communities are not relics of a bygone era. Rather, they are
demonstrations of a different form of modernity.”
Hostetler, Amish Society)
The Amish are a
protestant sect that split off from the Swiss Anabaptists in the
seventeenth century; starting in the mid-eighteenth century,
them settled in America. Over the years since their population
expanded rapidly, due to the combination of a high birth rate,
medicine, and a high retention rate; there were about 5000 Amish
1920 and about 249,000 in 2010.
They are notable for plain dress and the selective
rejection of many of the devices of modern technology, such as
automobiles and telephones. While subject, with a few narrow
exceptions, to U.S. (and Canadian) law,
they have succeeded in maintaining their own system of rules
(Ordnung) and enforcing it on their members, ultimately
threat of excommunication and shunning (Meidung).
The basic unit of an
Amish community is the congregation, typically of twenty-five to
forty households; there is no higher level with authority over
Since the Amish are unwilling to build churches, the number of
households in a congregation is limited to the number that will
in a house or barn.
Each congregation has its own version of the Ordnung,
stricter and some less strict than others. Congregations whose
Ordnungen are about equally strict may be in fellowship
each other, making them part of a single affiliation. Potential
marriage partners are largely, but not entirely, from the same
affiliation A member excommunicated from one congregation is
to be accepted by another of the same affiliation, while a
excommunicated from a particularly strict (“low”) congregation
for violating their Ordnung may be acceptable to a less
A settlement, a group of congregations in the same geographical
may consist of a single affiliation
or of several different affiliations; an affiliation may be
to one settlement or scattered across several.
congregation has a bishop,
two ministers, and a deacon, all of whom normally serve for life
none of whom have any formal training. They are unpaid.
deacons are selected by lot out of a group of men nominated by
congregation; church members whisper a candidate’s name to the
deacon. Nomination requires two (in some districts three) votes.
The bishop is selected by lot from among the ministers.
When a congregation
becomes too large to fit in a house it splits, often along some
convenient boundary such as a road or stream.
specifies the rules which members of the congregation are
abide by. Typically they include prohibitions on activities such
filing a law suit, serving on a jury or joining a political
organization, along with the use of those modern technologies
as likely to disrupt the Amish social system;
the details of what is prohibited and how strictly vary from one
congregation to another. The Ordnung will also specify
features of dress, again varying by congregation. Buttons may be
forbidden entirely or permitted only on working clothes, bright
colors are for the most part forbidden. Owning a television or
automobile, attending college, wearing makeup or jewelry, or
on an airplane, are all likely to be forbidden. The death of
relatives requires women to wear black for a length of time
on the closeness of the relation.
The principle justifying many of the rules is that individuals
to be humble, avoiding anything associated with pride, such as
clothing. For similar reasons, Amish are usually unwilling to be
Twice a year, all
members of the congregation gather to take communion. Two weeks
before, each is asked “whether he is in agreement with the Ordnung,
is at peace with the brotherhood, and whether anything
‘stands in the way’ of his entering into the communion service.”
Communion does not take place until all members agree. This
members an opportunity to openly express disagreement with the
current ordnung—but, as a rule, the members accept the
clergy leaders’ position.
The ordnung is
specific to the congregation, which has no legislature. What
the ordnung is the practice of the members of the
and the response to it of the leadership; if enough push at the
boundaries of the existing rules without complaint, they are
to change. Reaching a consensus may take several years and can
prevented if the leaders disapprove of the change. In some cases
congregation retains a rule, such as a ban on owning freezers or
telephones, but reduces the resulting inconvenience by
members to use freezers or telephones of their non-Amish
In some other cases, the leadership may decide that something
had been permitted for several years was a mistake and require
members to give it up.
If the bishop or
ministers learn that a member is violating the ordnung,
first step is to visit him. If he expresses regret, the offense
be ignored; this is what Kraybill describes as a “level one”
violation continues, the ministers hold a meeting at the next
worship service—worship services are held on alternate
which the bishop recommends a punishment. That is followed by a
public hearing in the presence of the members of the
which the defendant can offer his side of the controversy. He is
asked to step out and, if his defense has not changed the
conclusion, the bishop proposes the punishment to the
which votes on it.
In order for the punishment to be imposed it must be unanimously
accepted by the congregation—and it usually is.
