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Amish Religious Traditions

In every culture, special occasions are marked by ritual and tradition---the particular way a community celebrates an event. The religious observances of a culture tell us much about the people themselves. In this series, we look at these customs as they are observed among the Lancaster County Amish.

(To read each section of the series individually, click on the following bookmarks, or read on for the entire series.)

 

Part One: The Amish Church Service Part Five: The Selection of Ministers
Part Two: The Tradition of Song Part Six: The Funeral Service
Part Three: Amish Baptism Part Seven: The Amish Wedding
Part Four: The Communion Service

 

Amish Religious Traditions

Part One: The Amish Church Service

Amish church services are held every other Sunday. The geographic area where the Amish live is divided into church districts for this purpose. Since church services are held in homes, not in a church building, each family normally hosts church about once a year.

As people arrive, someone may be in charge of taking the horses to the barn. People tend to congregate by age and gender, young boys often in the barn, women in the house, etc. When church begins, women are usually seated in one area, and men in another. Seating is on backless benches, which each district owns and transports from house to house in a bench wagon. There are more comfortable chairs for some of the older members and the ministers.

Worship begins at about 8:00 a.m. and usually lasts over three hours. Hymns are sung from the AUSBUND, a special hymnal used by the Amish. (We will devote our second article in this series to the music at church services.) There are usually three to seven preachers and bishops at a service. These men retire to a room during the singing to decide who will be preaching the two sermons that day.

Around 8:30 a.m., the first sermon begins. Since people may be seated in different rooms, the ministers may move about somewhat as they preach. Some ministers present their message in a sort of chanting, sing-song manner, in the Pennsylvania German dialect, with Scriptures in High German. It is not unusual for much emotion to be shown, and tears are not uncommon. The pitch and tone of the voice vary for emphasis. As in any church, different preachers have different styles. This first sermon may last about thirty minutes.

Scriptures are read and they kneel for silent prayer prior to the main sermon. This sermon is longer, sometimes over an hour. Ministers often quote a passage from Scripture and then talk about it. Sermons are not written in advance. It is quite amazing that these "untrained" clergy can deliver such powerful, emotional messages to their congregations. Leading a right life in the eyes of the Lord, resurrection, and the idea of "judge not that ye be not judged" are some common themes. Some also like to preach from the Old Testament.

After the main sermon, the other ministers usually make short statements that add to or emphasize what has been heard. There is about another half hour of prayer and singing. The Amish have a booklet outlining the hymns and Scriptures to be used at each service. Readings from the New Testament chapters of Matthew predominate, with Luke and John rounding out the year.

During the service, a wide range of responses are noted, as at a church service anywhere. Some people may be dozing off, others shaking their heads in agreement. Children behave remarkably well. Mothers often bring Cheerios, candy, a toy animal wrapped in a hanky, or a picture book. Sometimes a child walks from his mother in one room to his father in the other. Noisy children are usually disciplined. After the service concludes, the rooms are cleared of people and some of the benches are now converted into tables so that a light lunch can be served.

Because there may be over 150 people, men and women eat in shifts, oldest through youngest, usually in separate rooms,. Each place setting usually has a knife, cup, and saucer, with a glass of water. The meal may consist of coffee, bread, "church spread" (a combination of peanut butter and marshmallow), jam, apple butter, red beets, pickles, cheese, and sometimes snitz (dried apple) pie. A silent prayer is given before and after eating.

Afterwards, there is time for socializing among the adults. Children might play outside or in the barn. People stay into the afternoon, but dairy farmers must soon return home to milk the cows. 

The Amish church service is an act of worship, a preservation of tradition, a renewal of faith, and an affirmation of community.

 

Part Two: The Tradition of Song

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to attend an Amish church service can rarely forget the power and simple beauty of Amish hymns, the sound created by 150 people packed into the rooms of a house singing from their special hymnal, the AUSBUND.

