Amish Church Singing

I am often asked at book talks what aspects of Amish life I miss. One of the first things I say is "the community." I describe how the Amish come together in times of need, women getting together for quiltings, people getting together for a "frolic," for weddings; for funerals; and of course for church services.

When I was young and had to sit through three-hour services, I didn't think they were so great. But here I am, thirty-four years later, still remembering what it was like to sit in church and hear the German singing, which is a chant. First came the opening song, usually chosen for the time of year. Then came the Loblied or "Praise Song" that was always the second song of every service, throughout all Amish districts. That song would almost always put me in a trance, where I felt connected to our ancestors from hundreds of years ago, who sang these same songs; to the people in all other Amish districts in our time zone who were singing the same song at the same time; and to the Amish people in future generations who would likely continue the tradition of singing these age-old German hymns. 

To hear Amish church singing, you can go to the "Amish Customs" page on my website, where I have included three songs being sung in the Amish church chant style. I bought a CD in Indiana with these songs on them, and there was no copyright, so I'm taking that to mean I may share them. 

When David and I were visiting with Katie Troyer in Pinecraft-Sarasota, Florida, we got a chance to see inside the Amish church house down there. I asked permission to take this photo, and it is such a picture of the simplicity of an Amish church setting. I also remember what it was like to sit on one of those backless bench for three hours.

Church Benches

Just seeing copies of the Amish songbooks called the Ausbund on the benches, really gave me a longing to attend an Amish church service again. If I had been in the area long enough, I would have liked to attend one. 

Not all people who grew up Amish still enjoy these songs. Some call them boring, and they don't see any meaning in droning on like that. Some even call them morbid. But for me, it represents the deep roots the Amish have. These songs were written by our ancestors who were among the first martyrs of the Anabaptist faith. Some were written while they were imprisoned. The story goes that they would sing together from their separate cells as a way of staying connected to one another. That sounds like resolute faith to me. For the most part, the Amish try to live out a deep and abiding faith to this day. I sometimes lament the fact that my personality could not fit into that culture. There is a part of me that will always be Amish.

And there is the part of me that was never Amish. It is the part of me that likes to look at the lining of things; question why things are they way they are; and I want to learn as much about our world as I possibly can. It is also the part of me that likes to ponder the mysteries in life. It isn't that I need to know the answers to the "why" questions that have always come up from within me – it is much more about asking and pondering these questions. If you are a "good" Old Order Amish person, you are satisfied with answers like, "That's just the way it is." I sometimes wish I could be one of those who are satisfied with such an answer, because after all the pondering, that is often the only answer there is.

Whenever I get nostalgic about that lifestyle, I remind myself what it was like the day I realized, at fourteen years old, that I was really done with school… for the rest of my life. Unless I left the Amish. 

I am often asked if I would have stayed Amish if I had been born into a well-adjusted and happy family. I always say I don't know. Even the children of well-adjusted families are not educated beyond the eighth grade. I may have left for that reason alone. 

So, since I cannot have it both ways, I now live the life I chose. And it really is a good life. It's just that I have been severed from my roots, and some days I feel that keenly. That's when I listen to Amish singing and let the memories wash over me.

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16 thoughts on “Amish Church Singing”

  1. Saloma, I can understand your feeling about the music of your childhood and adolescence. I feel the same way about the old hymns we sang in four parts when I was growing up in Lititz Mennonite Church. For me, the most moving moment of my own book launch was when some of the elderly women sitting in the front row began to cry when we started to sing “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song.”

    I was first introduced to Amish singing when Mary Oyer, professor of music at Goshen College, played a recording like the one you have above. The slowness, the sound of suffering and yet the power of the community praying together through the music of their own voices united, all of that spoke to me.

    But it must speak to you a hundred fold more. Thank you for sharing your yearnings.

    1. Hello Shirley,

      Thank you for the story of when you began to sing that song. I don’t think I have ever heard it, but I love the title. 

      That is a wonderful description of Amish singing. Not everyone feels these things. One man who heard it when I played it at a book talk said it sounded like the singers had to much to drink!

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  2. You know, once I finish reading your blogs I’m always asking myself “But why can’t you have it both ways?” Why is it that the only way you get the “community” and the family structure is to put up with all the church rules (without explanation)? Why can’t the Amish rationally and contentiously discuss their faith system and traditions are the narrow path to salvation. What are they afraid of? The thing is, the Bishops and Deacons, I suspect, are all taking about these issues. They know, but they won’t tell you or any of the Church members! Are they really that afraid that the Church will be lost? I suspect that you would go back if the church opened up. But then, would you call it Amish? Amish is as Amish does? Take it or leave it.

    Great food for thought!

    1. Derek, these are good questions. I don’t think I have the answers. Though, I will say that I think many of the elders of the church also don’t know in a rational way why they continue to follow these rules and tradtions. And yes, I do think they are afraid that the church and way of life will be lost if they let up on the rules or Ordnung. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.

