On the Amish and Shunning

On Tuesday, February 4, PBS’s  American Experience will air The Amish: Shunned. In light of this documentary, we asked Karen Johnson-Weiner, one of the co-authors of Johns Hopkins University Press’s The Amish, to explain the practice of shunning.

Guest post by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner

In Lancaster County, a group of us ate dinner with an Amish couple who had two children and several grandchildren who were all no longer Amish. The pair showed us pictures of the wedding of one of their (no longer Amish) sons. For me, this brought home the diversity of ways in which Amish communities deal with those who leave. I once arrived at a Swartzentruber (ultraconservative Amish) home to find the mother in tears because her son had run away in the middle of the night. It was odd to be consoling my friend because her son had left to live like I do. My Swartzentruber friend would never have pictures of a child’s English wedding (English, as the Amish call them, are outsiders who speak English), much less show them to outsiders. Another Swartzentruber couple no longer mentions a married daughter who, with her family, joined a conservative Mennonite church; they haven’t seen the two grandchildren born since the daughter left their community.

For the Amish, excommunication (Bann) and shunning (Meidung) are community-wide tough love. When someone is baptized and joins an Amish church-community, that person makes a vow to God to embrace the Christian faith as practiced by that community, a congregation of those who have made this same promise. If someone breaks this vow by joining a different group or even leaving the Amish altogether, then others in the community are left with no option but to excommunicate and shun that person. To do otherwise would be to break their own vows to God. Church members hope that the shunning will help those who leave realize the seriousness of the step they are taking and recognize its eternal consequences. Furthermore, the discipline of shunning protects the integrity of the church-community.

How a church-community carries out the shunning of those who leave is a distinguishing characteristic, one that can put one Amish group at odds with others. For example, the Swartzentruber Amish trace their roots to a schism in the large Old Order Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio, over the unwillingness of the majority to excommunicate and shun members who joined an Amish congregation that was different from  the one in which they had been baptized. Nearly forty years later, in the 1950s, the Holmes County Old Order community experienced another schism when the majority of church members agreed not to excommunicate and shun members who left the church if they affiliated with another plain, Amish-related group. Again, more conservative-minded churches separated in order to keep “strong Bann,” a strict shunning.

Today, the Swartzentruber Amish and other very conservative Amish groups continue to shun members who leave the baptismal community for a different group, regardless of whether the group is plain, Amish, or Amish-related. There are several types of Swartzentruber congregations, and they don’t “fellowship” with each other (“dien” in Pennsylvania Dutch): in other words, ministers of one group will not preach at services of the other, and members of one group can’t marry members of the other. Thus, when a Swartzentruber joins a different Swartzentruber community, that person will be excommunicated and shunned. (Of course, having been baptized into one community, that person would not be welcome in another because the groups respect each other’s excommunications!) Only if errant church members come back to make confession in the church and rejoin the community are they again welcome. Otherwise, they are not invited to any family gatherings, nor are they welcome to visit their parents or siblings.

In contrast, a member of a less conservative Old Order church community noted that someone would be shunned if he or she left to join a Mennonite church, but not if he or she went to another Old Order Amish church, even if that other church was not one with which they “fellowshipped.” Furthermore, less conservative Amish, unlike the Swartzentrubers, may still be able to engage socially with those who have been excommunicated. One woman told me that her sister, who had left the Amish world entirely, could still eat with the family although she couldn’t sit at the same table.

The percentage of members that stays Amish fluctuates by group. In one group, it could be 60 percent; in another, 95 percent. Ninety percent is the gross national average. Ironically, the Swartzentrubers have the higher retention. The “new order” tend to have a lower retention rate. The closer someone is to the outside world, the easier it is for them to step over the line.

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Karen M. Johnson-Weiner is a professor of anthropology at SUNY-Potsdam, coauthor of  The Amish, and author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, published by the JHU Press, and New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State. 

Interested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each.

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