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).
Even among the Amish there are differences in belief in practice. Some are strict adherents to the old ways, while others are a little more flexible. The stricter groups are the Old Order, including the Schwartzentruber, the group that lives in my hometown. The use of electricity, telephones, and tractors is not permitted. No musical instruments are allowed in worship, as this is seen as worldly and would stir up the emotions of those involved. Yet, in New Order households, minimal use of electricity, telephones, and tractors is permitted. New Order groups are less strict in the practice of shunning than are Old Order groups.
Even among these groups, some things remain the same. They speak their own dialect of German (sometimes referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch) at home. Worship services are two to three hours long and are held in homes every other week. Preaching and singing are in High German, which the children learn in school. Amish children attend school only through the eighth grade. In addition to High German, they study reading, writing, arithmetic, and English. They strive for peace and nonviolence in all areas of their lives. They have a strong sense of community and will come to the aid of anyone in the community who is in need.
One way they serve others in their communities is through barn or house raisings. When a family loses their barn or house through carelessness or because of lightning, within a matter of days the community will host an all-day “work frolic.” The children who are too young to help in any other way may take care of younger children, play, or make themselves available for errands.
The Amish also band together for quilt sales. In areas of the country that have large Amish communities, these sales help offset the medical expenses of the community, as they do not believe in health insurance.
Are Their Lives Contradictory?
Some non-Amish see the Amish as contradictory people. After all, they do not own or drive cars, but they will accept and even pay for rides from “Englishers.” Most don’t have telephones in their homes, but they may have them in public areas. The Amish do not see these practices as contradictory, however. They do nothing out of idleness; everything they do has a purpose. If they owned cars, they might be tempted to ride around for no purpose. Yet, if they have to call for a ride and then pay for it, they will use the time wisely. If they permitted phones in the home, valuable time might be lost by its idle use. However, if they had to go to an English neighbor’s house, their place of business, or the community “phone shack,” especially in unpleasant weather, they would have a very specific reason for their call, such as arranging for a ride or making a doctor’s appointment; they would keep the call short; and then they would go back to their work.
Some changes are necessary, whether to accommodate changes in English laws, growth in their communities, loss of farmland, or curious tourists. When such situations arise, the community takes a vote and decides how to handle the change. For example, when government regulations concerning pasteurization required electricity, some Amish began cheese-making businesses instead of selling milk. Some Amish have taken on non-farm jobs, either in industries needed by the Amish, such as blacksmithing and buggy making, in factories, or by opening businesses frequented by Englishers, such as bakeries, quilt shops, or bed and breakfast inns. Some unmarried Amish girls may work in restaurants.
Okay, time to get to work. Using the information in the article and the websites and nonfiction books listed in the sidebar as starting points, answer these questions. Feel free to do your own Internet searches or use different books if needed.
• Mapping activities
(1) Find Lancaster on a map of Pennsylvania.
(2) Trace possible routes the Amish could have taken from Europe to Pennsylvania.
(3) Begin with the states mentioned in the introduction. Do further research to find other states in which the Amish have settled. How do they choose where they will move? Locate the states on a map.
• Questions for all students
(1) Why did the Amish leave Europe?
(2) Why did they choose to settle in Pennsylvania instead of one of the other American colonies?
• Questions for younger students
(1) Read one or more of the books from the picture book list in the sidebar. Do the unit study if one is provided. What are some character traits they consider important?
(2) Why are they called the Plain People?
(3) What holidays do they observe?
• Springboards for research (middle/older students)
(1) How are ministers and bishops chosen?
(2) What is a singing?
(3) Research their clothing customs and answer these questions:
Why do they wear only solid colors?
Why do women and girls wear the distinctive head coverings?
- Why are no buttons used?
(4) Are they Christian or cult? The Amish believe in the Trinity and in salvation by grace. They believe the Holy Spirit convicts them of sin and empowers them for service to their communities and for holy living, which in their case means separation from the ways of the world. They believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. In this sense they are not a cult. But what about the way they try to dictate how their members live? Does this make them a cult? Write a persuasive essay or speech on the subject. Back up your opinion with independent research.
(5) Research shunning. Is it permanent? If not, what must happen for it to be lifted?
• For further thought/discussion (all ages)
(1) Would you want to be Amish? Why or why not?
(2) Even if you answered “no,” what are some ways you could live like the Amish?
Many Englishers, myself included, are fascinated by the Amish. Yet, very few of us are curious enough to learn more about them. Until I started the research for this article, most of what I knew came from reading the many Amish novels out there! Whether your curiosity about the Amish has been satisfied or piqued, learning about this unique people group can help us appreciate all that we have and possibly help us begin to realize where true contentment lies—not in material things, although such things are not necessarily bad, but in our walk with God.
Karen Robuck is a homeschooling mother to a third-grade son and a daughter in kindergarten. She holds degrees in English and history from Blue Mountain College, a Christian liberal arts college in Mississippi, and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition to writing and homeschooling, Karen works from home as a virtual tutor for Freedom Project Education (www.fpeusa.org), and reads, sews, and crafts when she can. She considers her homeschooling style literature-based eclectic, although she is learning about Charlotte Mason’s techniques and implements her ideas when she can.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Books About the Amish
Picture Books VS: Some of the first letters in the titles were not italicized.
Good, Merle, Amos and Susie
Good, Merle, Reuben and the Quilt
Good, Merle, Reuben and the Fire
Lewis, Beverly, Just Like Mama*
Miller, Barbara, Down Buttermilk Lane
Polacco, Patricia, Just Plain Fancy*
Yolen, Jane, Raising Yoder’s Barn*
*Unit study available at Homeschool Share (www.homeschoolshare.com)
Ammon, Richard, An Amish Christmas and An Amish Wedding and An Amish Year
Israel, Fred L, The Amish and Meet the Amish (Peoples of North America series)
Stone, Lynn M., Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Backroads series)
Williams, Jean Kinney, The Amish
Note: Booklists taken from the online catalogs of the Dixie Regional Library System,Pontotoc,MS, Union County Library,New Albany,MS, and the Lee-Itawamba Library System, Tupelo, MS. Current as of February 2012
Middle Grade Fiction
Brunstetter, Wanda,RachelYoder series
Sorenson, Virginia, Plain Girl
Young Adult Fiction
Ayres, Katherine, Family Tree
Borntrager, Mary, Ellie’s People series
Byler, Linda, Lizzie Searches for Love series
Fuller, Kathleen, Mysteries of Middlefield series
Lewis,Beverly, Summerhill Secrets series Sawyer, Kim Vogel, Katy Lambright series
Note: Booklists taken from aforementioned library catalogs and from Christian Book Distributors (www.cbd.com).
Websites About the Amish