There are more than 367,000 Amish people living in America. And while the largest majority do call Pennsylvania and Ohio home, there are Amish communities in 32 of the 50 United States.
Think of the Amish and an Amish community. Do you picture women wearing dresses and kapps, men in dark-colored pants with suspenders and wide-brimmed hats, all piled into a shiny, black buggy being pulled by a chocolate-colored horse? You may even be able to almost hear the clippity-clop of the horse’s hooves.
That’s what the Amish, to us English — the community’s term for outsiders — look like at first glance. I started to dig deeper into the community in Shipshewana, Indiana, and what it holds near and dear. What I learned was eye-opening, at the very least. My experience changed how I see Amish folk and gave me a new respect for them and their culture.
Amish is not a religion, but a way of life.
While they follow the rules of their church closely each day, it’s the lifestyle they lead that makes them Amish. They follow a set of rules known as the Ordnung, based on how they interpret biblical teachings. With modesty in the forefront, they wear plain clothing and shoes, scribbler hats for men, or prayer kapps for women, and are forbidden from driving cars. Additionally, depending on each church district’s leaders, they may or may not be allowed to ride bicycles. Their mantra is to live in the world but not be of it.
They follow the basic unifying tenets of the Christian faith, so they’re Christians. What they practice, weekly in church and daily, follows traditional Anabaptist (literally translating to “re-baptizers”) theology. Coming from Europe two centuries ago to escape religious persecution, their specific religious tenets have been practiced for more than 500 years.
In breaking from the Catholic Church, they’ve chosen adult baptism instead of baptizing babies. They also view communion quite differently, not as a sacred ritual, but a shared meal of remembrance of Jesus Christ’s death. The Amish also separated themselves from other Anabaptist Christians such as the Mennonites in the 1600s, as they felt the latter were becoming too “worldly.”
Though not highly educated, the Amish are far from unintelligent.
The Amish attend their own schools but only go through eighth grade instead of graduating in 12th grade like most Americans. Their schooling focuses on the basics like math, literacy, and writing, but includes Amish history, values, and vocational training.
While we may know more about worldly culture, today’s trends and advanced mathematics compliments of more years in school and college educations, and they’re more prepared for life after school. When did you last need trigonometry or memorization of James Joyce to function in society?
The Amish are not rude, but reserved and modest.
As a gal who loves to say “hello” to strangers out of habit, I did the same with Amish men and women and always received a hello and a smile back. Simplicity and modesty are a big part of the community, but that doesn’t make them backward. Instead, that reservedness can be thought of more as a mild personality with plenty of humility.
The Amish are polyglots.
I had the pleasure of talking to Seth Jones, owner of The Carriage House in Indiana, and, boy, did I have questions. I knew ahead of time that Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of high German, growing up, but they learn English at school. Most of the service is spoken and sung in traditional German in church. So I asked him if he could understand the German he was hearing and singing. His answer was a simple one, “Yes.” Amish know and understand three languages by the time they’re adults.
Young adults aren’t forced into being Amish
Rumspringa, or in German “jumping and hopping around,” is an Amish rite of passage adolescents go through when they turn 16. During that time, they can do non-Amish things, such as owning a cellphone and browsing the Internet. Again, I asked Seth Jones about the custom, and he told me that Rumspringa occurs until marriage and baptism.
While Amish adolescents may enjoy Rumspringa for several years, between 80% and 90% confess their faith through baptism and return to the church. Those who decide the non-Amish life is for them are free to leave the community and are not shunned because they haven’t been baptized.
They celebrate major holidays as we do.
I asked about celebrating holidays and, yes, the Amish do enjoy them. They celebrate Christmas by singing and lighting candles, decorating their homes, and enjoying large, calorie-packed meals and gift-giving. On Easter, they celebrate Good Friday by praying, reading scripture, fasting, and even coloring Easter eggs. What about Independence Day? They partake like we do by watching fireworks, parades, and picnics.
The Amish seek peace.
The Amish are opposed to war and fighting, and they vie for peace. It’s palpable in the community. Even driving along the backroads in Shipshewana and its neighboring towns, I couldn’t help but notice a lack of noise (apart from farm animals) and stress. Instead, walking down a few unpaved roads was a pleasure, and I felt safer there than I would in a big city by myself.
While the Amish and the English may look like opposites on the outside, my deeper dive into their world allowed me to learn so much about myself, what I hold dear, and if I could live without it. Personally, it would take a massive amount of strength and willpower to give up everything and live a simpler life. That’s something I’ll always respect in the Amish community.