What does “being Amish” mean?

I found myself thinking about this after reading an article about an Idaho family.

Originally running in the Lewiston Tribune under the title “Amish family in Winchester finds its way” (and elsewhere as “N. Idaho Amish family embraces modern ways”), the article contains the following description:

In many ways the Miller family is as Amish as the people they left back home in Wisconsin 10 years ago, carrying on the traditional ways.

Father Harley, 40, is a master carpenter who has constructed the sprawling, ski-lodge-style house the family now lives in. Mother JoAnna, 40, with the help of her nine children, ages 8 through 21, cooks, sews, tends a garden and the family’s large flock of goats and teaches the younger children their school work.

But in so many other ways the Miller family is helping to define a new generation of Amish people who dress in regular clothes, work outside the home, use computers, cellphones and DVDs and drive cars.

For practical purposes, when we say “Amish”, we’re talking about Old Order Amish (“Old Order” meaning horse and buggy driving Amish, including New Order, Swartzentruber, and all other such groups).

Horse Buggy AmishThere are other churches that use the word “Amish” in their official names, such as the Beachy Amish or Amish Mennonite congregations.  But if you asked an Old Order Amish person whether the Harley Miller family was Amish, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to use that term to describe them.

What if the family thinks of themselves as “Amish” though?  People who were once horse-and-buggy Amish may still self-identify as Amish.  Don’t they have a right to call themselves “Amish”?  I suppose so, but that doesn’t mean that Old Order or any other people have to acknowledge them as such.  But I do think the desire of former Amish to identify in some way as Amish is not uncommon.

On that point I found this recent comment by Saloma quite interesting:

I still retain many Amish ways. Many people tell me I do not dress “in style” which is probably true… I just don’t pay attention to the latest fashions. I mostly wear solid, bright colors and I wear what’s comfortable. I am told my home looks “Amish.” I am a decent cook and I was a professional baker for 10 years, which grew out of my Amish background. I still practice many of the homespun arts I learned from my mother. I believe my strong work ethic comes from my upbringing. I don’t buy the latest technologies to have them, but rather I think about what might simplify my life instead of complicate it. So, I’m essentially what the Amish claim you cannot be… partly Amish. They claim you are either Amish or not — there is nothing in between.

I’ve heard people who were formerly Amish describe themselves in similar terms.  Osiah Horst adds:

Saloma, you are so right about remaining “partly Amish”. The first twenty years of your life are remembered. My older brother left the OO Mennonites, went to the modern Mennonites for close to ten years and then went out altogether. He claims not to believe, but he still remembers what he was taught from the Bible. He rarely speaks the German dialect anymore, but he has not forgotten it. The work ethic he learned even though he left home at sixteen, still works. There are good things that are not forgotten.

I may be wrong, but it seems that most people who leave behind an Amish upbringing–even those with a painful history, and who may be critical of Amish practices–don’t want to fully disown their heritage.

On a basic level I imagine it would be hard to fully shed the identity and culture you were raised in (“you can take the lion out of the jungle…”).  I do wonder if there is anything specific to an Old Order upbringing that makes it stick.  Thanks again to Saloma and Osiah for sharing on this point and giving us some food for thought.

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    1. Jessica M

      I think any time you are raised in an environment that taught frugality, you tend to keep that with you. Several of my grandparents, for example, were raised during the Great Depression. To this day they still do things with that mindset, even though there is not so much economic need for it. Being Amish is about a culture as much as it is about a religion. You can leave the religion and still retain at least some of the cultural identity, much as someone from another country doesn’t completely lose all cultural identifiers in their new home. I would say though, that probably the younger you are when you leave your culture, the easier it is to adapt to the new and the less likely you are to retain the old.

