The Amish: Lessons in Authentic Grace and Simplicity

“Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
~Elder Joseph Brackett

It was a typical one-room Amish schoolhouse in the peaceful, rolling farmlands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On a crisp October morning four years ago, twenty six Amish children, aged 6-13, gathered at the school for their daily lessons.

That same morning, Charlie Roberts said goodbye to his own two children at the bus stop. Angry at God for the death of his first child, Roberts was intent on revenge. He stormed into the Amish school and shot all ten of the girls, killing five of them. Then he killed himself.

This tragic event put a spotlight on a community of people who shun publicity and intentionally distance themselves from worldly influences. The Amish are known for gentleness and simplicity. But it was their reaction to this tragedy that revealed the depth of their grace and the power of forgiveness. In the midst of their grief, the Amish community did not cast blame or express a desire for revenge. Instead, they reached out to the killer’s family with compassion. They attended his funeral. They showed love and forgiveness.

What can we learn from the Amish and their way of life?

The shooting tragedy and its aftermath poignantly demonstrates the profound healing power of forgiveness. For a few weeks during this event, we were all Amish as we grieved with them and stood in awe of their grace and dignity. But in our everyday lives , we are clearly so different from this quiet community of simple and spiritual people.

While our lives are full of distractions, material things, technology, and endless sources of entertainment, the Amish seek to separate from the world and anything that would be a distraction from God, community and family life.  The Amish don’t separate out of arrogance — a simple lifestyle helps them focus on what they value most. They live these values every single day in everything they do.

Here are some of the ways the Amish live and work in grace and simplicity. Perhaps there are ways to embrace some of the Amish lifestyle to create a more authentic and simple life for yourself.

Modern Conveniences

The Amish have no electricity or other conveniences. Nor do they have television, computers or any other electronic media. They don’t drive cars but instead use horse drawn buggies. Doing without these conveniences allows them to be independent and self-sufficient, something they highly value. It also frees them from many temptations and distractions that could undermine church and family life.

Think of all of the time you spend in your car, on the computer, or watching television. Imagine spending that time with friends and family, creating something useful, or in spiritual or intellectual pursuits.

Amish Clothing

Amish women and girls wear simple and modest dresses in a solid color with long sleeves and a full skirt. They wear a cape and apron over the dress and a small prayer cap. They never cut their hair and wear it in a bun. They wear no make-up, jewelry or other adornments. Men and boys wear dark suits with plain straight coats (no lapels). They wear solid colored shirts and suspenders, black socks and shoes, and a straw or black hat. Amish clothing is an expression of their simplicity and humility.

Consider the amount of time, money and emotional energy you spend on clothing and appearance. What would it be like to simplify your wardrobe and grooming habits?

Family Life

Family is the most important social unit in Amish culture. Children are welcomed joyfully with as many as 7 to 10 children in a family. The elderly are highly respected and cared for, living with the family until they die. Family roles are traditional with the man  responsible for wage-earning, discipline and spiritual direction. The woman cares for the home and children. Families spend a great deal of time together working, eating and socializing. In fact, all meals are sit-down affairs taken together as a family. Children learn specific skills from their parents and work along side them daily on the farm or in the house.

How would your family relationships change if  you spent more time together, sitting down for meals and enjoying activities together in the evenings and on weekends? What would it take to create more intimate, real time with your family?

Community

Amish communities are close-knit and social. Everyone knows each other. They worship in each other’s homes. They share the joys and sorrows of life with one another in a system of support and love. This is not just a tradition, but a Biblical commandment they follow to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Communities enjoy softball and volleyball games, picnics, reunions and camp-outs. Barn-raisings, quilting bees, group singing, and weddings are an integral part of Amish social life. Their culture and way of life supports close community interaction and simple fun, often involving nature and creativity.

Do you live within a community of supportive and loving friends and neighbors? Are you available to one another in the good times and bad? Do you socialize regularly in ways that foster close relationships?

Beliefs

The Amish are Anabaptists, a Christian theological movement that grew out of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. Pacifism and forgiveness are core to their culture and belief system. They do not believe in using guns against humans, even in self-defense. The forgiveness and compassion the Amish displayed in the aftermath of the shooting might seem incomprehensible to most of us. For the Amish, forgiving is a way of giving up bitterness. As one Amish man suggests, “The acid of hate destroys the container that holds it.”

Are you holding on to bitterness in the container of your own life? How would it feel to simply let it go, to move past anger and hurt? How could you begin to find the peace of forgiveness and view your enemy with compassion?

Living a life of grace and simplicity doesn’t require that you become Amish or give up all of the trappings of modern life. But perhaps these simple, plain people have much to teach us about living authentically. To embrace simplicity, to foster relationships, to love the land, to live in grace, and to offer compassion and forgiveness — these are the virtues that truly make us free and joyful.

Editor’s Note: October 2 marks the four year anniversary of the Amish School shooting. On October 13, 2006 the family of Charles Roberts released the following statement thanking their Amish neighbors and the Lancaster community:

From the Roberts family:

To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:

Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.

