"Es sind Zween Weg": singing Amish children into the faith community (1).

Author:Elder, D.R.


The world's largest Amish settlement straddles Ohio's Wayne and Holmes counties. The majority of the Amish prefer an agrarian lifestyle of steady, hard work, preserving a community-oriented, Reformation-era theocracy. The Amish are a "plain" people who define themselves by their differences from the dominant culture. Associating in small groups of 25 to 40 families, "districts," or "affiliations" within geographical areas known as "settlements," they biannually decide by vote of adult members how to modify the rules of behavior (Ordnung). Seeking to be faithful to biblical directives, the members commit themselves to live simply by accepting or rejecting specific technological advances which they believe will enhance or disturb community life. People who break the rules are subject to shunning (Meidung), the primary purpose of which is to bring the transgressor to repentance.

An Amish adult's primary function is to prepare children for heaven by shaping an attitude of "yieldedness" (Gelassenheit) to God. Through vigilant contact, parents teach their children to respect and submit to authority, to work cheerfully, and to be kind to and to help others. Singing is one way parents transmit their cultural values. They sing lullabies, Amish church hymns, and songs to children from infancy. This paper analyzes several Amish nursery songs and investigates their role in Amish children's socialization.


The Amish present a classic case of traditionalist resistance to assimilation. The tradition dates from 1525 when rebaptizers (Anabaptists) broke with the Swiss Brethren led by the priest-reformer Ulrich Zwingli (Klassen 1973, 3). These "Radical Reformers," headed by another priest named Menno Simons, held that adult baptism into a community of believers met God's requirements as set forth in Christian Scripture (Keeney 1968, 14). The Anabaptists grounded their "distinctive knowledge and language of God" in a salvation history (Heilsgeschicht), but they did not have a theology (Oyer 1996, 281). As Robert Friedmann explained, the Anabaptists practiced "an existential not a theological Christianity, where witnessing [by lifestyle] comes before arguing. Anabaptists have a church of order and not so much a church of doctrines" (Friedmann 1950, 24). To the Amish, belief is only real when embodied in a community of believers.

In 1693, a further division occurred between the "Mennonites," those aligned with Menno Simmons, and a group of dissenters led by the preacher/tailor Jacob Amman, who would become known as the "Amish." Disagreements centered on how often to hold communion, whether to practice the ritual of foot washing, and the proper extent of church discipline, particularly whether the shunning of unrepentant, erring members was too severe (Baecher 1996, 48-9).

Choosing the simple peasant life, Amman's group rallied around the scripture-based practice of social avoidance (Meidung). Early Anabaptist writers described a threefold purpose for Meidung: to bring the sinner to repentance, to protect the rest of the community from possible contagion, and to maintain the community's reputation (Keeney 1968, 159). The Amish based their "purer" fellowship on the core values of pacifism, i.e., non-violent non-resistance, and separation from the world in obedience to God by means of voluntary adult baptism (Hostetler and Huntington 1992, 8-13). These choices left them open to further persecution. Like the Hebrews, enduring persecution sharply defined their uniqueness and solidified their identity. As Jean Seguy asserted, "Persecution did not arise out of occasional circumstances; it sprang from ontological necessity" (1982, 35). Being at odds with those around them assured the Amish of their faithfulness to their bible's separation mandate.


Mennonites first ventured to America by 1640, but nothing is known of their fate. Puritan colonies rejected Mennonite settlement. In 1683 fifty Mennonite families founded a "Deutschstadt" in the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania (Wir lesen und sprechen Deutsch 1984, 187). Meanwhile, Amish groups emigrated to the Netherlands, Poland, and Russia (Nolt 1992, 52), with the first Amish, also part of William Penn's Holy Experiment, settling in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1736 (Hostetler 1996, 257). (see Fig. 1, below.)

