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The Amish Case

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The Amish are a Protestant group of about 200,000 members, the ancestors of whom were European Anabaptists who left for America more than 200 years ago in an attempt to escape persecution. A major difference between them and most other Protestant groups is their attitude to salvation. “…they would consider it arrogant or prideful to claim certainty of salvation’ according to Susan Rensberger (2003). Their founder was one Joseph Amman, a 17th century Anabaptist. He was a Swiss, but moved to Alsace where he became a spokesman for the Anabaptists in that area. They are peaceful people generally who prefer to live as their ancestors did rather than embrace modern life because they believe that the faith they hold and their life style are inseparable.

Anabaptists were so called originally because they rebaptised believers who had already been baptized as infants, often in the Catholic church before the Reformation in the16th century.  The movement at that time had few trained theologians. Their ideas were spread through the use of secret printing presses. In the early 1530’s they took over the German town of Munster. This led to an influx of persecuted people into the town which began to operate both polygonism and communism, both of which they felt could be justified by scripture according to Hans Hillderbrand (1980). They were persecuted because their ideas were seen as a threat to established religious institutions. Eventually the prince bishop broke their siege in 1535. They were not one coherant unit, but a loose collection of groups with similar beliefs. The Anabaptists  by their rejection of infant baptism gave the authorities  a legal precedent to persecute and even execute them under 5th century Roman law against the Donatists

( Yoder and Kreider, 1977) The Amish split from Mennonite Swiss Brethren in 1692 over the treatment of members who had been found guilty by that church of breaches of doctrine. Annan had suggested that congregations meet together twice a year, but Swiss Mennonites only took communion once a year, a practice they believed to be Biblical.  The Swiss practiced excommunication, but Annan wanted them to do this and also practice feet washing, which they refused to do. Because of this Annan excommunicated them. Later he tried to make up with them, but it was too late as their differences had become irreconcilable according to Yoder and Krieder, 1977. The first Amish settlers arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1730s,  that state already being a draw for those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Today there are Amish in some 22 American states and a small number in Canada. Most Amish are farmers, taking seriously their role as stewards of God’s earth. During the 1870’s more liberal groups migrated to America and, according to Rosemary Goring, 1992, the Old Order Amish, founded in the mid 18th century, still maintain their founder’s strict rules regarding their dress, customs and non-co-operation with the state around them.

They do not use cars or electricity for instance though machines that run on gasoline are sometimes used. They do not undertake military service, but  serve instead in civilian public service. Nor will accept any form of  financial state help.The Amish are divied into geographical groups ,each of which is independent working under its own set of rules  known as Ordnung. These rules are unwritten but well known. They are said to ‘give physical expression to biblical teaching and virtues’ according to Stephen Nolt. Their sacred text is the Bible which they interpret literally. Most still speak a German dialect, though they do learn English in school.The Amish try to be as separate as possible , yet it is this separateness that is their biggest form of income in the form of tourism. Also their furniture, food and quilts are a major commercial force.They still however hold to their beliefs and their churches are growing.

The tourists are on the whole sympathetic and this helps to ensure  that the government  does not intervene where it is not wanted. Deciding where to draw the line of separation is a struggle for these communities , just as it was in the 17th century, but they carry on where many would fail, upheld by faith.That is not to say that there have not been differences of opinion. Some have wanted to build churches rather than just have house meetings.Some see salvation as universal, while others see it as limited. There have also been different ideas about hell. There have been those who want to conduct baptisms in moving water(‘Stream’ baptism)  as opposed to doing it at home, and those who want to let their children receive education beyond the elemental school. The U.S. Supreme court in 1972 ruled that they could choose to have only this minimal education. Mes Hoorman writes about the current status of the Amish movement:

   In America, the Amish mostly hold major doctrines in common, but as the years went by, their practices differed. Today, there are a number of different groups of Amish with the majority affiliated with four orders: Swartzengruber, Old Order, Andy Weaver, and New Order Amish. Old Order Amish are the most common. All the groups operate independently from each other with variations in how   they practice their religion and religion dictates how they conduct their daily   lives. The Swartzengruber Amish are the most conservative followed by the Old Order Amish. The   Andy Weaver are more progressive and the New Order Amish   are  the most progressive.

Other problems that the group have are due to the limited gene-pool. It is rare for incomers to be accepted and so some genetic problems have arisen.

So we see that despite differences and difficulties of both opinion and practice the Amish are still seen as a distinct entity, upholding their faith, and that of their forefathers, in 21st century America.

References – Works Cited


Goring, R. ( editor)  Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions,  Chambers, Edinburgh,1992

Hilldebrand,H The Age of Reformation p 185 ff , The Christian World,  Abrams, New York, 1977

Yoder,J. and Kreider,A. page 399-401 The History of Christianity, Lion Books,  Hertfordshire.1977

Electronic Sources

BBC, Religion and Ethics, Christianity, the Amish available at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/amish_1.shtml accessed 21st June 2007

Hoorman,J. “Amish & Mennonite Culture History,” available at: http://www.clark-cty-wi.org/ accessed 25nd June 2007

Hostetler, J. Amish Society 39. quoted on Religious Movements, the Amish available at  

Nolt, S. A history of the Amish 127 quoted on Religious Movements, the Amish available at http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/amish.html    accessed 22nd June 2007

Religious movements, the Amish available at

http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/amish.html accessed 22nd June 2007

Rensberger,S.Understanding the Amish quoted on http://www.religioustolerance.org/amish.htm accessed 25th June 2007

The Amish History available at

http://www.religioustolerance.org/amish.htm accessed 25th June 2007

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