      I know, I’ve often thought about what would happen if they allowed people an education… would they lose the church? Or would there be a self-selection process, leaving a more “willing” community… people who consciously choose that religion and lifestyle? Perhaps they would be more like the Mennonites who still maintain their way of life and religion, even though they allow higher education.

      You ask great questions, but I don’t claim to have the answers. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. When I was a little girl I made my mother a Christmas gift of four candy canes wrapped around a red candle with yarn. The candy canes were upside down to serve as feet for the candle. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I was quite impressed with my artistic ability. Since then, I’d tried reproducing this miraculous craft with my boys. They weren’t interested so I proceeded without them. When I was done I looked on my finished product with great disappointment. What a homely spectacle it was.
    If I were to enter the church of my childhood I know I would feel giddy inside. Like Ebenezer Scrooge did when he visited Christmas Past. Though I never enjoyed attending church as a child I would still feel pleasure knowing at a less complicated time in my life I was there. There was much less clutter in my mind and I was unaware of so many of the injustices around me. It’s as you say, it’s the roots, the connections. A place and time of being a part of. It was a place I once belonged to. People need that. I need that.

    1. Fran, what a great story about the candy cane candle! How cute is that. 

      I love what you said about a less complicated time when you didn’t see the injustices. I am right there with you. I often wish I could go back there. I’ve gotten to the point that I can barely hear the news headlines. I feel like there is so much evil that happens and gets reported, because these kinds of things are what make headlines. So, I have to tune it out. Otherwise I would get a skewed view of humanity. I remind myself that there is also a lot of good that happens in our world. So if I focus on those evil things, I am not thinking about the good that is happening (and that I might be able to contribute to) in my own little part of the world. 

      Your description of needing a sense of belonging is poignant, and I think you are right on.

      Thank you for your insights.

    1. Katie, thank you for the compliment. 

      Do you enjoy Amish singing? If I lived where you did, I would have to bike by the church house on Sunday mornings… or else go in and sing along with them.

      I still smile when I think about spending time with you. We had such a good time.

      Take good care, Katie. 

  4. Elva Bontrager

    I too still like the sounds of the songs. Once in a while I still hum the melody of a song or two. (By the way, I know it’s called a ‘chant’ but to me it is more melodic than what I think of as a chant.) My mother and her best friend usually sat together and I loved to hear them sing. My mother’s voice was warm and textured while Anna’s was silvery. Considering that there was no harmony singing in the Amish church it surprises me that my memory would like to insist that there was.

    But, you know, I am not really any more nostalgic about the songs than I am about the smells of a horse barn. :)

    1. Elva, you make me laugh… no nostalgia for the songs from you, I take it. Unless you like the smell of a horse barn. :=) 

      Your description of your mother’s and Anna’s singing is lovely. I know what you mean… when a musician told me there is no harmony in the Amish singing, I almost wanted to argue with him. But I know nothing about music, so I assumed he was right. I wonder if some of us hear the harmony in “the power of the community praying together through the music of their own voices united” as Shirley Showalter so aptly described.

      Thank you for coming by and commenting.

      1. Elva Bontrager

        Actually, Saloma, I LOVE the smell of a horse bar, the combination of hay, grain, horse dander and manure and unslaked lime is pure ambrosia to me.

        As for the UNheard harmonies of Amish church singing, I myself am a musician deeply involved in the music of my community and it is my belief that EVERY note that we can hear is surrounded by UNheard harmonies. Which explains, I think, the mistaken memories we have.

        1. Elva, that is a beautiful description of the unheard harmony of Amish church singing and why you and I might hear differently than someone not attuned to the meaning and roots of the singing traditions.

          Many thanks!

  5. Good Morning Saloma,
    I have heard that when Amish of different groups sing the same church songs, the more conservative groups sing the songs at a much slower cadence. Is this correct?

    Have a lovely week doing lovely things. Tom The Backroads Traveller.

    1. Tom, it’s great to see you here. Yes, what you heard is correct. The way these songs are being sung in the recording is familiar to me. But when I’d visit Cashton, Wisconsin, or places more strict, they would sing much slower. I’ve not heard the Swartzentrubers sing, but I imagine they are the slowest of all.

      May you have a joyful week. 

  6. How nice it is to hear singing.
    We are Christians and sing here in Canada the Psalters. There is much difference in singing. Some churches are singing slower as the other.
    Personally I like it when sometimes they sing slower or faster. The problem is often ,I think, they do not read the song. For example, if there is a mourning Psalter you sing it different as a Psalter of joy.
    Sometimes there are churches they sing so fast, you can not think what to sing.
    Love, Wilma

    1. Wilma, you make a good point. I think the slower paced singing gives one more of a chance of thinking about the meaning. The slow chant almost carries a meaning of its own… there is time to meditate in between breaths. 

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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