I’ve written quite often about who the Amish are, in an effort to reclaim our identity and correct the dominate narrative that non-Amish “experts” have concocted about us. Unfortunately there are so many books, opinions, TV shows, so-called documentaries, and scholarly or academic papers floating around that few people ever find my posts or works that define who we Amish actually are. I thought it’d be a good idea to re-emphasize a post I wrote years ago about the problems with certain labels and ideas that non-Amish have assigned to us.
(Scroll to the end or click here for the audio/video version of this post.)
Throughout this site and in my and the Amish Heritage Foundation’s work, the term “Amish” is synonymous with what non-Amish — who claim to be experts on us Amish — call “Old Order” Amish. This label is then also used by pretty much everyone else who writes or talks about us, because they believe that those “experts” are actually experts. To make it even worse, when the Amish (both practicing and nonpracticing) talk to non-Amish about our religion, history, culture, etc., they also often use the “Old Order” label.
Why? Because we’re not adequately educated. We regurgitate whatever the “experts”, like sociology professor Donald Kraybill from Elizabethtown College, dictate that we are. Why? I’ve written about that in another post . . .
. . . titled “My 4 Big Problems with Donald Kraybill and His Biased Amish Books”.
Point #1. “Old Order” vs. Traditional Amish (i.e., simply “Amish”)
“Old Order” Amish is what the general public understands as simply “Amish” — or most often thinks of when they hear or see things about the Amish. This refers to the traditional Amish, which I was born and raised in. The traditional Amish prohibit cameras and cars, among other things.
This “Old Order” label is not used by us in our language, nor did we invent that label.
We traditional Amish (the followers of Jakob Ammann’s theological interpretations) refer to and identify ourselves as simply and accurately “Amish”.
“Old Order” was invented by the Mennonites — Mennonites from the liberal end of the Mennonite spectrum who are college-educated and/or university professors. These Mennonites also claim that the “proper” term for us Amish is “Amish Mennonite”. Depending on which entry you read in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), we’re not Amish Mennonite but Old Order Amish, or not Old Order Amish but Amish Mennonite. The “Old Order” label is made up, so made up that the Mennonites writing the GAMEO entry can’t even cite a source for the label. The best they can come up with is that supposedly “Old Order” started coming into use after 1870. It certainly did not come from us Amish!
With regard to the label “Amish Mennonite”, their attitude is patronizing and condescending: they refuse to acknowledge that we Amish are a distinct group of people who do not wish to be conflated with the Mennonites. They believe that they essentially have the sole right to define us in whatever way they wish and write whatever literature they want about us, while using us as guinea pigs to push their own political agendas through legislation, such as demanding more extreme religious liberties for themselves while Amish women, children, and LGBTQ+ people suffer by having their individual religious liberty rights trampled upon (e.g., see the 1972 US Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder). We uneducated Amish get no say in the narrative they put out into the world.
Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish, broke away from the Swiss Brethren in Europe. At some point, the Swiss Brethren got lumped in with the Mennonites from the Netherlands. My understanding is that the Swiss Brethren resented the Mennonite label, so the argument can be made that we Amish have even less of a connection to the Mennonites than what I’m granting in this post. There are crucial theological differences between the Amish and the Mennonites, so significant that there’s a reason that we call ourselves Amish (after Ammann) and not Mennonite (after Mennonite Simons, the founder of the Mennonites). For the Mennonite academics to assert their authority over us, to create and control the public narrative about us, well, that’s colonialist and reminiscent of slave ownership.
Point #2. Amish vs. Spin-off Groups with “Amish” in their Name
There are a number of groups who spun off from the Amish. These spin-off groups want to define themselves as separate from us Amish. Yet they also want to include the word “Amish” as part of their group’s identity.
Such spin-off groups include Beachy Amish, New Order Amish, and Amish Mennonite. Those groups came about specifically because they didn’t want to be identified as and follow the rules of the Amish. Neither I nor the Amish Heritage Foundation are experts on those groups, which are more modern or liberal than the Amish. Their rules, disadvantages, challenges, and cultures are different from ours. Unlike the Mennonites’ attitude toward the Amish, I don’t assert authority over defining the narrative and literature on those groups, even though they broke away from us Amish. We don’t claim we should be the ones to dictate the narrative about groups who no longer want to be Amish.
What is meant by “Amish Mennonite” in the above paragraph is super confusing. Some of my Beachy Amish friends say it’s synonymous with Beachy Amish. That is, when talking to outsiders, they call themselves Amish Mennonite, but when talking among themselves, they use Beachy Amish. Other friends of Mennonite origins say that Amish Mennonite is different from Beachy Amish. Based on my research, it’s both. In either case, Amish Mennonite in this context is not what the Mennonite overlords who wrote the GAMEO claim is our “proper” name (see Point #1). The Amish Mennonites in this context split off from the Amish, not the Mennonites.
Point #3. Distinct or Universal Characteristics of the Amish
Universal characteristics of the Amish, which distinctly set us apart from other groups, include being prohibited from attempting to convert others to our religion, driving cars, having cameras, posing for family or personal portraits, and using electricity in the homes. Traditionally the use of electricity was forbidden in all cases, but some Amish now allow solar-powered electricity for use in their businesses. Some also have it inside the homes, but that’s not actually allowed by Church law to my knowledge.
Other nearly universal characteristics of the Amish include having church in the homes instead of a church building, having church every other Sunday, farming with horses, requiring married men to grow beards, forbidding males to grow mustaches, forbidding females to cut their hair, and requiring females to wear a cap. Some Amish deviate from some of these things (e.g., farming with tractors instead of horses), but those are exceptions who for whatever reason are still categorized as Amish, and not as an Amish offshoot. The Amish don’t have a central governing authority that makes the rules uniform for every church, settlement, or community.
The Amish Church doesn’t allow us children to go to school beyond the 8th grade. Furthermore, the education we do receive is rudimentary and restricted. For example, we’re not allowed to learn about subjects such as science, technology, engineering, math (beyond arithmetic), civics, law, politics, philosophy, music, and the fine arts. Most of us (99%?) attend one-room schoolhouses taught by Amish teachers who themselves haven’t received an education beyond the Amish 8th grade.
We also don’t speak English fluently. It’s our second language, and we’re generally not allowed to communicate in English among ourselves. That is, English is to be spoken only in school (to learn the language), when communicating with non-Amish speakers, and when communicating via writing. Amish as a language is traditionally only spoken, not written, and we don’t communicate fluently in English.
These are the few, but important, universal laws that define us as Amish, as opposed to spin-off groups, groups plagarizing us (passing themselves off as Amish), Mennonites, and similar conservative Anabaptists.
Point #4. Traditional Amish Who Call Themselves “[Adjective]” Amish
Last but not least — to really confuse you! — there are groups within the traditional Amish who identify themselves as “[adjective]” Amish. Some examples are Swartzentruber Amish and Swiss Amish. However, they’re not more modern or liberal, such as the Beachy Amish who aren’t traditional Amish. The Swartzentruber Amish are stricter than most Amish; they’re clearly on the stringent end of the spectrum.
To add yet another level of confusion, there are all sorts of variations within the traditional Amish, ranging from very strict to relatively modern. Only Amish people and non-Amish who are properly educated are able to discern which group someone who looks Amish belongs to.
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