Amish Folklore: Folk Ties that Bind

Relatively few Americans are aware that folklore is so prevalent in their daily lives, and far fewer of us will ever examine folklore's fascinating causes, important functions, and significant effects. Though we commonly participate in calendar customs like Thanksgiving dinner, or we take part in rites of passage by giving children money after a tooth loss or wearing black to a funeral, we rarely step back and examine how such behaviors establish our identity. It is also to be expected that we belong to a number of folk groups, and within a typical day we might use occupational jargon within the folk group we work with at the fire station, share a school-related joke with other students in our history class, or exchange an urban legend with fellow snowboarders on the slopes.
Galen Frysinger's photo of older Amish couple

Perhaps the stability of lore in our own life has been somewhat tempered, and the significance of lore somewhat hidden, by membership in so many differing folk groups, an educational system that fosters individuality and acceptance of change, and a culture where the incorporation of lore belonging to others is commonplace? Few of us would be surprised to see a piñata at an Irish boy's birthday party, and it seems as if we went from tossing rice, then birdseed, to blowing bubbles at weddings almost overnight. The absorption of folklore from others is not quite as dynamic among the Amish, for they live within a closed folk society of homogenous beliefs. During our few days with the Amish I did come across a couple of proverbs and folk cures, and the material lore was certainly rich, but it was the static biblical mythology used to proscribe everything from dress to gender roles that really caught my interest. This static mythology both promotes and is maintained by isolation, and it presents a folklore that is so prevalent and stable that it was easy to see causal agents and resulting effects. For example, the Amish believe that the admonition in Romans 12:2 against being "conformed to the world" means they should not become overly connected to the outside world by being hooked up to the electric grid or driving cars. While the remote or background cause is the biblical injunction against conforming to the world, the perpetuating and perhaps necessary cause is the Amish understanding that use of the electric grid and the automobile would have negative effects on cultural stability today. While there are obviously many effects that flow from holding such beliefs, the primary effects are that it creates a custom that clearly distinguishes them from "the English," it promotes self-sufficiency and less interaction with outsiders, and it creates a shared and homogenous cultural behavior that helps ensure group stability. Though the list below is not exhaustive, I have included many behaviors common to the Amish, and I have indicated relevant biblical lore as possible remote causes ("possible" because I question whether the sustaining causes might not often predate the biblical interpretations now used to support the traditional behaviors). Anyway, as you look over the list, consider whether you partake in any analogous behaviors or behaviors that differ in display but are similar in function? You might also try to think about how other folk groups attempt to isolate themselves or work to create an in-group cohesiveness. For example, as we drove away from the rural Amish communities into the outskirts of Detroit, we could not help but notice the opulent communities where Detroit's wealthy reside. Perhaps harder to investigate than the closed folk society of the the Amish, and admittedly not as homogeneous, I imagine that these modern-day "gated aristocrats" send their children to private schools, can identify each other by dialect, and share proverbs that express their shared values.

Common Amish Behaviors and Remote Causes:

A married adult male does not shave his beard: There are numerous biblical passages that mention the wearing of beards as customary, and Jesus had a beard when he was crucified. The wearing of the beard among the Amish is an outward sign of inner beliefs, and it clearly indicates membership in a select group.

Amish women do not cut their hair, and they cover their heads, especially while praying: According to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, long hair on a woman "is a glory to her" and to pray uncovered "dishonoureth her head." While perhaps functioning as a visual sign of a relevant hierarchy (males do not have to cover their heads will praying), the covering also establishes membership.

Amish children start working around the farm or business early, and they learn only basic skills in school: Education beyond the basics would be viewed as "foolishness" by God (1 Corinthians 3:19) and Proverbs 22:6 states that one should "Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not turn from it." This helps to keep the culture homogeneous, and an eighth grade education closes the door to most careers outside the Amish community.

Church members that stray from the correct path are shunned and thereby encouraged to redeem themselves: Corinthians 5:11 states one should not eat with those that are "…a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner." Social consequences of one's actions can be a strong inhibitor of unwanted behavior.

The Amish do not hold services in a church, rather Sunday service is held at alternating homes: Everything about the service is structured, reverent, and furthers unanimity among the church members. During the semiannual communion service, and after hearing the reading of John 13, each member washes the feet of the person next to him or her. This ritual fosters humility, group equality, and unanimity.

The Amish do not like to have their picture taken: The second commandment (Exodus 20:4) states that "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth." The subsequent decrease in socially acceptable avenues of vanity and pride perhaps maintain equality within the group. Further, Amish dolls do not have faces, and I wonder if this refusal to establish a cultural stamp on beauty has other positive effects, i.e., less eating disorders?

The Amish wear traditional and plain clothing: Not only does Amish dress show they are not "conforming to the world" (Romans 12:2) it also expresses an obedience to their church order. Still, subtle differences in Amish dress can tell order members much about an individual's position and identity within the church.

The Amish do not play musical instruments: On the other hand, the singing of hymns is biblically supported (Col. 3:16) and encouraged. While this perhaps limits vanity and promotes ideas common to the hymns, it might also fail to adequately fill a hunger for musical expression, a hunger that is perhaps behind Amish youth attendance at hoe-downs?

The Amish are pacifists-they advocate peace and nonresistance: Biblical passages such as John 18:36; Mathew 5:38-48; and Romans 12:18-21are cited. Few Amish leave the community to fulfill military service, and the effects of military service on one's outlook and future can't be overstated.

The Amish do not usually work for those outside the order, nor do they go into business with them: They see such a union as a potential for being "unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (11Corinthians 6:14). This belief certainly furthers an increase in self-sufficiency and helps isolate members from mainstream influences. Many Amish work out of their home, and the backroads of the Amish communities are dotted with signs advertising quilts, baked goods, and services.
A photo I took of an Amish sign advertising a butchershop

Though they do read farm journals and religious texts, the adult Amish generally shy away from other reading, even the now popular Christian romance novels: Again, the Amish believe God wants them to lead a life that reflects on God rather than be "conformed to the world" by taking in ideas and concepts from popular culture (Romans 12:12). Again, this works to isolate the Amish and maintain groupthink.

Amish courting practices are very structured and outcome is marriage: They believe God has much to do with their choice of mate. It follows that if God has joined them together, that divorce is not a possibility. As there is no way out of the marriage, the qualities of mate selection have perhaps more to do with shared long-term goals than short-term passion.

The male is expected to take the lead role during courtship, and the husband has the final word in domestic and church concerns. According to 1 Corinthians 11:3, as Christ is the head of the church, the man is the head of the woman. This has created an unequal power structure based on gender.

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