The Amish church service is an act of worship, a preservation of tradition, a renewal of faith, and an affirmation of community. Communities are divided into church districts geographically, which enables services to be held in church members' homes, as opposed to designated church buildings. Services are conducted every other Sunday, with each family in a district hosting neighbors for worship about once a year.
In order to accommodate religious services of up to 150 people in homes, each church district owns a bench wagon full of backless benches, which are transported from house to house for the three-hour services. The Amish men and women usually sit in separate sections for church itself. Hymns are sung from the Ausbund, a special hymnal used by the Pennsylvania Amish. There are usually three to seven preachers and bishops at a service. These "untrained" clergy preach powerful, emotional messages, often moving about since the congregation may be seated in different rooms of the home. Some ministers present their message in a chanting, sing-song manner, in the Pennsylvania German dialect, with scriptures in High German. Common religious scripture themes include leading a right life in the eyes of the Lord; resurrection; and the idea of "judge not that ye be not judged." Scriptures are followed by brief minister messages, prayer and more song.
After the religious service concludes, the rooms are cleared of people and some of the benches are converted into tables so that a light lunch can be served. Due to limited space, men and women eat in shifts, oldest through youngest, and usually in separate rooms. The meal may consist of coffee, bread, "church spread" (a combination of peanut butter and marshmallow), jam, apple butter, red beets, pickles, cheese, and sometimes snitz (dried apple) pie. Social time follows the meal.
Well over 400 years old, the Ausbund is one of the most famous and important books to the Pennsylvania Amish. First published in German in 1564 shortly after the Reformation, it is reported to be the oldest Protestant hymnal in continuous use. With hymns added over the years, editions today contain nearly 900 pages. The Ausbund is important for many reasons, but most notably for the religious tradition that it preserves. The core of the book consists of about 50 hymns written mostly by 16th century German Anabaptists, many imprisoned in castle dungeons for their religious beliefs. Therefore, the tone of many hymns is one of great sorrow, loneliness or protest against the world of wickedness.
Hymns at a religious service are sung in German, with no organ or musical accompaniment, and in unison with no harmonizing. It may take as long as 15 minutes to do three stanzas, and for this reason entire hymns are not always sung. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Amish singing is the fact that the hymnal contains no musical notation. Melodies have simply been remembered and passed down from generation to generation, most having originated in sacred or secular folk songs and Gregorian chants of the times. Because certain men in the congregation have natural musical talent, they come to learn the melodies over the years and may emerge as song leaders or "vorsingers."
Amish youth decide if they want to join the church in their late teens and early twenties, and if they choose to be baptized, they submit themselves to the order of the church for the rest of their lives. In doing so, candidates make a confession of faith and agree to comply with the order of the Amish community, or the Ordnung, an unwritten tradition that spells out expected behaviors and regulations. Church members who break the commitment and refuse to repent and confess their sins are excommunicated and "shunned." The Pennsylvania Amish try to persuade the wayward to cooperate with the church, but those who continue to be disobedient must be banned from fellowship in order to maintain the purity of the church. The shunned are prohibited from engaging in any social interaction, cut off from all close friends and associates. Shunning happens infrequently, although it serves as an effective form of social control for the Amish that preserves their spiritual purity.
Each district usually has two or three ministers, one deacon, and one bishop, who is typically shared between two districts. The Pennsylvania Amish do not believe in going to a religious college or seminary to become a minister in the church. No one is "brought in" or feels he has been "called" to serve as a preacher. Rather, ministers are chosen by lot from the men in the Amish church district congregation. Deacons are chosen by lot as well, and bishops from among the ministers.
Becoming a minister is not viewed as an honor, but rather as a serious and heavy responsibility. Ministers usually serve for life and receive no salary. In most Amish communities, a young man cannot be baptized into the faith unless he is willing to become a minister, should the lot fall on him some day. It is normally taken for granted that the candidate will be a married man. New ministers are needed when one dies, or when a district becomes too large and must divide.
The actual event of choosing a new minister is considered one of the most emotional and important to be experienced in the Amish religion. An announcement that a new minister will be chosen is usually made at least two weeks prior to the communion service, so everyone has time to pray and meditate. There are not to be discussions among the people as to who they plan to "nominate," nor does anyone indicate his desire to become a minister. Voting is completed by the congregation after the communion service, and those who receive three or more votes are named the candidates. Each candidate selects a hymnal, and the one who finds a slip of paper with a verse written on it tucked inside is deemed the one chosen by God from among the congregation.