In the decades after their arrival, seeking good and plentiful farmland, the Amish moved west. The first Amish in Ohio were the preacher Jacob Miller and his family, who reached the fertile farmlands of Tuscarawas County in 1809, and in 1813 the first Amish settled in Wayne County (Wir lesen und sprechen Deutsch 1984, 93). (3) By 1862, this settlement was strong and vocal enough to host a national meeting for Amish leaders (Diener-Versammlungen). Today, of the approximately 180,000 Amish in the United States, over one-quarter live in a settlement straddling Wayne and Holmes counties in Ohio, making it the world's largest settlement, surpassing Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Kraybill and Bowman 2001, 103-5).

Resisting Assimilation

Struggling to maintain their values and identity in the New World, the Amish fellowships chose a functional, non-ornamented or "plain" lifestyle. Over the generations they found themselves divided over whether to build churches in which to gather or to worship in members' homes; whether their children would attend school past the elementary grades; whether to allow buttons or pockets; and whether or not one could vote or become involved in public life. Occasionally, doctrinal differences caused divisions. One splinter group decided to practice "stream" baptism. Joseph Yoder of McLean County, Illinois, precipitated another division by advancing the doctrine of universal salvation. Yoder wrote poetry that proclaimed the power of love to embrace all and denied the existence of hell. The majority denounced his ideas and reaffirmed that only the righteous would receive eternal joy, while the rest would receive eternal punishment (Yoder and Estes 1999, 155-6)

There was also much discussion about how much change would or could be allowed before they lost their identity. The tradition-minded or Old Order Amish rejected industrial society and opted for simplicity, nonconformity, nonresistance, and nonviolence. Today their lifestyle continues to include German-language worship services, horse-drawn transportation, face-to-face business and social interactions, and no established church bureaucracy (Hostetler 1992, 6, 25).

Language serves as a good example of loyalty to tradition. Unlike many other immigrant groups in America, the Amish preserve their native language in both the home and in religious ritual (Gallagher 1987), where High German and Pennyslvania Dutch, or Deitsch (a German derivative), serve as important uniting factors. Among the Swartzentrubers, an ultra-conservative Amish order, children learn no English until beginning school in the first grade. The adherence to their language, along with intentional community living, isolates the Amish from dominant American education, mass culture, politics, and economic forces. The use of Deitsch cements the Amish into a community better able to resist the forces of assimilation.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, legal, social, and political forces opposed the speaking of other languages besides English. The underlying belief of the "perfect union" ideology argued that uniformity of language would produce a single morality, deep-seated patriotism, and even a capacity for logical thinking. From 1917-1923 some states repealed laws that tolerated instruction in languages other than English (Jottini 1988, 26). In spite of these legal decisions, the Amish taught their children Pennsylvania Dutch and used it as their secular and sacred language. In Meyer v. State of Nebraska (1923), the Supreme Court ruled that states could require English instruction but could not restrict secondary language instruction, a right ensured by the Fourteenth Amendment (Riger 1977, 463).

The Socialization of Children

The Amish have never proselytized to recruit members, as proselytizing was banned from their inception. Thus, nurturing their own children in the faith has been a prime mechanism for membership. Indeed, the Amish highly value children as "the only possession we can take to heaven with us." Children have both emotional and social significance in the Amish community. As parents strive to be good examples for their children, they become better Amish themselves (Huntington 1981, 380). The Amish believe that their children, born with sinful natures, will become loving and teachable in the proper environment. Parents, specifically fathers, are morally accountable to God for providing this training so that their children will yield themselves to God (Hostetler and Huntington 1992, 14-16). As Keith Thomas points out, "The Reformation, by reducing the authority of the priest in society, simultaneously elevated the authority of lay heads of households," including the accountability for the religious and moral education and conduct of both wife and children (qtd. in O'Day 1994, 39). Children also contribute economically to the family. One Amish informant estimated that his children earned about $75,000 a year working in the community. He invested their money in land or production supplies, or, if necessary, used it for the family's expenses, so that each of his children had built up a large savings by the time they were ready to marry. (4)

The Amish generally agree that "babies," as children are called from birth to the time they begin walking, are a gift from God and are not responsible for their willfulness. Amish parents bear full responsibility for their training, as reflected in the proverb, "As a twig is bent, so the tree is inclined." Ministers at the Amish Ministers' Meeting of 1873 admonished parents, "Take very great care, you to whom the care of your children is...

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