Amish Economy

Old postcard of Amish kitchen

We might be excused for thinking that “Amish economy” is a result of people who deliberately stay rooted in an agrarian way of life; that the Amish, and other Anabaptists, are thrifty and hard-working from necessity. Those in the Old Orders almost never have education beyond American grade eight. They learn trades and crafts rather than professions.

Amish economy is based on old Anabaptist principles that are about community rather than money. This may seem strange to Americans, whose goals are generally centred on obtaining a comfortable life, with a fair amount of ease and luxury, even if it is not ostentatiously rich. Most modern Westerners admire the rich, and are fascinated by the lifestyle of the wealthy. Vacation resorts make a good deal of money promoting this fantasy. If this attitude was not widespread, there would be no lotteries, no Las Vegas, no People magazine. There are no Amish equivalents to these cultural phenomena.

Yet the Amish and other Old Order groups do not live as asthetes and monks. They are focussed on living a Christian life rather than a comfortable life. Some people are surprised and even shocked when they see an Amish home that has a recliner, a gas stove, and wall decor; they were expecting something more austere and self-denying. But Amish life isn’t about austerity; the self-denial takes other forms, such as a rejection of popular culture and anything that will fragment the family and their own Amish community. Electricity is rejected as being the conduit for radios, television, DVD players and now, the mindless popular entertainment of the internet; but a gas stove and refrigerator (if allowed in that district) are good for the family. The home telephone is rejected as a means for idle chatter and hurtful gossip; yet Amish business people (and some teens during rumspringa) use cell phones to stay in touch. The automobile as a family-owned personal conveyance is rejected, but most Amish will accept or hire a ride when needed for doctors’ appointments, shopping, or long-distance visiting.

I can understand all of this. The telephone is an instrument that spreads petty talk and divides friends; the automobile takes families to distant places where they are apart from community, and encourages young people to stay away from home; and I don’t think I need to say anything more about the unChristian intrusion of commercially produced television and films. The economy of the Amish is “ekkonomia” – management of the household. Early Church bishops and priests were admonished to practice good “ekkonomia” in their communities. The Amish still take that seriously.

There are old Anabaptist principles on what is good work. It must benefit the community. It must allow for parents to be home with their children as much as possible. It is not possible to practice good work if the industry in which one works is destructive. Pacifist Anabaptists would not assemble rifles, or build tanks, or sew military uniforms. They will assemble woodstoves, build RVs and bicycles, and sew coats. They do not like their young people to travel far from home to work, although carpenter groups did travel together.  While most young mothers stay home with their children, others will work in retail or food service as they need to, if it does not interfere with being home with the children at crucial times of the day. (Many Amish women have home-based businesses, as well. This probably comes out of the background of an agrarian culture.)

Some underlying principles of Amish/Anabaptist economy are that the business owner should not earn much more than his workers – one old rule was that the owner should realize no more than four times what he pays the least paid of his employees. The business itself should keep its workers close to home, so that they can return to their families every evening.

Amish men at a horse auction in the 1950s

Gellasenheit is the Amish concept of self-surrender, of standing humbly before God, of not trying to rise above one’s neighbours and friends. It is the reason for the Ordnung, the way of life of that community. “Gellasenheit” is avoiding self-idolatry, or of being too pleased with oneself, of staying away from anything that smells of status seeking and privilege. It isn’t false humility; if one is good at doing something that benefits the community, then one should do it. Those who practice gellasenheit, though, will not draw attention to what they have done; they will not boast or risk the criticism of the group for putting oneself forward.

It is also an Anabaptist principle to be sufficiently independent financially, of being able to carry one’s own weight in the community. Those who cannot because of disability, age or circumstances can be assured that they will receive the care they need. Being financially solvent, free of debt, and able to earn a living wage and provide sufficiently for family and neighbours in need are the goals of the Amish householder. Amish and Mennonites are always quietly rasing funds for those who are suffering. Collections are taken door to door, auctions held, thrift stores run, to benefit “the least of these.” Because the churches are either held in houses, or at most are small, low maintenance structures among some of the Mennonites, and the clergy, for the msost part, serve without stipend, monies raised within the church can be used for the benefit of the needy. “Charity begins at home” is often misquoted to justify keeping church funds within the  immediate community rather than disperse them in the wider church-world; the Amish more typically exemplify this saying in its truer sense, that one learns to love and care for others first within one’s home group. (The charitable work of the larger Mennonite/Amish community benefits many worldwide, not just in their own home states, and not just among the followers of their particular kind of faith.)

