Opting Out

How the Amish Have Survived in America

For a long time, most Americans knew little more about the Amish than that they made finely crafted furniture and pursued a quietly stubborn resistance to modernity. But lately, against all expectation, an avalanche of Amish romance novels and myth-making TV “reality” shows like Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia have turned the mighty gaze of popular culture toward this small Christian group numbering just over a quarter-million people.

The Amish have traditionally piqued our interest with their slow and simple way of life. They are not in fact Luddites, merely hesitant and discriminating in their adoption of new technologies. Some fifty years after the telephone first appeared in Amish communities, a grandmother told me, “It’s still on probation.” A single Amish hymn, sung at a torturously slow pace, may stretch over fifteen to twenty minutes in a three-hour worship service. Where speed permeates modern life, with its instant downloads and constant tweets, its express mail, fast food, and lightning-quick microprocessors, slowness characterizes Amish culture. What better countercultural symbol of slowness and simplicity could there be than a horse-drawn buggy plodding along a country road as GPS-guided cars swoosh by?

Although all Amish communities use horse-drawn transportation, speak the Pennsylvania German dialect, worship in their homes, and ordain lay leaders, a diversity of other practices abounds in the Amish world. In fact, each of some forty different affiliations or tribes has a distinct identity shaped by its dress styles, color of carriages, use of technology, and degree of separation from popular culture. Rooted in the Anabaptist movement that emerged during the Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe, the Amish church formed in 1693 as a branch of Swiss Anabaptism. Seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, Amish families migrated to North America between 1730 and 1850. Their last congregation in Europe closed its doors in 1937, and today Amish people live only in the United States and Canada.

As with the early Anabaptists, the paramount question of faith for the Amish is this: What does it mean to follow Jesus in daily life? The tradition focuses on Jesus’ words to his disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Beyond discipleship, the Amish church accents the values of humility, obedience, community, pacifism, and separation from mainstream society. The Amish seek to practice the teachings that Jesus articulated in the Sermon on the Mount, such as forgiveness and love of enemy. Only those who voluntarily confess their faith in Christ and pledge to follow church regulations (Ordnung) for the rest of their lives are baptized—typically in their late teens or early twenties. Baptismal candidates renounce three things: self, the devil, and the world.

The Amish fear that affection for worldly things will pollute the purity of their church and lead to cultural assimilation. They hold deep reservations about worldly culture, reservations they find legitimated by biblical texts such as “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” (1 John 2:15) and “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2). This sharp dualism crystallized in the sixteenth century, when Anabaptists were tortured and executed as heretics. For the Amish, separation from the world means shunning violence, war, promiscuous sex, pornography, abortion, greed, fraud, divorce, and illegal drugs.

The presence of the Amish in America poses a conundrum: How do a people who espouse a slow and simple way of life—who reject high school, ownership of motor vehicles, TV, and public-grid electricity—not only manage to survive in a hypermodern world, but actually thrive? The Amish today are defying those observers who long forecast their demise. From a mere six thousand in 1900, their population has now ballooned to more than two-hundred and eighty-five thousand across thirty states and Ontario. Over the past twenty years their population has increased 120 percent, their congregations multiplying from 932 to 2,060. During this period the Amish have spread into nine new states and added 242 new geographical settlements. About half today live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, while growing numbers call Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, Missouri, and Kentucky home.

The robust growth is driven by sizable families of six to eight children on average. But producing babies is not enough: young people must be persuaded to join the church. At the age of sixteen, Amish youth for the first time are permitted to socialize with their peers on evenings and weekends without parental supervision. This period of rumspringa (running around) continues until they are baptized into the church. During this liminal stage they are betwixt and between parental and churchly authority. For the most part teenagers live at home and engage in such traditional activities as baseball, hiking, fishing, and Sunday-evening singing. In some of the larger settlements, however, the youth drive cars, organize boisterous parties, and delve into drugs and alcohol. (This small slice of rowdy rebelliousness is what gets featured on “reality” TV shows like Breaking Amish.)

Eventually all teens face the big question: to be or not to be Amish. It’s a monumental choice, because baptism is a lifelong commitment to the faith and the Amish church. Despite its Old Order ways, the Amish Church pivots on the idea of voluntary adult membership. On average, 85 to 90 percent of young adults kneel for baptism and remain in Amish life. Those who decide not to are not excommunicated or shunned. If, however, an Amish person joins the church and then later exits, he or she will face excommunication followed by shunning, a shaming practice intended to remind the wayward that they have broken a holy baptismal pledge to God and to the church. Ex-members may need to sit at a separate table at a wedding or stand last in line at a funeral to view the body of a deceased parent.

