The Amish (/ˈɑːmɪʃ/ AH-mish; Pennsylvania Dutch: Amisch, German: Amische), sometimes referred to as Amish Mennonites, are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships that form a subgroup of the Mennonite churches. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. The history of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish.
In the early 18th century, many Amish and Mennonites emigrated to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons. Today, the most traditional descendants of the Amish continue to speak Pennsylvania German, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch. However, a dialect of Swiss German predominates in some Old Order Amish communities, especially in the American state of Indiana. As of 2000, over 165,000 Old Order Amish live in the United States and approximately 1500 live in Canada. A 2008 study suggested their numbers have increased to 227,000, and in 2010 a study suggested their population had grown by 10 percent in the past two years to 249,000, with increasing movement to the West.
Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a requirement for marriage, and once a person has affiliated with the church, he or she may marry only within the faith. Church districts average between 20 and 40 families, and worship services are held every other Sunday in a member’s home. The district is led by a bishop and several ministers and deacons. The rules of the church, the Ordnung, must be observed by every member and cover most aspects of day-to-day living, including prohibitions or limitations on the use of power-line electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing. Most Amish do not buy commercial insurance or participate in Social Security. As present-day Anabaptists, Amish church members practice nonresistance and will not perform any type of military service.
Amish children playing baseball, Lyndonville, New York.
The Amish stress strict obedience in their children, and this is taught and enforced by parents and preachers. Several passages in the Bible are used to support this view. Their children, as with all children, may resist a parent’s request. However, things such as tantrums, making faces, calling another bad names, and general disobedience are rare because the child knows that those actions will result in corporal punishment. Any youthful dissatisfactions are usually verbally expressed, but profanity is never allowed because the guilty child can expect swift punishment.
Modern attitudes seem to play no part in the Amish approach to child discipline, which is at odds with the American Psychological Association’s position.
Youth and courtship
Rumspringa (Pennsylvania German lit. “running around”) is the period of adolescence that begins the time of serious courtship. As in non-Amish families, it is understood that there will likely be a certain amount of misbehavior, but it is neither encouraged nor overlooked. At the end of this period, Amish young adults are baptized into the church, and usually marry, with marriage permitted only among church members. A small percentage of the young people choose not to join the church, deciding to live the rest of their lives in wider society and marry someone outside the community.
The age for courting begins at sixteen (in some communities, the girl could be as young as fourteen). The most common event for boy-girl association is the fortnightly Sunday evening sing; however, the youth use sewing bees, frolics, and weddings for other opportunities. The sing is often at the same house or barn as the Sunday morning service. Teens may arrive from several close-by districts, thus providing socialization on a wider scale than from a single church.
Amish Young Men
On the day of the sing, and after the chores are over, the young man dresses in his for-gut clothes, makes his appearance neat, and ensures his buggy and horse are clean. A sister or sister’s friend may ride with him, but usually not his girlfriend. At the sing, boys are on one side of a long table, the girls on the other side. Each person is able to announce his or her choice of a hymn, and only the faster ones are chosen. Conversation takes place between songs. The formal end of the sing is at about ten o’clock, after which there is a great deal of talking, joking, and visiting. The boys who do not have a girlfriend may pair up with a Maidel (girl). Following this, the boy takes the girl home in his open-topped courting buggy.
Marrying a first-cousin is not allowed among the Amish, and second-cousin relationships are frowned upon, though they may occur. Marriage to a “Schwartz” cousin (first cousin once removed) is not permitted in Lancaster County.
“ The onset of courtship is usually not openly discussed within the family or among friends. Excessive teasing by siblings or friends at the wrong time is considered invasive. Respecting privacy, or at least pretending not to know, is a prevailing mode of behavior, even among parents. ”
—Amish Society, Hostetler (Fourth Edition)
Weddings are typically held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in November to early December, after the harvest. The bride wears a new blue linen dress that will be worn again on other formal occasions. She wears no makeup and will not receive an engagement or wedding ring because the Ordnung prohibits personal jewelry.
