Yesterday I visited Shipshewana, Indiana with a friend. The Shipshewana area is home to the third largest Amish community in the United States, and it is probably the best-developed Amish community for “English” (non-Amish) tourists. There are also many people from related Christian groups, such as the Mennonites, in the area. Shipshewana is one of my favorite places to go for a day trip.
The Amish are a sect of the Christian church which originated in the Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation—the same wing that produced modern Baptist denominations. The Amish take their name from Pastor Jakob Ammann, whose dispute with his former teacher Hans Reist created a split among the German-speaking Mennonite community of the Emmental region of Switzerland (around Bern). The original split occurred in 1693, and was finalized in 1700 after a last-ditch reconciliation proposed by Ammann and his followers was rejected. The majority party, led by Reist, continued to identify themselves as Mennonites (after Menno Simons), while the minority party became known as the Amish (after Ammann). The issue disputed by the two groups was the practice of church discipline, and Ammann’s group held a very strict position on that issue. Ever since the group originally began, the Amish have been a distinct and separated people. The Amish are allowed to interact with outsiders, but anyone who has taken the oaths required to be baptized in one of their churches, and subsequently has left the Amish church or has been expelled from it, is completely “shunned.” The Amish are not permitted to have anything to do with someone who has left their church, even if this means having no social interaction with one’s own children. The Amish also dress and live in a way that shows they are distinct from those around them.
The Amish are famous for their “old-fashioned” ways. Amish homes are easy to spot as one is driving through the countryside, because there are no electrical lines running to their homes, and clothes are always hanging on clotheslines outside to dry. Traditionally the Amish did not have plumbing, either, although many now do. They do not drive cars; instead, they ride bicycles or horses and buggies. The two rules for the dress of Amish women are plainness and modesty. Amish men once sported full beards, but when beards became popular during the Victorian period in nineteenth century America, Amish men began shaving their moustaches in order to look different from those around them. The Amish are deeply suspicious of education, and do not attend college. Most Amish keep farms at home, though not all are full-time farmers. They still plow their fields with horses, rather than tractors, and they reap their harvests by hand. Some Amish make high-quality solid wood furniture for a living, some work as blacksmiths for their community, and some work in retail sales. When a new member joins an Amish community, the community will hold a “house raising,” in which they build the new member a house in a single day, and sometimes also a “barn raising,” in which they build a new barn in a single day.
Amish church practices are distinct. The Amish have no church buildings, instead holding meetings in private homes or barns on a rotating basis. Benches and other furniture needed for church services are carried on wagons to the location of the meeting. The Amish, like the very first Anabaptists, still practice a mode of baptism called affusion, which consists of pouring water out of a pitcher onto the head of the person being baptized (the candidate); some other Anabaptist-related groups began to practice immersion after becoming convinced that the Bible teaches immersion as the true mode of baptism, while the Reformed and Lutheran wings of Protestantism simply continued the Roman Catholic practice of sprinkling a few drops of water on the head of the one being baptized. Amish church meetings are conducted in High German. At home, the Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German with some English influence. The Amish learn English in school and from their non-Amish (“English”) neighbors. When one visits Amish country, one is taking a step back in time to the days of the Protestant Reformation. One is seeing Anabaptists, much as they were more than three hundred years ago.
The Amish, like many other early Anabaptists, are pacifists, meaning that they are opposed to all warfare and violence to other human beings for any reason, generally including self-defense and litigation (with the exception of “shunning,” as noted above). The Amish do not spank or scold young children, they let their teenagers “sow their wild oats,” and they are even opposed to proselytizing. They have, nevertheless, been violently persecuted throughout their history, and their communities have been forced to migrate many times. Today, most of the Amish live in the United States, especially in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states of the northern Midwest. The last surviving European Amishman died in the 1930s.
The Amish are being forced to make more and more compromises with the modern world, but they still hold on to their traditional ways as much as possible. Some Amish, for example, will use a computer and a cell phone for work, but they will not have electricity or a telephone at home.
The Amish are opposed to wealth, and you will not see any Amish mansions. On the other hand, the Amish are intelligent, frugal, hardworking people who never take or need government financial assistance. If someone in the community needs help, the other members of the community will provide the necessary assistance.
The tourist crowd in Shipshewana is different from the crowd at most places where people gather, since Shipshewana does not have a bar, a casino, a movie theater, a sports stadium, or other such things. Shipshewana is a place for people who enjoy quiet, clean, meaningful activities. It is also a place for those who want to step back in time, to get away from the busyness and hubbub of modern society. Most shops close around supper time, since that is when the Amish ride their buggies home for the evening. Most people and businesses in the area are openly Christian, and are friendly to conservative evangelical Christians. One of my favorite places to visit in Shipshewana is called Menno-Hof, which is like a museum where the Amish and Mennonite communities have told their history in their own words. I also like to visit E & S Sales, the local cash-only discount grocery store where many of the Amish and Mennonite neighbors work and shop.
Of course, Shipshewana is not a nice place to visit for people who are ex-Amish, even if they are part of a Mennonite or a Baptist church. Ex-Amish will be recognized and shunned by the community. In my next post, I will examine some of the theological problems with the Amish form of Christianity, while also recognizing commendable aspects of the Amish.