Family and church are the two strongest institutions in Amish culture and serve to unite the community. Each feeds into the other. While families make up a congregation, they are also influenced by the conservatism of the church. This is because churches impose social rules and orders for the Amish community. In highly conservative communities, families are large, cohesive structures that maintain strong support for their elders while complying with congregation established rules of behavior for the community. The family is a central, stabilizing forth in Amish society (Bryer, 1979). Although in modern society, science, technology, religion, and belief, can all fulfill social functions and even act as social cohesives, technological options are not available to the Amish. In studies of 24 Amish families, five elements of Amish society were studies: family structure, group structure, funeral customs, personal experiences with death, and personal feelings about death. Family cohesion proved to be a recurring trend in helping Amish deal with death and providing social support. Because of the lack of availability of other technological stand-ins, the Amish rely far more on each other than they would otherwise. This provides an ongoing social glue that brings them together in times of grief, and which provides a foundation upon which they can build for other occasions in life as well. Within the family, elders take on an important role in guiding the culture forward (Greska, 2004).
Although elders attempt to maintain a level of independence, or at least attempt to be as independent as possible, they still dwell near to the homes of their children. These homes are often single room houses connected to the larger homes of their children. They are given great respect by other members of the family and are rarely moved out, even as age progresses and medical emergencies become more frequent. The generational nature of the Amish is made quite visible in the turning over of the family property from an elder to his youngest male heir.
Although family is central to maintaining Amish society, it is predicated on other factors as well. Conservatism is a significant predictor of cohesion among Amish families and reflects the effect of reducing the insulating nature of traditional Amish setups (Wasao, 2010). In studies of Amish churches throughout Northeast Ohio, church affiliation was used as a determiner of potential position (conservative, moderate, or liberal). While all churches shared common characteristics, where they fell across a conservative-liberal spectrum had significant impact on family sizes among those Amish families studied. The church’s status of conservative versus liberal also determined a husband’s likeliness to participate in a farm versus non-farming job, as well as determined the likeliness of a husband to participate in church leadership. The religious spectrum along which a church fell therefore had a compounding effect with which several other traditionally conservative roles overlapped. Increase conservatism led to higher farming, church leadership husbands that maintained larger families. The opposite was found to be true in liberal spectrum churches, which lead to non-farming, non-church leadership participating husbands that led smaller families. As a result, it can be states that the role of church as a conservative force acts as a very potent source of cohesion among families and a feeder for traditional values.
The church’s centrality to the life of the Amish is apparent in the way it makes social rules for the entirety of the community, which extend beyond the walls of the church itself (Lee, 1984). These rules are called “Ordung” and are established by individual congregations, leading to highly visible displays of social cohesion in the forms of dress, transportation, lifestyles, and the emphasis on providing mutual aid. Although religious needs of the U.S. will always be diverse, the emphasis on helping one another is something that all cultures can take to heart.
- Bryer, K. (1979). The Amish way of death: A study of family support systems. American Psychologist, 31(3), 255-261.
- Greska, L., Korbin, J., & Ember, M. (2004). Amish. In C. Ember (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology, Volume 2: Cultures (Vol. 2, pp. 557-564). Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press.
- Lee, K. (1984). Amish Society–In Celebration of Rural Strengths and Diversity. Annual National/Second International Institute on Social Work in Rural Areas.
- Wasao, S., & Donnermeyer, J. (2010). An Analysis of Factors Related to Parity among the Amish in Northeast Ohio. Population Studies, 235-246.