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Published: Friday, 10/22/2010

Book cracks open cover on Amish's basic beliefs

An Amish girl uses inline skates as she carries groceries in Middlefield, Ohio. An Amish girl uses inline skates as she carries groceries in Middlefield, Ohio.

Bonnets, beards, buggies, shoefly pie, and quilts — those are some of the most visible symbols that catch people's eyes when they talk about the Amish.

But author and professor Donald Kraybill wanted to look beyond the external images in his new book, The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World (Jossey-Bass, 272 pages, $24.95).

The book, co-written by Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher, is the first to focus solely on Amish spirituality and practice, according to Mr. Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center of Elizabethtown College in Pennysylvania.

“Having been involved in Amish studies for 25 years or so, I was surprised myself when I stepped back and thought about it and realized this is the only book that deals with Amish religious faith,” he said in a recent interview.

But it is religion, after all, that inspires the Amish to separate themselves from modern society in so many ways.

Theologically, much of what the Amish believe lines up with the teachings of conservative Protestant groups, including the high value of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the need for baptism and Communion.

The book is the first to focus on the spirituality and practices of the Amish. The book is the first to focus on the spirituality and practices of the Amish.

Mr. Kraybill cited four “Amish distinctives”: community, commitment to faith, forgiveness, and patience.

“I would say many of their basic beliefs are very similar,” Mr. Kraybill said, “but the sharpest difference is their understanding that when you are baptized, you not only are making a confession of a sort of vertical, personal relationship with God, but you are joining a community and you're putting yourself under the authority of the community for the rest of your life.”

Submitting to the authority of the community runs contrary to the way Americans pursue and prize individualism, in society in general and in mainstream religions.

Amish adults are baptized with water after responding affirmatively to a series of questions, including: “Do you renounce the world, the devil with all his subtle ways, as well as your own flesh and blood, and desire to serve Jesus Christ alone, who died on the cross for you?”

The roots of the Amish faith date back nearly 500 years, to shortly after the Protestant Reformation of 1517. A group of Christians rebelled against infant baptism, saying the New Testament teaches that baptism is only appropriate for adults who are willing to obey Jesus' teachings.

These Anabaptists included a group in Switzerland and France, led by Jakob Ammann, that split off in 1693 and became known as Amish. They moved to North America in the mid-1700s.

Today about 250,000 Amish are in North America — none in Europe — including 58,600 in Ohio, the second-largest Amish population behind Pennsylvania's 59,350.

Most people recognize the Amish by their horse-drawn buggies, their plain clothes, the men's beards, and homes that are not hooked to power lines.

But Mr. Kraybill points out that there is wide diversity within the Amish culture.

“There are about 1,825 congregations nationally in about 40 different subgroups,” he said.

Those subgroups vary from conservative to progressive. Some allow LED lights on buggies and diesel-powered electric generators in homes, for example.

There is no centralized organization. The Amish own no church buildings but gather for services in their homes. Each congregation has geographical boundaries and the people who live within that boundary belong to that congregation.

The Amish population in the United States has doubled in 20 years, mostly because of the large size of Amish families — the average family has at least five children. Mr. Kraybill said only 50 to 60 people in the United States have converted to Amish life from the outside, calling it “a difficult cultural leap.”

One of the biggest points of discussion among the Amish today is the use of cell phones. Technology is acceptable if it is “kept at arm's length,” Mr. Kraybill said, and it must not cause the community or the family to become fragmented.

The debate over cell phones raises a number of issues, including the fact many cell phones function as cameras. The Amish consider photos to be graven images, which violate the Second Commandment. In addition, many cell phones can connect to the Internet, something the Amish strictly forbid.

The cell-phone solution among many Amish communities has been to permit devices that allow only talking and no other functions.

Mr. Kraybill's previous book, Amish Grace, also co-written with Mr. Nolt and Mr. Weaver-Zercher, was a best-seller that recounted how the Amish responded with forgiveness and compassion after five Amish schoolgirls were killed by a non-Amish neighbor in West Nickel Mines, Pa., in October, 2006.

“It was the most reported media event in all of Amish history, period,” Mr. Kraybill said. “No other single event even comes close to it. It increased name recognition of the Amish and also the watching world was astonished at their willingness to forgive the gunman and his family so quickly.”

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.

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