Cultural Change and Survival in Amish Society
Watching the Amish riding their horse drawn carriages through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you catch a glimpse of how life would have been 150 years ago. The Amish, without their electricity, cars, and television appear to be a static culture, never changing. This, however, is just an illusion. In fact, the Amish are a dynamic culture which is, through market forces and other means, continually interacting with the enormously tempting culture of America. So, one might be led to wonder how a culture like the Amish, one that seems so anachronistic, has not only survived but has grown and flourished while surrounded by a culture that would seem to be so detrimental to its basic ideals. The Amish, through biological reproduction, resistance to outside culture, compromise, and a strong ethnic symbolism have managed to stave off a culture that waits to engulf them. Why study the Amish? One answer would be, of course, to learn about their seemingly pure cooperative society and value system (called Ordung). From this, one may hope to learn how to better America's problem of individualism and lack of moral or ethical beliefs. However, there is another reason to study the Amish. Because the Amish have remained such a large and distinct culture from our own, they provide an opportunity to study the effects of cultural transmission, resistance, and change, as well as the results of strong symbolism in maintaining ethnic and cultural isolation.
II. History of the Amish
The Amish have their roots in the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe, led by Martin Luther. Of these Protestant groups one sect was the Anabaptists. The first Anabaptist group was known as the Brethren. Anabaptists (which means rebaptized) believed that church membership should be voluntary (Good 1979, p.10). Because the Anabaptists believed that church membership should be voluntary and Baptism repeated as an adult, they were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. The Amish began as a break off of another Anabaptist group called Mennonites, named after their leader Menno Simons. The Amish, led by Jakob Amman, split in 1693, from the Mennonites over disagreements about purity and excommunication, also known as shunning (Good 1979, p.13). Shunning is the Amish practice of censuring its members. The actual process of shunning is the cutting of all social contact with the excommunicated member. Church members may not talk or interact in any way with a shunned Amish person without risk of being shunned themselves. Shunning is an extremely efficient manner of maintaining social order. Because the Amish are raised in a very communal society, shunning is a strong psychological punishment as well as a social force. The split over shunning was neither the first split in the Anabaptist movement nor between the Amish.
Eventually, both Mennonites and Amish were forced, due to persecution, to flee from...