Menno Simons formed a following that called itself “Mennonites.”
So first you had Christianity, then you have Anabaptists, then you have Mennonites, and then you have the Amish.
The flowchart of Christian denominations looks like this:
Or, visually, it looks like this:
The story of how the Amish came to be goes back to the 1600s when a strong-willed member of the Swiss Brethren — essentially Swiss Mennonites — broke away from other elders of the faith by taking a much more stringent view against “worldly” aspects of life.
These included anything that could remotely be interpreted as luxuries. The Amish still observe this today, with many of its denominations having varying restrictions on the “luxuries” of life.
And yes, there are multiple Amish denominations as well. Despite the view of the Amish as a unified people, they also have fractures among their own faith.
Here’s how they compare to one another.
3. How Do Amish Denominations Relate to One Another?
Generally speaking, the schism in the Amish faith comes from an understanding of the term “luxury.”
In addition, the belief systems of the Amish are reflected in the colors and styles of their homes and — most notably — their buggies (or “carriages”).
There are three dominant buggy colors that you’ll see with the Amish:
Today, the color of a buggy’s roof is also shorthand for the beliefs of the Amish riding in it.
For example, the Amish with all-black buggies are called “black toppers.” Buggies with yellow roofs are “yellow toppers,” and buggies with white roofs are “white toppers.”
Black toppers are the most “liberal” of the dominant Amish denominations, and they’re also the ones who have most assimilated with modern culture. We’ll start with them.
Who Are Black Topper Amish?
Despite their conservativism in the face of the rest of the world, black toppers are “out there” compared to their yellow and white cousins.
For example, black toppers regularly use gas-powered machinery. They may have bank cards. They may even choose to leave their community following a particularly enlightening rumspringa.
You may also see a black topper carrying and using a smartphone. This is because some black topper communities embrace the use of electricity in their barns or non-residential buildings, but not in their homes themselves.
This is also why you can see hundreds of Amish barns throughout Lancaster, Pennsylvania that have solar panels on top of them.
After the black toppers, the next Amish denomination gets more conservative. These are the yellow toppers.
Who Are Yellow Topper Amish?
Yellow topper Amish shun many of the conveniences that black toppers embrace.
For example, they’re much more strict about the conditions of their buggies. They may use reflective materials on their buggies for visibility at nighttime, but you won’t find any form of headlights, LEDs, or flashlights that you may see on a black topper buggies.
Yellow topper buggies are also notoriously hazardous for traffic because they don’t have windows on their doors. As a result, the buggy driver has to open the door to see whether traffic is coming at an intersection.
By the time the driver closes the door, traffic conditions could have changed and disaster could ensue.
Otherwise, yellow toppers tend to also be more insular than black topper Amish. They socialize less regularly with those outside of their faith, and they live in areas that are less accessible.
Generally speaking, yellow toppers are far more conservative in ideology than black toppers, but they still mingle with the modern world every once in a while.
The same is not as true for the final denomination — the white toppers.
Who Are White Topper Amish?
White topper Amish are conservative and insular to the point of being uncomfortable. They rarely commune with strangers, much less those outside of their communities, and they actively maintain a minimalist lifestyle that is equally hard.
White topper Amish don’t paint their barns because they consider a painted barn to be a luxury. If the first barn rots (which it always does), their community and God will provide another — or so they believe.
White topper Amish also don’t wear clothing snaps, zippers, or any more than one suspender at a time. You only need one suspender to keep your pants from falling down, so two is a luxury — or so they believe.
They don’t have any form of lighting on their buggies outside of kerosene lanterns. If a white topper buggy runs out of fuel for its lanterns at night, it’s borderline impossible to see them even with headlights.
This is because white topper Amish also tend to live far, far away from any form of civilization. They may be near a town of “worldly” people who run stores and know how to repair farm equipment, but they don’t socialize.
Instead, they keep to themselves. They hunt, knit, pray, talk, eat, and farm.
Otherwise, there isn’t much to the life of a white topper, and many of the same families have been in the same white topper community for generations.
This is important because almost all Amish communities show increased rates of birth defects that are commonly the result of inbreeding, including dwarfism.
Because nobody joins their denominations, the inbreeding continues at a level that is uncomfortable (to say it lightly) to modern society.
We can extrapolate from these facts that white topper Amish probably deal with the issues associated with inbreeding far more than their other denominations.
Couple this with the discomfort of the Amish’s antiquated gender norms (again, to say it lightly) and this becomes a very problematic spot of Amish belief and lifestyle.
With insular communities, challenging living conditions, little in the way of earthly pleasures, and problematic viewpoints of women, white topper Amish are not quite the spectacle of their black topper cousins.
Instead, they have a sense of unpredictability about them. While they mind their own business, it’s probably best for you to mind yours in the event you run across a white topper Amish.
Want to Learn More about the Amish?
Gents of Lancaster is run by a group of people who grew up in Lancaster and, in one case, Mennonite.
The information we share is almost exclusively based on our experiences in the world and, in this article’s case, with the Amish.
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