Amish culture is popping up on television sets across America, thanks to reality series such as National Geographic’s Amish: Out of Order and TLC’s Breaking Amish. In states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, Amish buggies are a common sight along roadways, as are Amish homesteads, distinctive white-sided houses with a single curtain in each window.
Like many other immigrant groups originating in Europe, the first Amish immigrants arrived in America in the early 18th century. Many settled in Pennsylvania, where they are sometimes referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, most Amish are of German or Swiss descent.
The Amish denomination emphasizes a simple lifestyle and a rejection of “worldly” pursuits. The name derives from Jakob Ammann, a member of the Swiss Anabaptist movement, who disagreed with other, less radical Anabaptists on matters related to excommunication, and Amman’s followers split from the main Anabaptist community. Amish dogma forbids its followers from holding government office, participating in the military, or owning modern technology. Historically, these beliefs set the Amish at odds with other Christian groups, and continue to distinguish them today. As a result of widespread prosecution in Europe from both Catholics and Protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries, many Amish fled to America.
One practice that the Amish share with many mainstream Protestant denominations is their use of the King James Bible. While Pennsylvania German (also known as Pennsylvania Dutch) is widely spoken in Amish communities, most Amish read and write in English, and the King James Bible is used in Amish worship services. Amish services typically include two sermons. Most of the time, they are spoken extemporaneously. Unlike some Christian churches, the Amish do not follow a liturgical calendar, so the Bible passages chosen for each particular service are selected spontanesouly.
Another influential text in Amish religious practice is the Ausbund. The Ausbund is a collection of hymns dating back to the mid-1500s; tradition holds that the original songs were composed by Anabaptist prisoners held in Passau Castle between 1535 and 1540. The first printed edition of the Ausbund appeared in 1564. There is no musical notation, with the tunes being passed on from generation to generation. Songs from the Ausbund are sung in a German dialect, and the lyrics are adapted from passages in the Biblical Psalms and the New Testament. The practice of congregational singing–traditionally without musical accompaniment– reflects the Amish belief in simple worship that encourages humility. To hear samples of hymns from the Ausbund, click here.
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website and Family Guide. She is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.