What Do the Amish Believe?
The Amish are one of the most insular and enigmatic groups of people in the United States. They rigidly adhere to the beliefs that were set out by their founder Jakob Ammann, and the Amish differ significantly from Mennonites, who are their closest religious counterparts.
But what do the Amish actually believe? And why are they so strict about their adherence to the ideas of their founder, who died more than 300 years ago?
We'll answer all of that in this blog (plus a little bit more).
In a nutshell, here's what the Amish believe:
- Adult baptism
- The Ordnung
- Biblical literalism
- Being in the world, not of the world
- Limited education
Let's start with the most pivotal belief that separates the Amish from most other Christian faiths — adult baptism.
1. Adult Baptism
Adult baptism is the keystone belief that separates Anabaptists from Catholics and Protestants.
In fact, the name "Anabaptist" essentially means "baptized again" or "to baptize again."
For the Amish (and other Anabaptists), this idea states that someone who gets baptized should be making the choice for themselves after they learn what baptism entails and they're able to commit to a life of following their church.
In other words, baptism is a serious endeavor to take upon your life, and it should have a lasting, powerful impact on the way you live.
This means that the Amish do not baptize children directly into their faith. Instead, Amish children grow up learning about their faith, what it entails, and the strictures they must follow, among other criteria.
This education is completely separate from their actual education, which we'll cover later.
As an Amish child grows up, they theoretically have the opportunity to ask questions and seek answers for themselves, as anyone should as they grow in a spiritual sense. Whether this is permitted (and the extent to which it is permitted) varies depending on the Amish denomination and the family in question.
Still, this spiritual journey culminates in one of the most famous qualities of the Amish belief system — rumspringa.
Rumspringa (also called "rumschpringe" and "rumschpringa") is the period of an Amish child's life when they get to experience the life of the English — which is their name for everyone who isn't Amish. Rumpringa ends with the child deciding for themselves whether they want to stay Amish or enter the brave new world they've just experienced.
Rumspringa happens at different points in children's lives, depending on different Amish denominations, locations, and families. It's not a universal process because there's no centralized Amish church, and it's not a cut-and-dry decision for the Amish children experiencing it.
This is because the decision to leave the Amish faith has widespread consequences. It's not like an Amish teenager can say "I'm going to get my own apartment" and then grow into the modern world.
Deciding to leave the Amish faith is a self-imposed excommunication (which we'll also cover in more detail later). Someone choosing to join the modern world can no longer live in the Amish world. In some cases, this includes maintaining familial relationships.
The beliefs of Jakob Ammann make it very clear that the Amish faith comes before everything, even someone's own family. And if someone is excommunicated, whether by choice or by force, they're no longer part of the faith, community, or family.
In other words, the person who leaves the Amish faith is completely on their own. They have no family ties, no money, very little education, and no answers as to what they should do next.
They've just chosen to be penniless, alone, and isolated. They're starting from scratch with no support system, and they haven't even scratched the surface of how modern life is different from Amish life.
So in reality, rumspringa is a significantly different process from what's shown in the god-awful television series that seek to exploit the Amish belief system for advertising dollars and a modest following of ignorant viewers.
(Obviously, I have an ax to grind here.)
It's not a happy-go-lucky time. It's not a period of indulgence. It's barely a time of self-discovery.
Instead, it's a dark and almost threatening choice between two options.
Do you want to be Amish, or do you want to be alone?
3. The Ordnung
The Ordnung is the established system of rules that govern an Amish person's personal, interpersonal, and ceremonial life. Literally translated, ordnung means "order" in German.
As such, the Ordnung is designed to bring order to the Amish lifestyle while ordering their beliefs in a systematic and understandable way.
However, there's not a universal Ordnung since there's no centralized Amish church. This means that different communities will have variations on the Ordnung to some degree, but the foundational belief system will be more or less the same.
In the case of the Amish, the Ordnung is not a document. While it may serve idealistically as the "Constitution of the Amish" to some degree, it's not written. Instead, it's understood and conveyed through oral history.
This makes it all but impossible to catalog the belief system of the Amish in a single, distinct way. There's simply too much variance in the unwritten rules that change from community to community.
Still, the overarching impact of the Ordnung is essentially the same. It establishes the system and methods by which the Amish live their lives.
