A Church with a Future

Will the Amish take over the USA?


L a d u s h k i n -- The Amish, a subdivision of the South German and Swiss Mennonite churches dating back to 1693, know something about forgiveness. Their fame reached as far as China after an attack on a primary school in Nickel Mines/Pennsylvania in October 2006 when an assassin killed five girls and seriously injured five others before shooting himself. Immediately afterwards, the Amish themselves comforted the bitterly weeping father of the killer, invited the widow to the funerals and collected money for her and the children. The Amish were concerned for the welfare of all concerned. The film about this in 2010 was entitled "Amish Grace"; a Chinese version received major acclaim.


I myself am of Amish descent. About 20 years ago, the daughter of an Amish cousin went off the rails by becoming a drug addict. Later she managed to free herself; today she is an Amish wife and mother. Once a person has taken leave, he or she can still expect reinstatement if they repent.


Speaking of drugs: The Amish should by no means be confused with a small group of the "Old Colony" involved in the drug business in Mexico. The Old Colony comes from the branch of North German and Dutch Mennonites which found its way to North America via Ukraine and Russia. Their dialect and surnames do not coincide with those of the Amish; neither do the two groups know much about each other. (Of course, the Amish also have black sheep.)


This brings us to the matter of ethnicity. Ben Goossen of Harvard University points out that in 1942 the Mennonites of Eastern Ukraine were particularly valued by the invading Nazis precisely because of their impeccable German origins. Ethnicity is nevertheless also a glue that holds families and communities together. Completely independent of the quality of sermons and the liveliness of its music, members can remain committed to a single congregation throughout their entire lives. One often remains a member through thick-and-thin. But ethnicity can outlast the spiritual - see Mexico.


"Strong fences make good neighbours" is a phrase sometimes attributed to the Amish. There is truth in it. Like a religious order, one is either inside or outside; the transition is not fluid. Costume and culture are an indispensable foundation of the fence; the fence offers protection while clearly distinguishing between “within” and “without”.


The Amish are clan- and family-oriented. If I come across a mid-Western Amish gentleman in California, Florida or anywhere in between, he will usually know some of my kin. Their newspaper, the “Budget”, which is distributed throughout the country, reports on who has visited whom, who has married or died, and who is currently in hospital. This creates identity: You know who you are and where you belong. In the vast USA, it happens repeatedly that an Amish family needs to get by without Social Security. Then, for example, a collection is made during a church service in Indiana for a sick person in Kansas.


A binding community cannot do without a strong sense of obedience. One is subject to the decisions of the bishops; they decide on the colour and cut of the horse-drawn carriage and whether one is allowed to work the fields with a tractor. (For young men, fast tractors with rubber tyres are the fitting substitute for a car.) Not submitting to the bishops' decrees is interpreted as disobedience, and disobedience is a sign of vanity. Years ago I overheard a "secular" person ask an Amish woman if a certain relative had remained in the Amish church. Answer: "She remained faithful to her parents' heritage." So, yes.


It is probably a remnant of the European state church scene that an Amish couple is not allowed to choose between various local Amish congregations. An area is divided into fixed church regions; you need to attend the congregation in whose catchment area you live. If one cannot come to terms with the decisions of the bishops in that area, the only way out is to move away. My grandfather, also a William Yoder, lived on five farms spanning four states between 1937 and 1957. Though he had eleven children, he did not die in poverty.


The Amish resort of Pinecraft in sunny Sarasota/Florida is essentially one-of-a-kind. This is a church region with floating “canonical” jurisdictions – no one bishop is constantly responsible. This leads to a kind of "special economic zone" allowing electricity in houses and tricycles with electric motors out front. This adds to the attractiveness of the place: new freedoms without needing to depart from the fold. I sometimes call it the "Amish Las Vegas" – without the usual vices. An aunt in Indiana speaks derisively of a special breed of the barely-Amish: the “Florida Amish”.


These tricycles are perfectly suited as an environmentally-friendly substitute for the automobile. The Amish are the ones who guide their theologically barely-defendable electric tricycles across Sarasota's massive, scorching and asphalted car parks. The world is a sphere and the Amish have fallen so far behind that they are now suddenly out in front. They do not write "ecology" on their foreheads, but they are green nonetheless.


Despite all obedience to the bishops, there are also non-hierarchical traits among the Amish - a kind of priesthood-of-all-believers. The clergy are chosen by lot. One cannot apply for such an office - that would be egoistic. This essentially prevents the emergence of elitist clans. Increasing income disparity is gnawing away at this egalitarianism; they now have millionaire businessmen. They also own very expensive farmland. But even the millionaire is subject to the bishop, and the bishop cannot be bought.


Because of their industriousness and frugality, the Amish can no longer be called poor. At an auction among my relatives, we academics with our measly salaries were constantly being outbid by our Amish cousins.


Yet manual labour remains an honourable affair. The only real work that counts is the physical one. This is expected of everyone, even if they are millionaires. Due to the lack of arable land, only a minority of the Amish still earn a living from farming: Caravan building, furniture making, blacksmithing and boiler making are substitutes. Carriage building, bicycle repair and wood processing (sawmill work) also abound. They are enthusiastic about acquiring new manual skills. But none of them need a vocational school or apprenticeship: They obtain what they need from the bottom up at home.


The roles of husband and wife remain fixed. The woman needs to take care of the house and hearth. The man is solely responsible for bringing home the necessary small change. The old and the weak are cared for at home. Here one can see the unavoidable trade-off within closed communities: Personal freedom of choice - individualism - is exchanged for security. Both cannot be had simultaneously.


The best things in life are free - the Amish still understand something about the great, eternal values. I have Amish relatives with an interest in people and social issues which dwarfs that of the vast majority of US-Americans. They are not distracted by the usual electronic clutter; the mobile phone is often only available at work. There are now computers with limited functions specially screwed together for the Amish workplace. Their children still know something about creative play with basic elements.


The Amish are said to have a great future before them. Around 1900, there were only 6.000 Amish in the entire U.S.; currently, their number is 330.000. With six to nine children per family and a drop-out rate of only 20%, their numbers double every 21-22 years. According to an article on the “Daily Caller” website on 31 July 2019, the Amish will at these growth rates surpass the current US population (335 million) within 215 years (the year 2234). In the next centuries, the world will apparently be able to reckon with a much more humane US foreign policy!


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, 30 November 2022


A journalistic release for which only the author is responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #22-14, 1.309 words.


The German version of this article appeared on 16 February 2021 and was composed for the „Verein 500 Jahre Täuferbewegung 2025 e.V“ based in Frankfurt/Main. This English version is intended for the same organisation.