Questions and Answers in my month long study of the Amish.
Q: What do the Amish believe?
The Amish are a Christian community. They believe in all the tenets of Christianity, and their differences primarily come from their strict interpretation of the Bible in terms of worship (corporate & individual), dress, language and non-violence & pacifism. Many modern Christians read Biblical passages and interpret them as a cultural requirement of the day (for example, consider the teaching in Exodus 20.4 : “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…”). Many modern scholars consider that to be a cultural issue for the OT church, but the Amish take that very seriously and forbid the use of photographs, which would constitute a graven image,
One overarching idea that guides much of the Amish life is the idea of “conforming” to the world. In Romans 12:2, it is written, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” The Amish take this very literally, and consider the use of “modern” things (such as electricity, telephones, cars, tractors, etc) to be conforming. While travelling through Amish country, you can almost always identify an Amish home from the lack of electric wires, satellite dishes, and phone lines on their houses.
Here’s an important thing to remember: the Amish voluntarily choose to separate themselves from the world. They don’t consider it a necessary means to salvation, but a way of separating themselves from the modern (read: sinful & corrupt) world. If some situation dictates that an Amish person needs to use a phone, or travel some distance in a car, they can and often will. But the use of a phone would be a utilitarian choice (for example, the need to call a doctor) versus using the phone to socialize with a friend. The Amish belief not to use electricity isn’t a belief that electricity is evil, but because it could lead to temptations and the deterioration of church and family life.
Most of us today would think it impossible to live without the modern conveniences such as electricity and cars. What makes the Amish unique is not that they get along without modernity, but that they choose to do without it when it would be readily available. The Amish value simplicity and self-denial over comfort, convenience and leisure. Their lifestyle is a deliberate way of separating from the world and maintaining self-sufficiency. As a result there is a bonding that unites the Amish community and protects it from outside influences such as television and radios.
Q: Why the funky beards (and no mustaches)?
This is a good example of a cultural practice adopted by most Amish. The Amish believe that a beard is a symbol of wisdom and maturity and at some long forgotten moment in history, they decided that after an Amish man gets married, he would no longer shave his beard (obviously, marriage is the moment when a man gets wise and becomes mature). The mustache issue is a little cloudier. According to multiple sources, a mustache (in the 1700 & 1800’s) was primarily worn by people in the military (someone just reminded me that George Washington didn’t have a mustache!), so the Amish adopted a “no-stache” rule. I guess we know where that puts Tom Selleck.
It’s worth noting that some of these cultural requirements vary from community to community. For example, there are some Amish communities that allow a young man to grow a beard after he has been baptized, regardless of his marital status.
Q: Is it true that teenagers have a period of time when they can “sow their wild oats”?
The period is referred to as “Rumspringa” (also seen as Rumschpringe or Rumshpringa, derived from the Pennsylvania German term) and loosely is defined as "running around". This period loosely correlates with what most American’s would term “adolescence”. It begins around age 16, lasts for a few years, and culminates with the Amish youth either choosing to be baptized and become a full member of the community or leave the Amish community for life in the modern world. Not all Amish communities use this term, and within the Amish population, it is commonly a time for courting and finding a spouse. Modern society tends to paint a picture of a rebellious youth, engaged in all sorts of lewd behavior (and to be fair, that may happen on occasion), but the reality is much tamer.