Some common Ordnung rules across communities include:
- Children are to be educated up to the eighth grade level
- Mustaches are forbidden because of their centuries-old association with German military officers
- All clothing must be sewn at home
- Women must cover their heads
- Full-length mirrors are forbidden
- Rubber tires are forbidden on road transportation
- Belts are forbidden
The Ordnung also establishes levels of consequence for different behavior. Generally speaking, there are four levels of behavior that are outlined in the Ordnung:
- Acceptable and endorsed behavior
- Behavioral standards for church leaders
- Discouraged behavior
- Forbidden behavior
All of these behavioral qualities are subject to the determination of the local Amish church leaders (sometimes called "bishops"). Consequences are explicitly social in nature, with the ultimate threat being forced excommunication and shunning from someone's community.
It's also worth noting that behaviors that are widely accepted as bad — like murder and child molestation — aren't covered in the Ordnung because if you need someone to tell you not to do those things, you're already a selfish, stark-raving moron and violent lunatic. A decent person just doesn't do those things.
Unfortunately, this is about as granular in detail as we can get in discussing the concept of the Ordnung while maintaining accuracy. Like we established up top, the regional and philosophical differences among the Amish make it impossible to discuss ultra-detailed nuance.
The fact that the Ordnung is exclusively oral also makes it impossible to get a single definitive version.
It's also worth noting that the Ordnung itself is governed by the Amish interpretation of the Bible, originally set out by Jakob Ammann himself.
This interpretation is, at its core, biblical literalism.
4. Biblical Literalism
Biblical literalism is a method of understanding the Bible in which there's no concept of metaphor, timeliness, or cultural idiom.
Instead, everything that is written in the Bible is interpreted according to the understanding of those words in terms of what they mean today.
There are a lot of issues with this, especially when you consider how much the world and the Bible have changed over the past 2000 years.
But for the Amish, it's absolute law.
A great example of biblical literalism is the Amish interpretation of the Ten Commandments.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness that in heaven above, or that in the earth beneath, or that in the water under earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...Commandment Three, Exodus 20:4-6
To most Christian denominations today, this commandment is similar to Commandment Two, which states that the Judeo-Christian god is the only god that may be worshiped or even acknowledged.
In a nutshell, don't create idols that you worship.
For the Amish, Commandment Three is taken to an extreme. In fact, the Old Order Amish — one of the most conservative Christian denominations in general — forbids their photographs to be taken because they consider them to be graven images.
As a result, it's not only rude to take photos of unwilling members of the Old Order Amish — it's literally against their religion.
This is why we (and many other Lancaster natives) constantly remind tourists not to take photos of the Amish, especially children.
Do the Amish take their beliefs to unrealistic and detrimental extremes? Yes.
But are those still their beliefs? Absolutely.
Their beliefs may be based on an understanding of the Bible that neglects common sense, but it's still the way they choose to live.
However, there are a few other beliefs that stem from biblical literalism that are surprising. One of them is the Amish belief in non-violence.
While the Amish observe and believe the Old Testament, they focus much of their ideology on the New Testament and the works of Jesus.
This includes the idea of non-violence. Non-violence traces its origins back to Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, and his journey in leaving the Catholic priesthood to becoming a radical thinker in the Reformation.
Simons was inspired to adopt the position of non-violence following the death of his brother at the hands of militant Catholics.
His followers similarly adopted the belief, including those who would go to found the Swiss Brethren. This was the name of Mennonites who lived in Switzerland.
When Jakob Ammann rose to prominence in Swiss Brethren, he also adopted this belief, even as he introduced hardline strictures such as excommunication and social shunning into the mix.
His controversial views wound up getting him excommunicated from the Swiss Brethren. He also excommunicated the Mennonites who excommunicated him. This back-and-forth resulted in what is known as the "schism" in Anabaptist history.
But even after Ammann left mainstream Anabaptism with his followers, he still maintained the position of non-violence.
Centuries later, the Amish still hold this idea in high regard. In fact, the Amish were one of the first groups of Americans to earn conscientious objector status in the Selective Service because of their universal belief in peace.
While non-violence is a cornerstone belief of the Amish, it's also worth mentioning that this is not a standalone concept.
Non-violence is just one of a suite of beliefs that the Amish hold to ensure that they live in the world, but they are not of the world.
6. Being in the World, Not of the World
While Jakob Ammann may have broken with the Swiss Brethren in a colossal schism, the Amish maintain many mainstream Anabaptist beliefs that shape who they are.
For the Amish more than any other denomination, their key belief is that they are called to be in the world, not of the world.
This is why they choose to live without modern conveniences. This is why they form their own subculture of Americans. This is why they're so strict about excommunicating those in their communities who commit egregious sins (at least in their eyes).
At the end of the day, the Amish are different from the rest of the world because they believe they must be different in order to maintain their faith and spiritual purity.
This belief is universally pervasive — unlike the Ordnung — and is reflected in their whole culture, including the education of their children.
