There were many takeaway points to be gained from the Introduction to Amish Culture presentation that Torah Bontrager provides as part of the Amish Heritage Foundation’s Amish cultural literacy training for educators, health and legal professionals, advocates, and students. A bit of historical background was given in addition to alternative perspectives and a heavier clarification of the beliefs and standards of this culture.
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Although all of the information was valuable and important, there were three main points that stood out to me. There was so much history that I was unaware of, in addition to the educational system in place and the social understanding of rumspringa, which were all important yet misunderstood aspects to me. Not many individuals know these details of Amish culture, yet all of these contribute to the toxicity of their practices.
Historically speaking, I have never been given a full rundown or . . .
. . . cultural lesson on this population, so this information was mostly new and is not often acknowledged by society overall. Even the term Anabaptist is rarely brought up, probably because I live in the Bible belt where this is only a small percentage of the mass number of Christian denominations here.
Point #1: The Toxicity of Jakob Ammann, the Founder of the Amish
In addition to the term Anabaptist, Jakob Ammann was another interesting name; it is interesting that the theological interpretations of this man from centuries ago is still adhered to today by these communities. It’s not as if they read or came to the conclusion of their rules via a historically passed down text, but instead the interpretations of one man as they broke away from the mainstream direction of religion shaped the rules they still follow. Ammann strongly believed in the shunning of excommunicated members, and he also adapted the strict dress code that hasn’t really evolved since.
Additionally, this religious view instills fear as its main deterrent from leaving, a tactic that many world religions have used and still use today, as shown by the relevance of the Martyrs’ Mirror. A culture built on this foundation with unchanging beliefs for so long has created a society of isolation, oppression, and fear for those involved, specifically for those who do not have as many rights within their community.
Point #2: The Amish Are Forced to Stop School at 8th Grade
A line that stood out most to me stated, “The culture inside the Church evolves only based on the need to survive,” which is heavily restrictive to this population’s adaptation in a world where most countries and cultures embrace change and evolution.
The Amish educational system is a prevalent area impacted the most by these parameters. Children and adults are unable to learn about science, current affairs, laws, or sex education among other necessary educational topics needed to push them to advancement. Although their society has shifted from the originally destined agricultural occupations, their education levels have not adapted with the minor expansion of opportunities, although these communities are still exempt from child labor laws.
In 1972, the Wisconsin v. Yoder court case legally reinforced these heavy restrictions, and it has remained unchanged as time has gone on and society has evolved. The children in this circle are still legally prohibited by federal law from receiving a sufficient education, which furthers this unethical cycle. On average, Amish adults are stuck with 5th-grade literacy skills with minimal knowledge of global and national discoveries and events.
Wisconsin v. Yoder, and those with similar beliefs, embraced the dream that Amish society would remain unchanged as time went on, but this is an unrealistic ideal, although their rules and laws don’t account for this. Even in the current day, Amish children are allowed to only be educated up to an 8th-grade level and then they must move into the reality of providing for their family and community.
These standards are reinforced in other religious communities as well, and it is all justified as religious freedoms without taking the best outcome for these children into consideration.
Point #3: Rumspringa Is NOT Freedom to Choose
Another takeaway is the idealization and false information of rumspringa. It is glamorized in pop culture — in mainstream America — as a time for Amish teens to break away from the church and draw their own conclusions and decisions individually. Not many people are aware that this painted image is completely incorrect. Rumspringa is actually just a term referring to a period of time, around 16 or 17 years old, before they are married into the Amish Church. In every one of these communities it is expected that no one is ever to leave or stray from the Church.
The Amish point their youth on a track where they are essentially required to commit to the Amish Church for the rest of their lives, and there is never any encouragement or room given for true exploration and individuality from these principles. The religion considers dedication to the Church as more important than marriage, despite the emphasis put on marriage and no option for divorce.
Present-day media portrays rumspringa to be an exciting release from the extreme rules applied by the church, but in reality it is a time where the restrictions are further enforced to hold back individuals and keep them in the cycle.
The entirety of the Introduction to Amish Culture presentation contributed to my overall knowledge of the Amish community, and each point was honest and more accurate than any current media understanding. In spite of the many takeaways, the three most relevant to my understanding includes the historical origin, educational restrictions, and misunderstood traditions.
There’s a plethora of false information about the Amish in today’s reports from sources that have never fully immersed themselves or weren’t born into this culture. It is important to not take the media at face value, and to consult accurate and firsthand sources to gain a full sense of cultural literacy for any strong religion-based societies, in addition to any information provided by pop media.
Sharing the truth of these matters and expressing an accurate picture of what Amish culture truly is helps create awareness of how detrimental this can be for anyone born into and forced to be a part of that cycle.
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