The Amish are a unique phenomenon in American and Christian culture. During a summer vacation when I was 17, I had the rare opportunity to experience the life of these people in an intimate way. Side by side with a young family of eight Old Order Amish, I milked cows, tilled fields, bailed hay and harvested produce on a small family farm in Gordonville, Pa. Immersing myself in their life, I also attended Amish church services in many of the tiny farming towns that dot the lush, brown-green landscape of Lancaster County. I found myself thrust into a foreign culture, struggling with an incomprehensible language and a people who kept the modern world at arm’s length. These, of course, were challenges I expected. What I was unprepared for was the experience of witnessing a fundamentalist faith community first hand.
Until that point in my life I had not had much experience with churches other than my own. Indeed, the only non-Catholic experience I had was accompanying my mother to the annual Christmas pageant at the nearby Presbyterian church.
Over the past four centuries the Anabaptists, the forefathers of the Amish, have experienced a tumultuous relationship with Roman Catholicism. Complicating this is the fact that the Amish, a relatively tiny denomination, appear to have been overlooked in the modern ecumenical movement. As a result, I quickly learned that I would face many challenges to my faith, as well as the difficulties that were to come with adjusting to an 18th-century lifestyle.
My experience that summer was the fruit of a friendship with a young man named Steve who converted to the Old Order Amish after graduating from Millersville University. I was put in touch with Steve by the author Stephen Scott, who has written several books about the Amish. Steve graciously invited me to attend church services in his community. Amish services take place in the people’s homes, a practice they inherited from the early church. The worship services, conducted entirely in German, are tedious three-hour affairs. Everyone but the most senior male members of the congregation and the ministers sit on backless, wooden benches. After the service, the Amish share a “fellowship meal,” to which I was warmly invited. It was through the informal chat after these lunches that I met a young man named Emanuel, who needed an extra hand on his farm. I enthusiastically offered my labor in exchange for room and board.
My experience that summer began with a textbook knowledge of the Amish. Armed with this limited learning, I thought I would be prepared for any eventuality. Of course I expected a period of culture shock, difficulties with the language and some questions from the Amish themselves. After all, in their world I would be the curiosity. And I expected that they would want to know why someone would want to give up the comforts of modern life to live like them. I was prepared, or so I thought.
But the magnitude of what I was doing hit me the moment my father began to drive away in his old Dodge pickup truck. As I watched him take off down the hilly, winding road, I was suddenly seized with panic and began to ask myself what all self-reflective travelers do when they find themselves in a foreign country: “What have I gotten myself into?”
Fortunately, I weathered the initial panic and immediately tried to prove myself a worthy worker. The role their work plays in the life of the Amish is difficult for the outsider to understand. The Amish cling to the belief that the family that works together stays together. As a result, most Amish families own and work a farm or run another cottage industry. But not all families are so fortunate. In Lancaster County particularly, many Amish men, because of the high cost of land—$10,000 per acre in 1995—were forced to find work with construction crews building stucco mansions in the area. Other families have simply moved to new Amish settlements in Indiana and Kentucky, where land is cheaper and much less populated.
Our days typically began at 5:30 a.m., when Emanuel would call to his boys from the foot of the stairs. We would stagger down, half-awake, and head out to the barn where nearly 40 Holsteins were waiting to be milked. Emanuel would switch on the giant Cummins diesel engine that ran the milking apparatus as I headed out to the pasture with Allan and Junior, the two oldest boys. Only 14 and 12, respectively, they amazed me with the level of responsibility they, and all the children, had been given on the farm. Even the 7-year-olds were assigned daily chores. Out in the pasture it was our task to chase the stray cows into the barn while stepping arround the giant piles of manure they left in their wake.
As the Holsteins moved toward the kieh stehl, they began to moo in anticipation of being fed as well as the sweet relief the milkers would provide their udders. It always amazed me how the cows could remember to which stall they were to go. (The irony of this was not lost on me when, years later, I noted that it took at least three weeks for the students in my high school religion classes to remember where they sat.) The milking routine was surprisingly efficient for a people popularly perceived to be stuck in the 18th century. Melvin, one of the 7-year-old twins, would approach each cow with an anti-biotic spray and quickly wipe each teat clean before Allan and I came along with the milkers. We would then attach the milker, a large, stainless steel pail with four suction tubes on top. A black rubber hose, also attached to the milker, was connected to a vacuum pipe that ran the length of the barn.
While the Holsteins were being milked, Junior would pass out some hay and sweet-smelling silage for them to chew on as well as some vitamin powder. I soon learned one of the many dangers of milking cows was standing near one when she coughs and lets loose with some manure at the same time. The first time it happened everyone in the stable stood there laughing at me, and I knew then that I had been officially initiated into farm life. (I learned how efficient the Amish gossip mill is when someone from a neighboring village teased me about the incident a few weeks later.)