This outreach is also part of the Amish/Mennonite witness of non-violence, “to do good and not evil.”  The Amish witness is of the “two kingdoms” – a Christian cannot serve both God and Mammon (money, worldliness). The Christian lives first in God’s kingdom, and is only of necessity in the world. In 1530, an early Anabaptist, John of Leyden, wrote, “A believer’s church should be a community of faith that practiced mutual aid.” That is, the faithful were to care for one another, and as Christ admonished his followers, to care for the stranger as oneself, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church is truly not “every man for himself” but “every man for each other.”

For further reading online: www.religionomics.com; www.reformedreader.org.

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11 thoughts on “Amish Economy

  1. Great post Magdalena. When a tornado came through here a couple years ago (thank God missed us), it was the Mennonites (from up here and Elmira) who showed up first to clean up and rebuild farm buildings. I think the world would be a much better place if more Moms (or Dads if so inclined) stayed home with their children. So many of my friends work out, but if they crunched the numbers they aren’t really making any money.

    • I agree wholeheartedly! And often they wonder why they barely know their children as they get older. As one Christian writer said, “If you send your children to Caesar, don’t be surprised if they come back Romans.”

  2. I enjoyed it too. I have long been a fan of the Amish way of life, though I’m not sure I am strong and selfless enough to live it. There’s still too much ‘but what about MEEEE’ in myself–something that is taking consistent effort to tame. I’m better’n I used to be but not nearly where I ought to be at 43. Still it’s a good mindset to aspire to, and I do.

    • There is something to be learned in the Amish way, certainly. We mostly live by these principles, although we are more monastic in mindset. Being Anglicans.

  3. A very interesting article. You did a nice job on making a summary. One thing to point out is the spelling of “Gelassenheit” (1 ‘l’ and 2 ‘s’); however, an overall good article that is mostly accurate.

    • Thanks for the correction – I had looked up the spelling but somehow the eyes and the fingers got disconnected! I realize there are some vague spots in the post, but it is a general interest article rather than a scholarly effort. I have a fairly good comprehension of Anabaptist history and theological development, but it is sometimes difficult to translate that to everyday communication.

  4. magdalena,

    Learning of the Amish model for business here was eye-opening! Oh my goodness!! if all business aspired to adopt this model re what the management are paid compared to the lowest earning workers, shunning commute enslavement by ensuring employment is close to home etc, the world would literally be a very different place. This is the way in which business models used to work even 40 years ago, with the factory, mine, processing plant etc building the town near the industry ()now its all ‘fly in, fly out’ which fractures communities and families alike), employers couldn’t care if their workers are caused to take a two hour commute each way to get to work…also, from what I remember, not too long ago, the CEO earnt no more than ten times that of the lowest paid employee; this was not uncommon in Australia. If they had adhered to this guide, perhaps we wouldn’t be in quite so much the mess we are now in globally. The entire postwar urban disaster sprang up because these simple principles fell out of favour in mainstream society, leading to concreting over of urban farmland, the erection of ‘dormatory suburbs’, the advent of children being raised at the feet of ‘Caesar’ due to both parents working long hours, which has led to the erotion of childhood and more childhood and teen mental illness than ever seen before. Families are broken up because young people have to migrate sometimes across the nation for work and nobody gives a toss about the family, either in govt or industry, and the churches sit on their hands saying nothing, accepting all of this as an inevitable shift in the culture not to be combatted in any way whatsoever. Now, 3 billion of the world’s population live in the urban setting… more often than not, big city as opposed to rural or regional town (the ideal model for urban life; I’ve lived ‘town life’ as opposed to city life, and it has many benefits; hubby and i will be getting out of our city that is eating itself from the inside and potentially killing itself, staggering beneath the weight of its own growth and unsustainability…I have shared this link previously, a couple of years ago now in relation to another matter, but here it is again;

    http://slowfoodaustralia.com.au/food-diversity/defending-food-diversity/the-future-of-food/

    Read the Manifesto. This is not merely a middle class Western w*nk, so to speak (please excuse my very broad english here); this is equally applicable to the wider industrial community, not merely the agricultural and food production sector. Such an action plan strikes at the very heart of multinational monopoly that masquerades as capitalism (a very different beastie from genuine free enterprise). Chesterton stated that the more capitalism there is, the less capitalists there are…Subsidiarity, Magdalena and readers, is the key here; unpretty name, but incredible concept! the Amish encapsulate true subsidiarity!! I’ll leave you in peace now 🙂

    Blessings,

    Sarah.

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