The marriage ceremony itself may take several hours, followed by a community reception that includes a banquet, singing, and storytelling. Newlyweds spend the wedding night at the home of the bride’s parents.
Celery is one of the symbolic foods served at Amish weddings. Celery is also placed in vases and used to decorate the house instead of flowers. Rather than immediately taking up housekeeping, the newlywed couple will spend several weekends visiting the homes of friends and relatives who attended the wedding.
Members who do not conform to these community expectations and who cannot be convinced to repent are excommunicated. In addition to excommunication, members may be shunned, a practice that limits social contacts to shame the wayward member into returning to the church. Almost 90 percent of Amish teenagers choose to be baptized and join the church. During adolescence rumspringa (“running around”) in some communities, nonconforming behavior that would result in the shunning of an adult who had made the permanent commitment of baptism, may meet with a degree of forbearance. Amish church groups seek to maintain a degree of separation from the non-Amish (English) world. There is generally a heavy emphasis on church and family relationships. They typically operate their own one-room schools and discontinue formal education at grade eight (age 13/14). They value rural life, manual labor and humility.
The Amish Mennonite movement descends from the 16th century fellowship known as the Swiss Brethren. The Swiss Brethren were Anabaptists, and are often viewed as having been a part of the Radical Reformation. “Anabaptist” means “one who baptizes again”—a reference to those who had been baptized as infants, but later adopted a belief in “believer’s baptism”, and then let themselves again be baptized as adults. These Swiss Brethren trace their origins to Felix Manz (c. 1498–1527) and Conrad Grebel (c. 1498–1526), who had broken from reformer Huldrych Zwingli.
The Amish movement takes its name from Jakob Ammann (c. 1656–1730), a Swiss Mennonite leader. Ammann believed Mennonites, the peaceful Anabaptists of the Low Countries and Germany, were drifting away from the teachings of Menno Simons and the 1632 Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Ammann favored stronger church discipline, including a more rigid application of shunning, the social exclusion of excommunicated members.
Swiss Anabaptists, who were scattered by persecution throughout the Alsace and the Electorate of the Palatinate, never practiced strict shunning as had some lowland Anabaptists. Ammann insisted upon this practice, even to the point of expecting spouses to refuse to eat with each other, until the banned spouse repented. This type of strict literalism, on this issue, as well as others, brought about a division among the Mennonites of Southern Germany, the Alsace and Switzerland in 1693, and led to withdrawal of those who sided with Ammann.
Swiss Anabaptism developed, from this point, in two parallel streams. Those following Ammann became known as Amish or Amish Mennonite. The others eventually formed the basis of the Swiss Mennonite Conference. Because of this common heritage, Amish and Mennonites retain many similarities. Those who leave the Amish fold tend to join various congregations of Conservative Mennonites.
An old Amish cemetery in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 1941.
Amish Mennonites began migrating to Pennsylvania in the 18th century as part of a larger migration from the Palatinate and neighboring areas. This migration was a reaction to religious wars, poverty, and religious persecution on the Continent.The first Amish immigrants went to Berks County, Pennsylvania, but later moved, motivated by land issues and by security concerns tied to the French and Indian War. Many eventually settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Other groups later settled in, or spread to Alabama, Delaware, Illinois,Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Maine, and Ontario.
The Amish congregations remaining in Europe slowly merged with the Mennonites. The last Amish congregation to merge was the Ixheim Amish congregation, which merged with the neighboring Mennonite Church in 1937. Some Mennonite congregations, including most in Alsace, are descended directly from former Amish congregations.
