AMERICAN EXPERIENCE asked internationally renowned scholar Donald B. Kraybill to answer our top ten questions about the Amish. The author of several books about the Amish and other Anabaptist groups, Kraybill is a Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. For more information, their website has a list of 20 Frequently Asked Questions.
1. Are the Amish a cult?
No. As a Christian church they follow the basic tenets of Christian faith; however, they emphasize adult baptism, simplicity, community, separation from popular culture, the separation of church and state, and pacifism. Their roots reach back to the Anabaptist movement in 1525 at the time of the Protestant Reformation. In 1693, Amish people formed their own branch of Anabaptism in Switzerland and eastern France under the leadership of their founder Jakob Ammann. All Amish communities today are offshoots of this group.
2. What about photography and videography? The film shows Amish people, but also says they cannot be photographed.
Amish churches forbid individuals to pose for face-on photos for two reasons. First, they cite the second of the Bible's Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not make… any graven image, or any likeness of any thing…." (Exodous 20:14). Second, in a communal society that values humility, posing for photos is a sign of pride that calls attention to oneself and rubs against Amish beliefs about the importance of deferring and yielding to others.
In some churches, baptized members who pose for photos will be strongly reprimanded. The rules for unbaptized children are more flexible -- especially in more liberal churches. That is why numerous children appear in the film.
Apart from posing, families and churches vary in how much they will cooperate with picture taking. Of course, they cannot prevent long-distance shots; as long as members do not actually pose for the photo, the church places the moral burden on the photographer. Although some adult Amish appear in the film as they work, none of them are face-on poses.
3. The film shows a lot of diversity. Can you explain this? What are the Amish rules?
There are some 40 different subgroups of Amish. There is not a common "Amish Rule Book" of regulations that applies to all groups. Each community creates its own set of typically unwritten rules or Ordnung about dress, buggies, household décor, and technology. So the color of buggies, width of hat brims, style of dress, and use of inline skates, plush chairs and refrigerators, among dozens of other issues, varies from one community to another. All this diversity makes it risky to generalize about "the Amish," as though they were pressed from the same cultural cookie cutter.
Nonetheless, all groups use horse and buggy transportation, require plain dress for members and beards for married men, meet in homes for worship, ordain lay leaders, and live in rural areas. Amish people end formal education at the eighth grade, do not hold political office, restrict involvement with outsiders, selectively use modern technologies, and are conscientious objectors to war.
4. Do the Amish reject all modern technology? Some people have electricity and others don't. Some use tractors in the field and others horses.
Amish people selectively use technology -- choosing what will serve their community and rejecting what may harm it. Although each church makes its own decisions about technology all of them reject television, computers in their homes, and the ownership of cars. All of them permit the use of 12-volt electricity from batteries, and some permit home-generated 110-volt current for special equipment, but the vast majority reject tapping into the public grid. Solar power is popular in many communities. Most Amish use horses to pull field equipment, but a few communities permit tractors. A few groups allow cell phones, but most do not. Most communities modify technology to fit their cultural values, such as placing steel wheels on tractors, installing battery-powered turn signals on buggies, and running refrigerators with propane gas. Although car ownership is taboo, many churches allow members to hire vehicles and a non-Amish driver for long distance and business travel.
5. Do the Amish believe in using modern medicine? What happens when they get sick, give birth, or need emergency treatment?
Once again diversity rules. Without formal church regulations on health care, decisions are driven mostly by community and family tradition. Members of more change-minded communities use modern medicine -- vaccines, antibiotics, bypass surgery, hip replacements -- while those in conservative churches strongly prefer alternative medicine, traditional remedies, homeopathic and natural treatments. Some families have a regular non-Amish physician, while others do not. Some babies are born in hospitals, but the majority are delivered by Amish or non-Amish midwives (some, but not all, are licensed nurse practitioners) at home or in birthing clinics. In general, the Amish reject commercial health insurance because they believe that members of the church have a Christian duty to care for each other in every way. Some churches have informal programs to assist families with sizeable bills, others take offerings as needed, and most of them host various "benefit" auctions, meals or other projects to raise money for exorbitant medical treatment.
6. What is Rumspringa?
This Pennsylvania German word which means "running around" describes the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It begins at about age 16 when youth socialize with their friends, and it ends with marriage, which occurs on average at age 21 and 22 for women and men respectively. The vast majority of teens in Rumspringa do not leave for urban life but live at home.
Prime activities include dating, socializing with peers, testing traditional Amish boundaries (for some youth), and deciding if they will join the church or leave the community. Because most youth are not baptized during Rumspringa they are in a liminal position -- betwixt and between the authority of their parents and the rules of the church.
7. What are their courtship and marriage traditions?
Courtship typically begins around 18 years of age. About twice a month, groups of 50-150 youth gather on Sunday evenings for games (such as volleyball), a meal, and singing for several hours. These "Singings" are attended by singles and couples. A boy typically will initiate a first date by asking to take a girl home in his buggy. That relationship may falter in a few weeks or blossom into marriage. Dating couples spend evenings at the girl's home and also attend social events in the community. Individuals may date several people before selecting a spouse. Marriages are not arranged, but both partners must be baptized members before they can be married. Sexual relations before marriage are strongly discouraged, but occasionally fast-track weddings occur because of an impending pregnancy. Unmarried people of the opposite sex never live together, and divorce is forbidden.
Weddings are large, festive occasions with 300 to 400 guests. They usually are held at the home of the bride or a nearby relative's home. The ceremony follows a two to three hour church service on a weekday. Then the day turns to celebration with a bountiful noon meal, afternoon singing, a second meal in the evening, and then games and more singing.
8. What is shunning?
If Amish church members break their vows of baptism by disobeying religious leaders or church regulations and refuse to confess their error, they will face excommunication. Based on several biblical scriptures, the church shuns ex-members to remind them of their disobedience in hopes of winning them back. Shunning is practiced in different ways by various Amish groups, but it typically involves rituals of shaming such as not eating at the same table with ex-members at weddings or other public gatherings. Shunned people rarely live at home but some return for funerals, weddings or reunions involving family members. The strictness of shunning and communication between parents and adult children who leave varies from one group of Amish to another.
Wayward members are reinstated if they confess their transgression. Some congregations end the shunning if an ex-member joins a pacifist plain-dressing church such as conservative Mennonites. Unbaptized people who leave are not shunned, because they never made baptismal promises and joined the church.
9. Do the Amish pay taxes?
Yes. They pay income, property, sales, estate, and corporate taxes, and in fact many of them pay school taxes twice -- for both public and private Amish schools. Congress exempted the Amish from Social Security in 1965 because they believe that church members should care for each others' physical and material needs and not depend on what they call "government handouts." Thus, most do not pay into Social Security or receive payments from it. In some states, Amish people are also exempted from insurance for on-the-job injuries because they cover their own medical expenses.
10. How many Amish live in North America? Is their population growing?
Yes. The Amish population has doubled over the past 20 years. As of 2012 about 265,000 Amish adults and children live in North America. Over half of the population is under 18 years of age. Amish people live in some 450 settlements in 28 states and the Canadian province of Ontario (none live outside North America). Some 20 to 40 families live within the geographical boundaries of each of their nearly 2,000 congregations. Because they do not evangelize, their growth is driven by large families and low defection rates. Several dozen non-Amish people have joined the Amish faith. Prospects must be willing to learn the Pennsylvania German dialect, endorse the local congregation's beliefs and regulations, and accept baptism to become members.
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