    2. What Does It Mean to Be Amish?

      One night I was visiting an Amish friend of mine and I asked the elder gentleman this very question. He reacted, as any of us might, when asked to summarize our lifestyle or beliefs in a few words, without much time to think about it. My friend sighed, pondered, started, stopped. I finally said to simply say the first thing that popped into his head…
      “Security.” As we explored this word, it was apparent that it was not meant in the sense of safety. He described it as close-knit brotherhood and support. This is manifested in many ways, from the older people being cared for and valued by the younger, to the frequent visiting of others, to the family’s eating meals together daily, not to mention church services in homes and the most famous example of community caring, the barn-raising.
      Now that he had gotten started, several more ideas came to mind.
      He spoke of the slower pace of life, and a more relaxed way of living. He noted that one’s attitude toward work is important. Although the Amish may work harder (physically) than many other people, they still have a slower pace of life. But, he mused, as fewer Amish go into farming, how will the development of shops and small businesses affect Amish culture? These non-agricultural “micro-enterprises” are now studied as economic “models” (See Erik’s book).
      My friend wonders what the impact of fewer farmers and more “Amish businessmen” will be, especially if people become “too well off?” Perhaps prosperity is the biggest threat to the continuance of the Amish way of life.
      Another part of what it means to be Amish is the importance of a good heritage and faith. This includes the heritage of the martyrs and others, some of whom were tortured or killed because of their convictions. Struggles between church and state have continued into contemporary times. My friend’s statement that “I think I have the right faith,” did not mean that other faiths were not valid. It was more an expression of his own inner peace, assurance, and belief in the Amish way.
      Our talk now turned to lifestyle, and the plain way of dress. He noted Amish clothing was more standardized and economical. “I don’t need to give much thought on what I’m going to wear each morning. Some people say that if the heart is right, it doesn’t matter how you dress. But if the heart is right, shouldn’t you dress accordingly?”
      And this raised the question of more simple home furnishings… no television, radio, etc. It’s not so much electricity that is the problem, as what it brings with it.
      He told me a story, which he had read in the Amish publication FAMILY LIFE, about an Amishman who asked a group of non-Amish how many of them owned a TV. All the hands went up.
      He then asked, “How many people think it might be better not to have a TV?” All the hands went up.
      Finally he asked the group, “When you get home today, how many of you will get rid of your TV?” No hands went up. “That’s what it means to be Amish!”

      1. Other faiths

        Brad thanks for sharing this with us. I think you hit some important notes. This struck me:

        ‘My friend’s statement that “I think I have the right faith,” did not mean that other faiths were not valid. It was more an expression of his own inner peace, assurance, and belief in the Amish way.’

        I have a friend who believes in “bloom where you’re planted”. I guess there are limits to that concept but in most cases I’ve found Amish to be mostly non-judgmental to other faiths.

    3. Tom

      About 20 years ago I met an Troyer Amish family in Conewango New York and I have stayed in touch ever since. They moved several years ago to a more progressive settlement in Jasper New York. The differences in Jasper to me seemed minor, but to my friends they were major. I asked if they still thought of themselves as Troyer Amish and of course they did. There seems to be a difference in how Amish people think of themselves and how other Amish or outsiders view them.

      1. Amish identity

        Tom thanks for this good example. Some “lower” Amish may view more progressive Amish as closer to Mennonites. Recently a progressive Amish friend basically said he felt in some ways closer to non-Amish than he did to the most conservative Amish group in his area.

        There is Amish, Mennonite and non-Amish, but there are also “our church people” within the Amish.

    4. SharonR

      being Amish

      I think this is the same as any other religion or culture. We are all born in “some” type of religion and upbringing and as we age, we either follow that or we leave behind some of it. Agree with Jessica M, in the frugality part, too; To this day, I still remember my father and mother and how they “pinched pennies” and “made do”, and today I hang onto those values. My family, although none were Amish that I know of, have some strong similarities that were passed on through the generations, which I find very interesting!!
      The more I read about the Amish and Mennonites, the more I see the similarities! Amazing!

    5. Margaret

      I do believe it is hard to totally leave behind the way you were raised — we all don’t turn into our moms as we age for no reason! lol!

      My husband and I do a lot of pre-marriage counseling, and we tell the young couples that unless the Lord comes in and changes them, they will fight with each other the same way they saw their parents fight with each other, while they were growing up. (That can be a good or bad thing.)

      It is hard to walk away from what you were taught (or what you experienced) as a child. I would think the same is true of someone who was raised in an Amish household. The goal is always to take away the “good” things, and leave the “bad” or destructive things behind.

      Great article, Erik! Thanks!

      1. Thank you Margaret. Your first line made me chuckle 🙂

    6. Merry

      What does "being" anything mean?

      Call me goofy, but it seems as though many of us associate our identity with some sort of group, yes? There are people who see themselves as African-American,Italian-American, Irish-American, German-American, or (insert your ethnic or religious identity here) who have not been to their ancestral countries nor speak the language but might retain some elements of that heritage; there are Native Americans who have never lived the culture or on reservations. Consider folks who say they are Roman Catholics yet live outside many of the teachings of the Church. Are the only “real” Jews those who are Orthodox and live in Israel? Is it wrong that while we may cling to some elements of what we perceive to be our heritage. does that mean we are no longer part of the group? We are who we think we are. For those who enjoy a sense of comfort from identifying with a particular group, who is to say they are or are not of that group?

