Who is Amish?
In America, there are several non-Amish groups who share the same basic Anabaptist religious beliefs regarding pacifism and adult baptism, and who follow the teachings of Jesus in how they practice their faith. But they apply their faith to their everyday lives in different ways that often manifest themselves through clothing, use of technology, education, and other various subtle details. Some of those cultural distinctions are highlighted below by Don Kraybill, author and professor at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
Who Is Amish?
The American Experience documentary The Amish portrays Old Order Amish people and communities in North America. They are a distinctive Christian subculture that traces its roots to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Scholars define the Old Order Amish by two distinctive features: 1) the use of horse-and-buggy transportation, and 2) the use of Pennsylvania German dialect in church services and daily conversation. There are some 40 different subgroups of Old Order Amish. All the subgroups adhere to the 18 articles of Christian faith found in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, written in 1632. Because theological authority rests within each of the approximately 1,925 local congregations, the different subgroups and congregations vary in how they apply the principles of their faith to daily life — especially as it relates to dress styles, technology, and the amount of interaction with the outside world.
Despite variations between the many subgroups, the vast majority of Old Order Amish communities terminate formal education at the eighth grade, meet in homes for religious services, wear distinctive plain clothing, and reject television, online access, and public utility electricity. Despite these distinctive practices a lot of people confuse the Amish with other somewhat similar groups who are not, in fact, Amish at all.
Religious Cousins of the Amish
Mennonites are not Amish, though many people with an untrained eye confuse traditional Mennonites with Amish. The Amish and the Mennonites both trace their roots to the Anabaptist Movement in Europe that began in 1525 shortly after the Protestant Reformation. Sharing the same religious heritage, Mennonites and Amish later separated into two branches in 1693. Members of both groups came to North America in the 18th century and often settled near each other in separate communities.
Today, in the 21st century, the North American Mennonite population of some 800,000 people has dozens of subgroups. Mennonites are roughly divided into two types: traditional plain-dressing Mennonites and those who have assimilated somewhat into mainstream culture. Assimilated Mennonites pursue higher education, live in urban areas, engage in professions, use up-to-date technology, and wear contemporary dress.
There are two types of traditional Mennonites: those who use horse and buggy transportation and those who drive cars. The horse-and-buggy driving Mennonites, who also speak Pennsylvania German, are often confused with the Amish. Unlike the Amish, Mennonite men do not wear beards. The fabrics worn by traditional Mennonite women typically have patterns and designs, in contrast to the plain fabrics of Amish women.
Traditional Mennonites of all types live mostly in rural areas, hold church services in meetinghouses, wear plain dress, rarely enter college, and use electricity, but they often place restrictions on television and internet access.
Beachy Amish and Amish Mennonites
The Beachy Amish and the Amish Mennonites are not Amish. These two groups have many members from an Amish background whose ancestors left the Amish in the 20th century to form these more "progressive" groups. Some ex-Amish continue to join these groups, among others. Despite their name, however, these churches lie outside the Amish orbit because they do not use horse-and-buggy transportation or speak Pennsylvania German. Members of some of these churches wear contemporary dress, pursue higher education, and permit technologies that are prohibited by Old Order Amish communities.
Old German Baptist Brethren and Old Order River Brethren
Three other non-Amish groups are easily confused with the Amish because they wear distinctive plain dress: Old German Baptist Brethren, Old Order River Brethren, and Hutterites. The two Brethren groups trace their roots to the Schwarzenau (Germany) Brethren Movement of 1708 — a synthesis of radical Pietism and Anabaptism. Members of these two Brethren groups are often misidentified as Amish because their plain clothing closely resembles Amish dress and Brethren men also grow beards, but both groups drive cars, use electricity, and permit higher education and use of the Internet.
The Hutterites branched off from the Anabaptist movement in 1528 in Europe. Their distinguishing characteristic, both then and now, is economic communalism and rejection of private property based on practices of the early Christian church in the Bible. Some 50,000 Hutterites live in 500 rural communes in the Dakotas and the Canadian Prairie Provinces. They follow traditional religious practices, wear distinctive dress, and speak an Austrian dialect. Unlike the Amish, however, they use the most advanced farm technology and motor vehicles, all of which are communally owned.
Four other groups are sometimes associated with the Amish: the Quakers, the Amana Colonies, the Moravians, and the Shakers. None of these four groups have any direct religious or cultural connections with the Amish. Several of these groups, at least in their past, have had some beliefs and practices — pacifism, plain dress, simplicity of lifestyle, separation from the larger society — which resemble Amish ways and have led to understandable confusion.
For Further Reading:
Janzen, Rod and Max Stanton. The Hutterites in North America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Kraybill, Donald B. Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Kraybill, Donald B., and Carl F. Bowman. On the Backroad to Heaven. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Kraybill, Donald B., and James P. Hurd. Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats of Humility in a Postmodern World. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
Scott, Steve. An Introduction to Old Order and Conservative Mennonite Groups. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1996.