Who counts as “Amish”?
I got an email this morning from Linda raising the question:
…have you heard, too, the idea that Amish could be an ethnicity or ethnic group. People that have an Amish heritage may not be Amish any more, but they might think in Amish ways, or be ethnically Amish? I’m not sure I agree, because the lifestyle and beliefs are much intertwined. In the secular as well as on Sunday.
I suspect what prompted this may have been discussion over the upcoming “Amish Mafia” program. I’ve only viewed the 30-second preview portraying men who seem to clearly not be Amish in the traditional sense (tattoos, non-Amish appearance, destroying and shooting things). I have also read that they’re described as “members of the Amish community”, while not being baptized. It certainly works better for the show if you can call these fellows “Amish”.
In one sense there may be some grey area as to who counts as “Amish”. Part of the confusion stems from whether “Amish” describes church membership or, more broadly, an ethnic group as Linda notes.
For practical purposes I tend to think of it as referring to church membership. So I would agree with the way Linda seems to be leaning here, that being Amish is about more than just growing up in the culture, choosing another path, and then keeping some ties with bona fide Amish family.
That noted, people can officially leave one religious tradition or cultural background and still identify with it. It gets in the bones, so to speak. The more so, it seems, in the melting pot that is America. I have encountered people raised Amish who still strongly identify with their childhood community and see themselves as Amish in some real sense. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to that position.
Food for thought; your views or other examples of this phenomenon are welcome.
I use to work with a lady who said she was Amish. What she was was a decendant. Her grandparents had been Amish and left the church to a more progressive or what maybe we would say modern church. The lady’s mother had gone to a public school, wore modern English clothes, etc. The lady that told me had never been to see the Amish or to an Amish settlement, but stilled called herself Amish. I never could figure how she could call herself Amish when she attended a different church, drove a car. had electric, and more. She was of the our world not Amish.
Well now ...
Regardless of what I posted below: I would NOT consider this person to be “Amish”. I was thinking more of people that grew up Amish, but left for whatever reason. I think she could rightfully say “I have relatives that are /were Amish”, but it doesn’t sound as if she has a particularly strong claim to being “Amish”.
Who counts as "AMISH"
A person is not Amish unless they are a member of the Amish church. The exception, of course, is the children. When they grow up and do not join the church, get vehicles, and dress non-Amish, they are no longer considered Amish.
Maybe yes, maybe no ...
Since I have known relatively few Amish folks compared to many people who post on this board that know many I am NOT one that has any keen insight in this area. In fact, I only know ONE person that was raised Amish, but never joined the church. So I am certainly NOT offering this any kind of expert or even one who has any insider view. That said; since the Amish community as a whole has been mostly isolated, closed if you will, to outside blood for so long they have become a de facto genetically unique community. If we were talking animals here rather than people we would probably say that they are a distinct “breed”. From there it is not too much of a stretch to say that there is an ethnic identity that is “Amish” as well. Perhaps the Amish that migrated early to Pennsylvania and their descendants are of one ethnic community, while those that came later and settled further west are another.
I think it is very common for people to identify with the cultural community that they grew up in, regardless if they are a member of that community or not. I don’t think this is any different if that community happens to be a community of faith. My mother grew up in a strongly ethnic Alsatian & Catholic community and until Alzheimer’s consumed her ability to even have coherent thoughts she continued to hold views formed in her youth even though she had not lived anywhere near that community for nearly 80 years. For many years I still considered myself to be somewhat “Catholic” even long after I had joined a non-denominational Protestant church. I sometimes still find myself defending the Catholic church if someone is unfairly criticizing it. I would say that I still had until fairly recently I still had a mostly Catholic worldview and I have not been a member for at least 40 years.
So I don’t think it is probably not possible to entirely separate the “ethnic” or “cultural” Amish identity from the “church” Amish identity for those that choose not join or join and then later leave. Just my 2 cents though.
