Amish People's Religion and Ethnic Background

And the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it. Genesis, Chapter 2 v. 15, The Bible

    The Amish people of North America represent a traditional agrarian Christian subculture that originated in Switzerland and Alsace in 1693 as an off-shoot of the Anabaptist branch of the Protestant Reformation (Smith 1957; Hostetler 1993). Today they can no longer be found in Europe. The North American Amish, located primarily in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Indiana preserve much of their Germanic heritage in language (an oral folk German dialect (Buffington 1939) and culture and have evolved a highly interconnected social system of cooperative, mutualistic and unifying interactions which sustains them as a separate subculture. The primary unit of Amish society is a patriarchical family (Huntington 1956; Schreiber 1962; Hostetler 1993). Groups of families are tightly connected as parts of an Amish church community or Gemeinde (a redemptive community (Cronk 1981), in which personal salvation takes place in Christian community) who meet for worship in each others's homes and barns (Hostetler 1993). Each church community has its own lay church leaders and a set of socio-religious rules called the Ordnung, which create boundaries between them and the world and limits the scale of many aspects of their culture, including technology and farm operation (Hostetler 1993). For example, to encourage a slower pace of life and more local connectiveness, Ordnungs do not allow church members to own automobiles; horses and buggies are used instead (Hostetler 1993). Furthermore, only horses are allowed to be the main source of power in agricultural field work so that farm size is limited to what a family with a team of draft horses can manage (20 - 60 Ha.) (Kuhns 1989; Kline 1990; Hostetler 1993).

    At the core of traditional Amish society is an agrarian lifestyle. Tilling the soil has religious significance for the Amish based on Biblical interpretations and as a result the Amish have a strong sense of land stewardship (Hostetler 1993). A visiting bishop from Pennsylvania was quoted as saying "we should conduct our lives as if Jesus would return today, but take care of the land as if He would not be coming for a thousand years" (Kline 1995a). In the view of many Amish, farming offers "a quieter life and one feels closer to God" (Stinner et al. 1989). For example, much plowing is done with walk-behind plows, in which feedback on soil condition is direct and there is time to observe and enjoy the clouds, birds and the beautiful pastoral landscape created by Amish farm communities. The rhythm of the northern temperate zone seasons and associated farming and religious rituals provides a deep sense of order to life for Amish farm families. The self-sufficient farming systems practiced by the Amish reinforces their cultural separateness and are an integral part of the culture's persistence and growth (Stinner et al. 1989; Hostetler 1993).

    The Amish are believers in the Creation doctrine as given in Genesis in the Christian Bible (Hostetler 1993), and as such, all of creation (i.e., biodiversity) is viewed as God's handiwork to be honored. "...anyone who keeps an eye on the wonders of God's creation, cannot help but be impressed how all living things work together to keep things in balance. It is no accident, nor did all come to pass by some process of evolution as is so commonly believed in the world today. The creator of all life did a wonderful job with the planet we call earth and all the living things that live therein, in design and function, God left nothing undone, nor was any part of it planned haphazardly" (Christner 1996a). The belief that people are "tending the garden" provides the spiritual basis for values that promote biodiversity.

    Historical environmental and socio-political aspects of the Amish culture have a strong bearing on contemporary Amish views of nature and biodiversity. When the Anabaptist Movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525, its basic tenets of adult baptism and complete separation of church and state appealed to urban intellectuals and crafts people (Hostetler 1993), however, these tenets deeply threatened the existing political and religious order. Severe persecution was initiated soon after the movement began in the 16th century and continued into the 18th century throughout much of western Europe (Smith 1957). As a result of persecution, the movement moved out of the cities and into remote mountainous regions (e.g., the Jura and Vosges Mountains) where followers could be less easily found and became associated with peasants (Smith 1957 and Hostetler 1993). In these marginal lands and environmental zones, ancestors of the Amish were forced to adopt an ethic of environmental stewardship in order to survive and produce food (Smith 1957; Meyers 1983; Hostetler 1993). Eventually they became renowned as superior land stewards and innovative farmers (Correll 1925; Seguy 1973; Stinner et al. 1992).

    A poem dating from 1681 (Klines, pers. com.) provides evidence of the love for and connection the early Anabaptists had with their harsh but beautiful mountain homelands. It tells the story of a young Anabaptist boy sadly looking back at his beloved mountains as he and his family are forced to leave because of religious persecution. Translated by the Amish, one verse reads:

Farewell you Alps, you beloved regions.

You native village in the great valley!

You beloved fields, another will tell you.

Oh house of my youth, you will I never see.

God keep you! Farewell for the last time.

