Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Key Decisions in the Lives of the Old Order Amish: Joining the Church and Migrating to Another Settlement

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Key Decisions in the Lives of the Old Order Amish: Joining the Church and Migrating to Another Settlement

Article excerpt

Abstract: The rates at which adult children migrate to other Amish settlements and decide to leave the Amish church were derived from the 1993 directory for the Old Order Amish living in the Geauga settlement in northeast Ohio. Out-migration rates were maintained at a fairly high level of 14-20% of all adult children born between 1928 and 1967, but the rate at which adult children left the Amish church decreased from about 30% to 5% over this time period. The majority of the men in the Geauga settlement are now wage laborers but, contrary to the pattern in the Lancaster settlement, the transition from farming to wage labor has not resulted in an increase in the rate at which adult children leave the church. The effects of whether the father is a religious leader, family size and parity on rates of out-migration and leaving the church are also examined. Finally, the implications of these findings for the future of the Amish church are discussed.


All Old Order Amish adults are socially constrained to make several conscious and public decisions with reasonably well understood consequences. First, they must decide whether or not they will join the Amish church. Second, if they do join the church, they must decide if they will live in their birth settlement or migrate to a new settlement. (1) The fact that these two events are discussed together is not meant to imply that they are similar behaviors or are linked in any functional manner. In fact, the factors influencing the decision to join the church, as well as the social ramifications of this decision, are clearly substantially different and of a greater magnitude than those associated with the decision to migrate to another settlement. The rationale for considering these two very different events concurrently is that they both influence the demographic structure of a settlement.

The decision of whether or not to join the church, which occurs during late adolescence or early adulthood, is clearly the most important decision that an Amish adult will make. (2) If adults decide not to join the church, they do so knowing that they are giving up the lifestyle of their childhood and that they will have less social contact and receive less social support from their family and the other members of their community of birth. Since the initial decision to join the church is seen by the community as a decision for life, the social consequences of later leaving the church include the imposition of excommunication and Meidung (shunning), which act to isolate individuals from their family and community to a much greater extent (often completely) than if they never join the church.

A second decision is whether they will remain in their birth settlement or migrate to another Amish settlement. This decision can be made at any time during adulthood, although it generally appears to occur during early and middle adulthood. Amish adults migrate for a variety of reasons but the two primary reasons are the desire for less expensive farm land and the desire to live in a congregation with either a more or less conservative Ordnung. (3) Out-migration by necessity also results in some reduction in social contact (and thus reduced social support) with relatives and other members of the birth settlement. However, unlike the kind of reduced social support that occurs when someone leaves the church, this reduced support is simply a function of distance, not community-imposed social constraints. As a result, someone living far from the rest of their family will not receive the kind of daily contact and support that can occur in the birth settlement, but they can expect to receive substantial support in the event of an emergency. In addition, a family can always decide to migrate back to their home settlement. Individuals raised in a society that emphasizes community solidarity and mutual aid fully understand the consequences of both of these decisions.

Although it is well understood that these decisions, especially the decision of whether or not to join the Amish church, must be made by all adult Amish, there is only limited information in research literature on the manner in which Amish adults make these two decisions. …

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