Amish teens flirt with modernity before deciding to embrace the church
Joseph Miller says he likes driving Italian sports cars, drinking tequila and partying all night—and, oh yeah, he’s an Amish teenager. “But that doesn’t mean I still can’t get up early to do a mean cow milking,” he jokes.
On a remote Pennsylvania farm road, Miller opens a secret compartment in his buggy, revealing the latest high-end sound system. “If my folks knew about this, they would die.” Miller flips on his stereo. Rap music thunders from six speakers. His horse winces. “When I crank this sucker up, it really screams,” he shouts over the din.
Miller, who like all the Amish quoted for this story asked that his real name not be used, says that sometimes, when an older tourist sneaks up to photograph him in his buggy, he blasts his rap music and watches their expressions. “It’s priceless,” he laughs.
“But it serves them right. How would you feel if strangers came up to you all the time, snapping pictures?” he says, taking a swig from a carton of chocolate milk.
“Anyway, I’m in my rumspringa phase, so I guess I’m supposed to get a little out of control,” he adds, wiping away a chocolate mustache.
The Running-Around Years
Until baptized, Amish youth are not official members of their community and are given a lenient period called rumspringa (running-around) to sample the non-Amish world of drinking, car driving and wearing modern clothes. This permissive period for Amish youngsters—which some believe is becoming too lax—normally begins at 16 and continues to the early twenties, or until baptism.
A middle-aged Amish father says he’s not crazy about Amish kids today driving cars, drinking and staying out late. “They’re doing more than I ever did during my rumspringa,” he says. “But it’s a different era. Maybe they need more time today to decide if they want to be baptized.”
The Not-Yet-Amish Club
And John, an animated, Air Jordan shoe-wearing Amish teen, agrees: “Most of my friends are not rushing to get baptized like our parents … ‘cause once you’re baptized, that’s it. You can’t do all these English [non-Amish] things,” he says. “We even joke that we’re part of the ‘Not-yet-Amish Club’.”
But it would be wrong, John says, to think that he and his friends represent Amish youth. Most Amish kids are definitely on the conservative side and only 15 percent even leave the community, he explains.
John says most Amish view American culture as decadent, materialistic and unreligious. And though Amish youth do flirt with popular American culture, he says, most go back to their Amish ways. “You can yank the boy out of Amish country, but you can’t yank the Amish out of the boy.”
John says the media has overhyped rumspringa, and it’s not as widespread or as rowdy as outsiders think. “The real rumspringa is no Spring Break,” he says.
Donald B. Kraybill, professor of sociology and religious studies at Elizabethtown College, agrees. Kraybill, hailed as the world’s leading authority on Amish studies, says most rumspringa excesses are exaggerated and that in the more than 400 United States Amish settlements, the norm for rumspringa falls within acceptable Amish behavior, including boys and girls eating, enjoying sports and singing together.
However, Jake Esh, 68, an ex-Amish member, says that the rumspringa of today is still wilder than in his day. Esh says that when he got a car during his rumspringa years, it wasn’t okay with his parents.
But today it’s different, he says. “A lot of these rumspringa kids have a car and their parents even allow them to park it at home. In my day, we wouldn’t have gotten away with that.”
Esh adds that today some rumspringa Amish kids experiment with drugs, which wouldn’t have happened in the sixties.
With fewer Amish families living on farms today, Esh says that many Amish kids no longer wake up at four o’clock in the morning to milk cows. The extra leisure allows for more rumspringa activities, says Esh.
But not everyone agrees. “I may not work on a farm, but I still get up early to do my chores,” says Mary, an Amish teen sporting a prayer shawl and swinging a broom outside an Amish craft shop.
Now baptized, Mary says she gave up a lot of the silly things she did in her rumspringa years, like wearing English clothes and going to parties.
“But it’s good to allow kids a little time to do some rumspringing, to explore a little bit before deciding to be baptized.” Mary says that Amish history celebrates choice in baptism.
And, indeed, choice and baptism played a central role in Amish history. Feeling that the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s did not go far enough in breaking from the Catholic Church, a group of Swiss dissenters organized. Chief among their complaints was that only adults—not infants—should be baptized because only they were capable of making that meaningful decision.
These dissenters later took biblical verses like 2 Corinthians 6:14 to heart: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
Many of the Amish prohibitions today against the automobile, grid electricity and other technologies stem from the belief that these are profane and that Christians are “not [to] love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15).
Eventually dubbed the Anabaptists (re-baptizers) for re-baptizing their members as adults, they suffered much persecution in Europe and ultimately fled to the Untied States.
Kraybill says that rumspringa—in the spirit of allowing individuals time to decide to join a church—is ultimately consistent with Anabaptist history and values.
“Leaving the church before baptism is respected,” says Kraybill. “They are not excommunicated or shunned. And even if excommunicated, they can always come back.”
Not So Different After All
We shouldn’t view rumspringa as unusual, warns Diane Umble, professor at nearby Millersville University. Umble says that every culture has its transitional period for youth, where they are encouraged to make their own decisions.
Umble, author of several books on the Amish, says that freshmen students at her university tell her their first year of college is like rumspringa, in that they are given new freedoms and responsibilities as they leave home and start college.
“I think we tend to make the Amish into the exotic, without recognizing that rumspringa is shared, in part, by many cultures,” says Umble.
The difference in the way Amish and American youth are reared, says Umble, is that American youth are raised to pursue independence, whereas the Amish are taught to seek community.
Umble says rumspringa is a difficult time for Amish youth because they are faced with a major decision: do I want to be part of a subculture with a worldview very different from the mainstream culture?
Umble says this is a monumental decision because those Amish youth who leave their culture are divorcing themselves from a close-knit community that has defined them since birth.
And back on the remote Pennsylvania farm road, Miller agrees but says he knows what he’s going to do after his rumspringa days.
Taking a drag from a Marlboro cigarette and fighting back a need to cough, Miller looks out on a rolling green farm pasture. “If I don’t get baptized, I can’t marry an Amish girl, can’t work with my father, and can’t stay here.” Miller stubs out his barely-smoked cigarette and cradles the head of his horse. “And this is where I belong.”
[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]