other concerns like the quality of education, drugs, and violence would
certainly be added to the list. Amish schools serve to protect children
from these influences.
Amish parents are involved with what
goes on in school, and are welcome to stop in for unannounced visits.
The school is owned, operated, financed, and directed by the parents.
The Amish saw modern schools as a threat to the values the family,
church, and community try to instill in young people. Indeed, they
worried over the result when this educational function was being taken
away from them by the government. As author Kraybill noted, "The
Amish felt that high school education would separate children from their
parents, their traditions, and their values."
Four: Work & Sex Roles in the Family
One role of the traditional family was
to give prestige and status to it members. A person was "less an
individual and more a member of a family." Each member of the
family had a job, a position, a status.
Chores are fairly clearly divided by
sexual role in the Amish home. The man usually works on the farm, with
the wife helping from time to time, if needed. The wife does the
cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. Children grow up identifying with the
parent of their sex. Boys tag along behind father, and girls stay
indoors to help mother. There are, of course, many exceptions to this,
but father is to be the head of the household.
In an Amish family I knew, father nodded
his head at the beginning of a meal for silent prayer, and shuffled his
feet or cleared his throat to end the period of prayer. He was mainly in
charge of financial matters and writing checks. His wife would consult
with him before making certain purchases, perhaps asking his opinion
concerning buying a particular item. When there was disagreement, a
point was reached where she would fall silent, and the final decision
was made by the husband.
An article in the Amish monthly magazine
Family Life discussed this matter of the man as head of the home,
and the woman being subordinate to the man...
"Christ is the head of man, and
man is the head of woman. One of the greatest needs of our time is men
who will assume the responsibility which God has placed on their
shoulders. Not to accept that responsibility is to lie down on the job,
to fail God’s will."
Concerning the issue of equality of the
sexes, another writer noted that...
"It’s not a question at all of
whether or not women are as good as men. The Bible teaches very clearly
that men and women are equal. But being equal in worth does not mean
being the same in calling. Each has been assigned separate and distinct
roles by the great Creator. If marriage were to be 50-50, that would
result in two people being the head of the home. Not only is that not
Scriptural, it isn’t even workable."
Another writer, however, stresses
"Subordinate does not mean
inferior... The citizens shall be subordinate to the government, but
this does not make them inferior citizens. The lay members should be
subordinate to the leaders of the church, but this does not make
inferior people out of them. Even the most brilliant pupil should be
subordinate to his teacher, but this does not make him inferior. The
same thing applies in the home between children and their parents, and
between man and wife."
There are problem marriages, of
course. Yet most Amish women seem to accept their position, although at
times housework is boring and tiresome.
One Amish woman noted that she and her
husband were opposites. She got up bright and early, but he was slow to
arise. He had no concept of time and was forgetful, but each night she
planned what she would do the following day. Her final comments are not
uncommon ones by women writing to the editors...
"By now you’re wondering how
we can stand each other. It took a while, but one thing we have always
been able to do is talk things over, and that’s one of the
keys---communication. I remember well the time he told me, 'How would
you like to be like I am?' 'Impossible,' I answered. He then explained
that that is what I am trying to do to him, trying to make him like I
am, and he said that’s impossible, too... I began to realize we can
complement each other... It is very essential to give in to each other,
but it is not necessary to lose one’s individual identity."
In the 1970’s, when communes
appeared in many parts of the USA, some "discoveries" were
made by modern non-Amish in their attempt to return to nature and be
self-sufficient. A visitor to a farm commune in California wrote that...
"It becomes clear why, in a
community like this, sex roles are so well-defined and satisfying. When
men actually do heavy physical labor like chopping trees, baling hay,
and digging irrigation ditches, it feels very fulfilling for the women
to tend the cabin, grind wheat, put up fruit, sew or knit. With no
supermarkets and banks, there is a direct relationship between work and
survival. It is thus possible for even the most repetitious jobs such as
washing dishes or sawing wood to be spiritually rewarding."
Finally, concerning the elderly, Dr.
John Hostetler notes in his book Amish Society that there are
many advantages to growing old in Amish culture, such as prestige,
economic security, and social and family continuity. "There is
little problem with loneliness. Older people are assured of meaningful
Five: The Importance of Religion
It is should be obvious that religion is
important to the Amish, since their way of dress alone is evidence of a
different faith and way of life. The religious function of the family is
not only reinforced by prayers at meals, family devotion, etc., but
during worship itself.
As the Amish go from house to house for
church every other Sunday, their religion remains literally in
the home. The family is not split up and sent to different rooms for
Sunday School. Indeed, Sunday Schools, which separated children from
parents and made "teaching religion" more institutional, were
one of the causes behind the formation of the Old Order groups.
At an Amish church service, everyone
sits through the three hour plus service together in connecting rooms,
although men and women are separated. Small children are passed back and
forth, or walk between father and mother during the service. Worship is
a family affair in the home.
