Introduction to the Amish

by Luke Wayne
9/24/16

Name: Amish

Leaders and Headquarters: The Amish are highly decentralized. Each local Amish community is independently led by their own bishop and body of ministers. Many Amish communities are in voluntary fellowship with one another, and ministers from neighboring communities may occasionally preach in one another’s congregations or even be called upon to assist in settling a dispute, but there is no formal authority structure beyond each individual Amish community.

Founder: Jacob Amman

Established: Late 17th/early 18th century

Membership: As of 2016, there are just over 300,000 Amish in North America (where the vast majority of Amish live.) There are also a few smaller Amish colonies in other places in the world, though their numbers are not known.

Brief History: The Amish arose from a schism among the European Anabaptists of the late 17th century. A group of Mennonite, lead by a man named Jacob Amman, were concerned about perceived laxity in the practice of church discipline and failure to be completely faithful to tenants of their common confession of faith among the Mennonite and other Anabaptists of the region. The primary points of contention during the schism were:

  • Consistency in Church Discipline: The group led by Amman believed that there were people in the congregations publically known to be guilty of habitual and unrepentant sin and no biblical discipline was being carried out.
  • Procedure in Church Discipline: The majority of Anabaptists of the time understood Matthew 18:15-17 to require the entire congregation to affirm an excommunication. The Amman group, however, believed that the leaders of the church had the authority to pronounce such a judgment after repeated admonition.
  • Extent of Church Discipline: Jacob Amman's group advocated complete shunning and socially cutting off of the person under discipline. The other Anabaptists took a milder approach, denying them communion and participation in the life of the church but not demanding they be fully shunned in all of life.
  • Salvation of the "True-Hearted": Anabaptists were often an intensely persecuted people. There were many people who were not Anabaptists themselves but saw the Anabaptists as true, pious Christians and harbored them, provided for them, and protected them from their persecutors even though they themselves did not accept all the distinctive Anabaptist doctrines or join their fellowships. These were called the "true-hearted" among Anabaptists, and many believed that these sacrificial actions of love testified that the true-hearted were saved. Amman's group believed this was offering a false assurance to unbelievers and teaching salvation outside the gospel (though Amman seems, by extension, to have believed that only the Anabaptists had the true gospel). This idea of salvation among the true-hearted, while distinct from the questions of church discipline, is in fact related as it still involved questions of who ought to be treated and regarded as a believer in good standing.
  • Foot washing: The 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith was the common confession among most Mennonite and other Anabaptists of the day (It is, in fact, still the confession of the Amish and most Old Order Mennonite groups.) That confession identifies foot washing as an ordinance of the church alongside baptism and communion. In practice, foot washing was not strictly adhered to and was viewed as optional. The Amman group saw this as evidence of a weakening commitment to their common confession and a general backsliding among the Anabaptists.

In addition to these central aspects of the dispute, there were also secondary issues such as the frequency of communion and tertiary squabbles over matters of dress, use of meeting houses, and whether or not it is appropriate to attend weddings or funerals of family and neighbors in state churches. These issues probably would not have been nearly as divisive on their own, but they became occasions to reignite the primary controversy over who, when, and how people in the church were to be disciplined. Efforts on both sides to reconcile ultimately failed and the Amman group split from the rest and came to be known as the Amish. They later immigrated to North America in waves during renewed persecutions in Europe, and have uniquely thrived in the United States and Canada ever since.

Beliefs: There are a variety of sects within the Amish, and even within a given sect beliefs and practices can vary from community to community, so any summary of Amish belief is going to be an imperfect generalization. With that caveat clearly made, there are certain views which can be pretty much assumed to be held by virtually all Amish and other noteworthy teachings that are common among many and worth mentioning here.

  • God: All Amish are Monotheistic Trinitarians. They officially teach the historic, Christian teaching of one God eternally existent in three distinct persons. Just as with many evangelicals, it is not hard to find members of the Amish who have never really thought about this teaching and stumble when trying to explain it, but the Amish as a group have not departed from the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Jesus: The Amish believe in the historic Christian teaching that Jesus is fully God and fully man, the second person of the Trinity. They believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior. They affirm that He will one day return to judge the living and the dead
  • Scripture: The Amish affirm the Bible as the infallible word of God, through most Amish (like most Anabaptists in general) put far greater emphasis on the New Testament and especially on the synoptic gospels. Old Testament Stories are known and frequently drawn on for illustration, but passages chosen for public reading are almost always from the New Testament and Amish doctrine is generally based on simple, literal interpretations of New Testament texts. While Amish generally speak both English and a distinctive form of German known as Pennsylvania Dutch, most Amish utilize an archaic high German translation of the Bible dating back to Martin Luther, though there are a few Amish groups which use the KJV. Many Amish also accept the Apocrypha as scripture.
  • Salvation: There are some Amish communities that genuinely uphold and teach the biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and who recognize non-Amish believers in the same gospel as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Unfortunately, such are the minority. Generally speaking, the Amish view salvation as a life long process within the community. One must begin by believing in Christ, but then must also join the Amish church through baptism, live separately from the world in accordance with Amish traditions, and be obedient to one's parents, to the church authorities, and the ordinance letter of the local Amish community. Different Amish communities will emphasize different aspects of this, so there is no one simple formula for an Amish "plan of salvation," but generally speaking salvation is attained through Jesus + baptism + works + the faith community. The Amish believe that one can lose their salvation, and believe that claiming an assurance of salvation is prideful and therefore sinful.
  • Providence: Most Amish have a very high view of God's providence and see God's hand strongly at work in all things, and put great emphasis on actively submitting to God and accepting His will. This view is very prominent and central to Amish thinking.
  • Non-Resistance: Amish believe that violent force is strictly forbidden without exception. They do not believe in self-defense or even in using force to defend others. They are forbidden to serve as soldiers or police officers.
  • Shunning: The Amish practice strict church discipline and forbid any social contact between their members and Amish individuals who have been excommunicated. The precise limits to this vary from community to community and from sect to sect, but strictness of separation is emphasized by all Amish
  • Separation from the World: The Amish believe that true Christians separate themselves completely from the world and live utterly apart, even in terms of clothing and hair style. They believe Christian communities ought to be wholly separate and distinct, not only in beliefs and morals but also in outward appearance and custom.

Response: There are many things we can agree with the Amish on whole heartedly, and many other things that we may disagree with but which are not salvation issues and would not be worth dividing over. The dividing line, however, is the gospel. Most Amish are not truly trusting in Christ as sufficient to save them from their sins, and are therefore lost and in need of the true, biblical gospel. They are adding a variety of additional things to the finished work of Christ and claiming that their people must do them to be saved. This is a different gospel, and a gospel that does not save. There are exceptions. There are Amish communities that trust in Christ alone and that preach the biblical gospel, and we are thankful for them and embrace them as our brothers and sisters, but they are presently the minority. In general, the Amish are a sub-Christian offshoot of the biblical faith and are in desperate need of our prayer and for Christians to take the true gospel to them in neighborly love.

Sources:

  1. John D. Roth, "Letters of the Amish Division: A Sourcebook" (Mennonite Historical Society, 2002)
  2. Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Steven M. Nolt, "The Amish" (John Hopkins University Press, 2013)
  3. John A. Hostetler, "Amish Society: 4th Edition" (John Hopkins University Press, 1993)
  4. Joe Keim, "Amish: Our Friends, But Are They Believers?" (Mission to Amish People, 2016)
  5. William R. Estep, "The Anabaptist Story: Third Edition" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996)