The Amish in North America are a religious counter-culture that has not only persisted but also thrived in the hustle of modern Western society. With only about 5,000 members in 1900, they were widely predicted to fade and vanish from the United States cultural scene. To the contrary, the religious sect now numbers about 175,000 and is found in 26 states and the province of Ontario. The Amish continue their traditional lifestyle apart from mainstream society and they both survive and thrive in North America.
The Amish are a minority religious group with their roots in the Anabaptist movement which emerged in 1525 in the middle of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists (the name means to “re-baptize”) took issue with Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, believing that the prominent leaders of the reformation too soon compromised with the religious establishment. They were unwilling to follow through with reforms that may have truly restored Christianity to its biblical forms.
Anabaptists differed with Protestant reformers on three significant issues. First, they believed the true church must be a voluntary association of believers who personally choose to follow Christ. They rejected infant baptism as a means of declaring affiliation with the church and of civil registration. Second, the Anabaptists maintained that church and state are by God’s design separate institutions. The foremost allegiance of believers was to the church and only secondarily to the state as long as it did not compromise commitment to Christ. Third, Anabaptists held that the Christian cannot use violence either in self-defense or in defense of the nation-state. They believed that the command of Jesus calls Christians to suffer loss or injury rather than to protect themselves by force.
Because of their religious stance, Anabaptists were severely persecuted by Catholic and Protestant leaders alike. Since both church and state were allied, Anabaptists were hounded by religious and civil authorities. Thousands suffered severe persecution and death by fire and sword.
More than 175 years later, the Amish developed out of an internal division in 1693 that called for stricter church standards and clearer distinctions from the rest of society. The Amish gained their name from Jacob Ammann, a prominent leader who challenged laxity in the religious life of the group.
By the time the Amish were established, capital prosecution of Anabaptists had ceased. However, other forms of intimidation and persecution actually intensified. Many of the Amish and other Anabaptists were successful farmers and artisans, but the law of the land made their property subject to confiscation and denied them the right to own land. In many instances, they were driven from arable land and forced to move into the mountains.
By 1720 the Amish followed their Anabaptist cousins emigrating to the New World. Thousands moved to North America and continued to emigrate for the next century and a half. They came in search of tolerance, religious freedom and economic opportunity so often denied them in Europe.
The religious convictions of the Amish are evident in their faith community where they practice a lifestyle of nonconformity. Within their church communities the Amish practice love and mutual concern for all members. While they do not practice a community of goods, the Amish help each other with aid when disaster strikes and also help with medical expenses. The Amish reject government subsidies of welfare, unemployment compensation or Social Security retirement pensions.
The Amish believe the scriptural teachings of a clear separation between the church and the world call them to distinctive patterns of dress, transportation, use of electricity and telephone, and simple homes and lifestyles. The principle they apply to modern life is to always weigh cultural and technological changes in view of their potential impact on spiritual commitment, community values and family life.
The Amish believe the ethic of personal integrity, community values and a disciplined spiritual walk produce true contentment and fulfillment. They are not perfect, but their patterns result in a life that is admired and coveted by many in the turmoil of modern society.