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The Amish tragedy

September 2013 | by Alan Stenfalt

In 1985 the Harrison Ford film The Witness went on general release and brought images of the Amish to cinema and TV screens around the world. This furthered a fascination with a quiet and reserved people, which began a century earlier and has never gone away.

Today, parts of Pennsylvania first settled by the Amish in the early eighteenth century, have become a tourist destination and media interest abounds. Beards, bonnets, buggies and barn raisings have become instantly recognisable Amish icons and British TV has done its fair share to bring the Amish to our attention.

      Channel 4 screened The World’s Squarest Teenagers, which brought Amish youngsters over to the UK to experience life in various British families. The return leg came later with Living with the Amish. Six British teenagers went to live with Amish families in the US.

      The BBC has shown three programmes featuring Amish families, Trouble in Amish paradise, Leaving Amish paradise and Amish — the secret life.

      The irony is, the steps the Amish have taken to keep themselves separate from the modern world are the very things that have brought the world to their doorstep. But this is not what constitutes the Amish tragedy.

      The Amish have suffered few effects, considering the level of interest they have aroused. They seem quite able to live alongside modernity and yet remain separate and distinct from it.

Noble pedigree

The Amish have a noble pedigree, tracing their origins back to the Swiss Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. From 1525–1693 they have a shared history with those who became followers of the Dutch Anabaptist Menno Simons (Mennonites).

      In 1693 followers of Jacob Ammann, seeking stricter discipline and separation from the world, formed a separate group. These came to be known as Amish.

      In common with other Anabaptist groups of the time, they suffered great persecution and, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, many migrated to America. A further migration occurred early in the nineteenth century.

      Attracted by William Penn’s ideas on freedom of religion, the first settlements in America were in Pennsylvania. Today there are also settlements in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and other US states, as well as in Ontario, Canada. The last European congregation of Amish disbanded in 1937.

      In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as industrialisation and material prosperity began to spread, the ‘Old Order’ Amish emerged. They feared that the introduction of mechanisation and consumerism would destroy the Amish way of life and lead to the break-up of the community.

      The use of horsepower only for fieldwork and transport, the beards, bonnets and plain dress, the ban on mains electricity, televisions and computers, are all intended to preserve their distinct identity and separation from the world.

      In this they have been remarkably successful. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Old Order Amish numbered around 5000. Today they are estimated to be over 250,000. These are the Amish who attract so much attention.


What then is their attraction? And what is the tragedy of the Amish? The programmes featured on British TV highlighted some of the features of Amish life that people find so fascinating, but also revealed the tragedy that has occurred.

      We have to be aware that reality TV shows are carefully manipulated and edited to make compelling viewing, yet the world’s squarest teenagers came across as attractive young people.

      Eyes unfamiliar with and owing nothing to modern Western society gave viewers a fresh focus on their world. ‘It’s hard to understand’, said one of the Amish girls when they were taken round Soho, ‘how people can be so open about what is so sinful’.

      Another added, ‘This is the devil’s territory’. I suspect it’s not very often you hear comments like that on British TV! When told of the level of crime and violence that is a daily threat to our inner city youngsters, they reflected that crime was almost unheard of among the Amish.

      Yet these young people, who had never heard of John Lennon and might have come from another planet, appeared to take a genuine interest in their hosts and to understand the difficulties faced by youngsters in our inner cities. One young Londoner confessed: ‘They have taught me there is more to life than money and girls’.

      Though they were presented with a society that permitted more liberty, licence and freedom to indulge themselves, they remained confirmed in their Amish way of life. In fact, this is the case with the vast majority of Amish youth, who are given the opportunity to go out and experience the world before making a commitment to the Amish church and lifestyle.

      The retention rate is reckoned to be around 80 per cent and in some areas as high as 90 per cent. In other words, eight or nine out of every ten children born into Old Order Amish families eventually join the Amish church (and they generally have large families). This is what accounts for their rapid growth in America.


Living with the Amish on Channel 4 turned the tables and followed six British teenagers spending time with Amish families in the US. They seem to have been chosen to be as far removed from the Amish in their lifestyles as possible. Among them were represented broken families, sexual licence and immodesty, feminism, privilege, atheism and indolence.

      The Amish families welcomed them warmly, but made no concessions. They had to abandon their mobile phones, adopt modest clothing, abide by Amish codes of behaviour and do their share of work in each family setting.

      This presented a number of problems for the youngsters. One young man had never done any sort of work; one of the young ladies had never done any housework (because her mother had never asked her to), and another objected to the division of labour into men’s and women’s work.

