Joe Wittmer, Ph.D., Responds to Questions Regarding the Amish (Installment #2)

Until his death Joe Wittmer (see Installment # 1) managed this question and answer section for the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom's web site. He was reared in the Old Order horse-and-buggy Amish faith in Indiana until age sixteen and was also the author of The Gentle People: An Inside View of Amish Life (3rd Edition, 2007). 

As noted under Installment #1, Wittmer frequently made presentations regarding the Amish and began the first Q and A session with the two questions most often asked concerning them. In Installment #2 he answers three of the more frequent inquires he received about the Amish since beginning this Q & A section.

Several web site readers have asked specific and very interesting questions about the Amish practice of rumspringa and I address this so called Amish "practice" in question #1 below. Admittedly, other experts on the Amish culture may disagree with my ideas and thoughts concerning this controversial subject. Thus, I wish to acknowledge that the practice of rumspringa varies from Amish church district to district and I write here about the practice as conducted in my former Amish settlement.

"How do I go about becoming friends with Amish church members in order to learn more about them and their religion?"

"Can I become Amish? if yes, how do I initiate this process?"

"Will you please provide me with some names and addresses of Amish with whom I can correspond, visit with, perhaps live with for a week, etc?"

These are just a few of the questions I have been asked by readers of this web site. I hope all readers of this site understand, that, because of privacy issues and other personal reasons, I will not, under any circumstances provide any reader with the names of Amish with whom they might make contact for any reason. I also address the above in answer #2 below.

"Why do the Amish not engage in missions, per se, nor the supporting of missionaries?"

This is an excellent and somewhat controversial question and has been often asked by readers of this web site. I address this question in #3 below.

1. What is rumspringa?

First, I realize that the Amish practice of "rumspringa"(German, meaning "running around") has always been confusing for non-Amish and has been made even more perplexing by the recent TV Show, Amish in the City and the made for TV documentary; The Devil's Playground. Interestingly, rumspringa is seldom written about in any detail by those individuals who truly know the Amish and write about them (I give it less than a page in my book). This is due to the fact that it really does not exist as described by the mainstream press, screen play writers and others.

To my knowledge, no Amish church has ever officially sanctioned the practice of rumspringa as described in the two shows mentioned above. And, I am convinced that Amish parents would never tell one of their children to (simply because they turned a certain age--16 in most Amish communities), "explore the world!" However, this is exactly what is indicated in the Amish in the City TV show and the documentary The Devil's Playground. Neither show, in my opinion, facilitated an accurate description of rumspringa. In addition, in my opinion, neither show can be considered as a fair and balanced portrayal of rumspringa as the Amish kids in the TV show and those participating in the documentary were not really true Amish, in the strictest sense of the word. The young participants of both shows were in a rebellious stage of their lives, had not been baptized and were thus, not current members of the "congregation of the righteous" (Titus 2:14) as the Amish refer to themselves. In my opinion, to have been judged as fair and balanced, the documentary and TV show referred to above should have included interviews with rumspringa age kids from the 85% or more who do not choose to rebel and explore the "world." Of course, and unfortunately for the reputation of the Amish, those kids would never agree to participate or be interviewed!!

I studied 25 young Amish men of rumspringa age for my Ph.D. dissertation and found that most, for unexplained reasons, were ashamed of their Amish culture and the way they had been "brought up." I have also found that many of the rebellious young Amish men of rumspringa age, who do choose to "explore the world" are often very negative in their comments to non-Amish about the Amish sect as a whole. In my opinion, they display this type of behavior in an all out attempt to gain the acceptance of the non-Amish person. That is, for unknown reasons, Amish youth of rumspringa age, who do rebel and explore the "world," seem to want very badly to please any non-Amish person who asks them about their culture and they go about it in a negative manner. Of course, this attitude often results in poor choices and resultant behavior that gets some of them in very serious problem situations in the "outside" world.

Fortunately, this is a "temporary phase" of life as most of the ones I studied (and others with whom I am acquainted) returned to the "fold" and became among the strictest of God fearing Amish adults. As one Amish minister told me about the rebel youth, "They work hard at sinning but we thank God it is only for show and it goes away when they grow up and learn the truth."

