We’ve been in northern Indiana Amish country for a couple of months. We’ve loved the exposure to simplicity, hard work, beautiful farms, and access to fresh & affordable food. We’ve carefully passed countless horses and buggies. We’ve marveled at overhearing Pennsylvania Dutch, observing their simple dress, hair coverings, and quality handiwork. Perhaps our RV life’s requirement to use laundromats increases my perceived beauty of the colorful Amish laundry hanging on clothes lines. We’ve also sensed cultural vibes too: a strong family focus, a sense of duty, and a pretty clear distrust of outsiders.
When we “roadschooled” through Amish country in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, we participated in an Amish farm tour. As a family, we also watched the “American Experience” PBS documentary, “The Amish: Shunned” (link to documentary found here). Recently, while in Indiana we visited the “Menno-Hof – A Mennonite & Amish Visitor Center.” It was an amazing educational experience. We educate to better understand and to better respect our fellow man.
The Anabaptist movement began in Switzerland in 1525. They sought to restore the church to its purity of early days and the true mission of Christ. They believed the church had been corrupted by state control which demanded infant baptism. In consequence to the Anabaptist's call to separate church & state, they were violently persecuted by Catholic & Protestant authorities, who considered the Anabaptists heretics.
Anabaptists scattered throughout Europe due to persecution and in defiance to mandatory military enlistment. Due to persecution and the need for employment, Mennonite congregations began responding to William Penn’s invitation to settle in colonial Pennsylvania. In the early 1800’s another wave of Mennonite immigrants settled farther west in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Geographical dispersion, fragmentation, and variation in practice divided the Anabaptists into three main groups: the Hutterites, the Mennonites, and the Amish.
The Hutterites are the oldest of the 3 groups. They are named after their early leader, Jacob Hutter. From their beginnings they have practiced communal living and common ownership of property. These practices are unique to the Hutterites. Today, Hutterites are located in the U.S., Canada, and Japan.
The Mennonites are the largest body of Anabaptists. Their name also comes from an early leader, Menno Simons, a Dutch priest and influential leader. The Mennonites are world-wide with a membership of 1,250,000. As a result of frequently being required to give up possessions in order to retain individual freedoms, Mennonites learned to live simply. The simple theme in church buildings, dress, and music is to serve as a reminder of their history as a persecuted people. Some, not all, Mennonite branches have retained the “plain” lifestyle into modern times.
The Amish, led by Jacob Ammann, split from the Mennonites in 1693. Jacob Ammann and his Swiss followers believed that fellow Mennonites were losing spiritual discipline and becoming too worldly. The Amish, more traditionally, resist modern conveniences. Currently, most of the 200,000 Amish in the United States and Canada are located in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
I took the following pictures in the Menno-Hof Visitor Center. The concept & history of shunning, introduced by Jacob Ammann, is fascinating. If you don’t want to read the plaques, my take away comes from the last paragraph of the information, “The Amish still practice shunning to maintain discipline. Differing views on the severity of shunning has led to numerous splits among the Amish communities.”
Jacob Ammann was an influential leader. So much so that an entire fragment of Mennonites attributed their community name to him. He instituted stricter simplicity and shunning. Shunning which has its lasting effects in the Amish culture today and yet little is known about his life? Why are humans so predisposed to following other fallible human beings?
Religion is one way human societies have adapted to live in large, cooperative groups. Community is evident among the Mennonites. Religion is also associated with rituals as a means of outward demonstration of values and unites the people that ascribe to those rituals - clearly manifested in Amish communities. I respect all of this. But my personal opinion is that while religion brings people together, it causes intense division too. For example, the Mennonites have a commitment to love and peace, but on the flip side they practice shunning which destroys family relationships. I can’t reconcile shaming of ex-members to remind them of their “disobedience” as a loving practice.
There seems to be a tendency within religious groups to distrust outsiders. This distrust has caused and causes much of the world’s violence and contention.
I have a personal belief that everyone is my superior in one or, more likely, many ways. I will continue to find good in others. I will aspire to more charity, more community, and simple living – just like my Amish brothers & sisters. I love the following poem:
The Amish Life
The Amish live a simple life, As when our nation began, They shun the modern way we live, Which is all a part of their plan.
A simple home and garden patch, A horse and buggy for travel, No freeway covered in pavement, Just a lane-way covered in gravel.
We often speak of the good-old-days, When life was simple and free, While they are living the way it was, The way they want it to be.
While we are caught up in 'modern life', They are working the land, While we are fighting for what we get, They live as friends, hand-in-hand.
At times I envy the Amish way, (Though I love my comforts in life), They live in a world of bygone years, And we in a world of strife.
Some day I will visit the Amish, And learn of their faith and their ways, But because I am part of the modern world, I'll come just to visit, not stay.