      From the start, however, it is clear the Amish folk were making an impression on their visitors. One of the girls could see benefits in the Amish plain-dress code. She admitted that she found it an effort to have to dress up and wear lots of makeup in order to feel accepted.

      ‘Dressing the same’, she said, ‘makes you feel part of the whole, of belonging’. The visitors were also fascinated by Amish courtship practices, especially the concept of ‘hands-free’ dating (no physical contact before marriage).

      ‘Back home’, said one, ‘being a virgin is considered a bit weird’. They were all impressed with the barn raising that took place during one of their visits. One of the boys commented that you would never see so many people turning out to help a neighbour back home.

      Some of their comments on living with the Amish reflected the things they found attractive about them: ‘Being content brings happiness’; ‘quality of life does not consist of having lots of everything’; ‘they value the most important things’; ‘everyone cares, they value every single person’; ‘there is satisfaction in hard graft’.

      The Amish, of course, have a distinctive appearance and lifestyle that makes them interesting. For some, they also represent a turning away from all that is trumpeted as progress, and a rejection of conspicuous consumption. But saving the planet is not part of their agenda.



The tragedy of the Amish appears when you begin to look for an explanation for their way of life and find it is devoid of any gospel motivation. When Paul says at the beginning of Romans 12: ‘I beseech you therefore’, the ‘therefore’ refers to all he has been saying previously in his exposition of the gospel.

      It is because of God’s abundant mercies to sinners in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that he exhorts us to live in the manner he goes on to describe in the later chapters of Romans.

      No such motivation is found in the Amish community and certainly does not come across in either of the Channel 4 series (though we must allow for the possibility of editing).

      The three programmes from the BBC reveal the heart of the tragedy. Each programme deals with families who have left the Amish church. The problem that comes to light is that the Amish are governed by a set of rules laid down by the bishops of each local congregation.

      This is known as the ‘ordnance letter’ or ordnung and governs such things as a detailed dress code, the ban on owning a motor car or motor-powered field machinery, and a ban on mains electricity, radios, televisions, computers and telephones in the home.

      Carrying a Bible outside the house or attending a prayer meeting or Bible study other than with the family are also forbidden. The purpose behind the ordnung is to promote non-conformity to the world and to keep the Amish a separate and distinct community.

      Those who do not keep the rules and who refuse to repent are formally shunned and excommunicated from the church. This means that even their families are not allowed to have fellowship with them.


That is bad enough, but the situation is even more tragic because obedience to the ordnung is required for salvation. To obtain heaven the Amish must do five things: be obedient to parents; join the Amish church; be baptised; submit to the ordnung, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

      If they have been successful enough in the first four, Christ may grant them forgiveness of their sins, but they will never know that until they die. The Amish can therefore have no assurance of salvation. If asked: ‘Are you saved?’ or ‘Are you born again?’, the best they can say is, ‘I hope so’.

      Many are happy to continue in the traditions of their fathers and enjoy the benefits of strong, stable family life, a supportive community, low crime rate and satisfying work.

      Those who have a concern for their eternal wellbeing, however, have real problems and, though numbers are relatively small, they are on the increase. Some are discovering the joy of sins forgiven and peace with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

      One who is now enjoying this great salvation is typical of others who have trod the same path. He says that, from the outside, the Amish look good. They appear a simple, satisfied, unified people and there is much that is good and attractive, but within there are those who are unsure.

      He describes how he began to question his life. He had no idea why he was keeping all the rules, but was told not to worry but simply obey. He did not want to go to hell and thought keeping the rules was the way of escape.


The question he could not avoid was, ‘Am I keeping them well enough and how can I be good enough for God?’ He began to see no purpose in the rules. How could heaven and hell depend on the colour of your buggy or the width of your hat brim? Neither the Amish bishops nor the Amish Bible, in antiquated German he could not understand, were any help.

      After a long and futile struggle, he was ready to give up, realising he could never attain perfection. Eventually he was given an English Bible where he discovered all the perfection he needed was in Jesus Christ. He said, ‘I saw that through faith in what Christ did on the cross I could have forgiveness. My eternity was no longer based on my own effort’.

      He followed the Saviour, but found, as others have, that meant he had to take up his cross — the cross of persecution. He was excommunicated and shunned as those featured in the three BBC films were.

      In the next article we will look at a brief history of the Amish from their Anabaptist origins, and in a final article draw out some lessons the Amish present to us.

To be continued

 Pictures of Amish in this article series are by kind permission of Plain New Life and ‘Mission to Amish People’



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