“For a small
offense—wearing jewelry or joining a public baseball team—a
“sitting” confession (level two) can be made. For more serious
offenses—such as traveling by airplane or hiring a car on
Sundays—the person may be asked to make a “kneeling” confession
(level three) in front of the congregation and to promise to
the Ordnung in the future.
“The most severe form
of punishment (level four) is a six week ban. During this time,
congregation avoids social contact with the wayward person. … At
the end of the ban, offenders are invited to make a “kneeling”
confession in a members’ meeting. They are asked two questions:
you believe the punishment was deserved? Do you believe your
have been forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ? Those who
confess their sin and promise to ‘work with the church’ are
reinstated into it. The meeting concludes with some fitting
comfort.” (Kraybill 1989, pp. 112-113)
If the disobedient
member is unwilling to confess his sins and cease violating the
rules, the ultimate punishment, after milder sanctions have
is excommunication, shunning, Meidung. The excommunicated
individual is not required to leave the community but is
limited in his interaction with other Amish. A young adult can
continue to live with his parents and attend church, but cannot
at the dinner table with baptized adults and must eventually
home in order that his parents can again take communion. The
a member who is being shunned must eat at a separate table from
husband and refrain from sexual relations with him; in such
the spouse may request excommunication in order that the couple
not have to shun each other. A member who knowingly eats with
who is shunned is likely to be himself shunned, but not if he
unknowingly. “Although interaction with expelled people is
restricted, it is not completely terminated. Limited social
conversation is permitted, but church members are advised not to
directly with the outcasts or accept anything from them. For
instance, members will not accept a ride in the car of a former
member who joins the Mennonites. Members avoid business dealings
those 'under the ban.' If a member sells something to an
member does not accept payment directly from the other person's
Sometimes a third party will handle a ncessary business or
transaction. In other cases, the stigmatized person places the
on a table or counter, after which the church member picks it
(Kraybill 1989 p. 116)
member who is willing to confess his sins and repent will
readmitted to the congregation, usually within a few weeks.
Shunning can be used
not only against violations of the terms of the Ordnung
also, as with the Vlach Rom, against a community member who
to accept the congregation’s settlement of a dispute with
Amish children are
expected to help the rest of the family with chores within their
ability—babysitting younger siblings, weeding, milking—from an
early age. They go to school, but only through eighth grade, the
Amish having successfully persuaded first state authorities and
the Supreme Court to exempt them from compulsory schooling laws.
After eighth grade they are, in effect, apprenticed to adults in
community, most commonly their parents, learning how to run a
and a household and, in some cases, learning a trade.
The ordnung is
only accepted by, and binding on, members of the congregation
as adults, they are baptized. There is thus a period from about
sixteen until twenty or so when a young adult is to some degree
to act in ways normally forbidden—to what degree depending on
congregation—a period referred to as Rumspringa. That
include going to town to see a movie, party, work in town at
that would otherwise be seen as inappropriate, even (covertly)
driver’s license and drive, or even own, a car.
Arguably this provides an opportunity for youth to compare life
outside the Amish community with life inside before making their
final decision. For the most part, Amish youth on Rumspringa
are interacting with other Amish youth, not with local non-Amish
That final decision is
whether to accept baptism and submit to the ordnung.
the ceremony, ministers offer the young adult the opportunity to
out, telling him that “it is better not to make a vow than to
a vow and later break it . . . .” A large majority, by one
estimate four out of five, choose to take the vow.
The period of
rumspringa is also the time of life during which the
Amish are courting their future mates. The process is accepted
nominally secret. The young man will drive to the group social
gathering with his sister in daylight, back with his girlfriend
night, and refers to her as “she” rather than by name; the fact
of who he is courting only becomes public knowledge when they
about to marry. In order to marry within the Amish community,
couple must have first been baptized, which may be the incentive
finally decide on that commitment. Intermarriage is permitted
congregations that are in fellowship with each other; an
from a less strict group can marry into a more strict group only
the couple are willing to adopt the latter group’s rules.
or Competitive Dictatorship?
Decisions made by the
congregation, considered as a miniature state, are the decision
excommunicate and the decision to agree on the contents of the
Ordnung. Control over those decisions implies control
membership of the polity and the content of its legal system. In
congregations—the exceptions are some of the most extreme
in which the power is in the hands of the bishop—both decisions
require the unanimous assent of the members, so one might view
congregation as a very small democracy. Alternatively, observing
the members almost always support the decision of the bishop,
might describe the congregation as a de facto dictatorship, with
dictator chosen in part by chance and ruling for life.
