The Amish Christian Custom of Foot Washing: What is it and why do they do it?

Like the holy kiss, foot washing is a symbolic communal act performed by Amish. Foot washing occurs during the twice-yearly communion service.

Amish FootwashingThe 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

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    6 Comments

    1. Church of God (Anderson, Indiana)

      I grew up attending the Anderson, Indiana branch of the Church of God, which is non-denominational. For more info, see the link. To my surprise, this church was very Amish in some of their early beliefs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_God_(Anderson,_Indiana) Every year on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), we had a carry-in dinner. After dinner, those who wanted to take part in foot-washing retired to a Sunday school room. It was usually a few of the older members of the congregation who participated in this ordinance.

      Footwashing started as an act of practical service in Bible times. Think of the roads back then–unimproved, dusty or muddy, filthy with animal waste. Feet bare or shod in sandals got dirty! Rather than track it all inside, people had their feet washed when they entered a dwelling, usually by servants. Would you expect the master of the house to perform such a humble act of service? No, but this is what Jesus did for his disciples when He instituted this ordinance at the Last Supper (on Maundy Thursday).

      For me, footwashing is symbolic of another Bible verse, 1 John 1:9– “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If we’ve accepted Jesus’s sacrifice of His death on the cross, we’re forgiven of all sins, past, present, and future. Daily, though, we should acknowledge our sins, because Christians, alas, aren’t perfect! We start the day with the best of intentions, but we make mistakes. How refreshing to be cleansed from all unrighteousness by this simple act of daily confession, not unlike having the filth of the day washed from our feet.

      1. Carolyn B

        Stephanie, I grew up in the same church faith. I only participated once or twice in a footwashing service because my disability makes it difficult to remove shoes & socks and to serve as a footwasher because I can’t kneel down out of my wheelchair. Good memories of my youth and young adult years.

        In the Roman Catholic Church diocese I now attend, on Maundy Thursday, the senior priest washes the feet of twelve people selected from the congregation ahead of time. While we don’t all participate, I find it a moving experience.

      2. @Stephanie
        Hi, I grew up around the conservative end of the Anderson movement (Guthrie, OK group), and foot washing was (still is, I assume, although I dont attend many meetings there anymore) practiced as an ordinance. DS Warner had some Mennonite influence before he began the COG movement.

        On a general note, footwashing as an “ordinance” was one of the issues in the Amish/Mennonite schism in the late 1600s. Jakob Ammann wanted to introduce the practice, which the Swiss Brethren had not historically practiced. Ammann assumedly picked up the idea from the Dutch Mennonites and the Dortrecht Confession of Faith. Although the strict social shunning was a bigger issue in the schism, footwashing was involved.

    2. Forest

      Foot washing is done twice a year, at the same time as Communion, in our (Conservative Mennonite) church, in a very similar manner to what you describe as for the Amish. The sisters usually go to an adjoining room to do theirs, while the men stay in the sanctuary. It is a very moving (to me) act of service, reminding me of our responsibility as part of the brotherhood, to serve one another.

    3. LeeAnn

      As Stephanie mentions, this was done by the Lord to his disciples. I have always thought that is a special thing to have done. Reading the scriptures and learning more about the service to others is a moving thing. Foot washing is the most kind type of service anyone could do.

    4. Terry Berger

      Just a few of my own thoughts

      Within the Brethren tradition we look on being baptized as the initial cleansing from sin and being united with God through the saving work of his Son, Jesus. Footwashing is second in line to baptism in that it’s spiritual maintenance. It represents the ongoing cleansing work of the life of the church in our lives, and is an outward working of that continued work in our lives. It is also a symbol of our responsibility to our neighbor and our community. I have always found it to be a very meaningful and moving service to attend.

      Terry