Children also see their parent’s faith
in practice (or not in practice) on a daily basis. Many Amish writings
stress the importance of the example set by parents. The Amish often
quote Proverbs in the Bible, "Train up a child in the way he should
go and when he is old he will not depart from it."
All of this is part of the integration
of the religion and family in the personal life of the individual and
the community. The ordnung or ordinances of the church, sometimes
seem unnecessarily picky to outsiders.
But as Dr. Donald Kraybill notes in his Riddle
of Amish Culture, the ordnung...
"regulates private, public, and
ceremonial life... Rather than a packet of rules to memorize, the
Ordnung is the ‘understood’ behavior by which the Amish are expected
to live... Children learn the Ordnung from birth by observing adults and
hearing parents and others talk about it. It gradually becomes the
definition of reality, ‘the way things are,’ in the child’s
The pervasiveness of religion and
ordnung is so strong that it is sometimes overlooked as the cement that
keeps Amish culture together. Some say the Amish, rather than having a
religion based on faith, have one of outmoded traditions and ideas, many
of which they cannot even explain. Others find shunning unnecessarily
harsh. Amish communities sometimes fragment over seemingly trivial
issues to the non-Amish outsider. Others see the Amish lifestyle as an
idyllic return to "basic values, " missing the religious order
behind it all.
Some have joined the Amish faith from
outside, but this attraction often comes from what they see
superficially of the Amish and their way of life. Those expecting high
theological discussions of the faith are disappointed.
Amish expert Dr. John Hostetler writes
in his book Amish Society that...
"the greatest difficulties for
those who try to join the Amish are: the hard manual labor, learning to
accept responsibility willingly, and developing the ability to
understand directions communicated in a nonverbal way. For a young man
who is a prospective convert, Amishness begins with the stable and a
pitchfork. For the young girl, it begins with the work at hand."
One discovers what it means to be Amish
by being and participating, not by theory and theological discourse. But
this simply means that the religion, lifestyle, and culture are so
intertwined that by attempting to dissect them, we destroy the concept
of the whole.
In Amish life, there is much concern
over the submission of the individual to the community and to the
Church. Indeed, Dr. Kraybill finds the answers to much the Amish do in
the word gelassenheit, which he defines as
"submission," or yielding to a higher authority. The noted
Amish expert, Dr. John Hostetler, once noted bluntly in a lecture that
among the Amish "self-pride stinks." One does not find it
uncommon to read articles by the Amish about "breaking the
will" of small children.
I observed this first-hand when I ate
with an Amish family several years ago. The one and a half-year-old boy
was being stubborn by not putting his hands under the high chair tray
during prayer before and after the meal. Of course, he was too young to
know why this was a necessary prelude to eating. Consequently, we sat
through periods of screaming fits from time to time. But through patient
and determined work by the parents at every meal, which sometimes
involved holding him and his hands down, he eventually understood that
this had to be done. This was a step in breaking the will, but through
it all love and affection were lavished on the children, even amid
concern that perhaps they were being spoiled.
What one feels in Amish society is a
sense of place, position, and belonging. While some may view aspects of
this as stifling or detrimental, others find in it a sense of
contentment and security. The Amish speak of the individual
subordinating himself to the family, the church, the group. In doing
this, however, he also receives much in return.
Six: Security & Recreation
While in government and modern society
we look to the police and military for our local and national security,
these areas are of little concern to the Amish. Indeed, the State has
been the cause of many of the problems the Amish have faced, from the
time of their persecution in Europe through the school controversies in
America in the 20th century, when some Amish men were put into jail.
The Amish are pacifists and do not serve
in the military. During times of war, they have been conscientious
objectors, and some were even beaten and abused in the C.O.
(conscientious objector) camps. The Amish cooperate with the government
as long as it does not infringe on their beliefs. However, they do not
normally sue or go to court to resolve conflicts.
In "the old days," security
for the elderly was a place in their children’s household. Indeed,
children were a kind of "old age insurance." In Amish society,
the aged are respected and cared for by the family and community, often
moving into a special addition to the house. The Amish generally do not
accept Social Security and try to avoid the use of nursing homes.
Security is found among the Amish in
being part of the family, and children in large families find security
as much with their siblings as with their parents. With several
generations often living under the same roof, there is both a sense of
continuity and participation in family life.
Security and protection also come from
the community itself, most outwardly visible in the barn-raising. But
the Lancaster Amish have created other ways to help church members in
time of need. An Amish Aid Society was formed by which members are
assessed and money collected to help rebuild after a disaster. This is a
modest system of fire and storm insurance.
In 1965, a similar Amish Liability Aid
system was established in the area, as author Donald Kraybill explains
in his Riddle of Amish Culture, to "resolve the dilemma of
providing protection against lawsuits without being ‘unequally yoked’
with commercial insurance."
National Steering Committee was
originally organized to deal with problems relating to the draft, but
"more recently, the committee has mediated legal disputes between
the government and the Amish on Social Security, hard hats, unemployment
insurance, workmen’s compensation, and other matters."