If it is a
dictatorship, it is a competitive dictatorship. A member who is
sufficiently unhappy with the ordnung of his
interpreted by its clergy is free to shift to a nearby
better suited to his tastes. Some congregations are, in effect,
territorial sovereigns, so that changing congregations requires
geographical move. In other communities, especially where there
congregations with substantially differing Ordnungen
other, it may be possible to shift allegiance with no shift of
A bishop whose interpretation of his congregation’s ordnungen
is at odds with what the members want is not subject to
or a recall election, but he is at risk of finding himself with
In the case of a major
split within the Amish, such as occurred in the Lancaster
in 1910 and again in 1966, the initial members of the more
(“higher”) group are not subject to excommunication and shunning
by the more traditional (“lower”). But if the higher group
accepts members who are under ban and have not confessed, anyone
thereafter joins it will be banned.
Such a system can be
viewed as a competitive market for legal rules, constrained,
other competitive markets, to produce about the product that the
Competitive dictatorship is the mechanism we routinely use to
hotels and restaurants; the customers have no vote on what color
walls are painted or what is on the menu, but an absolute vote
which one they patronize.
The oldest major
settlement, in Lancaster County, holds a biannual meeting of
bishops to discuss issues such as changes in the ordnung.
While the meeting has no formal authority over the individual
congregations the opinions of the senior bishops carry
weight, so that a decision to (for example) forbid some
practice is likely to be implemented by most congregations. One
view that as a first step in the direction of developing a level
government above the congregation.
In some ways, such as
the maintainance of their own rules and enforcement by the
shunning, the Amish resemble the gypsies described in Chapter I.
One difference is their relation with non-members. Gypsies, in
places, are subject to hostility from outsiders and themselves
outsiders as ignorant and unclean. The Amish, in contrast,
get along with their neighbors in both directions. Non-Amish may
them as quaint, but for the most part without hostility and even
Perhaps for that
reason, the Amish have done surprisingly well in their relations
the U.S. government. In 1955 Social Security became mandatory
self-employed persons, which most Amish were. The Amish objected
participating, in part on the basis that they believed they were
religiously obligated to take care of each other and should not
transferring that obligation to the state, in part on the
that insurance programs, which Social Security at least
be (Old Age and Survivors' Insurance), are “gambling ventures
seek to plan and protect one's fortune rather than yielding it
God's will.” Many refused
social security taxes, with the result that the
IRS eventually began filing liens on farm animals and other
The conflict was only ended in 1965, when federal legislation
exempted self-employed Amish from having to pay Social Security
The Amish, who are
pacifists, have usually been granted conscientious objector
the Selective Service System. As such, they were required to
in civilian service, which in practice often meant spending two
emptying bedpans in urban hospitals. That meant spending two
outside the Amish culture, rooming with non-Amish roommates,
dating, even marrying, non-Amish nurses, with the result that
about half of them chose to return to their communities when
service was done, and not all of those chose to join the church.
Part of the Amish response was the National Amish Steering
which was created, and continues to exist, primarily to
with the U.S. government over issues where its rules
with the requirements of the Amish religion. The Committee’s
with the Selective Service System resulted in putting many Amish
conscientious objectors on farms run by either Amish or
growing food as their “war work.”
Another conflict was
over schooling. In the nineteenth century, most Amish attended
public schools, typically one room schoolhouses; many of the
were themselves Amish, the rest from rural families not too
different in their culture and attitudes. Children normally
school only through eighth grade, thereafter assisting their
on their farms and houses.
In the course of the
twentieth century, the age of required schooling was raised by
law and school districts were consolidated, replacing rural one
schoolhouses with much larger urban schools to which children
be bussed. The result was one that most Amish saw as
both because their children were to be kept off the farm too
because they would be attending schools dominated by cultural
attitudes very different from those of the Amish.
Many Amish parents
refused to send their children to school past eighth grade or to
them to large, consolidated schools; some went to jail as a
Eventually compromises were worked out
at the state level to permit Amish children to be “schooled” at
home after the eighth grade. Finally, in 1972, the Supreme
Wisconson v. Yoder, ruled in favor of the Amish right to
their children leave school after eighth grade.
The Amish dealt with
the problem created by school consolidation by building and
their own local schools. Problems with state regulation of
schools and teachers—the schools were typically one room
schoolhouses without central heating or running water, most of
Amish teachers had only an eighth grade education—arose but were
for the most part eventually worked out.
Conflicts between the
Amish and the state over Social Security, schooling and
were eventually dealt with in a fashion acceptable to the Amish.
In part, this may have been due to the tendency of non-Amish to
the Amish in a favorable light—as a remnant of idealized 19th
century rural virtue surviving into the twentieth century.
The relationship is
friendly in the other direction as well. Amish frequently have
non-Amish friends and often engage in business transactions with
non-Amish. Some non-Amish operate “Amish taxi services,”
providing automobile or van transportation for Amish when they
to go farther than horse and buggy can conveniently carry them.
in some affiliations routinely use the telephones of non-Amish
neighbors when there is urgent need for communication.
In an earlier chapter,
I suggested that in North America toleration might eventually
the status of gypsies as self-governing communities by making it
easy for unhappy or ostracized members to defect. Along similar
lines, it is arguable that the emancipation
of European Jews, starting in the late 18th century, was
for the decline of the Jewish communities as distinct and
self-ruling polities. Yet the Amish have maintained their
culture, and ordnung, enforcing the latter by the threat
ostracism, despite the lack of any clear barrier to prevent
or excommunicated members from deserting. Such desertion is made
easier, in the Amish case, by the existence of Mennonite
similar to the Amish but less strict, which Amish defectors can
sometimes do join.
A critic of the Amish
might argue that their upbringing, with schooling ending at
grade, leaves potential defectors unqualified for life in the
world; the obvious response is that there are a lot of jobs in
modern world for which the willingness to work and the training
produced by an apprenticeship starting at age fourteen are
qualifications than a high school diploma. As some evidence of
adequacy of Amish education, Amish seem to do quite well at
and running their own small scale businesses.
One might more
plausibly suggest that a social system in which courting your
mate may start as early as fourteen leaves many young people
into a future marriage well before the point at which they have
decide whether or not to accept the Ordnung and commit
themselves to the Amish lifestyle—and it is a future marriage
a spouse raised Amish. It would be interesting to know whether,
Amish do choose to leave prior to baptism, they usually do it
one or in couples.
One could also argue
that the close bonds of Amish families create a form of lock-in.
Social interaction between committed Amish and relatives who
chosen not to commit is not forbidden—shunning applies only to
those who have sworn to obey the Ordnung and been baptised, but
fail to live up to their commitment—but given how much of the
pattern of living of the Amish is determined by their religion
culture, refusing to commit must create a substantial barrier.
barrier is higher still for those who have been baptized, and so
would face shunning if they left the church.
Finally, one might
interpret the low defection rate as evidence of successful
indoctrination, not only into the principles of Amish life but
the negative view held by the Amish of the lives lived by
Reading books on the Amish, all positive, all written by
one is struck by how dark their picture of the outside world is.
is a world where people spend most of their efforts in
endeavor and display, in keeping up with the Joneses, where
divided among the almost wholly separate circles of work,
church, where little meaningful happens or can happen, a world
boredom and alienation.
There is, of course,
one other possibility. Perhaps the Amish are correct in
that they have a superior life-style, as judged by most of those
have lived it and observed the alternative—albeit a life style
superior only for those who have had the good fortune to be
up in it.
Linda, Visits with the Amish, Impressions of the
Life, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2000.
John A., Amish Society (3d edn), The John Hopkins
Press, Baltimore and London, 1980.
Donald B. and Olshan, Marc A., eds. The Amish Struggle with
Modernity, University Press of New England, Hanover and
Donald B., ed., The Amish and the State, The John
University Press, Baltimore and London, 1993.
Donald B., The Riddle of Amish Culture, Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore, 1989. A detailed account focussing
the Lancaster settlement. Its one serious weakness is that it
fails to distinguish practices in that settlement from those of
M. and Meyers, Thomas J., Plain Diversity,The John
University Press, Baltimore, 2007. A detailed account of Amish
settlements in Indiana, providing a particularly good picture of
diversity of Amish affiliations.