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Summary Article: Amish
From Encyclopedia of Anthropology

The Amish are an Anabaptist religious isolate. There are currently over 180,000 Amish residing in the United States and Canada, with about two thirds living in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. The terminology Old Order Amish distinguishes them from Mennonites and New Order Amish, who are also Anabaptists but who follow a lifestyle that allows more contact with the outside world.

Historical Background

The Amish arose out of the Anabaptist (Swiss Brethren) movement in early 16th-century Europe. The Anabaptists believed in voluntary adult baptism, rather than state-sponsored infant baptism, and refused to bear arms, both of which resulted in their being severely persecuted. The Martyr’s Mirror, a book still found in most contemporary Amish homes, documents how hundreds of Anabaptists were brutally tortured and executed for their religious beliefs.

The group now known as the Amish separated from the Mennonites, one of the early Anabaptist groups, in 1693, primarily because they believed in a stricter adherence to the doctrine of meidung, or a total shunning of excommunicated church members. Following this separation, the Amish migrated throughout the German-speaking parts of Europe, where they were persecuted for their beliefs. To escape this persecution, many Amish migrated to North America between about 1727 and 1860. There are no longer any Amish in Europe.


The Amish speak a German dialect (Pennsylvania Dutch) within the group and use High German in their church services. With the exception of preschool children, who do not formally learn English until they enter school, all are generally fluent in English.


The primary unit of organization for the Amish is the congregation, or church district. There are approximately 1,300 Amish congregations. Each congregation consists of an average of 30 households and approximately 150 people and is led by a bishop, with the assistance of two to three ministers and one deacon. These religious leaders, who serve for life, are nominated by adult church members but chosen by lot. Thus, religious leadership is thought to be determined by God. Church districts are grouped geographically into settlements. There is no higher level of formal organization or authority above the church district.

Biweekly worship services are held in homes; there is no separate church building. Each church district has its own Ordnung, or the orally transmitted rules that govern the everyday behavior of the Amish. The Ordnung is reaffirmed twice a year during communion. The Ordnung consists both of rules that are common to all Amish and rules that are specific to each congregation. While distinctive patterns of dress and use of horse and buggy travel leads the outsider to assume homogeneity among the Amish, variability in the Ordnung across congregations results in substantial variability among the Amish.

Individuals are not considered full members of the church until they accept adult baptism. Adult baptism generally occurs between the ages of 17 and 24, depending on the individual’s readiness to join the church and accept its rules. If a member consistently violates the rules of the Ordnung, a hierarchy of responses is initiated to try and assist the member to behave in accordance with the Ordnung. If the individual refuses to come into line, the highest level of response is excommunication in association with meidung (shunning). At the most extreme, meidung requires all members of the congregation (and by extension all Amish), to have absolutely no contact with the shunned individual. However, a shunned person who repents can be reincorporated into the community. The severity of the meidung has been decreasing in recent years in many congregations.

Key Beliefs

The core organizing principle for Amish society is their religion, which is embedded in every aspect of their lives. Amish behavior is guided by a number of key principles. Perhaps the most important of these is Gelassenheit, which roughly translates as acting with humility and simplicity at all times. The Amish believe that true grace can best be achieved by living in isolation from the temptations of the non-Amish world. Separation from the world is fostered by the utilization of symbols, such as distinctive clothing and horse-and-buggy travel. The Amish recognize they can best remain separated from the world if they maintain strong community ties and, in particular, freely provide each other with assistance when needed. A communal barn raising is one of the better-known examples of mutual aid, but mutual aid is actually involved in virtually all aspects of daily life. Like all Anabaptists, the Amish believe in adult baptism. The Amish adhere to absolute nonviolence, separation from the rest of the world, and the belief that it is their duty to obey secular authorities unless those authorities interfere in religious matters.

Economic System and Change

The Amish have historically been small-scale and largely self-sufficient family farmers. However, they have been undergoing a transition over the past 50 to 60 years to an economic system based primarily on wage labor. Although there is considerable variability between settlements, the majority of Amish men now work in wage labor occupations. Some wage laborers work primarily with other Amish men, either in Amish-owned shops or in Amish construction crews, but an increasing number of men now work in factories where they have intensive contact with the non-Amish. This transition appears to be a response to the joint effects of a rapid rate of population increase and an increase in the cost of farmland. Although the Amish are often thought of as a static society, they have a history of selectively accepting changes they feel will not violate key religious beliefs but are essential for economic survival, and thus the persistence of their culture. Factory work would have resulted in excommunication 50 to 60 years ago, for example.

Source: © iStockphoto/Diane Diederich.


Health among the Amish is generally associated with an ability to perform one’s work and the ability to eat well. The Amish obtain health care from biomedical practitioners, from a variety of complementary and alternative health care providers, and through the use of home remedies. Amish families are very likely to accept biomedical treatments, regardless of cost, that restore normal functioning but are likely to strongly resist treatments primarily designed to simply extend life without restoring normal functioning. The Amish traditionally have relied on personal savings and various mechanisms of mutual assistance, rather than health insurance.

