Is There a Future for the Amish?

If you watched the show on the Amish on PBS last week you will know the greatest challenge facing followers of The Amish Way is the fact that half of their members – so over 100,000 people – have outside jobs. (It is reckoned that there are about 250,000 Amish in the US today – the only other Amish churches are in Ontario, Canada.) There are no farms for half their people. Many work in “English” factories all day and return to their rural homes at night.

The Amish are not dying off as some thought they would in the 20th century. In fact, they are growing. But land in traditional Amish regions like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, to take just three examples, is simply too expensive to permit the Amish to keep buying up acreages for their offspring. So there are only a few options: stay with Mom and Dad’s farm, if that’s possible for all the grown children with families; move to other regions of the US and Canada in a hunt for less expensive land; move away from farming as a source of income altogether.

Most of us are aware that Amish have opened businesses selling homemade Amish furniture. You can go online and find the information. Other Amish sell the beautiful handmade quilts. Again, you can go online and find them. But not all the Amish can make a living on selling traditional Amish arts and crafts. That is why so many are working for non-Amish employers and companies.

What will this do to shape the Amish over the next 10-20 years? Since the early 1700s they have always lived off the land and have built their lifestyle around farming and agriculture. They have worked side-by-side growing crops and raising cattle and hogs and caring for dairy herds. They haven’t punched clocks.They have been their own masters, moving in rhythm with the seasons. What happens to The Amish Way if half of them do not farm like the other half do? Or do not spend their days in the Amish communities but miles away doing all kinds of other work in order to earn a paycheck? Will The Amish Way eventually fall apart?

Where I live the Hutterites live in colonies on the land, are prosperous (though they live simply enough) and, so far as I know, don’t have to seek employment outside their communities or farms to survive. The Holdeman Mennonites, on the other hand, who have distinctive dress like the Hutterites and Amish, don’t live off the land primarily, but have their own businesses among the “English” and often seek employment in non-Mennonite stores and firms. The Holdeman have their own churches and schools and lifestyle and none of it seems to have been threatened or compromised by working apart from other Holdeman Mennonites. Indeed, they have their own private residences like the rest of us do and live miles apart from one another, often in urban or town settings. Yet their distinctive approach to the Christian faith thrives.

It is because I have seen the Holdeman Mennonites making their way successfully “in the world” that I believe the Amish will do just fine. Of course there will be a period of adjustment, something they are already going through with 100,000 of them employed away from the farm. But I think they will find that, as connected as they have been to agriculture, what really makes them who they are as a people of faith is how closely bonded they are to The Ordnung and how closely bonded they are to God. While they may have found that farming as a lifestyle assists that bonding I think they will also find that it is not the real glue that holds them together. The Holdeman are bound by their common faith, prayers, and worship of Jesus Christ, regardless of where they live or what work they do or who they work for. I believe the Amish will also find that what truly matters is their common faith, prayers, and worship of Jesus Christ, regardless of where they live or what work they do or who they work for.

The Amish may choose to live in colonies or in close proximity to one another, no matter where they work during the day, and not dwell far apart. The goal for many may continue to be to earn enough money to purchase an acreage. But I don’t think it will be long before they come to fully appreciate that they are Amish even if they work in factories or don’t own a barn or teams of horses and oxen. That they are Amish because of what they believe and hold in common no matter if one is a grain farmer and another builds motor homes and another nails down roofs in the suburbs of a nearby city. That they are Amish because they feel called by God to worship in a certain way, live simply and plainly and abstain from violence. That more so than being tied to the land for their identity, it is being tied to God that makes them who they are.

That will be a good thing for them to realize afresh. And I believe they will thrive, because of this realization, throughout the 21st century.

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