Amish groups and divisions

by Luke Wayne

The Amish are not one cohesive movement. While there are cultural and religious elements that define the Amish as a whole and distinguish them from the outside world, within that framework there are diverse affiliations, divisions, sects, and movements that make up the broader Amish community, and this diversity has greatly increased in just the last century. As scholars explain:

"At the opening of the twentieth century, there were 42 geographically distinct Amish settlements in North America, representing 3 or 4 affiliations - groups defined by shared views and practices. By 2012, the number of settlements had swelled to 493, and the number of affiliations had multiplied to more than 40. If the smaller subgroups within some affiliations are counted, the number of identifiable cohorts rises above 65, not including the more than 130 fairly independent congregations that lack a firm relationship to a wider affiliation. Although a multitude of Amish identities have cropped up over the twentieth century, members of the 2,000 church districts still broadly recognize one another as Amish."1

In many cases, the differences between these groups often rest in finer points of Amish practice, and to an outsider may not be noticeable at all, or may be detected only in a minor detail such as the style of a woman's bonnet or the use of canvas versus hard tops on their horse-drawn carts. For this reason, it would not be feasible nor helpful to break down every single Amish group and exactly what divides them. It can be useful, however, to at least know a few of the major divisions and the issues involved in them to better understand the Amish world and the varieties therein.

  • Old Order Amish - This is a general term for the conservative Amish mainstream and thus applies to a large number of different Amish groups. Old Order Amish forbid the ownership of motor vehicles, the use of home electricity, and utilize some form of traditional Amish dress. They reject assurance of salvation, practice foot washing as a church ordinance, take communion twice a year, and practice strict non-resistance, forbidding all use of violent force. While affirming the need for the grace of Jesus Christ, Old Order Amish generally also believe that baptism and obedience to the rules and standards of one's church community are necessary for salvation.2
  • Swartzentruber Amish - These are generally considered to be the ultra-conservative Amish. The Swartzentruber broke from the Old Order groups primarily over the matter of strict and universal application of Shunning all who leave the Amish. Many Old Order Amish are willing to restore their personal relationships with someone who leaves the Amish if they join a like-minded Anabaptist faith community, such as a conservative Mennonite church, and remain committed there. The founders of the Swartzentruber rejected this, insisting that the person must return in strict submission to their Amish community or they are to be completely cut off.3 This standard essentially claims that to leave the Amish is to lose one's hope of salvation and that once one has been baptized Amish one cannot be faithful to Christ in any other church, not even one with similar beliefs and practices. The Swartzentruber Amish are also generally more restrictive than other Amish groups regarding technology and clothing.4
  • New Order Amish - The New Order Amish are generally considered more "liberal" or "progressive" than most other Amish groups because of their greater allowance of technology. Some New Order Amish even allow their members to use electricity in their homes. The New Order Amish, however, still practice traditional plain dress and rely on horse and buggy transportation.5 In respect to ethics, the New Order Amish are actually often stricter than the Old (particularly in the area of sexual purity among their youth and restrictions on drunkenness and tobacco use). The split with the Old Order Amish happened, in part, because accusations that the New Order possessed a "holier than thou" attitude in their emphasis on moral purity.6 The New Order Amish were influenced by contact with evangelicalism7 and instituted "progressive" religious programs like Sunday schools, Bible studies, and youth activities.8 These ethical and religious innovations are the primary cause of the division.
  • The "Reformist" Amish - This movement does not represent a separate Amish group, but rather clusters of Amish congregations scattered throughout the various mainstream Old Order groups. The reformists are defined by actively promoting moral reforms (many similar to those of the New Order Amish) while avoiding any religious/doctrinal challenges or technological reforms that would likely result in a break with their larger Old Order affiliations.9 In this way, the Reformists somewhat resemble the moral reform movements in medieval Catholicism that recognized the corruption, laxity, and hypocrisy in the professing Christian culture and attempted to call people back to holiness, but did so while being careful not to challenge any of the actual doctrines coming out of Rome. Reformist Amish simply want the Amish to live more strictly moral lives while remaining committed to the teaching and practice of whatever Amish sect they are already in. Reformist Amish are unlikely to even recognize themselves as being part of a "reformist" movement, as to them that would sound schismatic.
  • Beachy Amish Mennonite - Perhaps the most distinct faction within the Amish continuum, the Beachy Amish Mennonite allow motor vehicles, electricity in homes, and use English in their services. They still practice plain dress and forbid television and radio, though some allow limited use of the internet. They define themselves as evangelical in orientation and participate in global missionary work and evangelistic outreach.10 They are a loosely affiliated network and vary in both doctrine and practice from one congregation to the next, but they are the Amish group most likely to uphold the true biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
  • 1. Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (John Hopkins University Press, 2013) 138
  • 2. Joe Keim, "Amish: Our Friends, But Are They Believers?" (Mission to Amish People, 2016)
  • 3. Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 148
  • 4. ibid, 148
  • 5. ibid, 149
  • 6. ibid, 149
  • 7. ibid, 148
  • 8. ibid, 149
  • 9. ibid, 140-141
  • 10. (Accessed 9/27/16)