Just Plain Interesting: Springboards for Research on the Amish

Published with Permission

Written by Karen Robuck


I see them on major streets and country roads in my northeast Mississippi hometown. Black flat-top buggies with orange reflectors. Black hats. Distinctive beards. Solid, dark clothes. Women and girls with full head coverings. I’ve heard them speak their unique German dialect. I’ve bought their baskets, baked goods, and fresh produce. I have a general idea of what the Ordnung, rumspringa, singings, and shunning are. My father admires their work ethic so much that he has hired them for non-mechanized day labor on the farm. I admire their ability to live without what most of us think we must have. They are the Amish.

No longer found only in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, they have migrated south and west, to Ohio,Maryland,Indiana,Missouri,Tennessee,Mississippi,Texas,Montana, and fourteen other states. By the time you and your children finish your research on the Amish, your curiosity about this unique religious group may be satisfied. Then again, you may have more questions. Regardless of the outcome, have fun.

Who Are the Amish?

The Amish church began as part of the Anabaptist movement in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Anabaptists rejected the doctrine of infant baptism, believing instead that only adults who had confessed a personal belief in Jesus as Savior should be baptized. They also did not believe in war and tried to live peaceably with their neighbors. Because of these beliefs, they were severely persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics.

In 1693 a group of Mennonites led by Jacob Amman broke away over issues of doctrine, primarily the use of shunning (excommunication, including avoidance of all social interaction). The Amish practice shunning, based on their understanding of passages such as 1 Corinthians 5. The group led by Amman fled to Switzerland and southern Germany, where they became farmers and began having services in their homes. Eventually they heard of William Penn’s colony in the New World and his promise of religious freedom. Many left Europe and settled in what would become Pennsylvania.

What They Believe

The Amish are devout in their faith, believing in the literal interpretation and application of Scripture. Their devotion to their families, their farms, and their way of life are second only to their devotion to God. They believe separation from the things of the world is not only commanded by God but also strengthens their relationship to God. After all, the things of the world can be distractions. They value simplicity and self-denial over comfort, convenience, and leisure.

Their belief system is even evident in how they dress. Their plain clothing represents humility and separation. Men do not grow mustaches because they associate them with military service.

One of the ways the Amish literally interpret Scripture is their interpretation of the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make any graven images. They will not allow their photographs to be taken (although some tourists and reporters do so secretly). For this reason, Amish dolls do not have faces.

They believe that church membership is a choice every young adult should make with full knowledge of what he or she will be giving up if he or she chooses to remain in the community. Therefore, when Amish teens reach the age of 16, they informally enter what is known as the Rumspringa, or running-around time. From this time until they make a decision about “joining church,” they are allowed to experiment with English ways, their parents more or less looking the other way unless the teen is being particularly careless. For some youth their Rumspringa may last only a few months before they make their decision one way or another. For others, the decision may take years. At the end of that time, they either join the church and are eligible for marriage within the community, or they leave for the English world and are allowed contact as usual with the community. They cannot marry within the community if they leave, however.

They also practice church discipline in the form of shunning. Shunning takes place when rules are broken in such a way that the church leadership feels it necessary to publicly make an example of it. The most severe reason for shunning is leaving the Amish ways after baptism has occurred. As noted above, leaving prior to baptism will not bring about shunning. Other reasons members may be shunned include these: breaking marriage vows, divorce, or violating the Ordnung (their unwritten tradition that regulates private, public, and ceremonial lives).

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