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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11 thoughts on “Amish “Theology””

  1. I just wanted to let some folks know that next tuesday may 3 on my blog I will be having in her first internet post ever, a woman named Jean who is old order Mennonite from New York state. So please drop by and say hello to her, i will be picking some questions from her post. And then i give her a few of the best ones to i hope answer. I have my blog out of a strong interest of plain life since i was a kid. So i have no paid ads running in my site, or do i make any money from it. Thank you folks. Richard from

  2. Saloma, this is very thought-provoking. I like the way you have drawn out theology through specific examples of preaching.

    I can understand some of the emotional effects of this kind of theology, because I was raised in a theology that had some similarities, though it was much milder. The most unsettling idea we had in common in childhood is the concept of being judged according to one’s works: Old Testament justice, instead of the mercy and grace presented in the New Testament. But the “forgive and forget” idea has some major ill effects, too.

    If we want our children to follow in our beliefs, we need to teach them healthy and scriptural ways to live out those beliefs, which requires active, mature parenting. Neither you nor I continued in the faith tradition of our parents, and I know that is a reflection of the flaws of human society, not of the faith itself.

  3. Very interesting post and blog, Saloma! So glad Rosslyn pointed me in your direction.

    I guess I never realized just how works-based the Amish faith is. I think I instinctively knew it, but hadn’t heard it laid out as succinctly as you’ve presented it here.

    I look forward to reading more from you… :)

  4. Richard, thanks for the announcement.

    Rosslyn, thank you for your observations and wisdom… I am always amazed at how wise you are, when you look so young… I always thought wisdom was something people developed when they’ve been on earth longer.

    Sarah, so glad you discovered my blog, and thanks, Rosslyn, for being the messenger.

    Yes, the whole Amish culture is based on the idea that what we do on earth will be either rewarded in heaven or that unthinkable alternative, should our deeds be punishable.

    I personally do think what we do matters, and yes we need the grace and forgiveness offered through Christ. I think there is a healthy blend of following our conscience and knowing we need redemption when we fall short of doing what is right. But I’ve known Christians who didn’t seem to follow their consciences… it was as if they knew they would be forgiven… almost like taking redemption for granted. I believe being grateful for something is exactly the opposite of taking something for granted. And I sure don’t want to take mercy and grace for granted… I need it too much.

  5. Having just visited the Amish community in and around Lancaster, PA, I have enjoyed reading your blog posts. While I admire the discipline and “separateness” from the vanities of the world, I find the superstition and lack of focus on Christ most troubling. I agree that what we do, or don’t do, is certainly important but it is not the path to salvation, according to the Bible.
    In your experience, how is Jesus viewed/addressed in the Amish culture? Also, how do they address not sharing their faith with the outside world in light of the scripture?
    We very much enjoyed our interaction with the Amish people we were able to meet and talk to. They were most gracious and friendly.
    Thanks in advance for your insight on this.

    1. I have been reading a series of novels by W Dale Cramer based on a settlement of Amish in the 1920’s. I have the exact same question and came here hoping to find it! How DO the Amish view/address Jesus? So much of what I am reading is admirable, but so much is truly disconcerting. Mercy and grace are expected to be poured out for the enemies of the people (those who wish to harm, steal from or even kill the Amish settlers), but not as much is given to the members in the form of forgiving mercy toward one another. I find it to be very, very sad.

  6. Saloma,

    I always thought Jesus’ admonition to “forgive in order to be forgiven- and “from the heart” no less- difficult! -was to be the last word in my spiritual journey. But I learned from the Les Feldick ministries that this was only for the people before Jesus’ death and Resurrection because the expression of forgiveness Jesus’ sacrifice made possible, as taught by the apostle Paul, was that we “forgive because we have already been forgiven”. The first is works-based, the last is Resurrection empowered and is much easier for anyone wishing to forgive.

  7. (Though about two years late, his is in reply to Jim’s comment):
    I have been reading a series of novels by W Dale Cramer based on a settlement of Amish in the 1920’s. I have the exact same question and came here hoping to find it! How DO the Amish view/address Jesus? So much of what I am reading is admirable, but so much is truly disconcerting. Mercy and grace are expected to be poured out for the enemies of the people (those who wish to harm, steal from or even kill the Amish settlers), but not as much is given to the members in the form of forgiving mercy toward one another. I find it to be very, very sad.

  8. I’ve long held Amish in high regard in spite of some of their foolish notions, some of which they seem to have outgrown, like pneumatic phobia for instance. However if any one group holds to the shunning standard I just viewed on YT in which I think maybe you had a role, that makes that group a cult. I was very disappointed to see that degree of emotional cruelty coming from ecclesiastic tyrants no better than the tyrants the Anabaptists, Mennonites and Amish fled in the first place. No man should have the power to set asunder families!

    If I were a young man I would very much like to become Amish, because I think there is much to be admired there, but also to work for an end to shunning at least to the degree I witnessed on YT. It is evil!

    1. Jon, is it me, or am I getting conflicting messages here? How can you have “high regard for the Amish in spite of their foolish notions”?

      I will disagree with you on the definition of what constitutes a cult. There is a difference between a cult and a culture, and I believe the Amish are the latter for several reasons, such as their 400+ year history, their decentralized power structure, and their lack of a charismatic leader. A cult usually lasts only as long as the leader of the group. 

      The Amish simply would not exist without their church discipline. Shunning is part of that.

      It sounds like we can all thank our lucky stars that you are not a young man, including the Amish. I find your idea preposterous of joining them so that you could change their practices. Assuming you had that ability, what would give you that right?

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