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Visitors to the Amish Heartland may think of the Amish as "those people who dress funny and ride in buggies." Some people think Amish and Mennonite families live in closed communities or colonies, and rarely see the outside world. A few tourists have even mistaken Amish for costumed actors, portraying the "old days" for the amusement and education of visitors, who then go home to their televisions and computer games. There are many myths and misperceptions about the way the Amish have chosen to live.
What are the principles that form the foundation of Amish life and belief? Why have the Amish been so successful in preserving those principles for more than three centuries?
The Amish have a strong sense of commitment to God, family, church and community. Their faith is rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible and in the Ordnung, the rules of conduct handed down for generations, regularly reviewed and earnestly taken to heart. Their dedication to family guides decisions about where to live and what occupation to pursue. Divorce is extremely rare, and much, if not most, of an Amish person's life revolves around their large extended families. Beyond the family circle are the congregation and greater community. Although the Amish do not live in communes or closed communities, they do tend to live closely grouped together, for the sake of fellowship, support and more practical reasons. The businesses that provide resources for the Amish way of life, such as buggy-makers, blacksmiths and stores selling non-electric appliances, for example, need a pool of customers to draw from in order to stay in business. In a community heavily populated by Amish, such as in Holmes County, business owners can make a living, and the Amish have resources they can rely on for the products and services they need to maintain their way of life.
OBEDIENCE & SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY
An Amish person's commitment to his faith and church include the willingness to be obedient to the precepts of the Bible, the rule of the Ordnung (Pennsylvania-German term) and the decisions of those who have been chosen to lead the church community as ministers and bishops. All members feel it is their duty to rebuke anyone who appears to be straying from church standards, although such admonishment is to be undertaken with great humility and in a spirit of love. Persistent rebellion may result in a member being excommunicated, or put under the Bann (German spelling meaning shunning or social avoidance), in the hope this strict form of discipline will result in repentance and a return to church fellowship.
The Amish also respect the rule of law, and they are obedient to federal, state and local ordinances as long as such law does not require they violate their interpretation of God's commandments. They feel they are not to be influenced or controlled by the world and it's opinions, but by scriptural principles and church rules.
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
The Amish lifestyle is not just a quaint custom. The Amish religion, part of the Anabaptist movement that has its origins in 16th-century Switzerland, is based on a personal faith in God. The practices of its adherents are designed to maintain a right relationship with God, to live a life that is pleasing to Him, to set a good example to others, to grow in purity and humility and, ultimately, to attain an eternity in Heaven.
Separation from the influence of the world is an important factor in pursuing these goals. Although the Amish may not physically detach themselves from modern society, their style of dress and transportation is an outward symbol of the mental and spiritual boundaries that mark the limits of their interaction with their non-Amish neighbors.
The Amish mindset is to pursue a life that is free of non-essential "clutter." Their plain clothing is, again, an outward symbol of a life that is not taken up with possessions or the pursuit of the latest style, gadget, or entertainment. Amish parents have more time to devote to their families because they have deliberately chosen to live at a slower pace. A horse-drawn buggy does not carry them to and fro, dashing from one activity or social obligation to another. They strive not to live beyond their means, to be content with what they have and to find their greatest joy in the blessings of family, friends and work. Too many conveniences are seen as a danger, leading away from service to God and tempting them to seek earthly pleasure and idle pursuits.
Honest labor, providing for oneself and one's family, is a calling that leads to greater godliness, according to Amish doctrine. Amish parents train their children to participate in family chores from the time they are able to understand simple commands. Much of Amish social life revolves around working together in a barnraising, a quilting bee, or some other project that is best completed in a group.
The ideal occupation for an Amish father is farming, for in this work he can be at home with his family all day and bring up his children to work with him. Farming also satisfies a love of the land and being part of God's handiwork in nature. But as the size of Amish communities grow, and land becomes scarce and more expensive, many Amish have turned to other ways to make a living. Carpentry and furniture making, small home-based businesses in handworked crafts, home-grown produce or Amish-related services are popular choices.
The entire family works hard at doing daily chores, gardening and canning, laundry and housecleaning, sewing and mending, and caring for the little ones -- the list makes for many full days.
"If it was good enough for my father and grandfather, then I guess it's good enough for me."
This was the response of one Amish farmer when asked about his hand milking system.
It would be a mistake to think the Amish never change. But every new idea or form of technology is examined carefully to consider how it will affect their cherished lifestyle and purpose. With the guidance of the Ordnung, oral and written histories, and the advice of their ministers, the Amish tend to stick with "the way we've always done it," rather than rush into adopting ever-changing styles and unproven new theories.
From a few hundred brave souls who sailed to America in the late 1700s to the estimated 200,000 or more living across the United States today, the Amish have maintained their beliefs and way of life in a culture that, by turns, ridicules, respects, tolerates or admires the Plain People in their midst.
One Amish writer responded this way, quoted in Small Farm Journal (Summer, 1993):
"If you admire our faith -- strengthen yours. If you admire our sense of commitment -- deepen yours. If you admire our community spirit -- build your own. If you admire the simple life -- cut back. If you admire deep character and enduring values -- live them yourself."