To fully understand the pressures a young Amish person faces to stay in the faith they were born in, one needs to first understand that from the time Amish children can understand the concept, they are taught that anyone who leaves the Amish is doomed to go to Hell when they die. This belief is reinforced with fire and brimstone preaching in church. And of course there are all kinds of “examples” of people who have left and then regretted it, especially when they were dying. The one I remember vividly is one in which a young woman had left the community and was dying. Her father was visiting her, when she said to him, “Datt, can you pick me up a little bit, I feel fire at my feet.” I heard this story at a very impressionable age, instilling the fear of God in me about how I may never leave the community.
This is why I chose to first address one of the most often repeated myths about Amish life — that the young people have a time of “rumspringa” (more correctly rum springa) when they get to sow their wild oats and decide whether they will stay Amish or not. It wasn’t like that in my community, and from the stories I’ve heard from others who have left, my guess is that the thought “Should I stay or leave?” never occurred to an Amish young person in that form. I certainly did not feel like I had a choice. First came subtle hints, then outright suggestions, and finally admonishments that I should ‘join church’ and be baptized the summer I was turning nineteen. I was unsure about becoming an official member because I questioned my ability to be a “good member” of the church. A “good” member is one who does not question the ways of the Amish. I knew that if I did join the church and then left, I would be shunned for the rest of my life. But I would not be shunned if I hadn’t yet become a member. It was as if I was being led down a long corridor, in which there was light ahead of me, and darkness behind me, with someone representing the church, firmly guiding me down that long corridor, in the direction of “joining church.” To choose not to join, I would have had to wrench my elbow away from that someone, and run back into the darkness of the unknown. I lacked the courage to face the unknown, but I also lacked the necessary conviction to be baptized into the church. I followed the firm hand at my elbow because it was the easiest thing to do, and because I knew that if I waited another year, the pressure would be even greater.
So, the “rum springa” years are basically the time in young people’s lives when they join the young people’s gatherings and begin dating. During these years, the parents keep a close eye on their young people for signs that they are unzufriede, (discontent) with the Amish ways. So, dating someone outside the Amish, taking a course at a college, taking trips far away from home alone, or deciding to go out for dinner on dates instead of practicing bed courtship would be more threatening to most parents than getting drunk on the regular basis, driving buggies while drunk, or becoming pregnant, even though pregnancy before marriage is a big embarrassment.
In my experience, the only time the choice about staying or leaving the community became a conscious choice, is when I found my life with an abusive, mentally ill father had become unbearable. It literally came down to a choice of committing suicide or leaving. And here is the example I would use to describe the “choice” Amish people have – we all know we have the choice of committing suicide anytime in our lives, but the only time we think consciously about that is when we feel we have no other way out. For me it came down to not wanting to go to Hell. I told myself that if I commit suicide, then I will certainly go to Hell, and right away. If I leave the Amish, I will have to go to Hell someday, but at least I would have a lifetime on Earth before that would happen. I looked that fear smack-dab in the face. And suddenly it lost it’s power — I then dared to wonder if the preachers might be wrong — after all no one had gone to Hell and come back to warn the rest of us.
Every former Amish person I have ever met had to grapple with this dilemma before having the courage to leave. Many of them became born-again Christians, because along with the belief that Amish will go to Hell if they leave, the Amish also teach their people that we can never know for sure whether we make it to Heaven – we can only hope. To someone who is told that salvation only takes believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and that this is a guarantee that they will make it into Heaven, this sounds like the best news they’ve had all their lives. Perhaps this is why so many Amish people use the born-again route out of the community.
From the time I was a young child, I had the irresistible urge to ask fundamental questions. So, when I would ask my mother if our neighbors (who were not Amish) would have to go to Hell, Mem (my mother) would say that we didn’t know, only God could be their judge, but they had at least a chance of going to Heaven, because they weren’t Amish to start with. Some people call this Amish way of thinking a “two kingdom theology” (see Amish Grace, Donald Kraybill, et. al, 2007, Chapter 11). To me it always seemed like a double standard and I don’t believe a just God has double standards. After all, how does one reconcile the two-kingdom doctrine with the belief that we are all the same in the eyes of God?
You can get a scholarly view of the question of what “rum springa” is all about here. It’s not that this is completely inaccurate, it just doesn’t tell the whole story, and certainly not one from the perspective of an insider.
I had my comments link turned off by mistake yesterday (I am still new to this blogging thing), so please feel free to leave me comments or questions today. In my next post I will address your questions.