Finally, those with medical bills to pay
are helped by church alms. Again, in Lancaster, for serious problems an
Amish Church Aid was developed as an informal version of hospitalization
Another traditional family function was
to provide recreation for the child. Amish children in particular enjoy
playing many games. Rather than going away from the home to parks or
movies, children enjoy activities in the house and around the farm. With
animals and wide open spaces, the farm is an exciting, although
sometimes dangerous, playground.
Amish children I observe find games
everywhere---swinging a cow’s tail, chasing each other around the
barn, climbing in the hay, pulling wagons, and imitating their parents.
Children also get together at school and after church. Baseball is the
most popular activity in the school yard.
It is perhaps the very fact that
recreation is tied so much to the home, that some teenagers rebel before
they join the church by participating in "worldly" recreation.
This may include owning a car, drinking parties, attending movies,
playing on a (non-Amish) baseball team, or going to the shopping mall.
Many activities normally considered work
are forms of recreation for the Amish adult. Quilting bees and frolics
are an enjoyable mixture of work, socializing, and recreation. I once
attended a straw frolic, now something of a rarity in Lancaster County.
Straw was sorted and cut, later to be used for making straw hats. The
men and women sat at their respective tables, talked, joked, and at
times acted like children, stealing cushions and playing with the window
Some Amish do travel, making trips to
visit Amish in other states, but also sometimes to museums, the zoo, or
places of interest. Members of one Lancaster family like to make a visit
to the airport, simply to watch the planes taking off and landing. They
rent a bus and driver for the trip. Some Amish enjoy an occasional trip
to eat out, or a birthday party at a local restaurant.
The most popular leisure activity for
the Amish seems to be visiting. This may include everyone from relatives
and the sick to non-Amish friends. Some tourists to Lancaster ask those
of us with Amish friends what we "do" when we visit them.
Tourists are sometimes baffled with the answer that "we just sit
and talk for three hours." No TV set is turned on and no staged
activity is needed to pass the time.
As author Kraybill concludes,
"activities are anchored at home...without admission fees. Staying
home is not a dreaded experience of isolation for the Amish. It means
being immersed in the chatter, work, and play of the extended
Seven: A Final Look at the Amish Family
Traditional family values seem to have a
better chance of surviving, as they have around the world, in rural farm
settings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture examined several groups in
its 1940 Rural Life Studies. Familism, or "the integration
of the activities of individual family members for the welfare of the
group as a whole," was found to be an important dimension. Five
characteristics of familism were found in the communities studied, one
of which was the Amish of Lancaster.
The first of these characteristics was
the feeling of belonging expressed by visits between family members. The
Amish were noted for their frequent and sometimes long visits between
siblings, parents, and children. Secondly, "the integration of
individual activities for the achievement of family objectives is
manifested more clearly in farming than in any other occupation."
Thirdly, common interest in family
property, and helping and supporting individuals in need, were
especially observed among the Amish. The writer went so far as to say
that "the closest approximation to the ideal construct of familism
was in the Old Amish, where the family universally recognized its
responsibility to give relief to needy members and to provide for aging
Fourth was rallying to support a family
member in trouble. Finally, there was "concern for the perpetuation
of the family as evidenced by helping an adult offspring in beginning
and continuing an economic activity in line with family expectations,
and in setting up a new household."
In conclusion, the writers noted that
"the highest valuation of familism was among the Amish. However,
this is not typical of rural life today, but is a survival resulting
from a combination of circumstances, of the characteristic situation in
rural America a hundred years ago."
In this last statement, an important
point has been missed. The Amish have lived their peculiar way of life
for three hundred years. They have weathered persecution, the pressures
of modern life, technology, development, and tourism. They have adapted,
changed, and survived. They are and are not the same people they used to
be. But, as a booklet from the Amish publishing house Pathway states,
"our everyday life cannot be separated from our religion."
Their way of life and preservation of
traditional values, whether conscious or not, cannot be called merely a
"survival of the characteristic situation in rural America a
hundred years ago." It is rather the result of a commitment to
their religion and way of life.
In Amish society the family, school,
church, and community complement each other as an integrated whole.
These same units in modern America seem at times to be at odds with each
other, if not in the process of breaking down entirely. What children
hear at home, in church, at school, in the community, and from the media
are often wildly conflicting views of morality and success. Since even
parents often can’t come to grips with today’s most complex issues,
is it any surprise their children get confused and lost in the maze to
The Amish were seen as radicals when
their religion started. In America, they were sometimes viewed with
suspicion due to their German background and pacifism in the World Wars.
The 1950’s saw them as quaint curiosities in musicals like "Plain
For some in the 1960’s, they
represented an alternative lifestyle. Even foreigners found their ways
fascinating during the energy crisis and turmoil of the 1970’s. In
recent years, many Americans nostalgically saw in them a people who had
held onto something they had lost, and now missed. People asked,
"Have we rushed too quickly into the future without looking at what
we have left behind?"
Now there is talk of "learning from
the Amish," and involvement by outsiders in their problems with
state and local governments.