A precise number of Old Order Amish groups is difficult to pinpoint
There is much diversity in Old Order Amish society. Old Order Amish themselves are distinct from Mennonite churches, as well as Beachy Amish churches, groups that typically accept higher levels of technology, Sunday School, and adhere less strictly to certain tenets of the Dordrecht Confession.
The question of how many Old Order Amish (those that drive the horse-and-buggy, speak Pennsylvania German, dress Plain, and adhere to the Dordrecht Confession) groups there are remains a difficult one to answer, for a number of reasons.
Amish church organization
Amish organize themselves into affiliations, meaning groups of churches that hold similar standards and that dien together, also known as being in fellowship, a relationship which means that churches will exchange ministers for preaching, permit marriages across church districts, and cooperate in other ways.
The various affiliations existent today are a result of an at-times painful history of division. While common beliefs in principles such as non-resistance and adult baptism (outlined in the seminal document the Dordrecht Confession) unite the Amish, at times Amish have disagreed over the proper manifestation of a Christian faith in other arenas.
Amish adhere to rules known as the Ordnung. Submission to the Ordnung, which outlines everything from style of dress to permissible technologies, is seen as a demonstration of an individual’s humility, submission, and desire for unity with a brotherhood of like-minded believers.
Straying from the Ordnung, for example by acquiring forbidden technology or altering one’s dress, may seem an inconsequential act, but one which Amish see as symbolic of rejecting core values of submission and humility.
Thus, seemingly arbitrary differences such as one’s approach to technology, dress, or more serious issues such as interpretation of the doctrine of social shunning have resulted in division among churches in the past, and a wide range of manifestations of Old Order Amish Christianity today.
For example, the Andy Weaver Amish are a group that separated from the larger Old Order Amish body in Holmes County, Ohio, in the 1950’s. The primary issue was disagreement over the application of social shunning–with the individuals and churches which eventually formed the Andy Weaver affiliation opting for a more strict interpretation of shunning.
It is difficult to estimate a precise number of affiliations, as terms of fellowship can change, and Amish which seemingly are similar to one another in practice may not fellowship with one another.
The Amish community at Big Valley in Pennsylvania is home to three distinct affiliations, each easily distinguished by the color of the buggy—The Renno Amish with black-topped buggies, the Byler Amish with yellow tops, and the Nebraska Amish with white tops. But even within the Nebraska Amish there exist divisions, with four or five different groups among the Nebraska people.
The Amish settlement at Holmes County, Ohio has been estimated to contain eleven distinct affiliations. Some are quite alike, such as three branches of Swartzentruber Amish, all of whom claim to be the true representation of the Swartzentruber Amish (and overall Amish, for that matter). Between others there exists quite a gap, such as that between any of the Swartzentruber affiliations, and the Old Order or New Order affiliations, both of which are much more progressive in terms of technology accepted and even in worldview.
Amish groups which fellowship may differ in key ways
Some Amish may be in fellowship with one another, but seem unalike in key ways. For example, the Andy Weaver Amish of Holmes County, an affiliation considered more conservative in terms of technology than the mainstream Old Order group, is in fellowship with the Amish of Lancaster County, but not with the Old Orders in their own community.
Ohio Andy Weaver Amish and Lancaster Amish share a similar interpretation of social shunning (both believe in a strict application of shunning), but differ in buggy color (black for Andy Weaver, gray-topped for Lancaster) and more importantly, approach to technology (Lancaster Amish accept a significantly higher degree of technology). So even with fellowshipping groups, it is possible to notice obvious differences in cultural practice.
Additionally, Amish groups may fall out of fellowship with one another over issues such as acceptance of technology in one group, or changing attitudes to the application of shunning. Thus, a given church’s fellowship status can change.
Amish organize themselves into church districts, each with its own leadership, and the ability to formulate its own Ordnung. While the Ordnungs of districts may be quite similar or even identical to one another, even within the same community—or affiliation—specifics of Ordnung may vary.
For example, the 130-plus Amish church districts of the Elkhart-Lagrange settlement in northern Indiana are all in fellowship with one another, even though significant differences in Ordnung with regards to technology exist between individual churches. Amish in some districts, for example, permit gas engine lawnmowers, while those in others only allow push-style mowers.
So, how many flavors of Amish are there after all?
Thus, the question of “how many different kinds of Amish are there” is a difficult one to answer. All Amish under the Old Order umbrella (encompassing Amish manifestations from the highly conservative Swartzentruber and Nebraska Amish groups to the progressive New Order Amish) share common beliefs in non-resistance, the practice of footwashing, adult baptism, and others.
Answering this question would take examining the different Amish affiliations, and even down to the level of individual church districts. And due to the changing nature of Amish society, the answer to this question is one likely to change.
2015 UPDATE: It turns out that since this article was originally published, someone did the work to determine the number of Amish affiliations. The authors of The Amish (2012) published data from their study of this topic which showed a total of over 40 Amish affiliations in existence, from the largest (the Lancaster County affiliation, spread over three dozen-plus communities) down to the smallest, the two-church, single-settlement Kokomo, Indiana affiliation. You can read more about affiliations and their study here.
For further information, see:
“Who Are the Real Amish?: Rethinking Diversity and Identity among a Separate People”, Steven M. Nolt, Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2008
An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community, Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell
“Plotting Social Change Across Four Affiliations”, Donald B. Kraybill, The Amish Struggle with Modernity
Amish Online Encyclopedia: How are Amish communities organized?