In the 1400s the printing press revolutionized Europe, enabling mass distribution of printed material fast. The Reformation roiled Europe in the 1500s, in no small measure due to Gutenberg’s invention. In the wake of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli came a variety of sects, including the radical Anabaptists, who believed in adult baptism and strict separation of church and state. In 1693 the Anabaptists splintered into three sects, including the followers of one Jakob Ammann. They called themselves Amish.
About the Amish
Amish organize into districts governed by an Ordnung (set of rules) that governs personal attire, domestic life, and work. Today the Ordnung forbids use of electricity, automobiles, telephones and a range of modern labor-saving devices. The Ordnung must be strictly obeyed under penalty of shunning or even excommunication. Implementation of the Ordnung may vary in different communities. It is intended to promote the virtues of hard work, humility, rural life, and separation from the world. Their inspiration comes from James 1:27: “To keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV).
Weary of persecution and the world around them, in the mid-1700s about 500 Amish arrived in the New World, settling mostly in Pennsylvania. In the 1800s about 1500 more came, settling in the Midwest. Most Amish are descended from about 200 families who crossed the Atlantic.
Population and fertility
“Over the last century the Amish population has doubled on average every 19.63 years,” according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, which further states:
“The North American Amish population grew by an estimated 183,565 since 2000, increasing from approximately 177,910 in 2000 to 361,475 in 2021, an increase of 103.2 percent.”
In 1992 there were 125,000 Amish in the US. By 2020 there were 350,000, an almost 180 percent increase. The US population increased approximately 29 percent during that period, thus the Amish population growth rate was six times that of the US (including immigration). That is exponential population growth, though it begins from a very low base.
Today there are 375,000 Amish in America.
Amish live in districts, each comprising roughly 30 families. When a district surpasses that, a new district is formed. A new district is founded every 3.5 weeks. Associated districts form settlements. From 2000 to 2021, the Amish gained 290 new settlements. Present in 31 US states, they have recently established districts in four Canadian provinces and single districts in Argentina and Bolivia.
At home the Amish speak a form of German known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Due to their rural customs, personal privacy (Amish do not keep photographs as they are believed to cultivate vanity) and lack of technology, surveys of the Amish are an inexact science. Several groups may be considered a variant of Amish, but with fertility research the accepted criteria for Amish is that they speak Pennsylvania Dutch and have no household phones. That group consistently averages close to seven births per female.
Were the Amish a separate country, they would be right up there with Niger (6.9) contending for the world’s highest fertility rate. Amish fertility was the basis for demographer Lyman Stone’s 2018 paper “How Long Until We’re All Amish?”
I occasionally encounter Amish in my travels, and once visited a workshop where a father and his four sons made buggy wheels. They were back-ordered for months.
Reasons for population growth
Like other Christians, Amish see children as a gift from God.
Their lifestyle incentivizes having children. Without the efficiency and productivity of technology, children are essential to work the farm, do the chores and look after their parents in old age. (Amish do not participate in Social Security.) Simply put, they value familial cooperation through labour over efficiency and productivity. Requiring more labour (children) engenders cooperation and close familial bonds without the worldly distractions of university, cinema, social media, bars, etc. There is no social atomization among the Amish. They believe that labour-saving technology would breed idleness. Amish are exempt from schooling past the eighth grade by the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Wisconsin v. Jonas Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
Another growth factor is that Amish have the highest retention rate of any religion or denomination in America at almost 90 percent. In adolescence Amish youth are allowed to leave their communities virtually free of constraints in a rite of passage called Rumspringa (jumping or hopping about). Baptism comes after they return.
There is evidence of some very slight decline in Amish fertility, though similar declines have been previously observed. Provided the current Amish growth rate holds, in 215 years their population is projected to be larger than the current US population of 327 million. It would be interesting to stick around and see if that pans out.
Amish farms and businesses are usually quite profitable. They pay cash for farms. Amish have the lowest rates of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia of any American demographic.
The Amish are not without critics. Some regard them as a cult. Like any population, they are not immune from occasional criminal or deviant behavior. Conformity is expected or demanded, depending on your point of view. Those who stray from the Ordnung are shunned (a traumatic ordeal) or even excommunicated. They keep to themselves and do not proselytize or encourage outsiders to join. They are pacifist and do not serve in the military. A small number leave Amish communities as adults.
After observing life among the Amish, Business Insider published an article headlined, “If you want to be happier, should you be a billionaire or be Amish?”
The Amish are obviously doing something right. Their faith and largely pre-modern lifestyle works for them.
What works for the rest of us?