Again, I know of no Amish church that sanctions the practice of rumspringa as portrayed in these two made for TV shows or as described by many uninformed non-Amish writers. In my former Amish community, rumspringa (running around and or of dating age) begins the day one turns 16. The Amish believe that adulthood begins at age 16 (not15 years 364 days, but on your 16th birthday!) and one is to "put away the things of a child" at that age. As my Dad said to me on my 16th birthday, "Joe, today you are an adult." On that magical, rite of passage day, one is permitted to look seriously at members of the opposite sex (with romantic interest) for the first time without sanction, boys are given their own horse and buggy, neither boys or girls are expected to perform farm chores on Sunday, etc. In my former community, this rite of passage is taken very seriously. For example, any male not 16 who attends the Sunday night sing is playfully held down on the dining room table (in the home where the sing is being held) and fed milk from a spoon because he is still a baby and "not of rumspringa age." (Sociologists find this to be an interesting boundary maintaining mechanism!).

I also think that this "magical age of 16" phenomenon is part of a bigger problem for the Amish sect as it brings about a mind set of total independence on the part of their youth--something many, especially boys, have difficulty handling appropriately at this young age. In addition, it is viewed by some as "a casual look the other way time" on the part of the Amish parents and other adults. I acknowledge that some Amish parents do relax their standards some when their offspring turn 16 and some permit exploration to an extent--but most to a rather limited extent. However, again, no Amish parent would ever tell their 16 year old to go out and experience the "world" as one is led to believe by the TV show and documentary mentioned above.

In sum, to the Amish, a youth in rumspringa is age 16 and beyond and not married, is in the "running around" (rumspringa) stage which translates into going to the sings and dating--nothing more! Yet, this unwritten and non-sanctioned church practice, in my opinion, differentiates the Amish from a cult as their youth may decide to select this exploratory experience and explore the "world." However, in actuality, very few do. I would venture that 99% of them live at home during rumspringa age. Yes, some (very few) will go into town for a night, may have a transistor radio under their buggy seat, may change into non-Amish clothes and may sneak into a movie theater. Sadly, like so many other things in our society, the latter is what the media folks tend to focus on as this makes for the best "reading."

Again, rumspringa time for Amish youth varies from Amish community and some experts may disagree with my description.

2. How do the Amish Feel About Developing Personal Relationships with Non-Amish People? Can an Outsider Become Amish?

I address this question in more detail in my book, The Gentle People: An Inside View of Amish Life, and will do so only briefly here.

Amish individuals are seldom completely comfortable around non-Amish people, or the "English" or "Outsider," as non-Amish are known to the Amish. Although they are to be peaceful, meek, different and a "peculiar" people as commanded by the Bible, they do desire to peacefully co-exist with members of the "world." They understand that, like Jesus who mingled with non-believers, including money-changers and prostitutes, as well as other sinners, they too must gain an accurate understanding of the "worldly" people living in their midst. They understand that they must learn to speak the English language of the non-Amish "English," gain a knowledge of their values and ways and learn how to trade effectively with them. But again, they must always live their lives "separate and different from" the ways of the "world" and further, not to be "unequally yoked together with non-believers... what communion hath light with darkness? Come out from among them, and be separate..." (2 Corinthians 6:14) . The latter verse is a favorite and very important dictate emphasized over and over again by the Amish ministers. It is the major underlying theme of every sermon given at any Amish religious service including weddings and funerals.

I remember questioning my Amish father about the meaning of the term "unequally yoked." He explained that it was similar to two horses being hitched together to pull a wagon and that one was a tame, good pulling horse while the other was not broken and therefore would not pull his weight appropriately. His point was, I believe, that if a believer is yoked together with a non-believer, the non-believer will only pull the believer down to his level and/or lead him/her astray. This Biblical dictate also prohibits an Amish person from marrying outside the faith, from going into business with an "English" person, from attending high school, from having insurance of any kind, from collecting social security, pensions, etc. It implies strict separateness from the "world" which adds to their distinctiveness and "peculiarity" as a group.

Amish individuals of all ages and gender must avoid intimate connections with any "outsider," any "worldly" person, where and when possible. As noted above, the major tenet of the Amish religion is that separation must exist between those who believe in God and are obedient to Him and those who are "non-believers" and not obedient. Does this mean that they (the Amish) believe that all non Amish are non-believers? No, they feel that one really never knows whether the "English" person one meets and has engaged in conversation is a believer or non-believer. And, of course, an Amish person would never ask a non-Amish person if he/she is a "believer." So, where possible, it is simply best not to "mingle" with "worldly" people. And, most certainly, one should not be a "friend of the world" as is clearly stated in the Bible.

