The Amish are a religious sect in the United States who are marked by their resistance to many forms of modern technology such as electricity and modern communication devices. The Amish live apart from mainstream society and have a cooperative system of both economy and social structure, both of which revolve around the Amish church. While Amish communities are known for their separation from modern society, it should also be stated that this is an act meant to prevent disunion among the members.
Instead of allowing themselves to fall prey to the temptation of pride and severance of community common in cities, the Amish instead strive to keep the community self-sufficient and based on societal relationships and bonds. “Among dissident groups such as the Amish, the isolation has been socio-culturally engendered; it has been the result of conscious and knowing acts of resistance over a period of as much as four centuries" (Kuhn 1998, 174). The Amish have survived for so long because of their large strong families, commitment to community survival, and ability to maintain strict social order and their numbers are stronger than ever today.
While reproduction is the key to the survival of the Amish community, recruitment practices are non-existent. In fact, with only a few rare exceptions, the Amish do not accept members from the outside into their communities at all. Accordingly, they do not engage in any form of recruitment and instead have very large families to keep their population high. Instead of being baptized or accepted into the Amish church or community, children who are members of the Amish community are born into an Amish family and around the age of fourteen to sixteen are given the option of whether or not they wish to stay with their families within the community or to join mainstream society. This time in an adolescent’s life is called “rumspringa" and refers to a year (sometimes more) that is granted for the young Amish person to experiment with the thought of joining mainstream society. If the teenager decides to stay within the Amish community, he or she is able to rejoin the family immediately after rumspringa to become a full-fledged member of the church and social structure. If, however, the young person decides to leave the Amish church they are effectively shunned from the community.
The severity of the shunning can range from severe (completely severance from all communication with the family, church, and community) to mild (the child still keeps in contact with the family but does not reside within the community.) In either case, this is one of the most important decisions a young Amish person could make and it serves as the community’s mode of retaining desirable members while allowing those who wish to be elsewhere to continue their lives. Because the Amish typically have very large families with an average of seven children as well as close relationships with friends, neighbors, and others of the group, the Amish community stays cohesive and their numbers have not dwindled in recent decades (Kuhn 1998, 171).
Socialization and induction into the Amish community begins at the time of birth. Since the Amish community is very tight-laced, there is a great deal of communal caretaking when it comes to children and mothers will often spend time with the children of other community members as well. From a very young age Amish children are instilled with the values of simplicity and are taught to abhor pride or vanity—the core values of Amish philosophy. In addition to this, they are taught the value of hard work while very young and for children of both sexes, chores are administered as soon as the young person is physically able to handle them. In relation to this, it also apparent from an early age are the clear gendered divisions of labor that will persist throughout the child’s lifetime. In general, these involve the boys working with their fathers as soon as they’re able and the girls at the side of their mother assisting her with raising other children and taking care of the home.
While children are expected to start working young, their parents encourage education to what equates to the eighth-grade level in non-Amish schools before they quit and help family members with farm-related or other tasks. After the period of rumspringa, young people who have decided to stay within the community are given added responsibilities and become full members of the church. For male members, this can involve a leading position within the group of elder members and for females, this might entail a more specialized position of work within the community. Through community and group work and worship, the Amish maintain strong bonds with one another and are highly social with families within their community on all levels.
One element that marks the Amish as separate from the rest of modern mainstream society is their ability and drive to produce just enough in terms of goods and services. Since humility and an avoidance of anything prideful are both central tenants of their religious and social philosophy, they tend to work together to achieve success in farming. There are different Amish communities in terms of their production and dispersal of goods and services. For instance, one more traditional community might strive only to provide what is absolutely essential for community needs while another less traditional sect might engage in sales of their crops or services to outside (non-Amish) parties. In recent years, many Amish groups have branched out and supplemented agricultural activities with more commercial endeavors such as restaurants, woodworking, and craft shops. As one researcher notes, “The Amish have a low business failure rate, 4 percent per decade compared to the 70 percent failure rate of new U.S. businesses within their first three years of operation" (Turco 2000, 138). One of the reasons they are so successful is that so many of their economic efforts hinge upon community efforts. Furthermore, one cannot help but mention the rise in tourism and interest in their way of life which has driven profits skyward in the last decade. In general, the Amish have always provided for their communities and have balanced the prospect of wealth and personal profit with community. They are a relatively egalitarian society and goods and services that are not sold are traded or given freely among members of the community, which discourages individual pride.
Order is preserved through a regimented system within each community. While the Amish strive to avoid power relationships in terms of internal politics, there are usually three to four men who act a the leaders (bishops) of the community. Every district is made up of these few leaders as well as an average of about 25 to 30 families. “The districts are bonded together by the senior bishops who meet informally to share concerns, and by recognizing the rules they share in common. The rules of the church district are enacted by membership and erring members are disciplined or excluded by the group process" (Eriksen, Hostetler 1999, 22). Since the church forms the basis of society, the rules and decision-making power rests there as well. Although the Amish strive for an egalitarian society, order is preserved by men only who are responsible for some of the most important community decisions. One of the worst punishments for the Amish is expulsion and this is reserved only for the most serious of crimes against the community.
The Amish maintain their sense of purpose by forming a very strong bond with the history of their ancestors. They realize that they are living according to tradition and as a result, they have a great deal of reverence for it. Furthermore, since they do not force their young Amish people to remain within the church if they do not feel they wish to join, their sense of purpose can be maintained since all members of the community have the same purpose and feelings about their lives. The church also provides reminders for their sense of purpose and day-long services held on Sundays reinforce the most important themes of unity, humility, and living simply. By working together, supporting the economy and society through mutual efforts, and by coming together under a common faith, the Amish are able to renew their sense of purpose daily and live according to the will of the group rather than the individual. While they do not hold revivals or other festivities to honor or renew their sense of purpose, their daily efforts reinforce the all-important notions of community that have allowed the Amish to thrive.
In sum, these five factors of group life discussed in this essay on the Amish all have the common element of community contained within them at some point. Since it is the one major focus of the religious and social nature of the Amish, it is only natural that it is part of the community, economy, socialization process, and general philosophy. In essence, through the strong bonds of community, the Amish have achieved longstanding success despite the modern world that surrounds them. By taking the focus off the individual, these larger aspects of group life are more apparent than in other religious groups because the foundation itself is the group’s will to work together.