Have you ever wondered, “Who are the Amish and where did they come from?” Before we explore what Amish culture is and what Amish life in the United States is like today, we must first understand where this group originated.
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The Amish religion is a radically reformed interpretation of Christianity, and it originated out of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation was a religious movement started by Martin Luther. He broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and that split is what is known as the Protestant branch of Christianity today. The Protestant branch in turn split into numerous other groups, one of which is what is known as the Anabaptists today. The Anabaptist umbrella includes a number of groups, one of which are the Amish, who broke away from the Mennonites (also an Anabaptist group) in the late 1600s.
Sandra Thomas (2009), Director of the library at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, explains the Anabaptists: “Rather than baptizing infants, they held that only adults who chose to join this fellowship could be baptized.” . . . “They wanted this second baptism—in Latin anabaptismus—because they felt their infant baptisms had been meaningless.” Edme-François Mallet (2004), in an entry for The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project at the University of Michigan Library, defines Anabaptist as the following: “This word is . . .
. . . composed of α’νὰ, once again, and of ξπτιζω or of βαπω, to baptize, to wash, because the custom of the Anabaptists is to rebaptize those who were baptized in their infancy.”
Neither explanation is accurate in the context of Anabaptism. The Anabaptists did not believe that infant baptism was valid. It did not count. Therefore, there was no second or rebaptism.
Amish groups formed tight-knit communities and developed the Ordnung, a set of rules (i.e., Amish law) for maintaining order and directing Amish society, including theology, hierarchy, and customs. They forbade political involvement and conforming to societal norms and expectations. Due to their strict policies and extreme lifestyle, Anabaptist groups started facing violence and persecution in Europe. This prompted them to seek new settlement in other countries and parts of the world.
Amish groups began arriving in America during the 1700s (although possibly as early as the end of the 1600s). They first settled in Pennsylvania because of its opportunities for land and lack of religious persecution. They later migrated west into Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, and, eventually, other parts of the continent as well.
In the earlier stages of establishing their lives in America, the Amish faced low life expectancy rates due to disease and high infant mortality (similarly to other groups at the time). With the advancement of medicine, Amish populations began to increase. Today, the Amish have settled in approximately 30 different states and make up around 0.001% of the total population in the United States.
Amish Culture in the 21st Century
Now that we’ve covered the history of Amish origins, we can take a look at Amish living in the 20th and early 21st centuries. One of the most recognized characteristics of the Amish is their unconventional dress code and appearance. The Amish wear homesewn clothing in a style reminiscent of the Pilgrims or Puritans. Some Amish allow bright colors; others are restricted to mostly dark colors. There is no universal law when it comes to the colors one is allowed to wear. Most men wear straw or black broad-brimmed hats, depending on the occasion and their particular community’s Ordnung. After marriage, men are required to grow a beard, but they are not allowed to have a mustache. Women wear long dresses and white caps with strings, covered by a bonnet depending on the occasion. They never cut their hair and don’t wear any jewelry and makeup.
The Amish should not be confused with Amish offshoots and other Anabaptist groups who look similar to the Amish, or even include the word Amish as part of their name. The Amish, as defined in this post, are the traditional practicing Amish (erroneously labelled Old Order Amish by non-Amish people who claim to be experts on the Amish). The traditional practicing Amish are united by key factors such as specific theological tenets and the prohibition of specific modern conveniences. There is a significant distinction between the traditional Amish and offshoots, such as the New Order Amish, Beachy Amish/Amish Mennonites, and others who claim to be Amish in order to benefit from religious freedom exemptions or the Amish brand but who aren’t actually traditional Amish.
There are many cultural differences between Amish communities. Religious rules and language variations can differ from one community to the other. Some Amish communities continue to operate with little to no use of technology, while other groups allow using propane gas-powered stoves and refrigerators in their homes, solar-powered electricity for their businesses, farming with tractors, and other forms of current technology in their everyday lives, e.g., gas-powered lawn mowers and computers and cellphones for running their businesses. It is commonly thought that all Amish men are farmers, but Amish men, women, and children work outside of the home and even the community.
Despite these varying differences, one similarity holds true for all Amish communities: there is no schooling past the 8th grade. Originally, most Amish children attended small, rural, public schools. As public schools began consolidating around the 1950s, many Amish communities began teaching their children in private, Amish-only one-room schoolhouses. In 1972, the Wisconsin v. Yoder US Supreme Court case determined that Amish students were exempt from compulsory education past the 8th grade.
The Wisconsin v. Yoder case has set a precedent that protects parental religious rights and denies children the right to their education, and this precedent applies to all religions — not just the Amish. The lack of education, along with other factors, makes it very difficult for anybody to leave the practicing Amish culture to seek further education and change their lifestyle if they so please.
Now, you should have a better idea of who the Amish are and where they came from. The Amish tend to have pretty radical beliefs, some of which can be perceived as good and some of which can be perceived as bad. Knowing where this group came from helps us to better understand their beliefs, and understanding their practices helps us to better respect their culture while advocating for change.
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