Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Amish "Theology"

Shirley wrote:

if you have not done so already, I’d love to hear about the theology of salvation preached from the pulpit. 

Much of what I heard from the Amish “pulpit” or rather from the doorways in homes where church gatherings took place, was not not so much “theological” in nature as it was admonishments for how one should live or not live. The manner and content varied quite a bit from one preacher to the next, yet many Amish sermons have blurred together in my memory. However, there are a few that made enough of an impression on me that I remember them.

One soft-spoken minister, who later moved to Mio, Michigan, once said something I found to be so simple in the way he stated it, and yet I remember it to this day. He was talking about not becoming attached to things on this earth and he said something to the effect that those things we consider luxuries now, the next generation may consider necessities. At first blush, this doesn’t seem so profound, but how true it is! So many of us in mainstream culture find our lives are too complicated, often by gadgets that we were promised would simplify our lives, but they did the opposite. Perhaps the Amish have it right to hold the latest fashions and technologies at arm’s length and to examine how they might adversely affect our lives before deciding whether to adopt them or not. How many of us knew before the NPR report, that iPhones have the ability to track everywhere we go?

Another minister, during a wedding service as he was advising the couple getting married, said something like this: “I always think a good place for a wife is right under her husband’s left arm, next to his heart.” Even at the time, I knew this was unusual. Normally the advice for the women on their wedding day, for living a good married life, was that she should be submissive to her husband in all things. 

The idea of salvation was often ambiguous — in the Amish way of thinking, there was no sure way to achieve it — the best we could do was hope that we will make it to heaven. Funerals were used as a chance to remind people of how earth was not our home, and how fleeting life on earth is, how we never know when our time will come to leave this earth, and how we need to be ready to die when our time came. We were taught that Satan never stopped tormenting us and tempting us to walk the wide road, rather than the straight and narrow one that leads to the Heavenly gates. Once we died, we would come before our Maker, or our Judge, who kept track of all our deeds in the “Book of Life.” At the point when we died, if the good outweighed the bad, then we would go to heaven, and if not, then the Judge would point the way to Hell. And this was usually the opening for a fire and brimstone sermon.

Even though there was no sure way to achieve salvation in the Amish mind, there was a sure way of it’s opposite — that of going to Hell. One merely needed to leave the Amish life. And with the fire and brimstone speeches, I imagine I wasn’t the only one with a visceral image of what that meant. One bishop had a particularly loud voice that he would raise for emphasis in key parts of his sermons. Here is a sample of one:

“… and leit (people), if we think we can comprehend what that would be like, we are mistaken!” He lowered his voice, “I am sure we have all been so cold that we have shivered. But has anyone here ever been so hot that they have shivered…” here he paused and looked around the room, for effect. (As a child I wondered whether he expected anyone to answer, which was never done.) Then he continued, “No, probably not.” And then he raised his voice, “That, leit, is what it’s like to burn in the Hell fire — it is so hot and so unbearable that our teeth will chatter. People will try to climb out, but there is no escape! And when a thousand years of this kind of pain and suffering has taken place, it will be like one day — because Leit, this kind of pain will go on forever and ever!” 

By the time “Jake” was done with this kind of sermon, I felt like my teeth were going to chatter out of sheer fear. I then would wonder why I was afraid and wondered if I was guilty of sins I didn’t even know I had committed. It always seemed to me, despite what the preachers said, that we know whether we are on the right path or not, and that we know on some level whether we will achieve salvation. Yet confusion would often set in, especially when I found myself incapable of fully submitting to the Amish ways.

Forgiveness was a big thing preached about among the Amish. We were taught that forgiveness meant to “forgive and forget,” which basically meant when we forgave someone, we wiped the slate clean, and trusted that person as if he hadn’t wronged us in the first place.  And no matter how often we were wronged, we were obligated to forgive again and again, even if required that we do it “70 times 7.” We were told that if we didn’t forgive, then we would not be forgiven. Because we were taught that we needed God to forgive our sins to make it to heaven, it was implied that unless we learned to forgive freely, we would not achieve salvation. 

It seemed to me, even while I was still Amish, that if one followed this concept of forgiveness through to its logical conclusion, the person who was being wronged had more of a responsibility than that of the wrongdoer, and that forgiving that freely removed the consequences of the wrongdoer’s actions. Coming from a martyr culture, in which our ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted for their faith, I can understand how these beliefs are still part of the Amish culture. I personally still struggle with what it means to fully forgive someone, but that is a discussion for another day.

So, here are a few samplings of Amish “theology” or world view. Do these raise other questions for anyone? What is your reaction to these concepts?


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