Slain in the Amish Spirit

amish church traffic  small I am headed to Amish country today with a bunch of Orthodox men for a kind of old-fashioned guy’s day out adventure — various bonding rites planned, including something involving hot-rod tractors and lots of noise. However, I will keep my reporter’s hat on and I’ll let you know if I meet any Amish people who are speaking in tongues. OK?

What? You didn’t read that interesting Religion News Service piece this week?

It seems the Pentecostal wave that is washing over large parts of the world (think Africa and South America) has also reached … Lancaster County? Here is a key chunk of Daniel Burke’s piece about the Pentecostal healing ministry of Steve Lapp:

About 18 months ago the Old Order Amish church excommunicated Lapp, 37, and everyone associated with his healing ministry, including his wife and two of his brothers. The Amish bishops said Lapp was practicing “devil magic,” he said, and ordered him to stop. He did, for a time.

But people kept knocking on his door, begging for help, and he kept reading the Bible passages in which Jesus’ faithful are anointed with the gift of healing. …

With his talk of supernatural healings and events, Lapp seems more at home — at least theologically — in Pentecostal churches than among the Amish. But he is just the most extreme example of an evangelical influence creeping into the Old Order Amish community, according to a number of observers. The trend may be most evident here in Lancaster County, which, with 25,000 members, is one of the world’s largest Amish settlements.

Here’s the heart of the story: What happens if Amish people start thinking like evangelicals?

What happens if they decide that they are supposed to reach out to other people with their Christian message? What does it mean to be “in the world, but not of the world” if you are Amish? What does evangelism and mission work look like?

The Amish have had to start banning Bible studies and independent prayer meetings. I mean, the Wind blows where it will. Or is this just another example of evangelical globalization?

Burke has captured the key theological tension:

This closer walk with the outside world and emphasis on individual experience challenges the traditional Amish understanding of faith, said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Lancaster’s Elizabethtown College who has written widely on the Amish.

“People may say, ‘The spirit led me to do this.’ And that becomes a new challenge against tradition, heritage and the authority of church leaders,” he said.

About 35 to 60 families, the equivalent of two church districts, have left or are considering leaving the Old Order, according to a number of estimates. And because bishops traditionally “clean house” of strident members ahead of twice-yearly communion services, as many as 12 more excommunications could be coming, said one Amish man familiar with the situation.

In Lancaster’s tight Amish community, even the smallest ripples of discontent can swell into waves.

In one sense, this is new. In another, it has happened before, with more people going up what Burke describes as the “Anabaptist escalator,” into more and more evangelical forms of the root Amish faith tradition. This is America, after all.

If you search Google News, you will find few, if any, links to this story. That is really sad, because this is a perfect example of why Religion News Service exists. More people need to see this kind of coverage.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • David (from Edinburgh)

    Why do ‘healings and stuff’ make these guys evangelicals? Or even pentecostals? The labelling is always going to be awkward, but unless there’s an actual link to a pentecostal church/person, surely ‘charismatic’ will do? After all, there are charismatic movements and influences in nearly all worldwide denominations (the Hispanic Catholic story below being a nice example), very few of whom would dream of being lumped in with the pentecostal churches.

    A side issue:
    I’d be interested to know how many of those who use it know that the phrase ‘to be in the world but not of it’ isn’t in the Bible, as we suppose it to be. (It’s actually an Islamic saying from Sufism, but it fits very nicely with a Romans 12:2 worldview. MMMmmmmm, Pentecostal Amish Sufis…)

  • Will Harrington

    Why even Charismatic? I have an ancestor who, if accounts are to be believed, was a healer. He is credited with healing injuries of his fellow soldiers during the civil war. Thats almost half a century before the charismatic movement began. Healing is not the sole province of either evangelicals or charismatics. My ancestor was named Gunlock and the Gunlock family were good German Catholics.

  • Chris Bolinger

    David, while the exact phrase is not in the Bible, the meaning behind the phrase permeates John 17. Also, 1 Peter and other books discuss the concept of being aliens and strangers in the world, which conveys the same meaning as the phrase.

    Unless I missed it, the article does not indicate whether or not Lapp’s healing ministry extended outside the Amish community before Lapp was excommunicated. That, I think, is an important point.

  • David (from Edinburgh)

    Will, yes the ‘Charismatic Renewal’ is a relatively recent thing, but the name (as you probably knew) is from Charismata – ‘gifts’ – and has been used to describe the gifts of the Spirit (and all gifts from God) since the early days of the Church. Like here.

    Chris, I was just being cheeky :)

  • FrGregACCA

    As it turns out, the RNS story itself, linked in tmatt’s blog entry, answers many of the questions raised above. Its setting is an encounter with Lapp at an Assemblies of God Church. The Assemblies of God is one of the largest of the classical Pentecostal denominations. Further, there is a mention of Lapp’s ministry, called Light of Hope which, as it turns out, has a website:

    Light of Hope Ministries

    According to the information presented on the website, Lapp and company are intentionally reaching out to both Amish and non-Amish.

  • Mattk

    “evangelical influence”?

    The Old Order Amish are anabaptists, aren’t they?
    Doesn’t this make them evangelical?

  • Mattk

    And what makes healing part of the charismatic movement? I’m an Orthodox and expect nothing short of miraculous healing when I receive the sacrament of Holy Unction. And even Orthodox communion prayers ask God to heal “soul and body”. Miracles such as healing a very traditional Christian experience, and are not just a recent phenomenon to be seen in a sub section of protestantism. THis reporter is out to lunch.

