Monday, August 4, 2008

Plain Secrets: Faith Practices

The chapter "The Lot Falls," in Joe Mackall's Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, gives us a window into the workings of the Amish faith among the Swartzentruber Amish.

Sam Shetler, Mackall's Amish friend and neighbor, is chosen to be a minister. His church district has one bishop, two ministers and a deacon. As a minister, Samuel will preach and look out for the material welfare of the community.

Unlike most faiths, where a person hears a call and goes for specific ministerial training, Swartzentruber Amish ministers are called by the community (and God), work without specific training, as well as without pay or any diminution of their other duties. Most men (and it's always men) hope to be spared this heavy burden, Mackall said.

Samuel is called to become a minister at one of the church's twice yearly communions. Communions occur two weeks after a meeting of the entire baptized church body but only if the entire church body is in unity. During the pre-Communion meeting every individual in the church, male or female, publicly reaffirms his or her commitment to the church rules, known as the Ordnung. If a person has a problem with the Ordnung, he or she is supposed to air it at the meeting. Communion can't occur until any problems are resolved. Sometimes the resolution is for a group to break off and form a new Amish group with a different Ordnung.

To find a new minister, as the Swartzentruber Amish do at one pre-Communion meeting, everybody, male or female, votes. This happens the following way: a current minister stands at an open window. Everyone files by, one by one, and speaks the name of the man they'd like to become minister. A scribe writes all the names down. Any man who gets more than two votes moves on to stage two.

In stage two, the chosen men stand before the church community. In Samuel's case, he stands with seven other men. Eight hymnals are spread out in a table. In one, a "lot" is placed, a slip of paper saying "you are chosen." The books are moved all around on the table so that nobody knows which one holds the paper. Each man picks up a book. The one who chooses the book with the paper in it becomes the minister. In this case, it's Samuel.

Mackall describes other aspects of Amish faith: humility, a literal belief in aspects of the Bible, such as the creation story and the Virgin birth, that are treated more skeptically in other parts of Christendom, a need to live in a community submitting itself to Christ, adult baptism, every individual having a voice in the election of leaders and in the life of the church, staying apart from the "wicked" wider world "that the devil has planted," a peace testimony that says that violence belongs to governments and is outside of the "perfection of Christ" and a refusal to swear oaths.

For Quakers reading this, much of the above "theology," articulated in the mid-16th century, will seem familiar. There's no doubt that Quakers were influenced by much of this anabaptist understanding. Humility (which I think the Quakers would refer to as simplicity) is a part of Quakerism, as is the peace testimony and the refusal to swear oaths. Like the Amish, our leaders are unpaid and many people shy away from the burden of that responsibility. Like the Amish, Quakers must be "gathered," with every single person in unity, before true "communion" can occur. (I'm oversimplifying, but trying to show the connections.) Essentially, in the Amish willingness to give everyone a say in the community, we can see the seeds of the more radical equality of the Quakers. When I write articles about the terrible frustration experienced, say, by women in the Roman Catholic church, who have absolutely no say in who gets into leadership in the church hierarchy, I can appreciate how valuable it is for a woman to have a vote for a minister or the right to stand up and challenge the Ordnung. While Amish women may seem oppressed to the outside world, I know Roman Catholic women who would give almost anything to have privileges of an Amish woman transferred to the RC church.

On the other hand, I also understand the second class citizenship of the women that Mackall describes (how seldom women, for example, actually challenge the Ordnung, a silence or acquiescence which Mackall attributes to social indoctrination) and I better perceive how Quakers were able to take female equality before God to the next level by allowing women to take any position in the community.

Quakers, though they have had periods of withdrawal, value engagement with the "wicked" world as a way to correct present evils, though a compelling argument can be made that they have paid a high price through becoming much more conformed to that world. Many modern-day Quakers have split from the Amish in a move from Christ-centered community. I also see differences in the peace testimony: I would say the Quakers are less likely to accede to the proposition that wars are for governments and more likely to oppose all war, all the time. On the other hand, I wonder if we as a group practice day-to-day non-violence to the same extent as the Amish. I am also impressed that in an Amish minister, spiritual and material concerns have equal weight: the Amish minister is responsible for the physical needs as well as the soul of his community. I believe that Jesus meant for us to have this kind of caring for each other. Mackall, like others, is moved when he sees this caring in practice, such as during a barn raising.

Mackall admits he doesn't really "get" the faith that drives Samuel and other Amish, and while he describes their faith well, it is clear to me as a Quaker that Mackall truly doesn't "get" it. But something in him is drawn to Samuel because Samuel's life, as the Quakers would say, is a "pattern" of faithful living. For instance, when Mackall's Uncle Bob, who suffered brain damage as a child, dies, Mackall instinctively turns to Samuel's spiritual strength.

Mackall is angry that a doctor "screwed up" an operation that left Uncle Bob mentally impaired. How does a God that would let this happen square with Samuel's faith?

"God made Uncle Bob that way because everyone who knew him needed him to be exactly the way he was," Samuel says.

Mackall remembers what a friendly and open-hearted person Uncle Bob was. More than 500 people came to his funeral "sob[bing] for a man with a victimized brain and a damaged heart." Mackall drops an intellectual debate over the nature of God and simply let's Samuel's words soak in. "God made Uncle Bob that way because everyone who knew him needed him to be exactly the way he was." He feels less angry. He understands that Samuel is not trying to evangelize, but is saying what he truly believes.

"I was comforted by his words," Mackall writes. "Instead of fighting usual intellectual battles with myself or with Samuel, I simply gave myself to the moment, allowing Samuel's philosophy to be mine as long as I stayed on the farm."

What do you think? Or as the Quakers would put it: What canst thou say?


Bill Samuel said...

It's generally thought the Anabaptist movement had little influence on the development of Quakerism. They seem to rather be separate developments with significant similarities.

In fact, I remember reading something I think by George Fox that was quite hostile to the Anabaptists. This related to the strain in early Quaker thinking that practicing the sacraments outwardly was inherently inconsistent with experiencing them inwardly, which I personally find absurd (although it fit with their logic for rejecting outward observances) and some other prominent early Quakers don't seem to have expressed.

Diane said...


Interesting. I don't know the history but find the parallels fascinating. It could well have been different groups with access to vernacular Bibles drawing the same conclusions.

Anonymous said...

The Amish communities I'm acquainted with don't allow women much in the way of leadership opportunities, at home or in church. For example, only men can choose hymns to be sung in church. And that's just a small thing in terms of leadership.


Diane said...


It was clear from Mackall's book that women were second-class citizens. I wouldn't be surprised if they had no say over any details of the worship either. Which is why the rights they have--to challenge the Ordnung and nominate a minister--are all the more striking. Sadly, though, social indoctrination has apparently made these rights more theoretical than real. Mackall says women simply never challenge the Ordnung. Men do.