For those wishing to return to the church, the back door is always open; ex-members will be restored into fellowship upon public confession of their transgressions. Indeed, a few former members have returned to full fellowship twenty or thirty years after abandoning the church. Outsiders are also welcome to join if they affirm Amish beliefs, learn to harness a horse, and speak the dialect. Several dozen outsiders have successfully stepped across this cultural gulf. But most seekers with idyllic views of Amish life eventually become disillusioned by the physical labor, the difficulty of learning the dialect, a lack of extended family in the Amish fold, and the process of making collective decisions, and they drop out.

 

APART FROM America’s toleration of religious diversity and the robust rates of Amish reproduction and retention, the persistence and growth of the Amish can be explained by two interconnected tendencies: their resistance to assimilation and their astute ability to negotiate with modernity.

To fortify their way of life, Amish leaders have constructed cultural fences around it: plain dress, horse-drawn transportation, religious rituals, and a distinctive dialect. Some forms of resistance—especially the Amish challenge to consolidated schools in the mid–twentieth century—have been costly. In the 1950s, when Amish parents refused to send their children to public high schools, some faced fines and short-term imprisonment. Similarly, members of an ultraconservative subgroup in Kentucky served prison time in 2010 for refusing to display the state-required “Slow-Moving Vehicle” sticker on their buggies.

Amish people today continue their centuries-old tradition of meeting in their homes every other Sunday for worship. Their spirituality is grounded in church districts (congregations) marked by roads, streams, and fence lines. The district, with its seventy-five to a hundred-fifty people, is the locus of ecclesiastical authority, and ensures that Amish life remains anchored in small-scale, face-to-face interactions. Ordained but unpaid lay leaders—a bishop, a deacon, and two preachers—with no formal theological training serve the congregation. Women may vote in church business meetings and nominate men for ordination, but they do not serve in formal leadership roles in the congregation or in the larger Amish community, except as schoolteachers. In homes the pattern of power varies. Wives exert considerable influence in some families, but the husband typically is the spokesperson to the outside world. Amish views of gender roles in family and church are rooted in traditional Christian teaching, and any talk of change is perceived as a feminist threat from a secular world. In recent years some Amish women have gained greater economic clout as they have acquired small businesses such as quilt shops, greenhouses, and fabric stores.

The elders have constructed a fortress around the most traditional practices of their faith—music, worship, weddings, funerals, and selection of leaders—keeping these rituals safe from outside influences and the press of progress, at least for now. They have avoided ecumenical dialogue, formal theological training, and the Anglicization of their worship. And they have persistently rejected large-scale organizations typical of Christian groups—colleges, church agencies, seminaries, mission boards, and even church buildings themselves. While bureaucratic organizations have proliferated in modern America, there are few of them—if any—in Amish life. The Amish church does not have a national office, an annual convention, or a general secretary of Amish affairs, let alone an office of media and public relations. One Amish man quipped, “We don’t have pope, just a lot of bishops.”

This congregation-based ecclesial authority has its limits—a fact underscored by the recent slew of beard-cuttings that drew extensive media coverage. A few years ago, Samuel Mullet, renegade bishop of a clan-like congregation of twenty-five households in Bergholz, Ohio, was disciplined at a meeting of Amish leaders from several states. Defiant, he retaliated in 2011 by encouraging some of his members to snip the beards of a few leaders and other critics. Mullet and fifteen followers were found guilty of federal hate crimes, among other crimes, and landed in federal prison.

The absence of centralized authority makes it difficult for the Amish to mediate conflict and restrain such rogue bishops. Conflict arising within local congregations, over questions about the use of new technology (the ownership of rotary tillers, for example) or other matters, is more easily resolved. Each fall and spring, a members meeting is devoted to reconciling differences, seeking forgiveness, and affirming harmony in preparation for Holy Communion. This biannual ritual reinforces the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the life of the community. Indeed, if the congregation is fractured or filled with malice, communion will be postponed, sometimes for a year or so, until reconciliation is achieved. This willingness to postpone the sacrament—unheard of in Protestant and Catholic churches—reveals a deep commitment to communal well-being and a theological understanding that Communion is not merely an individual transaction with God, but a celebration of unity.