I asked a friend who is no longer Amish (she, her husband, and children left several years ago), “So are you English now?” and she said yes, technically they’re English now. My guess is since how they dress, what they use, etc. is all tied into their Ordnung, which is chosen by their church, then if you’re not going to an Amish church then you’re probably not Amish. They do what they do because of their church. I’m sure there are different ways to look at it though, just my thoughts. 🙂
private responses to posts I have placed here
I have had several people write me privately, using my private email, which it says is not published. When asked, they told me they got my name on this site. I am uncomfortable with that. That being said, one of the persons who wrote me was someone who wanted to communicate with my neighbors. I didn’t wish to send their address to her, since this wasn’t someone I personally know. Instead, I asked her to send a letter to an Amish friend of mine, care of me. I took the unopened letter over to my friend. My Amish friend told me later that the letter had said something to the effect of wanting to communicate with others “of like mind”. To Katy’s mind this was presumptive beyond belief. In Katy’s perception, if this woman were “of like mind” she would BE Amish, and not just generic Amish, but a member of Katy’s church. I think outsiders who fancy themselves to appreciate the Amish way of life, or like the goals of simplicity and such, don’t have a clue as how separate and even bizarre their considering themselves “like the Amish” would be. Sara
Correction to Sara: Your email is never published here
Sara, your email is absolutely *not* published here, unless you post it in the comments yourself.
The reason people have contacted you is because you yourself shared your email here in the comments on at least two separate occasions. See here:
Please, and I don’t mean to get on my soapbox or single you out, but this same exact situation has come up once or twice with other commenters (who contacted me about it privately). I know we do a LOT online nowadays. It’s good to keep in mind we sometimes share things and don’t always remember doing so. I sometimes do so myself.
But when you write what you did above, it may create a false sense that emails are shared here, which some people are sensitive about. That doesn’t help.
Again, I repeat, your email is NEVER published by this site. I take that 100% seriously. The only way people find it here is if you share it yourself, which some people have done in the past (I also share my own email here openly, for what it’s worth).
My apology and thanks
Erik has let me know that folks were able to privately write me because I had included my email address in responses here. I don’t know where my head was at. Guess at least I forgot that this does not just go out to the followers of this blog, but is held in a searchable public archive. If I had been thinking straight I never would have put my email there, and didn’t even remember doing so (sigh… getting older is for the pits). Anyways, Erik has taken care of it for me and removed my private address from the previous posts. Anyone wanting to respond to anything I had to say there can contact me through the Blog by publicly responding to anything I have said. Thanks Erik! Sara
Thanks Sara, no worries, I appreciate it!
I agree that “Amish” should denote church membership (children excepted). Just as “Jewish” crosses all nationalities and refers to religious beliefs (though there is certainly an even wider range of adherence and belief among Jews than among the orders of Amish, it seems), Amish folk follow their lifestyle because of its roots in their religious tenets.
Growing up in PA doesn’t make you Amish anymore than growing up in Miami could make you Cuban (if you’re not). Also, if someone chooses to leave a church and no longer follows their rules, then they usually don’t self-identify. FOr example, I have a friend who was raised Catholic and is now Jewish. She certainly doesn’t say she’s Catholic, though that was her upbringing! The here and now is more important.
The Amish speak their own language, live in distinct communities, and practice endogamic marriage. They are definitely a distinct ethnic group.
Definition of “ethnic group”: groups of people classed according to common racial, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background
I’ll speak from a Hutterite prespective. In my humble opinion, if you’re not living the life, you can’t really claim the name. Having said that, if you grew up Hutterite, Amish or anything else, then chose to leave that life, you still have those roots and nobody can take that from you. But I always have a problem with people saying ‘I am Hutterite’ and live contrary to our beliefs, culture and lifestyle. It’s one thing to have roots in a certain place, quite another to live that life and no amount of saying something, can make you what you’re clearly not.
I have a question I have not seen discussed: Do the Amish give tithes/offerings in their church services and what is done with the money if at all?
Do the Amish tithe/ yes look at all the fund rasins they have to help people in need. Send goods to foreign countries, where ever it is needed.
Do Amish tithe?
Wayne the short answer is the deacon is the one in charge of organizing moneys when there is a need in the community. More on the deacon and other leaders’ roles here: https://amishamerica.com/who-leads-the-amish-church/
Amish believe strongly in mutual aid, supporting one another when there is hardship, catastrophe, high medical bills, etc. Beyond this, Amish also contribute financially and with elbow grease to various charities that reach beyond their immediate community.
I have never experienced a formal pass-the-hat collection in an Amish church service. It is handled outside of the service. The one place I have encountered a formal collection is at New Order Amish Sunday School.
I like that. I take that since church meets in a member’s house or barn, there are no church buildings, therefore no infrastructure to maintain or raise money for, and since bishops are unsalaried volunteers, therefore no need to pass a plate at worship services.
Giving can thus go sraight to those in need.
And the best form of giving – volunteering one’s time as a group to do a task like raise a barn – seems very common.
