Like the holy kiss, foot washing is a symbolic communal act performed by Amish. Foot washing occurs during the twice-yearly communion service.
The authors of The Amish Way note the words of the Dordrecht Confession on the custom: footwashing is “the true washing, when we are washed through His precious blood and purified in our souls.” The authors also describe foot washing as “an act of humble service” and as “a stark reminder of the very practical and sometimes unpleasant realities of community” (see The Amish Way, pp. 73-74).
Foot washing is discussed in 1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life, an Amish publication outlining faith tenets. On foot washing the guide has this to say:
Who instituted this ordinance?
Jesus Christ. Read John 13: 1-17.
Do we read of feet washing before this event?
Yes, as a custom of hospitality in Genesis 18:4, 19:2, and several other places. As a ceremony, it is spoken of in Exodus 30: 17-21 and Exodus 40: 30-32.
What is the difference between feet washing as a custom of hospitality and as a ceremony?
As a custom of hospitality it was voluntary without command or punishment if not performed. As a ceremony it was instituted by divine authority.
Is the ceremony of feet washing commanded?
Yes. Jesus said: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14) and “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).
Does this not simply teach humility, and the duty of Christians to serve one another; such as dusting clothes and blacking shoes?
This ceremony teaches humility and Christian service in the same way that the communion teaches a memory of the suffering and death of Christ. The symbol must be kept so that the principles for which it stands may not be forgotten.
What did Christ say that makes us think this ceremony is obligatory upon all Christians?
“If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (v.8 [John 13]). “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v.14). “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (v.15). “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (v.17).
(1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life, pp. 49-51)
Don Curtis asked his son Mark, who is Amish, about the practice of footwashing. Don relates Mark’s comments below:
Well, I asked Mark about the foot washing. He said that it is the very last part of the communion service. After the taking of the emblems (bread and wine) there is zeugnis. Mark says zeugnis occurs after every Amish church. Starting with the ministers and then usually visiting Amish, the men are asked to reflect back on what has been said, to comment on it and to bring up if anything has been unscriptural.
Then, Mark says they have the foot washing. The deacon has gone out and returned with big galvanized pails like those used to feed horses. These are filled with warm water. Also a stack of towels. The ministers begin. They remove their shoes and socks. One person sits on the bench and the other kneels. The person being washed extends his foot over the pail and the other person puts their foot into the water and then raises it up and with his hands gently sloshes water over the foot. The foot is then taken out of the water and dried off with the towel. Then the same thing is repeated with the other foot. Then the two people exchange places and the washing is repeated. When both individuals have had their feet washed they stand shake hands and give the Holy Kiss and sayd “Gott segne dich.” (God bless you.)
After the ministers a number of pails are distributed a various points in the room and the members male and female begin pairing and as a pail becomes available another set of folks takes their places. It goes remarkably fast. Men wash men’s feet and women wash women’s feet. While this is going on, those waiting to have their feet washed or those who have already done it are singing one of the slow hymns out of the Ausbund that specifically focus on foot washing. Mark says there are several hymns that focus more on foot washing. Mark says that it is a very special and touching service. It really makes you feel close to the other brothers in the church. After everybody has had their feet washed, church is dismissed. Benediction has already been said.
Footwashing statue photo: Chiceaux/flickr