Amish is Amish is Amish, right?
To the average English eye, everything about them seems pretty similar.
However, the variations among the Amish are almost endless!
Lines in the Sand
The countless differences between Amish sects are determined by each church’s Ordnung, also known as the rule letter. It dictates how their clothing is to be sewn, the style of the men’s hat and the women’s kapp, how the buggies are to be constructed, and all other facets unique to Amish life.
These requirements make each sect distinct from all the others. Some main groupings of Amish churches into sects would be Swartzentruber, Old Order, New Order and Beachy. Many subgroups in these categories exist, each having their own unique ordinance letter.
Two words help define Amish churches as a generality: low and high.
The Amish use these terms to speak of themselves and other churches.
A rule of thumb is the “lower” the church, the more strict they are, the less they are allowed to have.
The “higher” the church, the more liberal the rules and the more conveniences they are permitted.
Six quick examples of diversity:
- kerosene lanterns vs. solar panels
- buggies with black triangles vs. buggies with flashing lights
- outhouses vs. indoor plumbing
- singing hymns very slowly in church vs. singing hymns more quickly
- pen and paper vs. calculators
- owning only Bibles written in High German vs. owning Bibles in English
Some churches’ rule letters are over 20 pages, so you can imagine how many rules are contained! This creates many, many differences within the Amish community. Speaking of the Amish people as a whole can be difficult, because of the variety of practices.
The contrasts in churches’ standards changed my husband’s family.
Crossing the Line
One set of Mose’s grandparents were Old Order Amish from Holmes County, Ohio. In the 1950’s, they decided the church was getting too worldly. Moving to Lodi, Ohio, they joined a lower church, the Swartzentrubers. A decision like this is pretty rare. Usually, if an individual or a family leaves and stays Amish, they go to a higher church for more freedom.
As a child, Mose thought how nice it would have been to be born into the higher church that his grandparents left. Then it would’ve been acceptable for him to have more leeway.
He wished for chainsaws instead of hand saws for cutting wood. An attractive house with appealing landscaping instead of such plain, bare features. A shorter haircut rather than being required to have his ears covered.
The church he grew up in, the Swartzentrubers, is considered the lowest. They have the least conveniences, believing the more humble and plain your life, the more it pleases God.
Even within the Swartzentrubers, there are different groups. A split occurred years ago over the use of lanterns on buggies. Slow moving vehicle triangles aren’t allowed, and members couldn’t agree on whether to use one or two lanterns. So the church split. One church uses one kerosene lantern on the side of the buggy, and the other church uses one on each side. Both churches consider themselves Swartzentruber, but their rules are slightly different.
Why the Lines Are Drawn
Just being Amish isn’t enough for an Amish person.
When a child is born into an Amish church, they are taught that following the Ordnung of their specific church is the most pleasing way of life to God. Maybe even the only acceptable way of life. For that is the way your father, grandfather and great-grandfather lived. Parental obedience, and thereby respect of their traditions, are essentials of the Amish belief system.
If my husband had joined his church through baptism, then left to go a higher church with more allowances, he would’ve been excommunicated. Even though he would’ve still been Amish!
Hmm. Amish isn’t Amish isn’t Amish, after all.
Did the differences and variety within the Amish surprise you?
Please share in the comments below.