Can Amish leave and come back?

  1. Leaving the Amish: Two ways to do it
  2. Leaving before baptism
  3. Leaving after baptism
  4. How many Amish leave the church?
  5. One Amishman who returned

Twenty years ago, Melvin Mullet chose to leave his Amish upbringing behind. In an interview several years later, he offered a little insight on how he sees the group, now that he is “on the outside”.

Melvin_mullet_formerly_amish

One of the pluses of Amish life, according to Melvin, who grew up in a Michigan Amish settlement: “I miss the closeness of the community. If something happens to one Amish family, everybody is there to help. I miss that interaction of community.”

On the other hand, now that Melvin is no longer Amish, he feels his upbringing “has worked to my disadvantage because I did not receive formal schooling.”

It’s not immediately clear but it sounds like Melvin chose to leave before being baptized. In this case he would not be shunned by his community (more on that below).

In reality, do Amish parents treat the children who choose not to be baptized differently from those that do? Perhaps some do. Having a lot of children stay in the faith is generally admired in the community.

Though it came with challenges, Melvin’s story appeared to be a relatively clear-cut. But when it comes to leaving the Amish, it’s not always so straightforward. That’s because there are two specific ways people “leave the Amish”.

Leaving the Amish: How does it work?

The Amish are a strict religious group with clearly-defined rules and standards for membership. Those who choose to break or reject those rules will at some point (minus a course correction) find themselves outside of the church. Part of the fascination outsiders have for the Amish centers around this idea of leaving the Amish church.

There have been many public stories – on television and in print – of Amish-raised people who have decided to leave their communities behind, often in more dramatic fashion than Melvin Mullet‘s story (see the case of Emma Gingerich for one example).

An Amish girl walking alone down a road
Photo by Don Burke

But when an Amish person chooses to leave – is the door to return closed forever? The simple answer to that question is “no” – Amish can “leave” and come back again. But there is more to it than that. We need to look at two different cases to explain this.

Two different situations

When people talk about leaving the Amish, they are talking about one of two things:

  1. An Amish-born person “leaving” before being baptized
  2. An Amish church member choosing to break his commitment to the church after being baptized, commonly by violating the Ordnung (mutually-agreed church rules and standards)

These two cases are quite different and have to be looked at differently.

Amish leaving before baptism

This first case concerns young Amish people, who are in the period commonly known as Rumspringa. The Rumspringa (literally meaning “running around”) time of an Amish person’s life is a time of increased formal social activity. It typically begins at age 16.

The first big decision an Amish young person entering this time of life must make is which youth group to join (at least in the larger communities which have many groups). The youth groups:

  • meet weekly
  • are the main way many Amish youth socialize
  • are how they interact with potential “special friends” (Amish term for boyfriend or girlfriend)
  • and ask that potential special someone for a date

Youth groups typically involve volleyball games, supper, and singing at a church member’s home on Sunday evening.

Amish youth playing volleyball on a spring day
Amish youth commonly socialize while playing volleyball and other games. Photo by Jerry

The Amish church, the decision of whether or not to be baptized is made in early adulthood (usually ages 18 to 22). It’s true that Rumspringa is the “time when they decide”, but for most Amish young people, the answer is “yes” to baptism. This ranges from around two-thirds to up to 90% or more of Amish youth deciding to be baptized into the Amish church.

These youth will experience various pressures that nudge them towards joining – subtle or not-so-subtle indications from parents, the choices of members of their peer group to join, and the fact that marriage is only permitted in the Amish church if both members are first baptized into the Amish church.

This is balanced against pressures pushing them in the opposite direction towards “the world” – the appeal of technology, desire for a career that would require higher education, desire for a lifestyle that wouldn’t fit within Amish norms, and so on.

In the end, the young person must decide for him or herself whether or not to be baptized. But there is no official “deadline” for when that must be. Though young adulthood is when most Amish who choose the church will be baptized, for some the decision drifts into the mid or late 20s.

However, even if they opt not to be baptized, and end up choosing a different church (for the Amish, this is often a Mennonite church, or theologically similar church which allows higher technology), the door is not sealed forever.

So even if a person declines baptism into an Amish church earlier in life (in essence “leaving” an Amish life behind), they can still come back to become an Amish church member, even decades later. That noted, this is not common.

Amish leaving after baptism

When it comes to the question of whether the Amish can “leave and come back”, there is a second, more serious situation to take into account.

When an Amish person chooses to be baptized, following a period of instruction and counsel with the church ministry, he or she will make vows to uphold the Ordnung (church rules), among other commitments.

The Amish view these rules as very important. Respecting them means respecting the church and the baptismal commitment to God. The rules themselves (governing aspects of life like material technology, dress, and behavior) are not meant to be considered a means to salvation. Rather they are a means of preserving a church community which reflects what the Amish feel Christians are called to be.

When an Amish person makes promises at his or her baptism service, the promises are not made to the church, but to God, with the church body as witness. That’s one reason why the Amish take this commitment very seriously. After baptism, an Amish person is officially a member of the church.