Well over 400 years old, the AUSBUND is one of the most famous and important books to the Amish. First published in German in 1564, shortly after the Reformation, it is reputed to be the oldest Protestant hymnal in continuous use. With hymns added over the years, editions today contain nearly 900 pages!

The AUSBUND is important for many reasons. First and foremost is the religious heritage that it preserves. The core of the hymnbook consists of about 50 hymns written mostly by 16th century German Anabaptists, many imprisoned in castle dungeons for their religious beliefs.. These forefathers of the Amish and Mennonites, Anabaptists ("re-baptizers") were so named because they practiced adult rather than infant baptism. Because of their beliefs in the separation of church and state, and pacifism, they were considered radicals and heretics. These Christians, hunted down by both Protestants and Catholics, were usually imprisoned if they did not recant their beliefs. Thousands were tortured and put to death.

As author Paul M. Yoder notes, since many of the hymns were penned by men awaiting the death sentence, "the dominant tone found in most of them is one of great sorrow, deep loneliness, or protest against the world of wickedness which was putting forth every effort to crush the righteous."

The length of some hymns is astonishing. The longest has 35 stanzas of 13 lines each. The second hymn sung is always the same (#131), "Das Loblied," or "hymn of praise." The hymns are sung in German, with no organ or musical accompaniment. Singing is in unison with no harmonizing. It may take as long as fifteen minutes to do three stanzas, and for this reason entire hymns are not always sung. Most of the melodies originated in sacred or secular folk songs and Gregorian chants of the times.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Amish singing is the fact that the hymnal contains no musical notation. These melodies have simply been remembered and passed down from generation to generation!

Being as certain men in the congregation have natural musical talent, they come to learn the melodies over the years and may emerge as one of the song leaders or "vorsingers." When a hymn is sung, one of these men will lead it, and he begins singing each line. Everyone joins in with the second syllable and finishes the line. Amish visiting other states often note the subtle differences in melody, or the varying speeds with which the hymns are sung, a result of the hymns being changed and embellished over hundreds of years.

It seems only fitting to close with some words from one of the martyr hymns...

We alone, a little flock,
The few who still remain,
Are exiles wandering through the land
In sorrow and in pain...
We wander in the forests dark,
With dogs upon our track;
And like the captive, silent lamb
Men bring us, prisoners, back.
They point to us, amid the throng,
And with their taunts offend,
And long to let the sharpened ax
On heretics descend.

 

Part Three: Amish Baptism

For the Amish, and others of the Anabaptist tradition, the act of joining the church through baptism has great importance. Over 400 years ago, their ancestors in Europe were often tortured and killed because of their belief in adult baptism. Anabaptist means "re-baptizer." These people were so-named because, although they had been baptized as infants in the State Church, they believed that one became a Christian only by a conscious decision as an adult. A book called the Martyrs Mirror describes the terrible sufferings thousands of Anabaptists endured at the hands of other Christians because of this belief.

It is precisely because you join the church as an adult that you are expected to live up to your commitment and to the rules of the faith. If you do not, church discipline will follow.

Teenagers who feel they are ready to join the church begin the process by attending special instruction classes beforehand. There are usually nine of these, and they take place during regular church services. They study the Dordrecht Confession of Faith of 1632, which outlines the basic beliefs the Amish strive to uphold today. At a service prior to the baptisms, the congregation is asked if they will accept the applicants as brothers and sisters.

The baptism itself is part of a regular church service, normally two worship services prior to the autumn communion. After the service begins, the applicants are asked to leave the congregation for a few minutes. In private, they are reminded that they are making a promise for life. If they are uncertain as to this decision, now is the time to reconsider and turn back. Indeed, sometimes one or two of the applicants decides he is not really ready to become a church member. The boys are also asked to accept the possibility of becoming a minister, should the lot ever fall on one of them. When the applicants return, they often keep their heads bowed through part of the service.

