Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A subset of groups of the larger Anabaptist movement. By the 1690s, Anabaptists had migrated from Switzerland into the Alsace region in present-day France. A quarrel between these Alsatian Anabaptists and those remaining in Switzerland erupted.

Named for their founder, Jacob Ammann, the Alsatian "Amish" began holding communion twice a year rather than annually, incorporating foot-washing into the communion service. These innovative religious practices were contrary to the practices of those remaining in Switzerland.

The biggest divisive issue, however, was the practice of what is called meidung or "shunning." Swiss Anabaptists excommunicated wayward members from communion and church but maintained social relationships. Ammann ordered his followers to shun even social relations or interaction with those banned from the church and religious services. This practice of shunning irrevocably split the Swiss Anabaptists and the Alsatians, now known as "Amish," in 1693.

The first large group of Amish settlers to North America arrived in Philadelphia in 1737. This group settled in eastern Pennsylvania. Settlements were planted over the next century, and Amish now reside in rural areas across 20 states and the province of Ontario in Canada. The states with the largest Amish populations, accounting for more than 70%, are Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. More than two dozen branches, or divisions, of Amish have been identified by John Hostetler, Donald Kraybill, and other scholars. There are no Amish outside North America today.

Amish beliefs stress the separateness of God's believers from this world. Connectedness to the outside world is forbidden. Amish do not participate in Social Security or Medicare. They refuse to have high-wire electricity, natural gas, or telephones connected in their houses. Usually it is the strictest group, the Old Order Amish, who represent the image of Amish to many people. Old Order Amish worship every other Sunday in members' homes. They own no automobiles, practice no birth control, and send their children to Amish-run schools (and only through eighth grade). Amish use horses in the field and for transportation with buggies. Gas or kerosene lights their homes and may cook their food. Despite the austerity of this lifestyle in society's eyes, four out of five (80%) Amish teenagers join the church and remain within the group, marrying an Amish spouse. Thus, with a high birthrate and high retention of offspring, the Amish population has grown tremendously.

With this growth, the traditional Amish lifestyle of the family farm is threatened by higher land values, commercialization, and industrial takeovers of areas typically inhabited by Amish farmers and their families (notably, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) as well as declining farm incomes. Kraybill and Nolt have commented that in the last generation of Amish in the twentieth century, studied extensively in the oldest settlement area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Amish-owned and operated microenterprises have grown and flourished. The future of Amish separateness and their distinct culture and beliefs may be in jeopardy as more and more Amish engage in nonfarming enterprises in response to the need to support more families with less and less farmland available.

Barbara J. Denison


J. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980)

D. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1989)

D. Kraybill and S. Nolt, Amish Enterprises (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995).

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