The Amish originated from a relatively small founding population, and each major settlement has remained largely genetically isolated from both other Amish settlements and the surrounding U.S. and Canadian populations for a little over 200 years. As a result, a number of distinctive recessive disorders have developed among the Amish. Other than these genetic disorders, the general pattern of illness and causes of mortality among the Amish are similar to those for the United States as a whole.

The Life Course

The Amish have very strong religious proscriptions against both birth control and abortion. Children are highly valued and considered gifts from God. As a result, Amish females tend to have high fertility rates, with an average completed fertility of 7 to 8 children.

Amish parents believe that raising their children to accept adult baptism and join the Amish church is their most important responsibility. Infants are viewed as not yet having the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, making it inappropriate for them to be punished. Amish infants are primarily cared for by their parents, but older children, particularly older female children, will generally play an important role in child care, even in infancy. Once they leave infanthood, however, Amish parents believe that it is their moral obligation to firmly and consistently correct their children, sometimes including physical punishment (spanking). However, Amish culture emphasizes that any corrective behavior performed in anger will not be an effective learning event.

Because the Amish see work as central to both good health and being a good Christian, they assign Amish children age-appropriate chores from an early age. There were many useful and meaningful tasks for children of all ages when most Amish were farmers. The transition to wage labor has resulted in fewer meaningful chores for the young, a consequence that concerns many Amish.

Amish children attend school through the eighth grade, most often in an Amish school but sometimes in a public school. A Supreme Court decision exempted Amish from compulsory education through age 16 on the basis of religious freedom. All boys and many girls enter the workforce once they finish school. Boys with fathers who farm will often assist with farm work, but many boys now work in Amish shops or construction crews, or for non-Amish businesses. Girls generally work as domestics, in both Amish and non-Amish homes.

The period from the late teens to the early twenties is when youth must decide if they will make a lifelong commitment to join the Amish church (and thus reject non-Amish life). Because joining the church must be a conscious and voluntary decision, this is a period (called rumspringa) during which some Amish youth are allowed greater latitude about church rules. Some experiment with various aspects of non-Amish culture, listening to the radio, driving cars, or dressing in non-Amish clothing. Once they join the church, such behaviors will not be possible. A small proportion of Amish youth develop problems with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco during this period. However, most Amish youth move through rumspringa with little difficulty. This is seen in the fact that the majority of youth, varying from 80% to 95% in different settlements, join the Amish church. (Contrary to a recent television portrayal, Amish youth rarely actually leave their communities during rumpsringa.)

The Amish family is patriarchal, with the husband and father being the final authority in the household. Husbands and wives, however, are economically interdependent. Husbands are expected to provide for the family financially, and wives are expected to maintain the household and contribute economically by such tasks as food-producing gardens, canning, and making of clothing for the family. Divorce is strictly prohibited.

Amish elders are highly respected. Elders try to live as independently as possible, often moving into a small, but separate house connected to one of their children’s homes (grossdawdy house). In the past, this move would occur when the parents turned over their farm to one of their children. Once the elderly person is no longer capable of living independently, he or she will generally either move in with one of her children, or her children will take turns providing care for the elder.

The Amish have well-established rituals associated with death, which is seen as an expected life transition and associated with eternal salvation. As a result, death appears to be associated with less stress than in many societies. Family members should be allowed, if at all possible, to die at home. If a hospital death is unavoidable, the dying person will be surrounded by family and church members.

The Future

There has long been concern among both academics and the Amish for the ability of the Amish to maintain their cultural identity in the face of the economic transition from farming to wage labor. The fear is that this transition will ultimately affect core Amish values due to an increased contact with the non-Amish world, the fact that fathers are no longer as involved in child care, the increased income, benefits, and leisure time associated with wage labor, and the potential that this will lead to socioeconomic stratification. At the present time, however, all indications are that Amish culture is strong and resilient.

Further Readings
  • Greksa, L. P. Population growth and fertility patterns in an Old Order Amish settlement. Annals of Human Biology, 29, 192-201. (2002).
  • Greksa, L. P.; Korbin, J. E. (2002). Key decisions in the lives of the Old Order Amish: Joining the church and migrating to another settlement. Mennonite Quarterly Review, LXXVI, 373-398.
  • Kraybill, D. B. (2001). The riddle of Amish culture (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kreps, G. M.; Donnermeyer, J. F.; Kreps, M. W. The changing occupational structure of Amish males. Rural Sociology, 59, 708-719. (1994).
  • McKusick, V. A. (Ed.). (1978). Medical genetic studies of the Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Nolt, S. M. (1992). A history of the Amish. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
  • Jill E. Korbin

    Lawrence P. Greksa
    Copyright © 2006 by Sage Publications, Inc.

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