Amish Communion Service

The seasons have a way of triggering memories of my long-ago life among the Amish. In the spring and fall, I often remember what it was like to attend Communion Services in my original community. I was just recalling some of the details of these to David today. At the risk of treading on Amish “sacred ground,” I am going to, in the next few posts, describe what these are like. 

Regular church services usually lasted three hours — from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon. Every spring and fall, two weeks before Communion Services, there is Ordnungs Church, a service in which the bishop of the church reviews the ordnung, or set of church rules. This is a service that lasts until about 2:00 p.m. It always seemed to me this was in preparation for the mega-long Communion Service. I do not remember this for sure, but it seems to me we didn’t leave for home until about 4:00 p.m. That is when I felt like I could not sit on that hard backless bench for another minute. By the end of the day, I found I was more tired than if I had worked physically all day.

I will start at the beginning. We would gather at the usual time on Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. Everything about the day was solemn, even the fact that the women all wore their black dresses for the occasion. We would put our “wraps” (shawls, coats, bonnets) in the wash house or entrance, and gather in a circle, waiting until it was time to file in to the service. If others were dreading the long day, I wouldn’t have known, because such things were never discussed. 

We filed in and took our seats at the appointed time. We always knew our place in the church. The oldest women would file in and take their places, followed by the middle-aged women, and on down to the younger married women. Then the unmarried women would all file in and take their places, again by age. I always followed Sara Mae Gingerich, who was one day older than me. 

As soon as we were seated, the older men would file in and and take their seats, then the bishop, ministers, and deacon. Last, the unmarried men would file in and take their places, again by age. This was the order of things in my community.

Each Amish district holds church services every two weeks. That means that when a Communion Service takes place, the bishops and ministers from neighboring districts come and take part in the neighboring services on their “in-between church Sunday.” There are usually four or five ministers in one church service, but at Communion Services, many more show up, especially if there is an ordination of a new minister happening that day.

One of the “foresingers” (leaders in song) announces a number, and everyone opens their black songbook (The Ausbund) to that page. The foresinger will begin the first word of the first line of the chant, and then as he begins the second word, the other men join in. The women join in with their voices and the song goes on for fifteen or twenty minutes. 

About two lines into the first song, the bishop, ministers, and deacons file out of the service and go into a room by themselves to plan who will preach that day. There are normally two ministers who preach in a regular service, but at a Communion Service, there are more.

After the first song, there is a period of quiet. Then a different “foresinger” begins the second song. This is always the “Loblied” or “Praise Song” in every service. You can listen to what this sounds like here. Because I knew the people in all the other Amish churches in our time zone would be singing the same song at the same time, I felt the steadfast, rooted feeling of being part of a long-standing tradition and community that dated back to our ancestors, the Swiss Anabaptists. Some of the songs were written and sung by martyrs who were imprisoned for their beliefs. They sang these songs together, even though they were in separate prison cells. It was their way of staying connected to one another. Many of the people who wrote these songs subsequently died as martyrs.

Sometimes the congregation would join their voices in a third song, before the elders came back into the service. Whenever they did, the singing would cease at the end of the stanza of the song we were singing. The songbooks were closed and laid under our benches on the floor. A hush would come over the congregation as the first minister would get up to speak. He would often start out with the usual sentiments about how we need to be thankful for our freedom to practice our faith, especially because our ancestors were martyred for their faith. He would clear his throat then, and begin telling the story of Adam and Eve. I would sigh then, because this was a reminder of what a long day lay ahead of me. The service would not end until the preachers had gone over all the major stories of the Bible. The Adam and Eve story was only the beginning.

To be continued…

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5 thoughts on “Amish Communion Service”

  1. I found myself sighing along with you when I read “…begin telling the story of Adam and Eve.” There is so much more to the Bible than just the stories … so many churches (not just Amish) never go beyond the story and look for anything deeper. I just can’t imagine hearing just the same stories 2 times a year. I guess the ministers had forgotten how hard it was for them to sit on those backless benches when they were boys!

  2. LL, yes, you may post the songs on your blog. As far as I can tell there is no copyright on this. I expect it was probably recorded either with the knowledge of the Amish singing, or not. Either way, no one would have a copyright — the Amish sure wouldn’t. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of posting it on my website, so you certainly don’t need permission from me. Thanks for asking, though.

    Home made, I assume you are mentioning the picture that was used on the cover of my book… yes, little did I know I was smiling into my future at the time….

    Peggy, yes, the stories did get monotonous. Especially because I think the ministers themselves were bored with the telling. When the teller is bored, so is the audience.

    Shirley, I’ve often wondered what Mennonite communion services are like… do they happen twice a year, also?

    Thanks for the link… I just found Julia Kasdorf’s article the other day.

    Thanks all, for your comments. It’s always a pleasure…


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