Cards and letters of condolences can be sent to Bart Twp. Fire Company, P.O. Box 72, 11 Furnace Road, Bart, PA 17503.

Donations for the Nickel Mines Children’s Funds and the Roberts Family Fund can be sent to Coatesville Savings Bank, 1082 Georgetown Road, Paradise, PA 17562.

The Nickel Mines School Victims Fund has been established by Hometown Heritage Bank. Contributions can be sent to the bank at 100 Historic Drive, P.O. Box 337, Strasburg, PA 17579.

Comments

  1. Hi Barrie,

    Well, what do you know?! And I thought Amish were just a bunch of weird people 🙂

    But they do make a great example of simplicity. Many of us have our lives getting more complicated, but not happier. Sometimes, we just need to say stop and take a step back.

    Best,

    Eduard

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Eduard,
      They aren’t weird, just simple. Which I guess can be weird to us, right? I know when life is less complicated, we are generally happier. Yes, we do have to stop and step back to reduce those complications. Thank you so much for your comments.

  2. Christopher Lovejoy says:

    Barrie, this is a deeply touching post. Like you, I think we have much to learn from the Amish. By coincidence, I saw the movie Witness last night, which portrays the Amish community in a rosy yet realistic light.
    .-= Christopher Lovejoy´s last blog ..A Path of Fulfillment =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I love that movie Christopher! That movie really piqued my interest in the Amish. There are pros and cons to their way of life, but you must respect their commitment and dignity. I’m so glad you liked the post.

      • Christopher Lovejoy says:

        I enjoyed it too, Barrie, and like you, I respect the Amish, with their sense of commitment and dignity. They indeed do have much to teach us on this side of the border between us and them. The contrast between us and them was quite striking in the movie!
        .-= Christopher Lovejoy´s last blog ..A Path of Fulfillment =-.

  3. We especially can learn from the Amish response to the killing of their children and their simple yet profound faith. However, not all is so rosy: if Amish need to travel further than feasible by horse-drawn carriage, they can rent a car. Many Amish also view puppies as a cash crop. Lancaster County, PA, is the second largest puppy mill area in the nation next to my own state of MO. In no way do I want to detract from the gracious lifestyle of the Amish but there is more beneath the clothing and simple life than meets the eye. There are also different “denominations” of Amish which I am unable to clearly state but know to be true. My brother and his wife are not Amish, yet welcomed any and every child given to them, home schooled them all and are now putting them through college…in their own way while more in the world than the Amish. John and Ann have shown to me that adapting the simple Amish-type faith, focus and values can be done outside of an Amish or Mennonite community ( and yes, I know they are different but they do hold many same precepts). Lovely post with excellent focus on simplifying, redirecting our lives. I gave up my iPhone (to which I am still adjusting ) and am working on my personal version of David’s 100 Thing Challenge.
    .-= Roberta´s last blog ..Danny Quinn is FAMOUS! =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Roberta,
      Yes, I debated about whether to include some of the controversy around the Amish. Certainly the practice of shunning, the male-dominated community and church organization, and the limited education in the Amish communities is questionable to most of us. But they have also proved to be true to their faith and live the principles of simplicity and forgiveness. We are all complicated, just like the Amish. There is good and bad in all communities and among all people. There is something to learn from everyone. Thank you for your very thought-provoking comments.

    • As much as I appreciate simplicity and spiritual development, I am appalled with this post. There is no freedom in Amish society, there are values that are not chosen but imposed on them and I see not much difference between “a cape and apron over the dress and a small prayer cap” and a hijab or burqa. The same goes for “traditional family roles”. Can a woman with a different style of simple dress be welcome to this society? No, she can’t. Can she exercise her birth rights for studying and pursuing career while her husband takes care of the children? No way. There is nothing to praise there.

      You think their life is about simplicity? Have you ever cared for horses and crops and cleaned your house without vacuum cleaner for years? Made food without food processor and made your tea and pie without a gas or electrical oven? Took bath or shower when water has to be boiled on an open fire? How would you even have your blog without electricity and Internet??? Simplicity is not about coming back to the Middle Ages, simplicity is about making your life meaningful and easy at the same time without turning down what the world can offer us.

      You disappointed me with showing a rosy picture of a strict, rigid, closed, medieval society that opresses freedom of people to choose and women’s rights as well. I unsubscribe.

      • Barrie Davenport says:

        Hi Ada,
        Thank you for your honest response to my post and sharing your feelings about the Amish. I am sorry that it caused you to unsubscribe. There are good and bad in all aspects of society. Sometimes all of us can be trapped by our own beliefs and conceptions about people — whether we wear prayer caps or a business suit. In all situations, we have to look at how individuals respond, and I was touched and inspired by the Amish response to the tragedy. That is the point of this post.

