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Why do the Amish Stay? What keeps the Amish from Leaving?

Updated on March 27, 2014

Every year, of the approximately 250,000 Amish who reside in North America, approximately 90 percent stay within the Amish community. While most stay, many are tempted to leave by the prospect of owning a car, living a more individualized life or pursuing an education beyond the 8th grade level. Leaving is not an easy feat though; not only because of the huge cultural differences that a former Amish member would have to adjust to, but because of the ways in which Amish culture works to keep their members within the community.

One powerful method used to keep Amish close to home and church is something called shunning. Shunning is when a family and the Amish community severely limit their contact with the former Amish member in an effort to persuade them to return.

The goal of the Amish is to keep their members together, all together as one and to follow the “Ordnung”, which is their term for the rules of the community. The Amish feel that the way in which they live their lives is as God intended, as described in the Bible and especially the portions of the bible which refer to the teachings of Jesus Christ. According to the Amish, any other choice of life style will result in eternal damnation. The Amish feel that they don’t just go to church to be closer to God, but that the way in which they live each day brings them closer to God as well.

Here are some of the ways in which the Amish community prevents its members from leaving:

The Amish raise their children to give up their independent spirit, which is referred to by the Amish as upgivva. This begins roughly at the age of two when parents expect their child to behave and follow certain rules, with spanking being the discipline of choice. From this early age the Amish are groomed to obey; not only obeying the rules of the parents but later of the Ordnung. Obedience is first and foremost as it grooms children to follow the teachings of the Bible when they are older. They are taught not to question the rules but to simply follow them. This type of obedience, it is believed, will bring you closer to God as it allows you to follow the teachings of the bible more closely. This type of obedience training averts the consideration by most to leave the group when they are older and even if they leave, it will likely be a factor in drawing them back since this way of life is such a huge part of who they are.

An Amish member may be shunned for breaking one of the rules of the Ordnung. Leaving the Amish community is against the Ordnung but the decision to shun an Amish group member lies in the hands of the church bishop. If the member is to be shunned the family and the whole Amish community would not be allowed more than minimal contact with that person. This is one of the strongest methods the Amish use to both keep members within the Gmay (community) as well as bringing them back if they stray. It is very effective. Many former Amish become so hurt by not being able to stay in contact with their family that they end up returning.

After an Amish member leaves the group, attempts are made by the family and community to get the former member to return. Attempts may include letters, phone calls and even visits. A letter might mention how deeply the former member is missed or how they will end up in hell for having left the Amish community. A visit would be an active attempt to get the former member to return, and this often works since leaving the Amish is so difficult and after seeing their family who have been greatly missed, the urge to return will be strong. Even hearing the familiar language and seeing the faces of your loved ones may make you second guess your choice and choose to return home.

When an Amish member tries to make a start in the modern world they are met with a great deal of hurdles. One major hurdle is the lack of citizenship. Since most Amish are born at home, there is no written proof of their residency, though Amish family members could give a written affidavit, that is if they weren’t shunning the former family member in an attempt to get them back. Without paperwork the former Amish member will have trouble getting a legal job, a car or many of the other amenities which modern life has to offer. This is another reason why a former Amish member may end up going back to their Amish community and giving up the dream of living in the modern world.

The challenge of adapting to modern technology would offer a great challenge in itself but leaving the wholesome, close knit Amish community and entering the modern world where each man is to fend for himself, would create an extreme case of culture shock. This culture shock might cause an Amish person to return to his safe and secure way of life even with its perceived detriments.

While there are a myriad of things that draw a former Amish person back to the Gmay, some former Amish people do end up embracing and living out their lives in the modern world. Often times this is with a great deal of support from the non-Amish (English) or other former Amish people that take them under their wing.

 Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Old-Order Amish. 1941
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Old-Order Amish. 1941 | Source

© 2012 Tracy Lynn Conway


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