Commitment Mechanisms in Amish Society

by: Colin Roust

Social theorists in the 1920s predicted that the Amish culture would be absorbed into mainstream society in only a matter of time. The theories explained that the Amish would disappear because of the strictness of their way of life. Social theorists could not conceive of anyone who would want to follow the Ordnung, once they had been introduced to the wonders of modern society. The Amish, however, have continued to prosper and expand. Their population doubles every twenty years in part because of the high retention rate of their youth (75 percent remain in the church, whereas only 40 to 50 percent of young adults remain in the mainstream church in which they were raised). A similar challenge was faced by the utopian communes of the nineteenth century. In her book, Commitment and Community, Rosabeth Kanter analyzes six commitment mechanisms - Sacrifice, Investment, Renunciation, Communion, Mortification and Transcendence - used by the utopian communes to retain their members. While all of these can be found within Amish culture, three of them are particularly relevant. By applying the concepts of renunciation, communion, and transcendence to the Amish culture, it is possible to understand why they have survived and thrived in spite of the encroachment of modern culture.

Sometimes a member of the Amish community is viewed as too worldly for the community. When this situation arises, renunciation becomes an important survival mechanism. Kanter describes renunciation not only as a means to remove potentially disruptive members from the group, but also as a means of discouraging relationships that might lead to worldliness and disruption. The Amish use renunciation as a means to increase their separation with the outside world. For example, in Katie, Dan Gingerich is placed under the ban for teaching disruptive religious ideas. Members of the community felt that he was becoming too "worldly," and they did not want him to spread his influence throughout the community. Thus, the ban was put in place as a way to insulate the boundary between the Amish and the outside world. Another means of separating themselves from mainstream society is through geographical isolation. By moving into rural areas and becoming farmers, they avoid the hustle and bustle of the cities and are able to avoid most contact with the outside world. This also served as means of avoiding persecution during the early years of the Anabaptist movement in sixteenth-century Europe. Finally, "a distinctive language and distinctive styles of dress can also help create insulating boundaries" (Kanter). As any tourist in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, can attest to, the Amish use both of these elements to separate their culture from mainstream society.

This separation strengthens the Amish community by making each member afraid to try new ideas. Fear of the ban and excommunication keep many Amish people from straying away from the Ordnung. This can be witnessed in Katie, following Bishop Eli's sermons. When Katie arrives home after one of his particularly fiery sermons, she resolves to follow exactly the word of the Ordnung. She lowers the hems of her dresses, hides her pink dress in the back of her closet and resolves to do her hair more plainly. Thus, renunciation serves as a control factor in Amish society. It keeps each member from straying away from his or her central beliefs, thus drawing them all closer and building a sense of unity in the society.

This unity allows for the sense of belonging and communion that the Amish feel with each other. Kanter describes several aspects of communion: homogeneity, communal sharing of work, ritualized group contact and the persecution experience. The Amish find homogeneity through the Ordnung. This unifies them through their style of dress, dialect and religious beliefs (Hostetler 82-84). Communal sharing of work is also important to the Amish. Through frequent bees or barn raisings, the Amish are able to share their work load and get things done more efficiently. By regularizing their group activities, the Amish are also able to establish a more comfortable atmosphere in large group situations.

Many of their community activities have been ritualized, such as church services, bees or singings. Every other Sunday, the Amish attend a church service at somebody's home. The day before is spent cleaning the house and setting up benches. On Sunday morning, everyone arrives, dropping off the women in the same place and turning the wheels of their carriages the same way. The women gather in the kitchen to talk, while the men gather near the barn. The services last for approximately four hours, with hymns and sermons sung in the same, ritualized style every Sunday. Thus, ritual is a way for the Amish to build their communion by always being comfortable with their situation.

In addition, the persecution experience serves to enhance the social bonds of the Amish community. As Freud noted, "outgroup hostility aids ingroup cohesion" (Kanter). Because of the dynamics of the ingroup-outgroup phenomenon, the Amish are brought closer together through the experiences of their forefathers in Europe. In addition, experiences like World Wars I and II, when the Amish were castigated as conscientious objectors, draw the community closer. Thus, because of these elements, the Amish have a tightly knit communion that heightens their sense of unity.

Finally, Kanter describes the process of transcendence, a means of making the individual feel like an integral part of the larger organization. There are four aspects to transcendence: institutional awe, guidance, tradition and ideological conversion. Institutional awe "requires an ideological and structural system that orders and gives meaning to the individual's life, and which attaches this order and meaning to the organization" (Kanter). The system of Amish life is introduced to children at a young age. They learn their place and importance in the family workload. They learn that every member of the family must contribute their share of work if the family is to survive. This importance is also found on a larger scale. Each family is needed in the church to help the other families in times of crisis. If one family's barn bums down, everybody in the community is required to rebuild it. Through situations like this, each family contributes to the general welfare and well being of every other family. Thus, each family has an important role to play in the survival of the community.

Kanter defines guidance as "the provision of a specific program of behavioral norms." The Amish find their norms in the Ordnung. Within this set of rules, every aspect of life is structured and defined so that all members of the community may live in the same manner. Some parts of the Ordnung are unwritten, but have been passed down from generation to generation. These generally provide the daily routine, such as the schedule of chores or the way to raise a garden. Thus, tradition plays an important role to the Amish. They learn the lessons of their forefathers and pattern their lives under this authority. This has been described as the "authority of the eternal yesterday," meaning that the community allows tradition to dictate principles that have "stood the test of time" (Kanter).

Finally, one of the most important moments in the life of the Amish is their baptism, or ideological conversion, in Kanter's terms. Through their baptism, Amish young people publicly accept the Ordnung and the traditions of the community. These vows of baptism are deeply sacred and any member who breaks his vows is excommunicated. Several novels focus on this aspect of Amish culture. In Katie, several members of the district leave to join a more liberal church, resulting in their excommunication. Similarly, in The Tender Herb, Fannie's brothers and their wives were all excommunicated when they broke their baptismal vows to join another church. When Eddie was considering leaving, Fannie was reluctant to go because she did not want to break her vows. She had been taught that they were sacred vows made with God, so she would be condemned for breaking them. Thus, this is one of the strongest commitment mechanisms in place in the Amish community.

Thus, Amish society uses renunciation, communion and transcendence to maintain commitment to their way of life. Through the renunciation of those who do not follow the Ordnung, members are encouraged to obey its rules faithfully. Unity is encouraged in each community through the institution of homogeneity through the Ordnung, shared work and ritualized contact. Their history of persecution also serves to enhance the strong bonds of brotherhood found in each Amish church district. Finally, the transcending importance of each individual to the larger community encourages commitment to the Amish beliefs. Through their highly structured lives and specifically stated societal norms, the Amish are given the comfort of a traditional system that has been in place for over three hundred years. By following this tradition and sanctifying their belief in it through baptism, transcendence becomes one of the strongest commitment mechanisms inherent in Amish society. By combining these commitment levels with their high birth rate, it is unlikely that Amish society will disappear during our lifetime.