An Amish buggy waits outside a house while two children play in the snowFilmed over the course of a year, The Amish answers many questions Americans have about this insular religious community. Their intense faith and strict adherence to 300-year-old traditions have by turn captivated and repelled, awed and irritated, inspired and confused America for more than a century. An extraordinarily intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life, the film questions why and how the Amish, an insistently separatist and communal culture, have thrived within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth. It asks what our fascination with the Amish says about deep American values. And The Amish looks at what the future holds for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past.

With unprecedented access to the Amish built on patience and hard-won trust, the film is the first to deeply penetrate and explore this profoundly attention-averse group. "In our 23 years, with almost 300 films completed, this was the most difficult that we've ever made," said Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

An offshoot of Anabaptist Christians, the Amish Church began more than 300 years ago in Europe. Anabaptists believed that one should join the church out of free will and be baptized -- not as an infant -- but as an adult. Adult baptism, however, was a capital offense at the time and thousands died as martyrs.

"That has really stayed in the DNA of Amish culture and Amish history," says Donald B. Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture and other books on the Amish. "It's not unlike slavery for African Americans. It's not unlike the Holocaust for Jews. So there's this sense of being a separated people, of being a minority people, of being cautious about what the outside world might do to you again."

The first large group of Amish settled in Pennsylvania in the 1730s. While the greatest concentration of Amish can be found in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, they have since settled in 28 states as well as Canada. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the Amish flourished in the U.S., and much like their neighbors, the Pennsylvania Dutch, also known as the Pennsylvania Germans, lived on farms and traveled by horse and buggy.

But the Industrial Revolution brought the rise of the machine; rural people began to leave home and the farm to pursue factory work. Self-achievement and rugged individualism triumphed over cooperation and the needs of the community. America marveled at new technology and heralded the telephone as a miraculous invention – but not the Amish. If you could talk to your neighbor on the phone, why would you visit them? While everyone else embraced the future, the Amish held fast to life as it had been.

It was not until the 1920s that Amish determination to remain apart from the rest of America provoked conflict with the state. New laws that extended the age for compulsory school attendance provoked outright rejection from many Amish. Schooling, they argued, was important as long as it was practical and applicable to life on the farm. Reading, writing and arithmetic were necessary but everything else was deemed superfluous. Amish parents worried that more education would make their children too individualistic, lose their values and want to move away. In the 1950s, they began to keep their children home after eighth grade. Court appearances and jail terms quickly followed for hundreds of recalcitrant Amish.

In 1972, after two decades of prosecution by courts in various states, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of Amish parents to terminate the formal education of their children after the eighth grade. The verdict came at a time when more and more Americans romanticized the one-room schoolhouse and public sentiment had swung to support the parents. The Amish and Old Order Mennonites are the only groups in America that have achieved such an exemption. The Amish have fought other legal battles in order to retain their way of life. In northern New York State, ultra-conservative Amish are currently resisting building codes that require the installation of smoke detectors; to these Amish, relying on manmade technology is not putting your faith in God. "If, heaven forbid, a fire comes, sweeps through the house and something terrible happens, the child will be in a better place, the people will be in a better place, they'll be with God," says Karen Johnson-Weiner, author of Train Up a Child: Old Order and Mennonite Schools. "Theirs is not an intellectual faith; it's a lived faith in a very real way. Everything they do is guided by their Ordnung, by their beliefs. In a way, they're always in church."

On October 2, 2006, a 32-year-old milk truck driver named Charles Roberts IV entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot 10 young girls, killing five, before committing suicide as police officers stormed the school. Just hours after the shooting, Amish community members visited the gunman’s family to offer forgiveness. The senseless brutality of the shootings at Nickel Mines horrified the nation and the victims' startling response left many questioning and haunted.

While the Amish have been praised for their ability to forgive, they will only forgive their own members of transgressions if they confess them. The unrepentant face excommunication and shunning -- rites of shaming such being excluded from communal meals. A long-standing practice in some Anabaptist churches, shunning is still practiced today and requires the Amish to turn their backs on their own children if they leave the church after being baptized. Those who repent of their transgressions can be restored to full membership.

In the course of the film, a number of Amish teens talk about the special rite of passage known as Rumspringa. For the first time in their lives, 16-year-olds are allowed to leave their families and hang out with their friends on the weekend. Betwixt and between parental and church authority, previously plainly dressed look-alike teens begin to explore their identity within the tribe. Some teens leave for the wider world but the overwhelming majority choose to remain, the bonds of family having been knit into their bones.

Today, there is tremendous pressure on the Amish culture as the outside world continues to encroach on their communities. And they have to find new ways to live with that outside world -- or go elsewhere to escape it. Fifty years ago, a large percentage of Amish relied on farming for a living. Today, most Amish support themselves by working in Amish-owned small businesses or non-Amish shops and factories. Others have left their homes to pursue wide-open spaces -- and cheaper land -- out West.

One Amish worker in an RV factory in northern Indiana wonders what effect working in an 'English' factory will have on his community's future. "We're just doing things that we didn't do 25-30 years ago," he says. "And when that happens, you tend to panic a little bit. You have to wonder: Where are we going? What’s this going to lead to? Is this what we really want?"

Will the Amish continue to survive despite the pressures they face today?

"I don't know," says one Amish man. "I just don't go there. We're just pilgrims and foreigners, just passing through. This life is just a speck in the sand, compared to eternity."

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  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations