The Amish is one of the most specific and colourful cultural group that stands out against a background of American society of today. Amish are distinctive due to the peculiarities of their lifestyle, from their clothes and trade to social and religious systems.
The emergence of the Amish movement dates back to the sixteenth century, when a group of people within the Christian church in Zurich, Switzerland, opposed the reforms of Martin Luther, and split from the Mennonites in 1963. They are descendants of Anabaptists, who, led by Jacob Amman protested against the infant baptism. They stood for the adult baptism, which, to their minds, was considered meaningful and voluntary. Amish share almost the same beliefs and customs as Mennonites, differing only by clothing and way of worship.
The first Amish groups came to the North America in 1700-s and settled in Pennsylvania. Nowadays the majority of the Amish settlements are located in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Nevertheless, some minor groups of the Amish are also found in other states of America and in Canada as well.
One of the most remarkable features about Amish people is that they preserve strictly all their traditions and life mode. Amish live according to the Ordnung, the set of unwritten rules and traditions accepted by all members of the community. This knowledge passes orally from generation to generation. The differences in understanding and observance of this supreme law distinguish one community from another. According to the varieties in these rules there are distinguished several churches within the Amish society - Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Andy Weaver Amish, Beachy Amish, and Swartzentruber Amish. Old Order Amish is the oldest and the most conservative community. All these churches are independent and differ from each other with their daily life and traditions.
Amish separate themselves from the outer world in order not to be tempted by the sin and the violence of our world. That’s why they live detached from the society. Amish people live according to the Bible and percept the Scripture literally. This concerns their enclosure from the outer world. For Amish people this is the way to come nearer to God. This is also the reason why they choose rural landscapes as their home place and have chosen agricultural way of subsistence. Amish do not have a church, in a meaning of separate building; the church is believed to be all the people of the community. They also do not have any religious studies. The obligatory laws of the Amish people are written in the Ordnung: they must wear a beard, but without moustaches; use a horse-drawn vehicle instead of automobiles; women must wear a prayer cap; the home prayers are also obligatory; computers and television are forbidden. The most conservative Old Order Amish groups also reject most of the utilities of the modern society, including electricity, telephone, and engines for the field work, only equipment pulled by horses or mules. The ideas that unite all the Amish churches are self-restraint, submission to God’s will, and calm, peaceful life. All these primary values are put into the word Gelassenheit. The essence of this notion is in the verse that Amish children learn at school: “I must be a Christian child, Gentle, patient, meek, and mild, Must be honest, simple, true, I must cheerfully obey, Giving up my will and way.” (Nolt) Pride is seen as the evil peculiar to the outer world from which they have separated themselves. Community welfare and tranquillity is the above good, opposed to the personal profit. Out of the exclusion of the pride from their life follows the simplicity of life to which Amish stick very strictly. This implies simplicity in clothing, simplicity in house design, in education and religious services. Such things as make up, jewelry, and any signs of luxury life are strictly forbidden, as those, leading to pride. Worshiping plays very important role in religious service of the Amish. Every Sunday the members of the community gather together in some special place to pray together. They do not use any aids during the pray – no crosses, flowers, organs or other usual church objects. They do not need them. They sing traditional German songs that date back to the sixteen-seventeen centuries without any musical score. They also have silent pray before every meal. Every autumn and every spring the Community gatherings are held as the main traditional religious ceremonies. During these meetings those who want can confess in the sins and all the members of the community confirm their fidelity to the Ordnung.
The second important value after God in Amish society is the family. They lead family-centred way of life and honour the century-long traditions of their community. From seven to ten children families are typical for the Amish society. Divorces are forbidden as well as the intermarriages – only within the community. Father is considered to be the head of the family. Gender roles in the family are strictly divided even among the children. The men usually work at the farm, and the women do all the household duties. Teachers at the Amish schools are also women. All leader roles in the society belong to the men, but women have a right to vote during the community or church meetings and can take part in the social life of community. The man is not only social and spiritual authority in the family. He is also a protector and support of the family, so the husband can help his wife with some house duties, as well as wife can help her husband. But still, husband plays leading role in social, religious and political life.
Family is the basic social unit in the Amish community, but the supreme social unit is the church, which performs main social and religious functions in the community. Every church comprises averagely 25-35 families. The geographic size of the district where community lives varies according to the density of population. The church district comprises church, club and families. The main spiritual leaders of the church are: bishop, preachers and a deacon. Bishop has the supreme spiritual power. He leads the main ceremonies – weddings, funerals, baptism. All church districts are connected by means of the meetings of community leaders. The feature typical for the Amish society is that they are mostly tied to their communities, families and homes. All important events, such as weddings, funerals or giving birth to the child are mostly taken at home. Amish women are rarely known to give birth at the hospitals. Most of the things they use in everyday life, including food, clothes and other stock are home-made. They also very rarely travel, even to meet relatives from the other communities. The interaction of the Amish community with the government is made by means of the national committee. There are no other formal institutions in the Amish communities except schools and libraries. The Amish society is marked by the social equality concerning status, income and education, because every person share almost the same position in the society, and the family members have the same occupations.
Having no formal organizations or institutions Amish society does not know unemployment. Due to the manual labour which they use everywhere, there are always hands needed. Historically Amish are tied to the soil, and their primary occupation is farming. Some New Order Amish communities have departed from this traditional Amish occupation due to the industrialization and urbanization. Cottage industry is the new form of activity that has entered Amish life not long ago, but still had not forced out the primary and the most important one-farming. Nowadays many Amish people own small shops were they sell different goods, furniture, clothing and even food. Some Amish adults work as plumbers or carpenters. Usually all these types of activities are centered on the community and directed at the satisfaction of the community’s needs. Nevertheless, some craft-shops serve as the way of Amish interaction with the tourists. The development of cottage industry have changed Amish way of life as it brings additional income to the families and favors the contact with the outer world.
As it was mentioned before, Amish avoid outside world and all possible interactions with it, including politics. Amish people live in accordance with the laws of God, and they won’t obey the laws of man if they run counter to their principles and beliefs. They do not accept any form of violence; any political or public activity is also forbidden. Nevertheless voting is not prohibited, and is purely personal matter. All civil or any other matters are solved within the community. Though they do not interact with the governmental matters, they do pay taxes - federal and state income taxes, sales taxes, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes; but they do not pay Social Security tax. They do not accept any federal or governmental help as it is believed that the church must take care of the people and it is the duty of the church to help people. The official authority that interacts with the government on any official or legal matters on behalf of the Amish is the National Amish Steering Committee, formed in 1967.
The avoidance of the external world by the Amish people concerns all spheres of their life except issues concerning health. Higher education is forbidden in the Amish communities, so there are no professionals among them, and accordingly no doctors. Though they believe that God is the above healer, they use medical services. Also Amish tend to use folk remedies, such as special herbs, vitamins, homeopathic remedies and other. Amish community is of a closed type, that is why cases of interrelated marriages are quite common, for instance marriages between second cousins. Due to this fact, cases of genetic disorders are common in the Amish community, such as dwarfism, deafness and other types of congenital problems. But, nevertheless, Amish society proves to be much healthier than the others. Because of their lifestyle they are more protected from different forms of cancer and some catchy diseases. Though immunization is not popular among the Amish children, some families prefer to immunize their children in order to avoid the outbreaks of different diseases. Amish are one of the most fast-growing populations in the world, because they reject any forms of birth-control. Because of the religiousness of the Amish community, they take all sufferings and illnesses humbly, as the will of God.
The Amish society is very closed and detached from the outer world with the help of many means: marriages within the community, speaking the dialect and absence of television or other ways of interaction with the world. But still, the world penetrates into their ordered lifestyle little by little. Many New Order Amish communities selectively accept some utilities of the world - usage of the tractors at the barns, usage of lanterns and gas appliances. Farming has stepped back a little in some areas against the background of small family enterprises and manufactory shops. All of this speaks that faint social changes penetrate into the conservative Amish society and probably will have some influence on its further development.
In spite of all their conservatism, Amish tolerate and allow their teenagers many things, giving them opportunity to try everything they want, including alcohol, dating, usage of the computer. All this is made in order to let the young finally make their mind, before baptism. Amish believe that baptism must be free-willed and conscious act, and they give the young a chance to make sure on their own experience that way of life of their community is pious and the only right one.
Amish communities attract many tourists and curious fellow-citizens because they are really distinguished in the twenty-first century society. Everything in their lifestyle, beginning with their clothes seems strange to our eyes. Nevertheless, they live and are contented with the life they have, though it seems so unusual for the most people. Very few of us can imagine life without electricity, or computer or any other utility that we are used to. Their originality and strong will that do not let them yield to the temptation, to my mind, speaks about cohesion of their community and fidelity to their principles, which many modern societies unfortunately lack.