After the hymns and sermons, the young people kneel. They are reminded that this is a promise to God, witnessed by those at the church service. Each is asked four questions, signaling their commitment to join the church. Then the prayer coverings are removed from the head of each girl, and the bishop raises each applicant’s head. He is assisted by the deacon who holds a wooden bucket. With a cup, the deacon pours some water from the bucket into the bishop’s hands and onto each applicant’s head three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

The hand of each applicant is taken and they are helped to their feet as the bishop, in the Pennsylvania German dialect, says these words... "In the name of the Lord and the Church, we extend to you the hand of fellowship. Rise up, and be a faithful member of the church" The boys are greeted as members with the Holy Kiss. The girls receive this blessing from the deacon’s wife.

This is an emotional experience and tears are not uncommon for the applicants and others in the congregation. While some of these young people may have "sowed some wild oats" prior to their joining the church, the seriousness of the moment must be clear. Now they are members of this congregation, have promised to abide by its rules, will marry in the faith, and assume the duties that the church may ask of them, such as becoming a minister. The consequences of straying from this path are also clear, with shunning and excommunication the most severe discipline for those who stray from the ways of the faith. Like their forefathers, they have made a commitment, but they will also receive much in return from the community of the faithful of which they have become members.

 

Part Four: The Communion Service

For those of the Amish faith, communion is an important religious service, held only twice a year --- in the spring and fall. The actual communion service is not necessarily held on a Sunday. As is the Amish custom, religious services are held in the home, not in a church building. The geographic area where the Amish live is divided into church districts for this purpose.

At a church service two weeks prior to communion, there is a "Council Meeting." Only baptized members attend this meeting and the communion service. The rules of the church and other matters are discussed. Scriptural passages from the Old and New Testaments as they relate to the Amish are explained.

On the day of the communion service itself, the congregation again gathers at a member’s home. Commonly, men sit in one room and women in another.

Hymn singing begins the service as the preachers and bishops leave to discuss who sill be giving the sermons. The second hymn sung is always the same (#131), "Das Loblied," or "hymn of praise." The hymns are sung in German, with no organ or musical accompaniment. Singing is in unison with no harmonizing. The singing may go on for more than 30 minutes.

There is a short opening sermon, followed by a longer second sermon, lasting about two hours. During this and continuing into the main sermon, a few people leave off and on to eat. Since this service lasts well past noon, this is the way that everyone eats without taking time for a break.

At some point in the main sermon, which takes about three hours, two deacons leave to get the wine and a large, round loaf of bread. The bread, wrapped in a white cloth, is uncovered and cut before the congregation. While all stand, each member receives a piece of bread, starting with the bishops and preachers, the other men, and finally the women. Upon receiving the bread, each person puts it in his mouth, genuflects, and sits down to eat it. The congregation then rises again to receive the wine. The wine is poured into a cup, and each person takes a swallow, genuflects, and is again seated.

Buckets for the footwashing are now brought in. Shoes and socks are removed. One man stoops over, washes, and dries the feet of the other man sitting in the chair. The two then switch places. The men exchange these words, "The Lord be with us. Amen, in peace." They give each other the "holy kiss" and then return to their seats. This continues until each man has had his feet washed at the chair. Women follow the same procedure in their room. More singing then concludes the service.

Afterwards, as the congregation leaves to go home, the men slip some money into the hands of the deacon. It is only at the two communion services that an "offering" is given. The deacon quickly slips the money into his pocket. This money is used for any emergency or special need that might arise among the members.

Thus, in many ways, the rituals and sharing that comprise the communion service confirm the bonds of faith and community that are so important in Amish society.

 

Part Five: The Selection of Ministers

As is the Amish custom, religious services are held in the home, not in a church building. The geographic area where the Amish live is divided into church districts for this purpose. Each district usually has two or three ministers, one deacon, and one bishop, who is usually shared between two districts. Since church is held every other Sunday, the bishop alternates between the districts.

The Amish do not believe in going to a college or seminary to become a minister in the church. No one is "brought in" or feels he has been "called" to serve as a preacher. Rather, ministers are chosen by lot from the men in the church district congregation.