I asked Mark about offerings. He said that in all three church districts at Belle Center there are two offering boxes per district. The one box is for church matters and the other is for school donations. The Amish don’t have a lot of expenses so far as church, Mark said. There is no church building and the ministers aren’t paid. But special collections are announced for specific needs in the Belle Center community or in other communities. Mark said that at the end of the church service that the bishop will make announcements and will designate the offering. For example: “For the next two Sundays we will be have a free-will offering for the hospital expenses of Sam Yoder family.” Or, Mark said that the bishop will read a letter from Amish in another community requesting financial help, usually for tremendous hospital bills. Those who wish to just drop money through a slot into the box. It is always free will offerings.
Here’s a quote I’ve always liked for people who think they want to “become” Amish…
We realize that not everyone is cut out to be one of the plain people. Many have not the opportunity; but here is the challenge:
If you admire our faith — strengthen yours.
If you admire our sense of commitment — deepen yours.
If you admire our community spirit — build your own.
If you admire the simple life — cut back.
If you admire deep character and enduring values — live them yourself.
— an Amish man writing in Small Farm Journal, Summer, 1993
I love this! Thanks for sharing it, Brad!
Thanks Brad, that is worth repeating.
Another question Erik!
Again, regarding the Amish home-church service: Where are the children? Are they incorporated into the service or are they in another venue more suited to their age? Haven’t seen this in any of the stories.
Amish children in church
They are in the service Wayne, at a certain age they’ll be sitting by themselves with the other boys or girls, when younger they’ll usually be with mom or dad or grandparent. They generally stay pretty quiet and docile especially compared to kids in my church 🙂 They might have a snack or something to keep them occupied.
How true! Great quote, Brad. Thanks!
Ethnic Amish may also have to do with businesses using the word “Amish” to sell things.
As the saying goes, “You can take a boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”
Do you think we could say, “You can take a boy out of the Amish, but you can’t take Amish out of the boy?”
Saloma Furlong has shown photos of her Amish-looking living room.
In his book, A HISTORY OF THE AMISH, Steven Nolt defines a person as no longer Amish if they don’t drive horse and buggy, if my memory is correct.
..But you can't take the Amish from the boy..
There was a song years ago about taking the boy from the country, but you can’t take the country from the boy. This is even more true of those who were raised Amish. Even if you have lost the appearance, still the thinking remains to an extent. The world still appears as black and white, but now the dividing point has moved a little. You may label us any way you wish, but you can’t change the thinking no matter how you try.
What's in a name?
I think that if people (whatever faith) fall away (no longer practice/believe/accept teachings of that faith), they would do everyone a favor (and clarify matters) if they’d consider themselves “formerly Amish”, “formerly Baptist,” “formerly Catholic.” But I don’t know if you can do that with “formerly Jewish”, as my Jewish friend (now deceased) and others in the media have claimed that being Jewish is more than simply a religion. You’re Jewish (or partly so) if your Mother was Jewish (not father; it’s a maternal “link”). I don’t know how true this is. Perhaps others could comment. Still, I think the word “former” preceding a religious denomination would certainly help clarify things for all!
I am formerly Catholic (haven’t practiced in well over 40 years, because I didn’t believe all I was taught, and felt like a hypocrite). However, I still pray “Catholic” prayers and own and display a few Catholic icons. It’s part of my “history.” Can’t change history!
Thanks Erik for your input. In all my years of studying the Amish I have never read of offerings being taken in the house church. It is obvious they contribute mightily to worthy charitable causes and disaster needs. Much of this is accomplished through sales and fundraisers(quilt auctions and the like) I just wondered what their position was on giving as a part of their worship. Apparently the bishop “makes the rounds” to solicit funds to cover
the needy outside of the home church setting.
In Lancaster County, after the twice yearly communion service there is footwashing, then as the congregation is leaving, the men slip money in the deacons hand which he quickly slips in his pocket. This is used for emergencies or special needs between members.
They also practice alms. A giving to the poor in absolute secrecy. Also known as “giving to God”. The Bible repeatedly mentions this in the New Testament, where Tithing is only in the Old. (Malachi 3:8) The Bible says this about giving alms in Matthew 6:3 “But when you give to the needy, do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing”. 86 verses here;
I consider myself ethnically Mennonite. I recently converted to Catholicism for various reasons I will not go into here. However, Menno Simons was a Catholic, so…there you go.
