What Does It Mean To Be Amish?

One night I was visiting an Amish friend of mine. We were talking about the different impressions people have about the Amish, who they are and how they live. Many books, usually written by people who are not Amish, try to portray the way of life, and the meaning behind it. And so I asked the elder gentleman who I knew so well to answer a not so simple question --- "What does it mean to be Amish?"

He reacted, as any of us might, when asked to summarize our lifestyle or beliefs in a few words, without much time to think about it. How would you respond if asked, "What does it mean to be an American" or "What does it mean to be a Presbyterian?" or "What does it mean to be Jewish?"

My friend sighed, pondered, started, stopped. I finally said to simply say the first thing that popped into his head. The first thought that came to him was "security." As we explored this word, it was apparent that it was not meant in the sense of safety. He described it as close-knit brotherhood and support. This is manifested in many ways, from the older people being cared for and valued by the younger, to the frequent visiting of others, to the family’s eating meals together daily, not to mention church services in homes and the most famous example of community caring, the barn-raising.

Now that he had gotten started, several more ideas came to mind. He spoke of the slower pace of life, and a more relaxed way of living. He noted that one’s attitude toward work is important. Although the Amish may work harder (physically) than other people, they still have a slower pace of life. But, he mused, as fewer Amish go into farming, how will the development of shops and small businesses affect Amish culture? These non-agricultural "micro-enterprises" are now studied as economic "models," to be copied by non-Amish in other rural areas. But some Amish wonder if such home businesses will succeed among the non-Amish if the work ethic is not there to start with.

My friend wonders what the impact of fewer farmers and more "Amish businessmen" will be, especially if people become "too well off?" Perhaps prosperity is the biggest threat to the continuance of the Amish way of life.

Another part of what it means to be Amish is the importance of a good heritage and faith. This includes the heritage of the martyrs and others, some of whom were tortured or killed because of their convictions. Struggles between church and state have continued into contemporary times. My friend’s statement that "I think I have the right faith," did not mean that other faiths were not valid. It was more an expression of his own inner peace, assurance, and belief in the Amish way.

Our talk now turned to lifestyle, and the plain way of dress. He noted Amish clothing was more standardized and economical. "I don’t need to give much thought on what I’m going to wear each morning. Some people say that if the heart is right, it doesn’t matter how you dress. But if the heart is right, shouldn’t you dress accordingly?"

And this raised the question of more simple home furnishings... no television, radio, etc. It’s not so much electricity that is the problem, as what it brings with it. He told me a story he had read in an Amish magazine, FAMILY LIFE, about an Amishman who asked a group of non-Amish how many of them owned a TV.

All the hands went up. He then asked, "How many people think it might be better not to have a TV?" All the hands went up. Finally he asked the group, "When you get home today, how many of you will get rid of your TV?" No hands went up. "That’s what it means to be Amish!"

 

Amish Country News Publisher's Message by Brad Igou (1999)

 

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