Becoming a minister is not viewed as an honor, but rather as a serious and heavy responsibility. They normally serve for life and receive no salary. In most Amish settlements, a young man cannot be baptized into the faith unless he is willing to become a minister, should the lot fall on him some day.

The idea of choosing a minister by lot comes from Acts 1:23-26, in which lots were cast to decide who would replace Judas as one of the twelve of Christ’s apostles.

New ministers are needed when one dies, or when a district becomes too large and must divide. An announcement that a new minister will be chosen is usually made at least two weeks prior to the communion service, so everyone has time to pray and meditate. (Deacons are chosen by lot, as well, and bishops from among the ministers.) It is normally taken for granted that the candidate will be a married man.

There are not to be discussions among the people as to who they plan to "nominate," not even between man and wife. Nor does anyone indicate his desire to become a minister.

After the long communion service, the selection takes place. Chapter 3 of I Timothy is read to those gathered. This chapter in the New Testament describes in detail the qualifications and character a man should have to hold this position.

Then the bishop and other ordained men go to a private room in the house. Each member, beginning with the men and baptized boys, then women and girls, goes to the door of the room and whispers the name of the man in their congregation who they feel best suited to be the new minister.

When voting is completed, the ministers return and announce each man’s name who was selected to be in the lot. The men who have received three or more votes become the candidates, of whom there may be around six to eight.

As each man’s name is called, he rises and goes to sit at a table on which an equal number of hymnbooks have been placed. Each hymnal has a rubberband around it, and hidden inside one book is a slip of paper. In the Lancaster settlement, the piece of paper has the following words in German, "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposal thereof is of the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33). This is to remind everyone that the final choice of minister is made by God.

Each man then selects a book. Usually the oldest man chooses first, followed by the other men down through the youngest. There is usually great tension and suspense as the books are opened to see who has been "chosen." Because of the solemn procedure and great responsibility involved, when the chosen man’s name is announced, he and many others in the congregation burst into tears. Everyone is encouraged to pray for him, for he has been selected from among them.

The Amish feel that the hand of God is involved in the selection process. Indeed, there are even some stories of men who tried to pick up a particular book, but felt they were being "held back." The event is one of the most emotional and important to be experienced in the Amish church.

 

Part Six: The Funeral Service

The Amish, like all religious groups, have particular customs that they observe upon the death of a family member. Funeral practices of the Lancaster Amish settlement differ somewhat from those in other areas.

In Lancaster County for many years now, the body is taken to a local funeral director who is familiar with Amish funeral customs. Family members might wash the body before the undertaker comes for the body. One local funeral home has a large Amish clientele, and still uses the same horse-drawn hearse, said to be the first one in the county. Coffins are stored at the funeral home, basically in three sizes. They are six sided, with two pieces on hinges that fold down to reveal the body from the chest up. The funeral director puts the lining in the coffins as they come from the Amish who make them. Each coffin also has a "rough box," an outer wooden structure into which the coffin is lowered at the grave.

The undertaker embalms the body and normally dresses it in long underwear before placing it in the coffin and returning to the Amish family. The body is usually dressed in white clothing by family members of the same sex. For men, this usually means white pants, vest, and shirt; for women a white dress, cape, and apron. In many cases the white cape and apron is the same one she wore on her wedding day.

In the meantime, word goes out about the death to relatives and those in the church district. An obituary appears in the local newspaper. Prior to the day of the funeral service and burial, usually three days after the death, friends and neighbors come to the home to view the body. This is a somber time, with men and women, dressed in black, quietly sitting in one or two rooms. Visitors greet the family members, and then are asked if they would like to see the body. They are taken to the coffin, and the white sheet or cloth is pulled back to reveal the face of the deceased. The undertaker does not use make-up or cosmetics on the face when he embalms the body.

On the day of the funeral, a church service is held in the home. During the sermons, the minister stands near the coffin to address the congregation. The custom is not to eulogize of speak of the deceased. Rather ministers tend to talk about the creation story, from dust man was created and to dust he returns. Common Scriptural passages are John 5:20-30 and the latter portion of I Corinthians 15, both dealing with the resurrection of the dead.

