by Marcus Yoder
Doyle Yoder photo
The Amish are often perceived of as “frozen in time,” a modern-day embodiment of the Little House on the Prairie story where Pa and Ma run their small family in isolation, struggling with nature in a strange and foreign world, a subculture that is insulated and isolated from any connections to modernity. Many visitors to Amish Country discover, when they really become acquainted with an Amish person or family, that the Amish are very much in touch with the realities of our world today.
Misconceptions about anyone are furthered when we do not understand their culture, history and place in the modern world. The Amish care deeply that people outside their world work at understanding them. Their wonderful furniture and crafts, good food, and beautiful houses and farmsteads are important and valuable contributions to our world. But they have an even greater contribution to offer for those willing to hear and understand their story.
The misconceptions about the Amish are primarily perpetuated by two “voices” that one must understand to understand the Amish. The first such voice is the modern media’s attempts at sensationalism in their portrayal of the Amish. From Amish romance novels (there are some good ones) to reality shows, these people are often portrayed in ways that do not reflect their present world and beliefs.
Amish life and culture is susceptible to this for two primary reasons: First, they do not engage with modern media or have access to much of the modern media, and therefore corrections to their portrayal are often post production. Second, sensationalism sells ratings. Any subculture within a larger culture, because they are “different,” is susceptible to these kinds of misconceptions.
The second factor or voice is the way the Amish make decisions as a subculture. Their teaching that humility and piety are the most important personal traits to foster and that individuals should bow to the group voice is much opposed to the individualism and independence that is prominent in the western world. Most Amish feel deeply that yielding to the collective memories, beliefs and ideals of the community is where strength is found. Discernment about how to live in the present world is found in the community.
Their goal is not some form of technological “purity,” rather it is the preservation of what is most important in community: faith and family. In an increasingly secularized western world, this mind-set will set them apart as different.
The Amish trace their spiritual heritage back to the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s, a small group of dissidents who felt that leaders such as Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland did not go far enough in separating the church and state. Up to this time the government and the church were seen as inseparable. These dissidents agreed with many of the basic premises of the Protestant reforms, like justification by grace through faith, but thought that further reform was warranted in the separation of church and state.
The spark became the baptism of infants. In that world all infants were baptized and by virtue became members of the church and citizens of the state. The dissidents felt that only Christians who could voluntarily and freely choose the way of Christ should be baptized and part of the church.
In 1525 a small group of them met and re-baptized each other. They became known in German as wieder-tauffers or re-baptizers. The authorities soon termed them Anabaptists, which uses the Greek suffix, Ana, to denote their position on adult and voluntary baptism.
The Anabaptists refused to join the state church and were viewed as a great danger to not only the religious structure of Europe, but also the social structure as they preached their gospel of grace and equality for anyone who was willing to follow the way of Christ.
In the next 100 years the Anabaptists were persecuted, and it is thought that about 10,000 were martyred for their belief that Jesus led the way into a life of separation, humility and love. Today the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites trace their heritage back to these brave dissidents of another world.
The Anabaptists faced periodic purges as leaders, and dynasties rose and fell in Northern Europe. By the late 1600s many lived in the Rhine Valley in Southern Germany, where they experienced relative freedoms, farmed lands and lived in small villages. A young leader, Jacob Amman, arose among the Anabaptists who called for a renewal of that commitment to a more separate way of living. He soon led the more conservative-minded element within the Anabaptists into a separation from the larger group. Because he was the spokesperson for the group, his followers became known as Ammanischeleut or Amman-minded people. This was later shortened to Ammanisch and even later into the more modern Amish.
Historically a central tenet in the beginning of Anabaptism and the Amish within that movement has been a desire to live lives that reflect their spiritual values of humility and discipleship to the way of Christ. They hold to basic Christian tenets yet choose to live those values out in way that is different than other Christian groups. They are not often condemning of other Christian groups but wish for the same respect to be offered to themselves.
To understand this long history of being willing to live differently is to understand the Amish way. In light of a more complete understanding of history, we must argue that these unique people have embraced an orthodox understanding of Christianity and what it means to follow Christ in discipleship. They have made choices that honor their history and heritage without worshiping the past. They are modern people with a desire to live well and make a positive impact on their world.
Today there are about 45,000 Amish people in the greater Holmes County, Ohio community and over 330,000 in the world. None remain in Europe, but they have settled in over 500 settlements in 31 states and two Canadian provinces.
If you wish to learn more about the Amish or their place in history, plan a visit to the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The center offers guided tours of “Behalt,” a 10-foot-by-265-foot cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means “to keep” or “remember.”
The Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located near Berlin at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg. Call 330-893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour. Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching and writing. He is the executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his 30s he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from the Ohio State University and an MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife Norita and their puppy, Theo.