  4. Although there are aspects of Amish culture that are admirable, they are people like everyone else. Having grown up very near to an Amish community, I know that there are thieves and dishonest people, and that they have more modern conveniences than you would expect (I don’t think that Nike sneakers, Home Depot, and ice cream cones were around during Biblical times…). I think addressing these aspects of Amish culture would be beneficial, rather than portraying them as some utopian community. I really enjoy the theme of simplicity found on this blog though! Please keep up the inspirational posts! :]

    • Hi Kristina-
      Like you, I grew up near an Amish community. I actually got to know quite a few of them. The Amish aren’t trying to live as though it were Biblical times, they simply evaluate everything to determine whether or not it fits with their core vales. What does a brand of sneaker, a trip to Home Depot for nails, or ice cream comes take away from the values of love for God, community, and family? Nothing!
      I remember when the Amish in my town had a community meeting to discuss whether or not the kids should be allowed to get rollerblades. They determined that the children had been allowed to use strap on roller skates for decades, and rollerblades were simply a new form of roller skate: It didn’t take away from family time or interfere with their faith. I remember the buggies coming to WalMart and the look of absolute joy on those kid’s faces as they got their new skates. However, that joy wasn’t for the rollerblades, it was joy for their parents, and appreciation of what their parents did for them. See the difference?
      The Amish aren’t perfect, nor do they pretend to be. They have no quarrels with people of other religions of belief systems, it’s simply not for them. Barrie’s portrayal of the Amish community was pretty accurate, she never said they were a utopian society. She simply showed us the core beliefs, and we can all take something from that.

      • Barrie Davenport says:

        Thank you for sharing your experience Amanda. We all struggle to live in concert with our core values. We all fall short sometimes. What is right for the Amish might not be right for all of us, but they certainly do live without many of the distractions of modern society. I know there is something positive in that. I appreciate your kind comments!

  5. Barrie, a wonderful post which shows just what the human heart is capable of.

    To be so willing and able to forgive in such tragic circumstances is a lesson to the rest of humanity to open our hearts.

    I am reminded of so many cases where the afflicted families have sought the death penalty for the perpetrators – and here we have a group of people showing us another way.

    Yes, they may not be all that they are portrayed above, but let’s focus on the most valuable lessons from them.
    .-= Arvind Devalia´s last blog ..2 Empowering Words We All Like to Hear Again and Again =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you Arvind! Yes, that is what I wanted to do — focus on what we can learn from them. I can’t imagine what all of the families must be feeling during this upcoming anniversary of the shooting. The power of forgiveness is amazing.

  6. What a profound lesson on forgiveness and simplicity. Thank you for this post.
    .-= Susan Escalera´s last blog ..OASDI-EE Tax =-.

  7. Great post Barrie. I remember hearing about this tragic story. I also remember how I thought it was so strange that individuals who had just lost a child did not give the appearance to being overcome by grief.

    This post explains what we all saw.
    .-= Joe DeGiorgio´s last blog ..Love Your Work It’s OK If You Don’t Really =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Joe,
      Thank you for you kind comments. I think they were overcome by grief, but they channel their grief in a different way. I’m sure they are still grieving.

  8. Thanks for sharing their inspiring story. I’ve been searching for some simplicity lately; your article was the right medicine and at the right time for me, thanks!

    Alex

  9. Barrie, what a thoughtful post. This is a huge takeaway for me, “Think of all of the time you spend in your car, on the computer, or watching television. Imagine spending that time with friends and family, creating something useful, or in spiritual or intellectual pursuits.” Embracing family and loved ones and self growth is what life is all about. Thank you for reminding me of this.
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..How to Grow Momentum in Your Life =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Katie,
      I can attest to how much time you spend in intellectual and creative pursuits! You have your finger on the pulse of a balanced life. But we all need reminding from time to time. 🙂

  10. Great post, Barrie! I have admired the Amish for years – even with all their faults. They ARE human, after all. And although it would be hard for me to live quite as simply as they do, I yearn much more toward their lifestyle than to that of the average American. Their reaction to the school shooting tragedy is an example to us all.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you Deborah. I am so glad you like it. I yearn for that too. When you don’t have all of the distractions, you can focus on the important things.

  11. Dear Barrie,

    I’m from central Pa. and love still seeing the Amish people and their buggies on the road. Often, the kids will be riding alongside on their bikes.

    Just recently I mentioned the Amish as an example of compassion due to how they handled the situation you outline. I believe they also set up a fund for the children of the murderer.

    It’s one thing to hold a belief, it’s another to live it. Their ability to maintain compassion in the midst of such devastation is truly a testament to the Amish community.

    I have great respect for their community and as you point out, there is much we can learn from them.

    Warm regards,
    Lauren
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..Do You Believe In Love =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you so much Lauren. Glad to have a first-hand account of your experience with them. I think their actions during that awful time were just amazing. The letter from the family of the killer is a testament to the power of compassion and forgiveness.

  12. I thank you so much for this article! I have heard similar stories of forgiveness about the Amish that are almost unheard of in this modern day and age.
    I am also seeking more information into this culture. I met an older Amish man (he is 83 and I am 28) on the train and we began a friendship through our intense conversations. We exchanged addresses and began writing one another frequently over the next few months. Soon after he invited me to visit him as the only remaining family will be leaving soon. If you have any information where I may gain some insight as to what this visit may be like or something similar it would be much appreciated….Thank You

  13. Most excellent!