7. Limited Education
The Amish maintain an education system that is separate from mainstream America based on a landmark court case (Wisconsin v. Yoder) that determined they're permitted to do so.
This system is comprised of independent, one-room schoolhouses that are overseen by a single teacher and include children of variant ages.
Children learn grammar, arithmetic, and other educational basics up to the eighth grade level. After that, they're relieved to their families to work the family farm, take up a vocation, or get a job working somewhere else. This is exclusively at the family's discretion, and there is no level of the United States government that impacts these decisions.
Instead, it's up to the child's family.
This has two main advantages for Amish communities.
First, it keeps the experience of an Amish child contained to the community into which they were born. This allows them to reinforce the community's values in their children throughout their daily lives, including family and schooling.
Second, it allows the children to learn essential foundational skills that will come in handy later in life. In addition to farming, many Amish embrace vocations like carpentry and even machinery that include mathematics.
On the flip side, this education system comes with an enormous amount of disadvantages.
First, an eighth grade education is hardly considered adequate by modern social standards. Almost every non-apprenticed occupation requires at least a high school education or a GED, both of which are inaccessible to Amish children.
Next, this also restricts their worldview and understanding, which similarly restricts their ability to think critically and innovate. This isn't a side-effect either — it's the intended educational experience of Amish children so that they can continue the traditional way of life.
Third, the emphasis on tradition means that the ideas that were acceptable 300 years ago are still considered acceptable today, most notably sexism. We'll get into this concept of indoctrinated prejudice later, but needless to say, 300-year-old gender norms haven't aged gracefully into the 21st Century.
Finally, this restricted education makes it all but impossible for Amish children to make the choice to leave their community after rumspringa. All they know is the Amish way of life, and everyone they know is contained to their community. If they leave, they transform from being a member of a niche, cult-like society with a chance to succeed to an under-educated American with little to no understanding of modern livelihood.
This final point is one of many cultural practices that characterize the Amish as a cult. They may be a culturally-accepted cult — and one exploited by the tourism industry for revenue — but still a cult all the same.
Another supporting idea of this comes from one of the Amish's harshest ideas — meidung.
Meidung — literally translated to "avoidance" from German — is Amish excommunication. This is the process of forcefully removing a member of an Amish church from their community.
The excommunicated individual is no longer permitted to attend church services, which essentially isolates them socially from anyone who doesn't live in their household.
In extreme cases, they may even be separated from their immediate families.
This plays into the more well-known practice of shunning, which is when a member of the Amish faith is so forcefully removed that they're not even acknowledged by their former community.
This practice is harsh in the extreme because, as we've established, the Amish have nowhere to go but their own communities.
They've been indoctrinated into a faith. Their education has been shunted. They know nothing of modern technology. They may not even have friends outside of their community.
They may also have to completely change their occupation and housing, not to mention the ludicrous difficulty of figuring out how health insurance works on an eighth-grade education.
In this context, excommunication in Amish churches is significantly harsher than excommunication in Protestant or Catholic contexts.
Amish excommunication doesn't just remove someone from a church. It destroys their lives at a moment's notice.
As a result, excommunication isn't common. Church leaders are often aware that strict excommunication would all but starve someone to death in modern society.
This is why some church leaders may extend a form of leniency to an excommunicated individual in terms of allowing them to maintain their lives.
But, strictly speaking, excommunication has the potential to doom someone's life, disrupt their family, and annihilate their social circles to isolate them entirely from the world they know.
Then, they're thrust into the world they don't know, which is a much different culture from what they understand.
Much of this comes from the Amish belief that their god will provide for them when they submit their lives to their faith. This is called gelassenheit.
Gelassenheit — literally translated as "serenity" from German — is someone's willful submission to God in the Amish faith.
It's called serenity because it philosophically equates to the concept of hakuna matata. When you submit yourself to God, you don't have to worry about anything. God will provide.
This, in turn, has a major impact on the day-to-day and overall life of the Amish.
One of the biggest impacts of this belief is that the Amish don't have the financial safety nets that modern Americans consider to be requirements.
This includes social security and health insurance.
Instead, the Amish community looks out for one another, often by pooling money into different funds and distributing those funds when needed.
This is exactly how their "insurance" system works for healthcare. When a church member requires checkups, surgery, movement assistance, or hospitalization, the community takes on the financial burden instead of the individual.
In a nutshell, this is a microcosmic version of universal healthcare, and it works phenomenally well at keeping Amish families alive.
Beyond that, the Amish also reject financial assistance like social security. They believe that all able-bodied people should work Monday through Saturday with Sunday off for worship.
In the event someone isn't able-bodied, then they contribute to their family and the community in other ways aside from manual labor.
