This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Traditions drive Amish survival

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — Why have the Amish survived? Cory Anderson says it boils down to one word: babies.

Amish children head home from school on Old Philadelphia Pike just east of Intercourse in Lancaster County, Pa. — Photo by Dale D. Gehman

Anderson, a member of a Beachy Amish Mennonite church and a doctoral candidate in rural sociology at Ohio State University, addressed a room full of Amish Mennonites at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies on March 20.

Amish communities nearly double every 20 to 30 years as “Amish women have children younger and more frequently than the national average,” Anderson said.

For the Amish, babies trump evangelism. Conversions by evangelism remain a minimal source of growth, he said.

While Amish babies provide a steady flow of new members, belief and boundary maintenance provide the social glue.

Belief drives affection and loyalty. It empowers obedience to the Gospels’ pacifist teachings. It fuels the quest for spiritual purity and nonviolent nonconformity.

The Amish seek intimate associations to live out their beliefs. Literalism and simplicity is at the foundation.

Christian nonviolence has been distorted by systems of power. The Amish, however, have avoided the easy road of evasion, denial and excuse.

They esteem the plain meaning of Scripture. To this degree, the Amish are literalists and exemplars of nonconformity.

Amish biblical literalism not only inspires a lifestyle but also makes the Amish more susceptible to the individualist tendencies of evangelical theology. Because of this similarity, Anderson said, evangelical individualism represents the greatest threat to Amish social life.

It can be tempting to glamorize the Amish. But we should avoid the inclination to romanticize.

All are prone to what is common to all people — narcissism, greed and self-delusion. It is simply less apparent in separatist subcultures.

Membership challenges

Religious institutions have historically managed membership dropouts through fear and punishment. Using guilt as a social- control mechanism has been a knee-jerk reaction. Religious leaders have used fear, shame, the threat of hell and social exclusion to deter doubters, freethinkers and the independently minded.

Many would say the Amish retain members through the threat of shunning, but this assumption is likely a mix of media misrepresentation and unfamiliarity with Amish culture. Anderson believes shunning is a small part of a broader picture.

Donald Kraybill, an Anabaptist scholar who attended the meeting, has written extensively on shunning. He describes shunning as a ritual of shaming that only applies to the baptized, a form of discipline intended to win the individual back to faith.

But sometimes shunning can’t fully safeguard membership. Anderson said gossip and peer pressure deter deviance.

Most, however, conform to what is socially acceptable without much questioning.

Social conformity aids Amish survival. The Amish believe communal needs outweigh the individual’s independence. Self-reliance and self-rule are abandoned for the greater good.

Tradition trumps convenience and progress. Why change something that has worked for hundreds of years?

Are the Amish too disciplined and obedient to challenge established norms? Possibly. The Amish are nonconformist conformists. Their conformity is found within the group. Their nonconformity is external, found outside their boundaries and in mainstream culture. But this is not a holier-than-thou attitude or spiritual narcissism.

Kraybill says the Amish forbid many practices not because they regard them as sinful but because they might lead to bad behavior or harm the community.

Social security also plays an important role in retention.

The Amish, says Anderson, are generally happier than mainstream society because basic needs are satisfied. The elderly are cared for. Work is meaningful. Family is close.

The Amish believe the more equality there is, the more stability and satisfaction there will be.

Can the same be said of American culture, where many are alone, unemployed, overworked, underappreciated, in debt and distant from loved ones?

No need to impress

In the Amish community, there is very little to hide behind — no titles, money or prestige. A double life is impossible.

Amish societies are dense and overlapped. Everyone knows everyone. Nothing is hidden. Nothing is segregated. Work, church, education — it’s all interconnected in the Amish web. This, Anderson said, creates consistency and transparency.

There is little incentive to impress others. Status is not based on looks, education, ethnicity or wealth. The Amish believe in “ascribed status,” where roles are based on calling, not merit. This alleviates the need for competition and self-promotion.

The Amish challenge the spirit of progress. They remind us of the importance of thrift, service and self-sacrifice. As Tim Jackson writes in Prosperity Without Growth, more is not necessarily better. If you are hungry, food is a blessing. If your refrigerator is full, more is a burden.

While mainstream culture looks to the new as superior, the Amish see this in reverse.

“Progress is irrelevant,” Anderson said. “The past is respected, and elders are revered.”

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