Since many carriages will be going to the cemetery, a number designating the order is often written in chalk on the side of the buggy. The coffin is placed in the hearse, a box-like enclosed carriage drawn by a horse. The long line of carriages heading to the cemetery is a solemn, impressive sight.

There are about 20 Amish cemeteries in Lancaster County. Gravestones are fairly uniform. No one shows his status or wealth with an extravagant tombstone. The stone states the name, birth date, death date, and age in years, months, and days. Older cemeteries may have stones in German, but nowadays they are in English. Cemeteries usually have an area where the horse and buggies can park.

At the cemetery, the grave has already been dug. There is no singing. Rather, a hymn is read by the minister or bishop until the grave is filled by the pallbearers. The Lord’s Prayer is prayed silently. Following this, people go to their carriages and some return to the home for a simple meal.

Like so many of their religious ceremonies, the Amish are reminded that their focus should not be so much on this world as on the world yet to come.

 

Part Seven: The Amish Wedding

It seems appropriate to finish this series with the Amish Wedding. This is especially so since most Amish wedding take place at this time of year, from late October through December, after the autumn harvest. Traditionally, the days for weddings are Tuesdays and Thursdays, so there is time in between to get ready for and clean up after each. Even so, it can get pretty busy during the "wedding season," with some Amish going to two or three weddings in one day!

A wedding is a particularly joyous occasion, for two baptized members of the church are joining in marriage, continuing the faith, and starting a new family together. While parents do not select who their children will marry, approval must be given, and the deacon usually acts as the go-between. At a church service after fall communion, the couples planning to marry are "published," announced in front of the congregation. But much preparation, mainly by the bride’s parents has already begun, including the planting in early summer of several hundred stalks of celery, an important part of any Lancaster Amish wedding feast.

The church service itself, held in home of the bride’s parents, is similar to the regular Sunday service. But the focus is on the serious step of marriage, for in the Amish church, there is no divorce. The sermons and Bible passages emphasize the relationship between man and wife.

When it is time for the vows, the couple comes forward. Each is asked if they will remain together until death, and if they will be loyal and care for each other during adversity, affliction, sickness, and weakness. The minister then takes the couples’ hands in his and, wishing them the blessing and mercy of God, tells them to "Go forth in the Lord’s name. You are now man and wife."

After the service, the benches used for the service are put together to form tables. During the wedding meal, the couple sits at the corner of two tables called the "eck," with their attendants on either side, and the unmarried boys sitting opposite the girls.

The meal itself is a feast indeed, including "roast," a mixture of bread filling and chicken, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, apple sauce, and creamed celery. Some leafy celery stalks are also put in jars to decorate the table. Among the desserts are pies, doughnuts, fruit, and pudding. There are usually several wedding cakes, some made by the women, but often one from a bakery as well. They are usually eaten later in the day. It will take several seatings to feed 200, 300, or more guests.

In the afternoon, the young people have a singing, and soon it is time for the evening meal, for those who have stayed through the day. For the seating of the young people, the bride makes a list of couples who are dating or interested in each other. As their names are called, they take their place at the table. On the bride’s side are the married or soon-to-be married couples, while the groom’s side has the other couples. Hymn-singing again follows the meal, with the "faster hymns" predominating this time.

After spending the night at the bride’s home, the newlyweds awake the next day to begin helping with the clean-up from the day before. The couple will spend upcoming weekends visiting relatives. Sometimes five or six houses are visited between a Friday and Sunday night. Wedding gifts are usually given to them at this time.

By the spring, the couple is usually ready to set up housekeeping in a home of their own. The groom would be growing his beard, a sign of marriage in the community. As in every culture, a wedding is a joyous celebration reflecting commitments, a new position in the community, and a new relationship as man and wife.

Amish Country News Amish Series by Brad Igou (1995)

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