      For myself, I believe we should refrain from holding the Amish (or Mennonite) or anyone else, to a different standard than we would be held.

      1. SharonR

        Being Amish

        Well, said MERRY — I agree!

      2. I think there are real practical consequences though of drawing lines, and the Amish offer a good example of this–whether you are considered Amish by others or not determines whether you can marry someone within the community, be exempt from the draft, fully participate religiously, etc.

        I think being inclusive is a good thing to a degree, but the problem is that at some point the language we use stops to have any real meaning, and that can be a dangerous thing.

    7. Our childhood is extremely important for how you view life. It is no different if you were born Amish or not. I am not surprised that those who were born Amish and leave are still influenced by their childhood. Core values are often from our parents and if they are not they are usually the total opposite and we have rebelled against their teachings instead.

    8. Among all my Amish friends, I think one of the basic points that many of them use to define “Amish” is the car. Once a person steps into having their own private motorized vehicle, then they are no longer “Amish.” There are different kinds of “Amish” to be sure, but once you hit the level of having a car, then you are now “Beachy” or “Mennonite” or something else … but not “Amish.”
      That is just a perception I have received (and find myself using), and I am sure it is not 100% across the board.

    9. Osiah Horst

      On Being Old Order

      Some interesting thoughts and questions expressed in these postings. Brad, I can identify with your older Amish gentleman. I consider myself Old Order even though I have both the car and computer but my lifestyle, my thinking and the pattern of worship in our church are Old Order. My son, who is now a member of a Conservative Mennonite church where black vehicles are no longer required, told me he was buying a used black Suburban, not because it had to be black but because it happened to be black. Even though I know that his blue van is just as acceptable as the black Suburban, I like the idea of his black vehicle.

      Another thought I would like to share: I consider myself Old Order but i assume that most people, including horse and buggy Old Orders would not as readily think of me that way because of the car. For a lot of people and in a lot of ways, not owning vehicles seems to draw a definite line.

    10. Defining Amish

      There are two ways to define being Amish. One is cultural – low technology use, frugality, close community, a certain way of dress. Then there is the theological definition, which in my view is the more valid. I see many people living an “Amish” or near-Amish lifestyle who are not Amish (Anabaptist) in theology. The defining difference is not adult/believer’s baptism and home church, but assurance of salvation. Anabaptist theologians hold that there is no assurance of salvation except in grace, and we have no way to know the state of our own or anyone else’s grace. This aligns Anglican theology with the high church theologies of Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions. The Anabaptists also hold that the two principal sacraments, baptism and eucharist (communion or the Lord’s Supper,) are necessary to salvation. That they have retained a very basic episcopal system (bishops and presbyters/ministers) also aligns them with the traditional (pre-Reformation) churches. (Caveat: I am a seminary-trained Anglican priest with two degrees in theology.)

      1. tiffany rangier


        yes communion is necessary for strenght

      2. Michigan Mary


        In a word, Madelena, AMEN! For me, Amish is not so much about the culture but about the religion. When I think of the lifestyle/culture of the Amish, I can see that lifestyle/culture applying to millions of families around our nation: baptists, bhuddists, etc. You don’t have to be Amish to LIVE like the Amish, but you do have to be AMISH to BELIEVE like the Amish. For me this is the big diffence because nowhere in the opening article of this thread did the quoted folks talk about their faith or the belief systems they maintain – that is central to being Amish and everything stems from their beliefs, not the other way around. Someone raised Amish, that leaves the Amish, may take their cultural upbrinings with them when they leave and feel they are still Amish, but if they don’t maintain all of the tenants of their faith, they aren’t still Amish. IMHO. Mary.

    11. Alice Mary

      Join, or don't join, "the club"

      I was born, raised and schooled (for 12 years) Roman Catholic, but even when I was very young (under 10), I was questioning some of the beliefs and “rules” we were supposed to follow, in order to be a “good Catholic.” (Infant baptism was one of them I disagreed with—little did I know I was more of an Anabaptist in that regard!). By my teens, my feelings just increased, and by my 20’s (when I was getting married) I no longer considered myself Catholic, mainly because i could no longer follow those “rules” in good conscience (like the ban on all forms of birth control, for example). Yet, most of my family, including cousins, often knowingly broke the Catholic “rules”, yet no one but I actually pulled out and joined another church.