But, being 12th generation Mennonite creates a way of thinking, a world view, a way of living that doesn’t stop at the church door. I participate in MYW, I can spot another Menno a mile away, and still play the Menno game. I see the difference when I speak to others, and watch them make decisions. Plain is genetic. The simplicity of life choices is pervasive, even though I don’t dress conservative. I still think in terms of ‘is this needed? or is it wanted?’
I have to consciously choose to wear makeup, jewelry, it isn’t automatic the way it is for my non-Menno sisters. I know that my Mennonite upbringing saturates my decision making.
This isn’t to say that newer Mennonites won’t cultivate their own ‘culture’ in the communities south of the equator, and in non-European communities. They probably will. Culture is fluid and flexible that way. But, I didn’t stop being ‘Mennonite’ when I joined a Catholic Church…
So interesting to see this subject written about. I had actually been thinking of writing on this topic myself. If I do get the blog post written I will send you a link. It’s way more than is proper for a comment 🙂
Just looking at the diversity in responses here tells me that the decision [whether one is considered Amish] is a very personal one on some levels. For example, in the interview at the end of the ‘Breaking Amish’ series, the kids all emphatically stated that they were still Amish regardless of how they were dressed, etc. Their families [it seems] may feel differently, since all of them were cast out by Amish family/friends. [if the show is to be believed…different topic there]
Having said that, I know many people who say they are of Jewish, Catholic, of other specific religious traditions, and have never practiced those faiths themselves.
Interesting debate, yet there may be no clear right or wrong answer.
Loved reading all the comments and this post. So my question is…if I or someone’s else English join the Amish, are we considered Amish? If it is ethnically based like some comments suggest..than you can not be considered Amish just bc you drive a horse and buggy however, if it a cultural thing and you embrace that culture I guess you are. This is such food for thought :). I will give an example, I married my hs sweetheart who happens to be Chinese. I understand more of the Chinese language than Italian(my ethnic make up- even though I took 4years of latin and 7 years of italian). I cook more Chinese food than I do Italian. I have been immersed in that culture since I was 16. My kids are Amer-Asian and look mixed or exotic and some of them identify more with the Asian culture and some with both. I know just bc I embrace Chinese culture, I am still NOT Chinese. Wonder if it is the same for English converts to the Amish lifestyle. And by the way, I loved that quote posted…I have it on my fb page 🙂 I remind myself daily to embrace those values as well!
Sorry for the typos..the autocorrect on my iPad has a mind of its own 🙁
New here, but have something to say :)
I really like your article. I’ve always wondered how it is to be Amish, the certain rules/customs you have to stick to, etc. Thank you for shedding light on these kinds of things. Keep those article coming. 🙂
Glad you found it Ren. If you’re new and have general questions about Amish beliefs this section may have some useful info: https://amishamerica.com/amish-online-encyclopedia/
I asked my son, Mark, who joined the Amish what he and most Amish think about this. He said that as far as he is concerned and from what he has heard the other Amish say, Amish are those who are members in good standing of the Amish church. He said that the line is drawn at car ownership. Amish are horse and buggy people. He said that those who leave the Amish and become part of the world are not considered “former Amish.” It is just said that they have “ganz hoch ganga.” Mark said that is Pennsylvania Dutch for gone completely worldly. Mark said that Amish refer among themselves to wordly people as “die hohe leut.” Beachy Amish, Fellowship Churches, etc. even if they dress plain are not considered Amish by the Amish. Mark said that some of the Amish in his community have relatives who are no longer plain. They refer to them as “ganz hoch.” “Sie kannst Deutsch schwetza awa sie ist ganz hoch.” “She can speak the German but she is completely worldly.”
Don thanks for sharing Mark’s thoughts on this–I also like how you share the Deutsch with us too, it adds another element to it. I’d think most horse and buggy Amish would agree with Mark.
By the way, I know you mentioned Mark had come down with pneumonia I think a couple of weeks ago. I have been wondering how he is doing and hope he is on the way to feeling better by now.
Hi Erik. Mark is doing a lot better. He had to be on two rounds of antibiotics to get this bronchiol infection whipped. Thanks for asking about him. I hope everybody understands that I don’t speak the German. When I include Pennsylvania Dutch in my responses it’s because Mark has dictated them to me and spelled out exactly how to spell the words. I don’t know what I’m typing unless he tells me what it means.