An "outsider" becoming a "successful" member of the Old Order Amish church is an extremely rare occurrence, but not impossible. However, it is extremely difficult, in the long term, for an "English?" person to give up modern accoutrements for the extreme discipline of the Old Order Amish. Such a conversion would include formal instruction in Amish beliefs and the German language as well as baptism -- not to mention almost impossible and significant lifestyle changes. I know of only two individuals from the outside world who have joined the Old Order Amish church and remain members in good standing today. Several (the Amish call them "seekers") have made the attempt to join, but have failed. However, the Amish are adopting non-Amish infants at an ever increasing rate.

Many individuals born into the Old Order Amish faith do leave the church and join the Mennonites or some other less conservative "Plain People" church group such as the black car Beachy Amish. And, some, like myself, do leave the Amish church and culture for a more liberal life style, and as the Amish say, "join the world." However, the latter is also rare.

If you do visit an Amish area of the country, I urge you to leave your camera (and notebook) out of sight as seeing a tourist with a camera may cause the Amish person to be anxious and even uncooperative in answering your questions.

3.Why don't the Amish support missionaries as dictated by the Bible?

This is a difficult question to answer so I turned to an Amish Bishop friend for assistance. He made it clear that it is counter to church rules/orders (ordnung) for the Old Order Amish to do any proselytizing and that they never attempt to convert others to their religion, a practice so prevalent among other religious fundamentalist groups in America. Matter of fact, as mentioned above, Amish church members are reluctant to discuss their faith with others, especially with non-Amish individuals.

The elderly Bishop informed me that actions and good deeds are very important and that the Amish do believe that they are a constant "witness" to God by the way they dress, provide assistance to those in need (both Amish and non-Amish) and the way they behave in all matters. That is, although they live their lives so as "to be pleasing to God" seven days a week in all aspects of their everyday lives, the Old Order Amish are not crusaders for the "word of God." They are not out to "save" or "convert" the non-believer, especially a non-Amish individual. They do not hold revivals of any sort, do not send missionaries anywhere, do not seek to bring new members to the church outside their own children and do not go door to door passing out religious literature. Their Bible tells them to be concerned about their own salvation and, " take care of those of your own house... " (I Timothy 5:8) both spiritually and physically. In addition, as opposed to other fundamentalist groups, an Amish person will never verbally state, "I am saved," since only God can know and make that judgement. But, they do view themselves as "a congregation of the righteous. " (Titus 2:14).

Why don't the Amish support missionaries? Doesn't the Bible urge all Christians to go forth and preach the gospel to others? Do the Amish churches not have mission programs? These are questions I am often asked by non-Amish who are quick to inform me that all Christian churches are mandated by the Bible to have a mission program. No doubt this is a controversial subject. The following is the crux of the Amish beliefs regarding this topic: They believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the twelve disciples in Matthew 28:18-29 when he commissioned them to; "..go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father" and not to ordinary people like themselves. They believe that they should be a "witness" to others in all they do; but do not view themselves worthy of taking on a role that was specifically commissioned by Christ to the twelve disciples; the divinely appointed apostles. To the Amish, to be an apostle means to be a messenger who was personally sent by Jesus to the " ... corners of the earth. " In addition, in John 15:27 and Acts 1:21, it indicates that to be; "...called by the Lord" as an apostle, one should "...have seen the Lord...and to be chosen by the Lord." And, to the Amish way of thinking, no person alive today, Amish or non-Amish, has physically seen the Lord and been personally commissioned by Him to be a missionary.

The Amish also interpret the Bible to say that, to be an apostle, one should not only have witnessed miracles but should have the power of "working miracles" as did Jesus and the twelve disciples. Thus, to the Amish, this implies one must have been an eyewitness to what one is proclaiming and/or preaching to the world and this is not possible for an ordinary person. However, the apostles were eyewitnesses and thus had no choice but to go forth and preach as commanded by the Lord.

In sum, the twelve disciples were very special men to the Amish. Most Amish congregations do not name their male offspring after any of the disciples, because no one is worthy of such an honor. Thus, in their interpretation of the Bible, the disciples were the only men commissioned by the Lord to be missionaries. Although they are concerned about the evil "world, " to the Amish way of thinking, anybody can pick up the Bible and read it. That is, it is not their duty to keep telling the "world" to read the Bible.

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