To preserve their cultural separateness, Amish people have staunchly avoided urban life, living only in rural areas that, in pre-internet times at any rate, offered isolation and shelter from many temptations. Keeping an arm’s distance from the world has enabled them to avoid excessive consumerism in personal technology, household furnishings, leisure, dress, and the fads of popular culture. Moreover, they have successfully insulated themselves from social movements, such as feminism, pluralism, and multiculturalism, that would have transformed their lives in dramatic ways.

Separation from the world restricts their participation in the political system. Though they are permitted to vote, their voting rate typically falls under 10 percent. Those who do vote are more likely to cast ballots in local elections than national ones. (As conscientious objectors to war, some consider it hypocritical to vote for the commander-in-chief.) They refuse to hold public office for fear it may entangle them in litigation, which the church forbids; use of the law is considered a form of force that violates Jesus’ teachings on loving one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors.  This has been costly to some Amish business owners who could not engage in litigation to collect debts, protect their brand, or solve other disputes. Similarly, Amish will rarely litigate to protect their interests in conflicts with the state. Typically outsiders will assist them and file lawsuits, if needed, on their behalf.

Amish people pay all taxes, except for Social Security, which they view as health insurance; in 1965 the U.S. Congress exempted them from Social Security—both taxes and benefits—and they are also not subject to the Affordable Care Act. They contend that church members have a Christian duty to care for the physical and material needs of other members. As strict church-and-state separatists, they reject both commercial and government insurance and other forms of government subsidies, even ones for agriculture.

Throughout the past century, Amish people tenaciously guarded their traditions, viewing modernity as a divisive force that might tear their families and communities asunder. That worry is not an idle one, for social analysts have long noted that the pervasive specialization of modern life dissolves social bonds that hold traditional societies together. Higher education, for example, promotes professional mobility that often scatters family members far and wide. People live in suburbs and commute long distances to cities for work. The elderly are cloistered in retirement homes and rarely see their grandchildren. Pastors and priests trained in faraway seminaries are assigned to congregations and parishes unknown to them. In contrast, the Amish prefer to live in small geographically rooted communities, anchored in local congregations of twenty to forty families, where face-to-face conversation is the currency of the day. The important “social work” of the horse and buggy is to keep the members tethered to their community throughout the week.

Had the Amish simply rejected all things modern, they would surely have dwindled away, a fossilized remnant buried by time. Instead, they reached across their cultural fences to the world outside and borrowed the use of detergents, insecticides, high-precision milling machines, in-line skates, and in some communities, cell phones. In village stores and in Walmarts they buy sugar, coffee, pizza, deodorant, toys, and dozens of other consumer products. The more progressive Amish groups accept state-of-the-art LED lights, trampolines, new gas grills, solar panels, and battery-powered hand tools. By adopting such “worldly” products they have enhanced their lifestyle and increased the productivity of their farms and shops. The fact that Amish people speak English fluently also facilitates economic ties with the modern world.

In navigating the rapids of modern America, they faced innumerable choices. To Amish elders, television clearly promised more harm than good. Other choices were more difficult to make, their long-term impact on community life more uncertain. In sorting out such murky issues, the Amish have negotiated with modernity, rejecting some aspects of a new technology while accepting other parts. They installed landline phones, for example—but kept them in shanties outside the house.

The negotiating metaphor captures the dynamic give-and-take between the Amish and modernity, with internal debates that may stretch over years, and in some cases with ultimately transformative results. Fifty years ago most Amish were farmers, but that has changed. A few decades ago, when some men started working in “English”-owned factories, church leaders feared that such intimate contact with an alien culture would tempt them to leave the church. And yet the growing Amish population and the increasing expense of land, cattle, and machinery were putting an economic squeeze on traditional family farms. Thus the compromise: Amish-owned and operated micro-enterprises. By establishing enterprises in rural areas, Amish families could still work together and control the terms and conditions of their work—while keeping profits within the community. This negotiated compromise propelled a mini–Industrial Revolution during the past thirty years of Amish life, and today only about a third of households rely on farming for their primary income. Many own or work at small businesses. There are some twelve thousand of these—from manufacturing to construction, greenhouses to craft shops. These enterprises are profitable despite numerous restrictions on technology. They benefit from the hard work of family labor, low overhead, a distinctive brand identity, and niche markets.