Amish couple in horse-driven buggy in rural Holmes County, Ohio, September 2004)
Most Amish communities that were established in North America did not ultimately retain their Amish identity. The original major split that resulted in the loss of identity occurred in the 1860s. During that decade Dienerversammlungen (ministerial conferences) were held in Wayne County, Ohio, concerning how the Amish should deal with the pressures of modern society. The meetings themselves were a progressive idea; for bishops to assemble to discuss uniformity was an unprecedented notion in the Amish church. By the first several meetings, the more traditionally minded bishops agreed to boycott the conferences. The more progressive members, comprising approximately two thirds of the group, retained the name Amish Mennonite. Many of these eventually united with the Mennonite Church, and other Mennonite denominations, especially in the early 20th century. The more traditionally minded groups became known as the Old Order Amish.
A scan of the historical document Diß Lied haben die sieben Brüder im Gefängnüß zu Gmünd gemacht
Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their rejection of Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and the high value they place on Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit(calmness, composure, placidity), often translated as “submission” or “letting-be”. Gelassenheit is perhaps better understood as a reluctance to be forward, to be self-promoting, or to assert oneself. The Amish’s willingness to submit to the “Will of Jesus”, expressed through group norms, is at odds with the individualism so central to the wider American culture. The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Modern innovations like electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity.
Way of life
Amish girls in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.
Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbors and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family. All Amish believe large families are a blessing from God.
Amish Communal Help Building a House
Most Old Order Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, and refer to non-Amish as “English”. According to one scholar, “today, almost all Amish are functionally bilingual in Pennsylvania Dutch and English; however, domains of usage are sharply separated. Pennsylvania Dutch dominates in most in-group settings, such as the dinner table and preaching in church services. In contrast, English is used for most reading and writing. English is also the medium of instruction in schools and is used in business transactions and often, out of politeness, in situations involving interactions with non-Amish. Finally, the Amish read prayers and sing in Standard German, or High German (Hoch Deitsch) at church services.
The distinctive use of three different languages serves as a powerful conveyor of Amish identity.” Although “the English language is being used in more and more situations,” Pennsylvania Dutch is “one of a handful of minority languages in the United States that is neither endangered nor supported by continual arrivals of immigrants.”
Population and distribution
Year Pop. ±% p.a.
1920 5,000 —
1928 7,000 4.3%
1936 9,000 3.19%
1944 13,000 4.7%
1952 19,000 4.86%
1960 28,000 4.97%
1968 39,000 4.23%
1976 57,000 4.86%
1984 84,000 4.97%
1992 125,000 5.09%
2000 166,000 3.61%
2008 221,000 3.64%
2010 249,000 6.15%
2012 273,700 4.84%
sources: 221,000 in 2008; 249,000 in 2010, and 273,700 in 2012
Because members usually get baptized no earlier than 18 and children are not counted in local congregation numbers, it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of Amish. Rough estimates from various studies have placed their numbers at 125,000 in 1992; 166,000 in 2000; and 221,000 in 2008. Thus, from 1992 to 2008, population growth among the Amish in North America was 84 percent (3.6 percent per year). During that time they established 184 new settlements and moved into six new states. In 2000, approximately 165,620 Old Order Amish resided in the United States, of whom 73,609 were church members. The Amish are among the fastest-growing populations in the world, with an average of seven children per family.
In 2010, a few religious bodies, including the Amish, changed the way their adherents were reported to better match the standards of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). When looking at all Amish adherents and not solely Old Order Amish, there were approximately 241,000 Amish adherents in 28 states in 2010.
The Amish are known for their simple living and plain dress.
There are Old Order communities in 27 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario; Ohio has the largest population (55,000), followed byPennsylvania (51,000) and Indiana (38,000). The largest Amish settlements are in Holmes County in central Ohio, Lancaster County in south-central Pennsylvania, and Elkhart and LaGrange counties in northeast Indiana. The largest concentration of Amish west of the Mississippi River is in Missouri, with other settlements in eastern Iowa and Southeast Minnesota.