I am really glad to hear that Mark is doing better Don, tell him hello. And so you haven’t decided to follow in Mark’s footsteps and learn PA Dutch yourself?? Don’t you think it’d be a great hobby to take up? 😉
I asked Mark if he thinks he is accepted as Amish. He says that he feels that he is. He said that people in his community can’t hardly believe, anymore, that ten years ago he was “hoch”. He’s heard them say that it just seems like he’s always been Amish and lived at Belle Center. I think that’s a good sign. Also, he said that when he was in Lancaster County, PA about a month ago and stayed with some Old Order Amish they about couldn’t imagine that he had once been English and a public school teacher. Mark says he thinks that something that helps is that he is very fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch. That really helps you to be accepted. Mark said that if you were an Outsider and became a member of an Amish church but never learned the Dutch you could never really be as much accepted as if you had learned the Dutch. You would always seem different because the Amish folks would have to switch languages to communicate with you. Positially, as a member, you would be Amish but practically not learning the Dutch would leave a barrier there.
Don, would you mind telling us how Mark went about learning the PA Dutch? I think I understand that he lives alone, so how could he practice often without someone else in the home? Did he hire a tutor? Perhaps he already knew some German? Just curious. For some reason, I think Mark has done something quite exceptional – learning a foreign language well into adulthood. He’s either a real “smart cookie” or a real “go getter” (he probably got that from somebody…!)
I asked Mark about his learning the Pennsylvania Dutch. He said he just picked it up from being around the Amish. He said he would listen and learn a word and then use it. Learn another word and use that. Then he could put sentences together and so on and so forth. No, he didn’t take German in school. Actually, he took French. He says it was a waste of time because he has never used it, ever. But, Columbus Public Schools didn’t offer German back then. Some of the Amish in Mark’s community have mentioned his learning the German to me. They said that they think a key to Mark’s being proficient in it is that he wasn’t intimidated to speak it even if he made mistakes. They said he’d just laugh along with everybody else and just keep on trying. The other aspect they said was that it was easy to see that he was motivated to learn it and wasn’t going to give up easily. Yes, he lives alone but he often socializes or is at activities with other Amish. He always speaks the German with them. I can’t understand a word of it. It just sounds like jabbering to me.
Thanks Don. That’s very encouraging to those who might limit themselves (or not follow what they feel led to do) based on the fear that they can’t readily learn the PA Dutch language. Some posters write things that are, in fact, discouraging, like, “They expect you to learn the language fluently, and if you don’t, you’ll just be left out.” Not that this isn’t true, but it can seem an insurmountable obstacle to one who has doubts about how they might fare in the language learning arena. As we all can tell, “So You Want to Join the Amish” is a popular thread as well as a popular sentiment. It’s good to hear that Mark was not willing to be left out, even if his verbiage could only rival a two-year-old’s! No wonder they respect him and love him so much!!
It amazes me how people are full of assumptions. I live in eastern washington state and we do not have any amish districts here. We do have a lot of German Baptist Brethren and Dunkard Brethran. I am Dunkard Bethren and Im continually having to correct people that im not “amish”. We have similar things, such as; Plain dress, prayer kapps, etc. but we end in alikeness there. I have been to a few amish districts and they are a world apart from us. even for me who has similar lifestyle traits.
Late seeing this post but as someone with Amish roots- I can attest to the fact that in the way you ‘feel in your bones’ (or whatever)- Once Amish, always Amish. It’s amazing how much 2 people who’ve never met and only have ‘used to be Amish’ in common can have to talk about. I feel an odd kinship with all of them.
That is completely different, though, than actually being a member of the church and a ‘for real in the directory’ Amish person.
Thanks Ann for this perspective from someone in those shoes. I can only imagine.
I think I’m going to borrow and use your “for real in the directory Amish” term if you don’t mind. Great phrase 🙂
😉 You’re welcome. It seemed the best way to distinguish the ‘ethnic’ vs ‘religion’ thing.
I didn’t have time yesterday to read through the comments but just now did so quickly. Quite a discussion! I should say that I never refer to myself as Amish. It’s just part of me what makes me feel like an individual, I guess.
Erik, I promised you a link if I got the blog post written so here it is:
Rachel thanks for letting me know. I just read the post. I really liked it. The ambiguous examples you suggested especially gave something to think about. I found your high school experience interesting too, were you from an Old Order church originally?
Sure enough, both Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch are included in a list of ethnic groups on Wikipedia. The approximate Amish population of 250,000 listed would seem to indicate Amish members in good standing and in fellowship with other Amish churches, which may be different than acknowledging Amish influence as a background.
I think I would describe the Amish as an ethno-religious group. I think that’s a fair title.