The grandeur of the Anabaptist ancestral homeland instilled a deep love of nature which is still carried in the cultural memory of the Amish people. This is viewed as a foundation of contemporary Amish views of and interactions with nature and biodiversity.


Religious Aspects of Amish Views of Biodiversity

The Gelassenheit Principle

    Menno Simons, an early Anabaptist leader wrote,those born of God are called into one body and are prepared, by love to serve their neighbors" (Wenger 1956). The principle of yieldedness or Gelassenheit, a term used by medieval mystics to indicate internal submission to God, structures much of their society (Cronk 1981). The power of love can be released only when self-will dies, and Amish communities are based on this idea of the power of powerlessness, as exemplified by the life of Christ (Cronk 1981). Work is a ritual sign of yieldedness (Cronk 1981). "And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:" (I Cor. 4:12, The Bible). In keeping with the historical agrarian heritage of the Amish, living and working on family farms close to God's creations, i.e., the land and the biodiversity therein, (instead of human creations) in context of redemptive and interdependent communities is the traditional way the Amish people have expressed these religious principles. In this sense, farming is viewed by Amish traditionalists as a "holy life".

Church Liturgy, Songs and Bibical Passages

    Since the Amish have bi-weekly worship services, their liturgical calendar (Schriften und Lieder) is divided into twenty-six parts that reflect both religious holidays and agricultural seasons. Their liturgical year begins with the Christmas scriptures (Christtag Schriften), Luke 1 and 2 one Sunday and then two weeks later, Matthew 2 and 3. Since the Amish still hold January 6 as the day Jesus was born, their liturgical year also begins with the new year.

    While many of their scripture readings and studies are connected with holy days, quite a few are associated with the agricultural seasons. Sometime in April, when the farmers are sowing clovers and oats, Matthew 13 and John 15 (Aemann Schriften) are read: "sower went forth to sow". In summer, John 4 and Revelations 14 (Ernd Schriften) is read, and then toward the end of summer when the grains have been gathered into the barns, appropriately the harvest scriptures (Einsammeln Schriften), Luke 12 and 13 will be used. Oftentimes the services are held in barns where the well-worn boards of the threshing floor are lightly covered with new hay and the granaries bulging with summer's bounty of grain.

    Their hymns likewise reflect the time of the year. The Amish Ausband is a book of Christian songs dating to the 1500's. Without notes, these songs are passed on orally by the Amish. While most of these songs tell stories of Anabaptist ancestors imprisoned for their faith in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries (particularly in a prison in Passau, Germany), there are some that express an appreciation and knowledge of nature. For example, the Sunday the Aemann Schriften are read, hymn 47 is sung. In this beautiful song several stanzas are about the European skylark, which sings his wonderful courtship song as the farmers sow their seeds in early spring.

Die Lerch sich durch die Wolken schwang,

Mits Csser Stimm und Weise

(The lark wings through the clouds,

With sweet voice and melody)

Even though all the scripture texts in the Amish register are from the New Testament, the Amish are well acquainted with and cherish the Old Testament. They have a long tradition of quoting Lob SprCchlin (praise sayings) and most of those are from Psalms. In fact, their Luther translation of the New Testament used in church also contains the psalms. Favorite quotes from Psalms are:

118:24  "This is the day the Lord has made;

        we will rejoice and be glad in it."

19:1    "The heavens declare the glory of God;

        And the expanse shows his handiwork."

24:1    "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness of it."

        (Also reads the same in 1 Cor. 10:26).

96:1    "sing unto the Lord, all the earth."

121:1-2 "I will lift up my eyes unto the hills.

        Where shall my help come from?

        My help comes from the Lord,

        who made heaven and earth."

    Psalms 133 is sung in their communion services which are held twice ; in the spring at Easter and in the fall at the end of harvest. Psalms 147 versus 1 - 5 are quoted many times. Likewise, Micah 6:8, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" In a special Catholic service honoring Spirituality and the Land, invited speaker David Kline used Psalm 104 as the text for his presentation." "Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou make them all: the earth is full of thy riches." Another verse from The Bible often quoted by the Amish which has implications for their relationship to nature and biodiversity is from Revelations (Rel. 11:18):".....and [Thou] shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth". Of interest is the observation that in the Amish German Bible the word for destroy in "destroy the earth" is "verderben" which translates "harm" rather than "to destroy".


Source: Honoring Creation and Tending the Garden: Amish Views of Biodiversity
by Richard H. Moore, Deborah H. Stinner, and David and Elsie Kline
In Press. Human Values of Biodiversity (Darrell Posey and Graham Dutfield, Eds.) Cambridge University Press. Special volume for the UN Environmental Programme Global Assessment of Indigenous People.