In addition, there is a population of approximately 10,000 Old Order Amish in West Central Wisconsin. Because of rapid population growth in Amish communities, new settlements are formed to obtain sufficient farmland. Other reasons for new settlements include locating in isolated areas that support their lifestyle, moving to areas with cultures conducive to their way of life, maintaining proximity to family or other Amish groups, and sometimes to resolve church or leadership conflicts.
A small Beachy Amish congregation associated with Weavertown Amish Mennonite Church exists in the Republic of Ireland.
Farmer working his fields
The Amish largely share a German or Swiss-German ancestry. They generally use the term “Amish” only for members of their faith community, and not as an ethnic designation. Those who choose to affiliate with the church, or young children raised in Amish homes, but too young to yet be church members, are considered to be Amish. Certain Mennonite churches have a high number of people who were formerly from Amish congregations. Although more Amish immigrated to America in the 19th century than during the 18th century, most of today’s Amish descend from 18th-century immigrants. The latter tended to emphasize tradition to a greater extent, and were perhaps more likely to maintain a separate Amish identity. There are a number of Amish Mennonite church groups that had never in their history been associated with the Old Order Amish. The former Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (WOMC) was made up almost entirely of former Amish Mennonites who reunited with the Mennonite Church in Canada. Orland Gingerich’s book The Amish of Canada devotes the vast majority of its pages not to the Beachy or Old Order Amish, but to congregations in the former WOMC.
Amish populations have higher incidences of particular genetic disorders, including dwarfism (Ellis–van Creveld syndrome), and various metabolic disorders, as well as an unusual distribution of blood types. Amish represent a collection of different demes or genetically closed communities. Since almost all Amish descend from about 200 18th-century founders, genetic disorders that come out due to inbreeding exist in more isolated districts (an example of the founder effect). Some of these disorders are quite rare, or unique, and are serious enough to increase the mortality rate among Amish children. The majority of Amish accept these as “Gottes Wille” (God’s will); they reject use of preventive genetic tests prior to marriage and genetic testing of unborn children to discover genetic disorders. However, Amish are willing to participate in studies of genetic diseases. Their extensive family histories are useful to researchers investigating diseases such as Alzheimer’s,Parkinson’s, and macular degeneration.
An Amish farm near Morristown in New York State.
While the Amish are at an increased risk for a number of genetic disorders, researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James) have found their tendencies for clean living can lead to a healthier life. Overall cancer rates in the Amish population are 60 percent of the age-adjusted rate for Ohio and 56 percent of the national rate. The incidence of tobacco-related cancers in the Amish adults is 37 percent of the rate for Ohio adults, and the incidence of non-tobacco-related cancer is 72 percent. The Amish have protection against many types of cancer both through their lifestyle—there is very little tobacco or alcohol use and limited sexual partners—and through genes that may reduce their susceptibility to cancer. Dr. Judith Westman, director of human genetics at OSUCCC-James, conducted the study. The findings were reported in a recent issue of the journal Cancer Causes & Control. Even skin cancer rates are lower for Amish, despite the fact many Amish make their living working outdoors where they are exposed to sunlight and UV rays. They are typically covered and dressed to work in the sun by wearing wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves to protect their skin.
The Amish are conscious of the advantages of exogamy. A common bloodline in one community will often be absent in another, and genetic disorders can be avoided by choosing spouses from unrelated communities. For example, the founding families of the Lancaster County Amish are unrelated to the founders of the Perth County, Ontario Amish community. Because of a smaller gene pool, some groups have increased incidences of certain inheritable conditions.
The Old Order Amish do not typically carry private commercial health insurance. About two-thirds of the Amish in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County participate in Church Aid, an informal self-insurance plan for helping members with catastrophic medical expenses.
A handful of American hospitals, starting in the mid-1990s, created special outreach programs to assist the Amish. The first of these programs was instituted at the Susquehanna Health System in central Pennsylvania by James Huebert. This program has earned national media attention in the United States, and has spread to several surrounding hospitals. Treating genetic problems is the mission of Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, which has developed effective treatments for such problems as maple syrup urine disease, a previously fatal disease. The clinic is embraced by most Amish, ending the need for parents to leave the community to receive proper care for their children, an action that might result in shunning.
DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children, located in Middlefield, Ohio, has been treating special-needs children with inherited or metabolic disorders since May 2002. The DDC Clinic provides treatment, research, and educational services to Amish and non-Amish children and their families.
Although not forbidden or thought of as immoral, most Amish do not practice any form of birth control, hence their large families. They are against abortion and also find “artificial insemination, genetics, eugenics, and stem cell research” to be “inconsistent with Amish values and beliefs”.
People’s Helpers is an Amish-organized network of mental health caregivers who help families dealing with mental illness and recommend professional counselors. Suicide rates for the Amish of Lancaster County were 5.5 per 100,000 in 1980, about half that of the general population and a third the rate of the non-religious population.
Amish life in the modern world
Traditional Amish buggy
As time has passed, the Amish have felt pressures from the modern world. Issues such as taxation, education, law and its enforcement, and occasional discrimination and hostility, are areas of difficulty.
The Amish way of life in general has increasingly diverged from that of modern society. On occasion, this has resulted in sporadic discrimination and hostility from their neighbors, such as throwing of stones or other objects at Amish horse-drawn carriages on the roads.
The Amish do not usually educate their children past the eighth grade, believing that the basic knowledge offered up to that point is sufficient to prepare one for the Amish lifestyle. Almost no Amish go to high school and college. In many communities, the Amish operate their own schools, which are typically one-room schoolhouses with teachers (young unmarried women) from the Amish community. On May 19, 1972, Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller of the Old Order Amish, and Adin Yutzy of the Conservative Amish Mennonite Church, were each fined $5 for refusing to send their children, aged 14 and 15, to high school. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this, finding the benefits of universal education do not justify a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Like other citizens, Amish pay sales and property taxes. But even though their buggies, bicyclists, and pedestrians use public highways, the Amish need not pay either motor vehicle registration fees or motor fuel taxes. Under their beliefs and traditions, generally the Amish do not agree with the idea of Social Security benefits and have a religious objection to insurance. On this basis, the United States Internal Revenue Service agreed in 1961 that they did not need to pay Social Security-related taxes. In 1965, this policy was codified into law. Self-employed individuals in certain sects do not pay into, nor receive benefits from, United States Social Security. This exemption applies to members of a religious group that is conscientiously opposed to accepting benefits of any private or public insurance, provides a reasonable level of living for its dependent members and has existed continuously since December 31, 1950. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 clarified that Amish employers are not exempt, but only those Amish individuals who are self-employed.
The Old Order Amish support an unofficial publishing house known as Pathway Publishing Company in Lagrange, Indiana, and Aylmer, Ontario. Pathway publishes a number of school text books, general reading books, and periodicals.
Subgroups of Amish
Over the years, the Amish churches have divided many times over doctrinal disputes. The “Old Order” Amish, a conservative faction that withdrew from fellowship with the wider body of Amish in the 1860s, are those that have most emphasized traditional practices and beliefs. There are as many as eight different subgroups of Amish with most belonging, in ascending order of conservatism, to the Beachy Amish, New Order, Old Order, or Swartzentruber Amish sects.
Conflicts between subgroups of Amish have resulted in instances of “beard cutting” attacks on members of the Amish community. Due to the cloistered nature of Amish lifestyle, they are often reluctant to bring complaints to local police who describe the attacks as “very rare”.
Amish Convicts in Court
In September 2012, a group of 16 Amish men and women from Bergholz, Ohio, were convicted on Federal hate-crime and conspiracy charges, including Samuel Mullet Sr., who did not participate in the five hair- and beard-cutting attacks but was tried as the leader of the campaign. Samuel Mullet Sr. was sentenced to 15 years in prison on February 8, 2013. Fifteen others were given lighter sentences ranging from one year and one day to seven years.