Most importantly, their community looks after them.
In this context, the concept of gelassenheit doesn't correlate exactly to the idea that God provides. Instead, it correlates to the idea that the community provides.
However, the Amish consider their community to be a gift from God, so if the community looks after its members, then God is surely looking after them as well.
The final belief on our list is prejudice. This is an ultra-generalized statement because prejudice, itself, is general.
But it's important to discuss directly since we mentioned multiple times that the Amish old some antiquated ideas — some of which may be understood as rude, harsh, or even oppressive.
One of the examples we can use here is that Amish women are required to wear coverings that demonstrate their humility before their god and their community.
It's intended to be a statement against pride. But the key element here is that there's no equivalent demand made of men.
Often, men must wear hats, but only when they're outside. Women must wear coverings, like bonnets, at all times.
While this may sound inconsequential, the underlying idea is that men and women are to be treated differently based on the circumstance of their sex at birth.
This is the definition of sexism.
This taught prejudice is also reflected in the community practices of an Amish church at large. While many communities allow women the opportunity to vote on community issues, women are almost exclusively not permitted to join the church leadership in any way.
(We say "almost" because there may be one example out there of a woman in an Amish leadership position. But we've never heard of one or found one discussed.)
It's also common for Amish women to play major roles in the maintenance of the household and raising of children, but it's an understood socially that the husband runs the family.
The concept that men and women have certain roles assigned to them based on their sex is certainly one that's falling out of favor with society at large. While it's accurate to say that the roles of women may vary depending on the Amish community in question, the fact still stands that they face a subservient social role to men.
After all, if women can't serve in a leadership capacity in their community, how can they influence it outside of the laws that men established?
So is the Amish view of gender roles so prevalent that it could be considered sexism? It depends on who you ask. But in our view, the answer is yes.
Our opinion is based on the beliefs that we discussed previously. When women stop education at eighth grade, serve at their family's discretion, get blocked from leading their communities, and marry within their communities, what choice actually exists for them?
The counter-argument is that Amish women seem generally happy. There's not much data to back this up — the Amish are an insular society that exists alongside mainstream society, so it's not really appropriate to "study" them from a sociological perspective.
As a result, you have to look at each community individually.
All Things Considered offers a powerful and disturbing view of how these individual communities may react toward women, given their understood subservient status to men.
The episode featured on this podcast features Sarah McClure, an investigative journalist who has uncovered more than 50 cases of sexual abuse in Amish communities that include rape and incest.
In addition, sex offender registries like Family Watchdog can give someone the ability to look at areas where Amish live — like Lancaster County — to find a surprising number of mugshots of convicted sex offenders who are Amish.
As far as we've seen, the offenders are exclusively male.
In summary, it's accurate to say that the antiquated practices and gender norms of many Amish communities can easily be construed as sexist today. It's not accurate to say that all Amish are violently sexist or sex offenders. However, it is accurate to say that there is a trend — and one that is earning more media attention — of sexual abuses within Amish communities that could point to a darker underbelly of the Amish denomination, one that has been swept under the rug and shadowed from modern authorities in an effort to save face and deal with the consequences internally instead of approaching the police.
Could this behavior be traced back to the prejudicial concept of women and men having different roles in Amish society based on their sex?
Probably not at this point.
But could this foundational concept of sexism inspire prejudicial regulations and even violence against women?
But let's take the time to answer one more question — why are we talking about prejudice, sexism, and sexual abuse in a blog post about Amish beliefs?
Critical thinkers will be right if they reach the conclusion that this point doesn't align with our previous nine. Prejudice isn't a belief in the same context as, say, non-violence.
It would be irresponsible for us to mention the fact that the Amish treat women differently from men and not discuss the possible fallout that could result from that treatment.
We understand that not every Amish man is a sex offender. But when you discuss closed societies — especially those that actively reject innovation and progress — you also have to look at the consequences of that society's choices.
Sexual abuse is a consequence of institutionalized sexism, which definitively exists within the Amish belief structure. To ignore it would be just as egregious as ignoring the consequences of institutionalized racism that's observed in modern American law enforcement.
We openly admit that there's not enough (or possibly any) quantitative data to make statements about the extent to which sexual abuse is prevalent in Amish communities. But this is because there's been no quantitative research into the issue.
What we do believe is that any degree of sexual abuse that's known to exist in closed societies necessitates an active investigation from modern law enforcement to ensure that a particular belief structure doesn't actively encourage harm on another person.
In other words, sexual violence in Amish communities is known to exist. The extent of this abuse should be a concern to everyone in society — especially the Amish themselves.
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