As Mennonites, the Amish are descendants of the Anabaptist followers of Menno Simons (c. 1496–1561). Simons was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest, who was converted in 1536 and baptized by Obbe Philips . The Amish movement takes its name from Jacob Amman (c. 1656–c. 1730), a Swiss Mennonite. Amman felt that the Mennonites were drifting from close adherence to the teachings of Simons and the 1632 Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Much of the laxity was in the area of shunning excluded members, also called the ban. The ban meant believers would terminate contact with a non-conforming member of the Mennonite society. Amman insisted upon this practice, even to the point of a spouse refusing to sleep or eat with the banned member until he/she repented of his/her behavior. This strict literalism brought about a division of the Mennonites in Switzerland in 1693, and led to the establishment of the Amish branch of Mennonites. Some Amish began to migrate to the United States in the 18th century and many settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Other groups settled in or spread to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and even into Canada. During the 1860s, conferences were held in Wayne County, Ohio concerning how the Amish should deal with the pressures of modern society. The Amish eventually split into several divisions, partly a result of the decisions of these conferences.
The avoidance of items such as automobiles and electricity is largely misunderstood. The Amish do not view all technology as evil. Technologies can be petitioned for acceptance into the Amish lifestyle. Twice a year the church leaders meet to review items for admittance.
Electricity, for instance, is viewed as a connection to the "English" (the outside world). The use of electricity also could lead to the use of household appliances that would complicate the Amish tradition of a simple life. However, in certain Amish groups electricity can be used in very specific situations. In some groups, for example, it has to be produced without access to outside power lines. Twelve-volt batteries are acceptable to these groups. Electric generators can only be used for welding, recharging batteries, and powering milk stirrers. The reasoning behind the twelve-volt system is that it limits what an individual can do with the electricity and acts as a preventive measure against potential abuses. Most twelve-volt power sources can't generate enough current to power worldly modern appliances such as televisions, light bulbs, and hair dryers.
Most Amish families speak a version of German known as Pennsylvania German at home. The commonly-used term "Pennsylvania Dutch" comes from a corruption of "Deutsch", the German-language word for "German".
Dress code for some groups includes prohibitions against buttons, allowing only pins to keep clothing closed; other groups allow members to sew buttons onto clothing. The Amish are noted for the quality of their quilts and for their farming efficiency.
The Amish do not believe that a child can be meaningfully baptized. Amish children are expected to follow the will of their parents in all issues, but at the age of sixteen they come of age and may lead a lifestyle of their own choice. In fact, in some communities they are permitted to try out the "English" lifestyle of the outside world for a few years (the period of rumspringa (jumping-around), as shown in the film The Devil's Playground), so that they can make an informed choice to be baptized and join the church for life. Some 10% choose not to join the church but live the rest of their lives in the society at large.
One must be careful when trying to understand the Amish lifestyle. Each community may be slightly or even drastically different from another community. When describing details on dress codes, lifestyles, etc., a careful writer will note the specific community being discussed. Most so-called facts regarding the Amish actually do not apply to all Amish communities.
The Amish as a whole are beginning to feel the pressures of the modern world. Child labor laws, for example, are seriously threatening their long-established ways of life. Amish children are taught at an early age (by modern 21st century standards) to work hard. Amish parents will supervise the children in new tasks to ensure that they learn to do it effectively and safely. Unlike many a supervisor at a modern factory, Amish parents know if a child is competent and safety conscious. The modern child labor laws conflict with allowing the Amish parents to decide whether or not their children are competent in hazardous tasks.
Like the Mennonites, they also shun insurance, seeing misfortune as "God's will". When accidents do strike they rely on their church and community for support. Such support is often in the form of barn raising, in which the entire community gathers together in a single day to replace a barn which has destroyed by fire or some natural disaster.
The Amish reside in close-knit communities in 22 states of the United States as well as Ontario, Canada. The largest concentrations of Amish in the United States are in Holmes County, Ohio and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By state, the largest Amish population is in Ohio, and the second largest in Pennsylvania. There are an estimated 100,000 Amish in the United States in all groups, and another 1500 in Ontario, Canada.
The strictest Amish groups are the Nebraska Amish and the Swartzendruber Amish. The language used in all Old Order Amish homes and in many Beachy Amish homes is Pennsylvania German, also called Pennsylvania Dutch. The commonly-used term "Pennsylvania Dutch" comes from a corruption of "Deutsch", the German-language word for "German". English is used with the outside world.
Amish that leave the old ways often remain near their community, and in general, there are levels of progression as Amish or Mennonites leave their religion behind them.
People who are not well acquainted with Mormonism and the Amish sometimes confuse the one with the other despite that these two cultures developed entirely independent of the other. These misconceptions can sometimes be perpetuated in the mass media. For example, the film Witness is centered on an Amish community. However, the Spanish and French versions of this film mistranslated "Amish" as "Mormon". Roseanne Barr has played on this misconception by referring to Mormons as "Nazi Amish".
The Amish have, on occasion, encountered discrimination and hostility from their neighbors; in some places, this has taken the form of systematic harassment, particularly claipping, the act of pelting the horse-drawn carriages used by the Amish with stones or similar objects as the carriages pass along a road, most commonly at night (claip is apparently a derogatory term directed at the Amish in some localities; its origin is uncertain). A 1988, made-for-TV film, A Stoning In Fulham County , is based on a true story involving one such incident, in which a six-month-old Amish infant girl was struck in the head by a rock and died from her injuries. In 1997, a young Amish woman in Ontario, Canada was struck in the face by a beer bottle thrown from a passing car; she required thousands of dollars' worth of surgery to her face (which was paid for by an outpouring of donations from the public).
On July 28, 2004, UPN began airing Amish in the City, a reality television series which involved five Amish teenagers being installed in a house in the Hollywood Hills to experience "English" culture and to decide at the show's end whether to rejoin their own culture. The concept was initially denounced by some for appearing to capitalize upon popular stereotypes about the Amish; later critical reviews were more positive.
Amish enjoy a special legal status, as Yoder vs. Wisconsin proved, which stated that Amish adolescents can be exempt from the state law prescribing compulsory education until the age of 16, for the reason that their religion demanded them to live apart from society - thus, to compel them to visit school would be to violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause.
- Amish 101 - Amish Beliefs, History & Lifestyle
- Pennsylvania Dutch
- The Gentle People - Legal Affairs article talking about sexual abuse and the way it is handled in the community.