  • lancaster

    Glory be to God!

  • Grant

    I usually lurk, but thought I’d point out a second century use of that phrase or something very close to it: Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, chapter vi

  • easy

    Why does the “light of hope ministries” web site have to imply that the Amish are Godless and not Christians?

    here’s an excerpt of a letter to the editor I wrote

    I’m familiar with a dark side of fundamentalist Christianity when it isn’t tempered with compassion and reason. As a child I watched my older brother dramatically withdraw from our family, in large part because of an encounter he had with a neighbor, who managed to persuade him of the inferiority of our family’s faith and way of life. ( How, “four centuries ago.” )
    The irony is, we were Amish. The same people who are currently revered world wide for how they dealt with a horrible tragedy in one of their schools. And yet, it is very likely my thirteen year old brother was told that if he doesn’t reject and Dis-associate from most of what my family was and did, he would burn in hell for all eternity.
    It would be nice to see the local fundamentalist evangelical community show some leadership and speak up for common sense and decency.


    I grew up Amish. I believe Bible study is a new element among the Amish in southern Michigan. You will also find some districts developing dramatically more liberal approaches to what is allowed. There is also a group camping fad. Probably cell phones are increasing the trend toward some forms of greater assimmilation with the general public, though the main thrust of Amish life remains largely the same.

  • D W Layman

    evangelical influence”?

    The Old Order Amish are anabaptists, aren’t they?
    Doesn’t this make them evangelical?

    As a Mennonite in Lancaster County, I believe that for all of its benefits (which were and are real), evangelicalism has destroyed the integrity of the “Old Mennonite” tradition.

    The equation between Anabaptism and evangelicalism was first made by Harold S. Bender, who wanted to create a (what he regarded as) a revitalized Mennonite tradition in an evangelical vein. Now other Mennonites want to fuse evangelicalism and a modern interpretation of Anabaptism in an “evangelical Anabaptism.”

    The central problem is stated in the quote from Prof. Kraybill: there is an essential tension between the spiritual autonomy of conversionism, and the community-oriented practice of the Amish and Mennonite traditions. The former is about celebrating one’s own spiritual experience–read Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, for the consequences of revivalism for Christian tradition. Revivalists were resented by the established ministers because they went around getting people stirred up, while the ministers had to deal with the consequences of disappointed and fading enthusiasm.

    But Amish (and traditional Mennonite) piety is/was about accepting one’s place and role in the community, and being spiritually and morally transformed by the community’s tradition, i.e., the traditioned understanding of God’s work in the community.

    For a similar argument from a Reformed perspective, read D. G. Hart (Recovering Mother Kirk would seem the best place to start) on the incompatibility of evangelicalism and confessional Protestantism.

    My pastor has participated in meetings of this group. I don’t have the heart to give him the bad news: it will simply splinter the Amish community, and funnel more people to the “Anabaptist escalator” (perceptive phrase!).

  • Alice C. Linsley

    After the killing of the school children, the Mennonite community which had suffered so witnessed to their Faith through their forgiveness of the man and care for his family. I’m not surprised that the wind is blowing in Lancaster County. May it blow across the United States!

  • Byrd

    Ms. Linsley, I beg your pardon, but it was not a Mennonite community that had the tragedy of the school house shootings last Fall. It was an Amish group. While the Mennonites and Amish come from the same roots, they are not the same.

    As a side note, there was an article this week that there had been donations to the Amish to help and they had given some of the funds to the widow and children of the gunman.

  • Christy

    The Washington Post did report last week the moving story that the Amish community that lost five girls in the shooting last year donated money to the widow of the gunman.

  • rw

    This is certainly an interesting development. I agree with others who have a little trouble with the word “Pentecostal” associated with this group. This may have to do with what the reporter chose to include.

    Having grown up in an AG church, and attended charismatic churches and some regular ol’ generic Evangelical churches as well, I believe the term Pentecostal refers directly to a group that speaks in toungues. I would be interested to see if this Amish group actually does this. Otherwise, I would categorize them as a charismatic Amish group. The reporter may have left out this detail. Sitting on a tractor doesn’t make you a farmer, and using an AG church for your service doesn’t necessarily make you a Pentecostal. But it doesn’t mean you are not one either.

    Non-Amish often view Anabaptists as static communities. The reality is that Anabaptists of all stripes are prone to schisms and denominational splits, just as in other sectors of Christianity (i.e. Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Amish Mennonites, Beachy Amish, etc.).

    Experiential movements are not foreign to Anabaptist groups either. The “Sleeping Preacher” Amish were founded by a pastor who held services while in a trance. Also, the early history of the Mennonite Brethren denomination reads like the story of a charismatic renewal movement, even though it happened in the late 1880′s.

    I would like to hear more about this group, and the trajectory they take over time.

  • rw

    Typo correction: The Mennonite Brethren sprang up in the late 1800′s – specifically, from 1860 onward in South Russia, Central Asia and the American Midwest.

  • Chris Bolinger

    FrGregACCA (#5), I read the RNS story and didn’t see an indication as to whether or not Lapp’s healing ministry extended outside the Amish community before Lapp was excommunicated. If it didn’t, then the matter was internal to the Amish community and did not become “evangelical” until after Lapp was excommunicated.

  • Lloyd Glick

    The Lapp’s healing ministry started with an “out-sider” so I guess that makes it “evangelical” from the get-go!