Most Pennsylvania Amish weddings take place after the autumn harvest, from late October through December. Traditionally, they are held Tuesdays and Thursdays, so there is time in between to get ready for and clean up after each. Even so, it can get pretty busy during the "wedding season," with some Amish going to two or three weddings in one day!
An Amish wedding is a particularly joyous occasion, for two baptized members of the church are joining in marriage, continuing the faith and starting a new family together. While parents do not select who their children will marry, approval must be given, and the deacon usually acts as the go-between. At a church service after fall communion, the couples planning to marry are "published," or announced in front of the congregation. But much preparation, mainly by the bride’s parents, has already begun, including the early summer planting of several hundred stalks of celery, an important part of any Lancaster Amish wedding feast.
The wedding service itself, held in the home of the bride’s parents, is similar to the regular Sunday church service; however, the focus is on the serious step of marriage, for in the Amish religion, there is no divorce. After the service, the benches are put together to form tables for the wedding meal, which is a feast indeed, including "roast," a mixture of bread filling and chicken, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, apple sauce and creamed celery. Some leafy celery stalks are also put in jars to decorate the table. Among the desserts are pies, doughnuts, fruit and pudding. There are usually several wedding cakes, some made by the women, but often one from a bakery as well, which are usually eaten later in the day. It will take several seatings to feed 200-300 (or more) guests. In the afternoon, the young people have a singing, and soon it is time for those who have stayed through the day to enjoy the evening meal. Hymn-singing again follows the meal, dominated by "faster hymns."
After spending the night at the bride’s home, the newlyweds awake the next day to begin helping with the clean-up from the day before. The couple will spend upcoming weekends visiting relatives, sometimes stopping at five or six houses between a Friday and Sunday night. Wedding gifts are usually given to them at this time. By the spring, the couple is usually ready to move into a home of their own, and the groom will have begun growing his beard. This is an Amish tradition that signifies a man is married.
Like all religious groups, The Amish have traditions that they observe upon the death of a family member. And like so many of their religious ceremonies, the Pennsylvania Amish are reminded that their focus should not be so much on this world as on the world yet to come.
Funeral practices of the Lancaster Amish settlement differ somewhat from those in other areas. In Lancaster County, an Amish body is taken to a local funeral director who is familiar with Amish funeral customs. Family members might wash the body before the undertaker arrives. The undertaker embalms the body and typically dresses it in long underwear before placing it in the coffin. Coffins are six sided, with two pieces on hinges that fold down to reveal the body from the chest up, and lined with material made and provided by the Amish. The coffin is then returned to the Amish family. The body is usually dressed in white clothing by family members of the same sex. For men, this means white pants, vest, and shirt; for women a white dress, cape and apron. In many cases, the white cape and apron are the same that were worn on a woman's wedding day.
In the meantime, word goes out about the death to relatives and those in the church district, and an obituary appears in the local newspaper. Prior to the day of the funeral service and burial, usually three days after the death, friends and neighbors come to the home to view the body. This is a somber time, with men and women dressed in black, quietly sitting in one or two rooms. Visitors greet the family members, and then are asked if they would like to see the body. They are taken to the coffin, and the white sheet or cloth is pulled back to reveal the face of the deceased. The undertaker does not use make-up or cosmetics on the face when he embalms the body.
On the day of the funeral, a religious service is held in the home. During the sermons, ministers refrain from eulogizing the deceased; instead, they tend to reference the story of creation. Following the religious service, buggies will process to the cemetery, and because there are so many, a number designating the order is often written in chalk on the side. The coffin is placed in the hearse, a box-like enclosed carriage drawn by a horse. The long line of carriages heading to the cemetery is a solemn, impressive sight. There are about 20 Amish cemeteries in Lancaster County, with gravestones that are fairly uniform stating the name, birth date, death date and age in years, months and days. Older cemeteries may have stones in German, but more modern ones are in English. At the cemetery, the grave has already been dug. There is no singing. Rather, a traditional hymn is read by the minister or bishop until the grave is filled by the pallbearers. The Lord’s Prayer is prayed silently. Some of the Amish in attendance will return to the home for a simple meal.
Learn about the Pennsylvania Amish lifestyle by visiting our Amish attractions.
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