Three Amish people traveling in an open buggy
Leaving the Amish church after baptism has greater implications for the individual. Photo by Jim Halverson

You may have heard that Amish practice excommunication (Bann) and social shunning (Meidung). This comes into play when Amish church members violate the rules of the church and refuse to change the offending behavior. Now, breaking these rules does not mean automatic excommunication.

For example, an Amish farmer might choose to buy a tractor and use that to work his fields, instead of relying on a team of draft horses like most Amish do. If he did this and, after counsel and consideration from church leadership and fellow church members, he still refused to “put away” the tractor in this case, he may be excommunicated from the church.

Usually if a person decides to leave for one reason or another, their heart has changed towards the church. There are all manner of reasons why Amish individuals might choose to exit their commitment to the church, and it’s not the place of this article or website to pass any judgement on them.

Some seek a different spiritual experience of Christianity. For others, personal issues or traumas might cause them to seek a life outside of the Amish church. And in some cases, Amish would say sins like pride or envy leads some members to cast aside their commitment in pursuit of other goals – business success or worldly pleasure, to name two.

In any case, when this happens, an Amish person who has been excommunicated will experience changed behavior from the community. Meidung or social shunning takes several forms, some symbolic, others tangible. For one, individuals in the Bann are not meant to eat at the same table as church members. Church members are also not supposed to transact business with them.

The actual experience can vary across communities. In some places, Meidung is strict, and it is lifelong, no matter what path the excommunicated person takes while outside the church. In others, it is more lenient, and may be lifted if and when the person joins a similar (usually Anabaptist-rooted) church and a certain amount of time has passed.

Regardless, the purpose of social shunning is to try to help the errant individual to change their behavior and see the error in their ways. The door is always open for the person to return, confess his or her wrongdoing, and be restored to good standing in the church. This too happens, but it’s also not a very common occurrence.

How many Amish leave the community?

For example number one – Amish who simply choose not to be baptized – this can vary. In some communities it may be as many as 30 or 40 percent of youth opting not to join the Amish. Perhaps surprisingly, these tend to be the New Order Amish churches, which are generally considered some of the more progressive (both technologically and otherwise) churches.

Meanwhile, in the most conservative churches, retention rates tend to be higher. In some of the plainest groups – for example, the Andy Weaver group, or Swartzentruber Amish – even 90% or 95% of youth choose to join.

Front porch of a traditional Amish home with a quilt in the foreground
Amish from some more conservative churches (like the Swartzentruber group) tend to keep more of their people in the church. Photo by Jim Halverson

But looking across the Amish as a whole, a good average figure is about 15% of Amish youth choosing to not be baptized.

In the second case – Amish leaving after baptism – this number is generally lower. Perhaps 5 to 10% of Amish, depending on the church group, end up leaving after having joined the church. In some churches and groups it may be even less than that.

Conclusion

In short, an Amish person who leaves – whether it’s before baptism, or having already made baptismal commitments – can always come back to the church.

In practice, as more and more time passes and individuals adapt to life outside the church – living an “English” (non-Amish) lifestyle, forming bonds with members of a new church family, creating relationships in the non-Amish world – the choice to return typically becomes harder. And knowing human nature, that should be no surprise.

Still, there are cases when Amish choose to return to their original churches later in life – even people of very advanced age.

In one case in Pennsylvania, an Amish man came back to his Old Order Amish church after decades outside of it, spent as part of a “higher” (more progressive) church. This happened shortly before he died. Amish for the most part do believe that members of other denominations can get to heaven. Nonetheless, this decision no doubt gave some comfort to members of his family.

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    4 Comments

    1. john

      leaving and returning

      A well known parable comes to mind the Parable of the Prodical Son. Where the son wanted to enjoy his life and so his father gave his inheritance and he went all of it was wasted and nothing to show for it and he ended up eating the pig food. When he had enough and humbled himself he returned home his father was so happy for his return he killed the fattened calf and gave him fine clothes to wear. His brother was not happy but his father was happy his lost son had returned..

    2. Central Virginian

      Good description and explanation of how Amish church membership is structured. Especially important for understanding are these points:

      “The rules themselves … are not meant to be considered a means to salvation, but rather a means of preserving a church community which reflects what the Amish feel Christians are called to be.
      When an Amish person makes promises at his or her baptism service, the promises are not made to the church, but to God…”

      People often don’t understand these premises and assume the Amish culture is structured akin to a dictatorship or coersive control cult, especially those who don’t have a familiarity with the Biblical paradigm from which the concepts that govern Amish society are largely drawn.

    3. Leana A Mari

      Interesting

      Yes, I wondered about this too. I am glad they leave the door open, if anything at least for the sake of familial and community love. It is neither here nor there as to if they are truly saved either way and at the end of the day all that matters is if we do have our names written in the book of life and we do honor the Bible. Thank you for sharing this!

    4. FRANK VATTELANA

      Bondage is terrible

      I feel very sorry for the Amish teens having make such a decision as to joining the Amish church. Those poor souls endure so much bondage to man- made rules that bring sorrow, worry and fear. May they find the peace that comes from Christ and knowing his truth. Having left the catholic church i can sympathize with their dilemma.