After the morning chores were completed, the day went by quickly, as there is always something to do on a farm. The quiet work in the fields or the wood shop provided me with plenty of time for reflection. By simply watching these people work I could sense their profound faith in God and his goodness. Everything they had obtained in their life—their farm, their family, the prosperity and survival of the Amish people—was attributed to the grace of God. Always dressed simply, the men and boys in their black pants, suspenders and broad-brim, straw hats, the women and girls in their simple, handmade dresses and bonnets, the Amish were trying to dedicate every moment of their life to God. They knew their weaknesses and imperfections as well as anyone, but I recognized their effort to live a life of faith. Every night I crawled into bed at about 9:00, exhausted, but happy to be a part of the Amish life.
Sundays were given over completely to worship, prayer and rest. Only the essential chores could be attended to, including the ever-faithful Holsteins. Church services began at 8 a.m., “Amish time” (some Amish still adhere to standard time all year around). After church and the fellowship meal, the Amish like to “visit,” as they call it, meeting up with family and friends for the afternoon hours. It was during one of these Sunday afternoon conversations with a young man named Leon that I began to realize the ecumenical chasm that exists between the Amish and the Catholic Church.
Leon was curious about the Catholic Church, as I was about his church. But I was a bit shocked when he asked me, in the most innocent way, if Catholics could still pay a priest to forgive their sins. When I explained to him that the church left that practice behind over 400 years ago, he followed up by asking if a priest can pay to become a bishop. It was becoming apparent that at least the Amish I met were living with a 16th-century understanding of Catholicism.
Aside from the Bible, the Amish rely on three major works for the foundation and theology of their Anabaptist faith. First among these is a small volume used by Amish preachers entitled the Handbook. This book was written by Dirk Phillips, a colleague of Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites. First published in 1564, the work addresses matters of theology and church discipline. It contains a confession of faith and several discourses on topics like banning and shunning, the Lord’s Supper and Christian matrimony. A product of its time and circumstances, the book is saturated with anti-Catholic sentiments. Unfortunately, the Amish are not aware that most of the practices the Handbook denounces were addressed during the Council of Trent and Vatican II.
The two other books that round out the trio of Amish church history and theology are their hymn book, the Ausbund, and the Anabaptist martyrology, The Martyrs Mirror. The Ausbund is the oldest hymn book in the Christian world. The pages contain no musical notation; the Amish relay the tunes orally from generation to generation. The songs were written by the Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th and 17th century. Most were written while they were in prison, awaiting death at the hands of Catholic and Reformed executioners. Sung in a slow, chant-like fashion, the songs of the Ausbund are powerful and moving reminders to the Amish of the persecution they have faced in the past and of the fact that they remain a pilgrim people in an often unholy world.
The other volume close to the Amish heart is Martyrs Mirror. Compiled by an Anabaptist Dutchman named Thieleman J. van Braght and published in 1660, this awe-inspiring, 1,100-page tome chronicles 15 centuries of Christian martyrdom, beginning with Christ and the Apostles and continuing through the Anabaptist martyrs of the 17th century. Like the Ausbund, Martyrs Mirror recounts the persecution of the Anabaptists at the hands of Catholics and others. The Amish devotion to van Braght’s volume cannot be understated. Many Sunday afternoons I observed Amos, the paterfamilias, engrossed in these stories for hours. Like the Handbook, this book is also peppered with anti-Catholic sentiments. Through these works, Amish misconceptions about Catholicism are reinforced, generation after generation.
In retrospect, my limited experience highlighted the lack of communication and understanding between the Amish and the Roman Catholic Church. It is clear that the Amish have been overlooked in the ecumenical shuffle of the last 40 years, although I do not think the oversight has been intentional. A highly decentralized, somewhat splintered church, the Amish have no mechanism for reaching out to other denominations. But many Amish are genuinely interested in their Christian cousins, the Catholics, nonetheless. Like us, they recognize that at the very heart of the Christian faith lie forgiveness and reconciliation.
By the time I left the farm at the end of August, I had undergone a spiritual as well as aesthetic transformation. I adopted Amish garb early on and easily blended in among the Amish. Rebecca, the matriarch of the family, had stitched me a pair of black pants, and I even donned a straw hat. I had learned to speak their language, Pennsylvania Deitsch, handled horses comfortably and adapted to Amish customs. The Amish had become a second family to me; I had come to appreciate their way of life. I suspected that going back to the modern, high-speed, secular world would be difficult, but was thankful for the graces the experience brought. I learned to appreciate silence, the importance of a supportive faith community and what it meant to sanctify my work. Like the Jesuits whom I know better, the Amish struggle to mold the work of their lives for the greater glory of God.