The Amish Heritage Foundation (AHF) often decries the state of Amish Studies as a discipline, with a particular focus on how scholarship seems to lean into infantilizing narratives rather than acknowledge the personhood of Amish people, especially those who leave the church. However, research is taking place which investigates the experiences of other people who have left covenantal communities (a community governed entirely by expectations derived from theology and separated from larger society and other religious groups) (Engelman et al. 2020, 1). While all covenantal communities are unique, it may be helpful to understand why people leave covenant communities in general to consider whether that same pattern may be true among the Amish.
(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)
This post will primarily focus on Joel Engelman’s research and drawing connections to what we know about the Amish communities across the United States. For more context, watch Engelman’s talk at the Amish Heritage Foundation’s “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” inaugural annual conference at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA in 2018.
Our first question when trying to make a connection between this research and the Amish is: What makes a covenant religion and why are the Amish one of them?
According to Engelman, a key feature of a covenantal religion is the presence of formal and informal roadblocks that prevent community members from integrating into the society at large. Among the Amish, we certainly see . . .
. . . this factor at work. The Amish are forbidden from recruiting others to join, must stop schooling after eighth grade, and cannot have any method of connecting with the outside world in the home.
Engelman also identifies the threat of exclusion as a key feature of how the society at large enforces the rules in a covenantal religion. This threat is certainly in place among the Amish, with baptized members facing the threat of excommunication and unbaptized members experiencing the broader phenomenon of shunning. In this research, Engelman argues that leaving a covenant religion is like fleeing your country; a prospect we see clearly among the Amish, since outsiders often refer to Amish communities as ‘Amish country’ and the founder of AHF even identifies as an “American refugee”.
Our next question is more specifically, what do Orthodox Jews (or the more narrow subset of those who belong to Haredi Judaism) and the Amish have in common? Immediately, we can identify the same strict observance of laws and traditions, a culture of pride around self-sufficiency and insularity, no access to outside information, particularly education, highly defined gender roles, and no adequate education.
Considering all of these similarities, it is relevant to look at the key issue involved in Engelman’s research, which is “Why did his participants leave?” These reasons can broadly be sorted into two buckets, factors which pulled people out of their communities and into the outside world and factors that pushed people out of their communities. Engelman identified important factors from the outside world which appealed to those surveyed included: opportunities to lead their own lives, ability to dress how they wanted, and a more tolerant attitude towards all. On the other hand, the factors that drove people to leave their community (particularly among women): included a sense of the community trying to control them, a fear that the community would harm them, physically or mentally, or the legacy of a sexual assault within the community. All of these factors would likely apply to Amish exiles.
Engelman’s research concentrates on his final question: ‘what effects do religious exiles experience?’ Fundamentally, leaving a covenant religion means risking “loss of family, loss of employment, divorce, loss of custody of children, and loss of community and social structure” (12). Engelman’s research also suggests that if a person is forced out by any number of push factors, they’re more likely to experience mental and physical consequences.
We don’t have data on the experience of leaving the Amish, but we know anecdotally that many Amish people experience the same phenomenon described in this study. By understanding why Amish people may leave and what the potential consequences of being pushed out of your home community are, AHF and others who care can better support and protect Amish exiles.
Watch the Video (coming soon)
Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.
V.B., Summer Intern for the Amish Heritage Foundation
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