Old Order Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites, Hutterites, and Old German Baptist Brethren are distinct from the Amish. They all emigrated from Europe, but they arrived with different German dialects, separate cultures, and diverse religious traditions. Particularly, the Hutterites live communally and are generally accepting of modern technology.
Plain Quakers are similar in manner and lifestyle, but unrelated to the Amish. Early Quakers were influenced, to some degree, by the Anabaptists. Most modern Quakers have since abandoned their traditional dress
Amish furniture first gained attention in the 1920s, when early American folk art was “discovered”, and dealers and historians placed great value upon the beauty and quality of the pieces. Many different styles of Amish furniture emerged. The Jonestown School began in the late 18th century in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. The Jonestown School is most widely known for painted blanket chests decorated with flowers on three panels. Examples of these chests are on display at both the Smithsonian Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Another distinctive style of Amish furniture is the Soap Hollow School, developed in Soap Hallow, Pennsylvania. These pieces are often brightly painted in red, gold, and black. Henry Lapp was a furniture maker based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and it is his designs that most closely resemble the furniture we think of today as Amish-made. He was one of the first to abandon the painted, Germanic-style influence in his furniture and opted for an undecorated, plain style, following more the styles of Welsh furniture making of the time. The order book he offered to his customers contained watercolor paintings of his pieces and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The record price for American folk-painted furniture was sold at Sotheby’s in 1986. It was a tall case clock made in 1801 by Johannes Spitler that sold for $203,500.
Because Amish beliefs prevent the use of electricity, many woodworking tools in Amish shops are powered by hydraulic and pneumatic power that is run on diesel generators. Most communities permit some technology, and allowances can be made in the case of woodworking, as the craft often supports multiple families within the community.
Great attention is paid to the details of the wood in the furniture-making process. Each piece of wood is hand-selected to match the specific furniture in mind. Attention is paid to the grain of the wood, both in gluing pieces together and in achieving the desired look of the finished piece. Amish furniture is also valued for its sustainability and is considered a green product. The Amish woodworkers pride themselves in their work and view their products as both a pieces of art and furnishings to be used and lived in for generations.
Amish Roll top Desk
Amish furniture is made in many different styles. The Mission and Shaker styles share a few characteristics. Mission is characterized by straight lines and exposed joinery. It is often considered to be clean and modern in design. The Shaker style is plain, yet elegant and has a very simple and basic design aimed at functionality and durability. The Queen Anne style is in direct contrast to the Mission and Shaker styles. It is considered traditional, with ornate moldings, unique foot details, and carved ornamentation. Other styles available are Southwestern, Rustic, Cottage, and Beachfront.
Amish furniture making is often a skill passed through many generations. Most Amish children rarely attend school beyond eighth grade, often to help out at home, or in the shops. Many families become known for their specific design details and niches. Some woodworkers focus only on outdoor furniture, others on pieces for the living room or bedroom. No piece of furniture is ever identical because of the care taken to select the wood. The grain is different on every piece of wood, and the craftsmen often try to highlight the features of each individual piece.
Amish slider Bed
In recent years, the Amish furniture market has expanded to include online sales. The Amish craftsmen, because of their beliefs, are prohibited from running the websites. Non-Amish retailers often attend Amish furniture expositions in Ohio and Indiana to see Amish furniture on display and meet the craftsmen behind the pieces. Relationships are often developed, and the retailer becomes the middleman between the simple life of the Amish woodworker and the modern buyer.
Furntiure makes using Hand tools
Amish furniture is now available to a wider market and to those who may not be in close proximity to an Amish woodworking shop. It is no longer necessary to visit a retail location to select the unique wood and stain combination desired; this can all be done on the Internet, and there are dozens of different wood, stain and upholstery options to choose from. The finished furniture is shipped directly from the stain shop to the consumer.