The Amish are capitalists who buy and sell products in the public marketplace. And yes, the phrase “Amish millionaire” is no longer an oxymoron. (Though, in case you wondered, there’s no “Amish mafia” in real life—sorry!) While the Amish continue to practice religious and cultural separation, their economic forays have thrust them into the larger world of commerce. Amish contractors, for example, bid against “English” builders on residential and commercial construction projects. Furniture manufacturers compete in the national market to sell upscale products. And some Amish companies, seeking to reduce manufacturing costs, contract with Chinese factories to build component parts for battery-powered lights and fans used in many Amish communities.

 

TECHNOLOGY IS YET another arena of negotiation. Amish people are not technophobes; while they spurn technologies—television, cars, computers—that they think will harm the welfare of their religious community, they readily accept and even invent new technologies (such as a wheel-driven alternator to recharge the batteries on their buggies), which they think will enhance the well-being of their society. Many Amish adapt mainstream technology to fit within their moral order. For example, they strip off electric motors from large sanders in furniture shops and replace them with pneumatic motors, powered by an air pump run by a diesel engine, to provide “Amish electricity.”

These negotiations often strike outsiders as inconsistent, if not hypocritical and downright silly. What is the point of keeping a telephone outside the house, using tractors for stationary power at the barn but not in the fields, or tapping electricity from batteries but not from the public grid? Another apparent inconsistency is the Amish distinction between use and ownership of technology. Examples include riding in cars but not owning them, using a computer in a public library but not permitting one at home, tapping electricity from the public grid in a rented building for a quilt shop, and so on. Such compromises appear strange to moderns. Yet they have their own internal logic that makes sense in the context of Amish history and the goals of the church community. The distinction between use and ownership, for instance, keeps technology at arms-length and serves as a constant reminder of its risks.

Amish people thus spend much more time than their fellow Americans pondering and assessing the long-term impact of new technologies on human relationships. They also argue that the church needs to be involved in regulating technology because individuals are not wise enough to make good choices on their own—a notion that vexes modern Americans, who would never think of consulting their priest or rabbi about the wisdom of buying a new smartphone. In some ways the Amish are not unlike ultraconservative Jewish and Muslim groups that use dress codes and behavioral taboos to enhance the solidarity of their communities and to separate themselves from a larger society they consider threatening to their way of life. Seeking a balance between isolation and accommodation, the Amish have struck cultural compromises that blend aspects of tradition and modernity in ways that have enabled them to maintain their identity while flourishing economically.

In his book Liquid Modernity (2000), sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that modernity has morphed from solid to liquid forms. “Solid” modernity, rooted in social norms and structures, limited human freedom and expression, using stable traditions that affixed people to a particular place or nation-state by invoking God’s blessing of social hierarchies, including human-made rules about race, gender, caste, and class. Solid modernity provided social security through slow-to-change bureaucracies and factories, where employees played specialized roles as components of an assembly line whose only purpose was efficient production. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, new and far less stable forms of modernity began to appear. Transitions from still photos to video, from landline to mobile phones, from a factory-based economy to internet commerce, from manufacturing to service industries, and from paper books to e-books all signal the meltdown. The internet, with its vast virtual universe, exemplifies the weightless, mobile, ephemeral, ever-changing liquidity of twenty-first-century modernity.

This fluidity complicates the Amish future, and the future of most traditional religious communities, including the Catholic Church. Much of Amish identity is rooted in a rejection of the solid forms of modernity: telephones, cars, tractors, and consolidated public schools. How will a people so slow to change fare in an ever-changing hypermodern world, where temptation lurks not only in the city or in the movie theater, but also on handheld devices in backcountry fields? Some Amish teens on rumspringa already have Facebook pages and are using smartphones.

In his 2005 critique of contemporary materialism, Hypermodern Times, the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky argues that our culture wants everything faster and faster. The speed and complexity of modern life stand in stark contrast to Amish simplicity. Will the Amish need to shift their coping strategies in order to survive in this swirling sea of fluid modernity? Will they be able to?

It is impossible to predict the future of the Amish in America. Despite their deft ability to negotiate with the outside world, the Amish way of responding to social change in the past may no longer guarantee their future. With surprising skill the Amish have successfully steered their way through the twentieth century. But what about their fate in the twenty-first?

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the March 7, 2014 issue: 

Donald B. Kraybill is distinguished professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author of many books on Amish society, including The Amish, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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