The Amish – A profile of courage and commitment
A Matter of Martyrdom
Early one frigid morning in 1569, a Dutch Anabaptist named Dirk Willems made a make-shift rope out of knotted rags and escaped his imprisonment. In doing so, Willems soon came to a thinly frozen body of water. Looking back, he saw that a guard was in hot pursuit. Gaunt from a near-starvation diet, he headed across the ice. Upon reaching the far shore, Willems looked back to see that his well-fed pursuer had fallen through the ice and was floundering in the cold water, unable to pull himself onto the ice.
Although condemned by the Catholic Church for practicing adult baptism, a crime punishable by death during the Reformation, Willems walked back across the ice and pulled the drowning man to safety. In keeping with the phrase, “No good deed goes unpunished,” Dirk Willems was recaptured and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.
On a frigid and windy May 16, 1569, the heartless executioner lashed Willems to a wooden post in Asperen, Netherlands, and the dry wood at his feet was set afire. This brutal form of execution was made even more agonizing because the wind kept the fire from rising above his lower extremities, prolonging his death. During his horrifically slow death, witnesses reported that Willems repeated over and over, “Oh Lord, my God.” until he died. Dirk Willems is now a martyr to the Anabaptist communities that include the Mennonites and Amish.
Dirk Willems’s bravery in the face of death exemplifies some characteristics that define the Amish. So, with that introduction, we’ll explore the often misunderstood world of the Amish.
Who are the Amish, and where do they come from?
If you’ve traveled in the Hillsboro area lately, you may have noticed the horse-drawn buggies on Lobelia Road or rosy-cheeked children on manually propelled scooters. You couldn’t help but take notice of the straight-brimmed black hats of the men and the frocks and black capes worn by the Amish women. Seeing the Amish and learning how they live harkens back to a time when there were no automobiles or electricity. In some respects, a monochrome photograph of Hillsboro from the 1800s wouldn’t look much different regarding horse-drawn conveyances and farm machinery.
Yet, the humble, hard-working Amish continue to embrace this way of life and thrive living the “old way.” Even if you cannot see yourself living an anachronistic life devoid of most modern conveniences, you must at the very least offer a certain respect for the Amish tenacious commitment to their simpler lifestyle in the face of the rampant technological growth around them.
The Amish are Christians; they are not affiliated with the Quakers, Shakers or Mormons, although as Anabaptists, they are closely associated with the Mennonites, a more liberal church. The Amish and Mennonites trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Anabaptist movement of the 16th Century. Anabaptists, including the Mennonites, were viciously persecuted over the issue of adult only baptism.
Thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther, the bible, once only understood by people who spoke and read Latin, was translated into thousands of languages, including German. This act infuriated the Catholic church, which wanted it to remain in a language that very few Christians understood. It was clear to the Amish that they would have to emigrate to survive as a church and a distinct community. They fled to North America from Switzerland, Alsace, Germany, Russia and Holland, leaving few remaining Amish groups in Europe.
The Amish, named after Jakob Amman, who led a schism among 17th Century Swiss Anabaptists, first arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1700s. The first settlements were in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and as farmland became scarce, the Amish moved to other states and Canadian provinces and, more recently, West Virginia.
Our Hillsboro neighbors are Old Order Amish, who arrived here last summer from Millersburg, Pennsylvania. They purchased a large parcel of land just north of Hillsboro called Hidden Creek Community and are currently building homes and barns and developing agricultural businesses.
Of course, the Amish are an agrarian society and they are superb business operators. We can expect availability of a variety of food crops, eggs, and produce, and I am told they will also be processing maple syrup. There is also just a hint of a rumor circulating that there will be an Amish store in Hillsboro in the not-so-distant future. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
The Amish did, and still do, refer to anyone outside their community as “English.” They speak English outside the home when dealing with us, but they speak two forms of German at home. Old Order Amish, like our new neighbors, generally speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and Old German for Mass. Although still a distinct minority, there are now more than 250,000 Amish in the U.S. and Canada. Because of the unique Amish lifestyle and the fact that they are skilled craftsmen and excellent cooks, Amish communities welcome more than 20 million tourists to their farms and shops annually.
Anabaptists repudiate infant baptism in favor of adult baptism, believing that infants are not yet mature enough to make a conscious commitment to the church. We will return to this topic when we discuss Amish practices such as shunning and Rumspringa in the next segment of this series. In addition to the Amish rejection of infant baptism, they practice non-resistance, a form of pacifism. Therefore, they are exempt from military service. The Amish are also committed to non-violence – they will not take up arms other than hunting rifles and shotguns for practical uses on the farm.
An interesting tidbit about the Amish is that the men wear beards only when they marry, but no mustache. This tradition goes back several hundred years and has survived to this day. Why? Back in Europe, the mustache was associated with military personnel and this conflicted with their oath of pacifism.
One of the main intentions of this article is to separate fact from fiction about the Amish way of life and their practices and beliefs. And having worked with Amish clients in the past, I know there are many misconceptions and myths about the Amish by the general population.
Do Amish get Social Security benefits? No: in fact, the Amish reject Social Security benefits as well as unemployment compensation, welfare and food stamps. Yet, they pay property, sales and income taxes.
“Be not conformed to the world.” Romans, chapter 12, verse 1.
Do Amish children still attend school until the eighth grade only? Yes, the Amish value education and require their children to attend a community school through the eighth grade or until they are 14. Two reasons are given for their education being cut short of attending high school. First and foremost, the Amish want to protect their children from the consumerism and ostentatiousness of many in our world. One anthropologist stated, “They are in our world but not part of it.”
Then, there’s the tradition of working alongside their parents, an essential factor in farming operations. From the Amish standpoint, eight years of school provides all the education required to enter a vocation such as farming, carpentry, or animal husbandry. Many Amish maintain and continue their education through correspondence courses, mainly in vocational subjects.
Until the middle of the 20th Century, most Amish children attended rural public schools. At this time, schools in rural locations were generally small; many were one-room schoolhouses.
The Amish were comfortable with this arrangement as small schools offered an opportunity for hands-on control of their children’s edu- cation. Many Amish men even served on school boards.
In the 1950s, the legal system sent Amish fathers to court for pulling their children out of school several years earlier than the general (English) population. Some were sentenced to jail for this offense. The Amish stood firm on their beliefs and cultural practices. Finally, a Supreme Court decision in 1972 called the Yoder ruling restored the parents’ right to limit their education in public schools to the eighth grade.
Although there are a few locations where Amish children still attend public schools for eight years, most attend Amish community schools where they learn the basics of math, writing skills, and Amish history. Students do not wear uniforms but attend school as they dress at home. Science, such as evolution, is not taught if it conflicts with the bible.
Next week, we will continue our in-depth exploration of the Amish com- munity. We will begin by discussing how the Amish church is structured and the many ordinances and variety among different Amish groups. We’ll also separate truth from fiction, as we English tend to harbor many misconceptions about unfamiliar groups. Also to be answered are the typical tourist questions such as, “Why do the Amish reject electricity?” a common, but false belief.
And the ever popular, “Is it true that Amish children are free to go wild for a period of time when they are 17 years of age?” Well, again, that’s an inaccurate understanding of Rumspringa.
Misinformation and rumor can result in suspicion and animosity toward the “others” among us. We must educate ourselves about the world and all its incredible diversity; this is vital to an informed and humane society.
A huge thanks to a generous and knowledgeable friend who resides in the heart of Amish country, Holmes County, Ohio. My friend is Old Order Amish, so this article and those that follow are based upon first-hand knowledge and other credible sources.
Until next week,
Citations are available upon request.