What makes the Amish “Amish”? The answer isn’t genetic heritage, rural living, or shoofly pie.
The Ordnung, or the ordinance letter, makes the Amish who they are. This list of rules is the framework on which their lives are built. If the “rule letter” was taken away, the Amish culture would cease to exist.
Most young people leave the Amish to get away from the control of the Ordnung. They want to live life on their terms. Some also leave because the man-made rules clash with a new-found belief in grace.
The Amish are portrayed as having a simple life. But the Plain life may be more complicated than you ever imagined.
Where Did the Ordnung Come From?
Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish, advocated plain dressing and living. The tradition continues, though the rules today are multiplied far beyond his practices.
The exact origins of the rule letter are shrouded in mystery, obscured by the mists of time. No one knows who made the first one, or whose idea it was.
What is known is that the ordinance letter expanded during the 1950’s and afterward, as technology exploded and “English” Americans began to possess more luxuries.
The purpose of the specific rules is to separate their people from the “world” and to keep all the members exactly the same in appearance. The literal definition of Ordnung, a German word, is “order”.
Each church has their own rules. This makes the Swartzentruber, Old Order, New Order and other Amish groups distinct from each other. There are also differences within the sects themselves, as the Ordnung varies district to district.
Is the Ordnung Written?
In many communities, there is no official written copy. If a document does exist, the bishop (the leader of the individual Amish church districts) possesses it.
Everyone born Amish is raised with an inborn awareness of the rules. From birth, they live in compliance with the teachings of their father and mother, who were taught by their parents, going back generations.
The bishop has the rules memorized. He teaches the preachers and the deacons, who in turn recite the rules from memory at the “rules” church. This recitation can take hours!
The rules church is two church services per year where the congregation listens to all the rules and then agrees to abide by them. And to be shunned if they disobey.
What Is In the Ordnung?
A better question might be, what is not in the Ordnung! The rules are specific, entering into every aspect of life.
When we think of the Amish, we think of plain clothes and the horse and buggy. But there is so much more to the rules than just wearing dresses and suspenders and not using a car.
Here are some components of the rules to help you understand their complexity and thoroughness. This list is not exhaustive or complete! Only an Amish bishop could list every rule.
Keep in mind, the lower the church, the more strict the Ordnung is, and the higher the church, the less strict the rules are. (Click here for more on this concept.)
(Note: I used the remembrance of family and friends, as well as this article, to compile this list.)
- the seam measurements for women’s dresses
- the color of women’s dresses
- the length of women’s dresses
- the type of fasteners for women’s dresses (pins, buttons, etc.)
- the length of the apron
- the width of the apron strap
- the way the cape of women’s dress is cut and attached to the dress
- the pleating of women’s kapps (prayer caps)
- the strings on women’s kapps must be tied and lay a certain way
- the style of women’s bonnets (worn for going out of the house)
- the color of women’s headscarves
- the style and length of the women’s shawls
- the style for women’s winter coats and seam measurements
- the style of men’s shirts and the seam measurements
- the number of buttons on men’s shirts
- the measurements for men’s hats (how tall the crown, how wide a brim)
- the types of men’s hats allowed (a straw hat or felt hat), who can wear them, and in what seasons
- the color of men’s hat band
- the width of men’s hat band (unmarried boys/men, married men and the preachers/bishop each have a different width)
- the measurements for men’s winter coats
- men’s pants must have buttons and not zippers
- the style and width of men’s suspenders
- the color and length of men’s vests, and the material and closures used
- the material used for all articles of clothing
- the color of socks and if elastic can be used
- the color and style of shoes, the closures used (laces vs. velcro), the height at the ankle
- no mustaches for men
- once church members, men must grow beards but trim them
- after marriage, a man may never trim his beard
- women may never put a scissor to their hair
- men’s haircuts must be a specific number of inches above the eyebrows, cutting straight back til the ears, then cover the ears at a specific length
- women may not shave
- the color of the buggies
- the exact dimensions of the buggies
- the type of lights allowed (kerosene lanterns vs. battery operated)
- the type of slow moving vehicle sign (painted black triangle with silver reflecting strip vs. orange triange vs. flashers)
- or no slow moving vehicle sign allowed at all
- the type and sizes of the buggy wheels
- the type of carts allowed
- the dimension of the buckboard
- the dimensions of the seats
- the style of the buggy axle
- no windshields, or if they are allowed, how they must be made
- the material and color of the buggy whip
- the color of the exterior walls
- the color of the interior walls
- the width of the window casings
- the type of window (single pane vs. double pane, wood vs. vinyl)
- the width of the doors
- the color of the doors
- the color of the woodwork inside the home
- the color of the window curtains
- the type of flooring
- no electricity
Plumbing and Lighting
- the type of toilet (outhouse vs. indoor bathroom)
- the type of water faucets
- the type of lighting (only kerosene lanterns vs. solar powered lighting)
- the type of pump for the well
- the type of seating allowed (wooden chairs vs. couches or recliners)
- must be plain, not too decorative
- the dimensions and style of the traditional desk
- the dimensions and style of the traditional china cabinet
- the style of bedding allowed
- the style of dishes, mugs, and silverware
- the type of cooking stove
- the style of the dry sink
- the type of refrigeration that is allowed
- the color of the barn
- the type of equipment (horses vs. tractors)
- for horses: the color and style of harnesses, hardware on the harness
- for tractors: the type of tire, the type of cab, the amount of horsepower
- the mode of milk cooling (cold water vs. fans)
- the type of tools (hand tools vs. power tools)
- the equipment that is allowed to have a motor, and what type of motor
- landscaping allowed or not (decorative flowers and mulching, etc.)
- the type of lawn mowing equipment
Relationship between Husband and Wife
- the husband is to be the main income earner
- the wife works at home, caring for the children
- no form of birth control is allowed
- the bishops, the preachers, and the deacon are chosen by lot
- the bishop or a preacher is called for their entire life
- the bishop is the head of the church and has the final say in all matters
- the preachers’ duties
- the deacon’s duties
- after church membership
- only by sprinkling
- how the sprinkling is administered
- twice per year
- only members in good standing
- who handles a complaint against a member
- if the member is found guilty of violating the Ordnung, the discipline required
- if the member is unrepentant, how the shunning process is handled
- how the shunned member is to be treated
- the language of the Bible owned (only High German vs. English)
- if Bible studies outside the family are allowed or not
- January 6th, “Old Christmas”
- Good Friday
- Ascension Day
- the Sunday between the rules church service and the communion church service
- how to observe the fasting days
- no political activity is allowed, including voting
- non-resistance must be practiced
- no lawsuits
- no picture IDs
- the type of school children are to attend
- the grade children are to leave school
- only songs from the Ausbund may be sung
- the type of nicotine use allowed (pipes but no cigarettes, etc.)
The Authority of the Ordnung
Every Amish person is required to abide by these rules. Any disobedience reported to the bishop, preachers or deacon results in discipline of the wayward member, up to excommunication.
In many Amish churches, the cornerstone teaching is that conformity to these rules is their only hope of salvation. They believe any child born Amish is required by God to obey the traditions of his forefathers.
The Ordnung is a heavy burden to carry, even though it’s all the Amish know. Most people shoulder the load, striving their entire lifetime for perfection through obedience.
Amish life has many beautiful aspects we all admire. But we must remember, even in our admiration, that most Amish people are laden with rules. All the goodness inherent to their way of life, from close-knit communities to shoofly pie, can’t lessen the complexities they live with every day. The Ordnung defines them not only as a culture but as individuals.
Did you understand the Ordnung? Has anything about it surprised you?
Please leave a comment below.