      I regard religious groups (and I’m not intending to be disrespectful of any of them, I’m just using this as an example that makes sense to me) as “country clubs”—you must “meet their requirements” (agree to follow their rules) in order to participate in their programs and be a member in good standing. If I don’t want to follow a country club’s rules, WHY would I want to join? Just for “looks”—the status it brings me? So many in my own family seem to feel that way, pretending they’re “good Catholics” when they break rule after rule, and are not sorry one bit about it. (I think they should “self-excommunicate”—it would be the honorable thing to do.)

      Yet, I do still cling to some of the traditions I was brought up with. I have an affinity for saying the rosary—it’s a soothing mantra, if nothing else, and helps me meditate. (I also admire the fact that Roman Catholicism at least pays more than “lip service” to women, holding Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, in high regard—how many other Christian denominations sanctify women?). Our early traditions (religious ones included) become a part of us, whether we like it or not. Our “outward signs” (like the sacraments) are what labels us in the eyes of anyone who observes us, no matter what WE call ourselves.

      Besides, all religions were “created” and “labeled” by human beings—we could always create (and have done so) “new” ones.

      Alice Mary

    12. Merry

      Well said Alice Mary

      Besides, all religions were “created” and “labeled” by human beings—we could always create (and have done so) “new” ones.

      Religions are created and recreated as the spirit moves individuals.

    13. C.H.

      A Different View

      My paternal grandfather was supposedly Mennonite; I never met him. As far as I know, none of his seven children became Christians.

      My father was the eldest, and through a combination of genetics, life experiences, and poor choices became mentally ill. He was a life-long hoarder to the point where it put us in danger. He also only asked two things of his children: obedience and perfection. He practiced corporal punishment and encouraged my mother to do the same.

      Now you may be wondering why I would submit this….

      Well, because I am the eldest of his children and I, “through a combination of genetics, life experiences, and poor choices became mentally ill.” (Yes, I just quoted myself!)

      I am not a Christian; in fact I do not belong or practice any religion. I have opened myself up to change through psychotherapy and have been able to make a lot of progress.

      Many of the CULTURAL aspects of the Amish and Mennonite lifestyle though, have helped me to heal my issues:

      I use a portable DVD player or my computer to watch movies instead of having a television. This reduced the brainwashing by corporate ads and the anxiety of the continuous politics, news, and scare reports.

      I live in a city with neighborhood farmer’s markets. So switching to mostly organic food has helped me lose weight and I feel good about supporting the growers.

      Almost all of my clothes are black. I use a few accessories which have color, but this has helped me reduce my closet to about twenty garments.

      Finally, I went from being a hoarder myself, to living in a space about 108 square feet with just a few belongings. I’m much happier now.

      To help me change, I kept thinking about the Amish and Mennonites. It seemed to me that most of them probably live “lightly” on this Earth. So in that regard they have been my inspiration.

    14. Tom

      We are what we eat, or at least that is what i have been told, so today i guess i am meatloaf. lol

    15. Ed

      The Pennsylvania Dutch language is probably another big identifier for the Amish. I bet there are a lot of “Amish-specific” cultural references that can only be expressed in PA dutch. I’ve heard it said by many a native tribes and peoples around the world that having and preserving their own language is a huge deal.

      Can anyone here who speaks the Dietch language elaborate on what contexts it might be especially useful in — home, church, etc? Anything you can express very easily in PA Dutch but would require elaboration in English?

      1. Yoder

        One example at home would be to say with pity, “Doo oamah drup.” This would translate “You poor drip or drop”, while the meaning is more like “you poor child.”

    16. Al in Ky.

      I read the link in this post to the article from the Lewiston
      Tribune. I think that article is somewhat misleading in helping
      people understand “what does being Amish mean”. It mentions that
      the Millers were part of the Libby, Montana Amish until about
      two and one half years ago and still maintain some contact with
      the people from Libby. However, in your article on Montana Amish
      in the Montana state guide,Erik, you mention that the Libby Amish
      community went extinct in 2004 which is eight years ago. Also,
      I do not find any listing in Raber’s 2012 Almanac for ministers from the Libby community. Was the reason for the community becoming extinct in 2004 their starting to drive cars? Do some
      of the former Amish still live at Libby and if so, what church
      group do they consider themselves part of?

      Also, the newspaper article mentioned that the Millers “have made
      connections with other like-minded folks and get together with
      them often to socialize and worship”. It made me wonder if their
      present worship group has any kind of Ordnung. I think that a large part of what “being Amish” means is that they are part of a
      local church that has an Ordnung and follows it. So much of
      American Christianity seems to focus on “going to church” an hour or so on the weekend rather “being the church” 24/7. The Amish
      seem to have a sense of “being the church” 24/7, and I think part
      of the reason for that is because they have the Ordnung and follow

      1. Libby, Montana church

        Al I think it is another case of stretching the meaning of the term “Amish”. The Libby group ceased to be considered Amish by other Amish in 2004. I don’t know the story of how it happened but the group at Libby is apparently connected with a few other Charismatic/Pentecostal churches in PA and Idaho. There is a video on Youtube here:

        Calling a family who dresses in regular clothes, uses DVDs, and drives cars “Amish” just stretches the meaning of the term, as it is commonly used, too far. Why don’t I just call myself “Amish”, since I’ve hung out with some Amish and like the way they do things?…And maybe I have a distant Anabaptist ancestor from when they lived in Poland eons ago? 😉

        I can see how someone may still feel Amish, or partly Amish, in a cultural sense, but words have to have meaning, and as in most things the majority gets to set the definition. There are some fringe groups that may challenge that definition, and whom you could make a case for being “Amish”, but these particular people have given up too many of the key cultural elements, the buggy in particular.

        1. Libby ex-Amish

          Libby is ex-Amish. I helped Ora Miller and family move to Libby from the West Kootenai in about 1992. Ben Girod was basically responsible for the move toward Pentecostalism. But I am not sure he is connected with Libby any more.
          Yes, they still wear Amish clothes, but I am not sure what else they have that could still make them “Amish.” Cars, banjos in church … Hey, is Willie Nelson “Amish”? He wears a black hat sometimes.
          I am saddened by this video. Obviously I have found in Anabaptism an expression of practical Christianity. And the Libby folks are abandoning it for clap-trap. I recognized Lloyd’s voice, he looks the same except his beard is now white-streaked. It’s been about 20 years now since I have seen him. Mike

    17. Yoder

      Many good comments have been written.
      Perhaps ex-Amish, former Amish, partly Amish, wild Amish (teenagers), or raised Amish are all different than being a member-in-good-standing of the Amish Church. Would you expect to see an Amish member wearing a floral-print jumper or a ring on the finger or have her hair hanging?
      Some people leave the Amish but still appreciate their heritage and are Amish at heart; they might still hesitate to wear a red dress. Others leave and want nothing to do with their background so they buy a red car right away!
      To dress in regular clothes, it might make a difference if they meant “regular Amish clothes” or “regular store-bought clothes.”

    18. Julie Turner

      To be Amish

      For me to be Amish is… Someone who is convicted of what the Bible teaches and lives it.
      I have great respect for the Amish people and how they are willing to live a devoted life for the Lord. The Amish mind their own business and get on with living each day doing what they need to do.

      What a shame other faiths don’t live more for God.
      Modern churches are just as obsessed with TV, sports and movie stars,just like the world.
      When modern churches finally decide to follow the first commandment and get rid of all their modern gods, then they might be of good use to the Lord.

      We can learn a lot from the Amish people.

    19. Annmarie

      There are just two points I wants to make….People are a product of the culture they have been immersed in. For me, I am Italian, have been with my high school sweetheart for 22 years…who is Chinese. Because I have been immersed in his culture since I am 16….his culture is mine. People joke with me and say I must have been Asian in another life. It is just that I embrace his culture and that way of life(right up to his parents immigration mentality which I guess to put in words is kind of Amish-simplicity and frugality ). It is who I am…and my eldest two daughters are the same- they know they are mixed…but they prefer to stay in diverse environments and even identify more with Asians bc that is the Culture they identify with. As far as religion goes, I can not understand why people say they are of one religion – but never want to follow the set of rules that go with it..even whining about attending Mass on Sundays. Just like I think that is wrong- I also think the bashing of denominations that goes on in other churches is just as wrong. All extremely UN-christian behavior!

    20. Izzy

      For An Assignment On Being Amish

      I was just wondering how you’d say being Amish gives you meaning.