Part 1: An Amish Church Sunday

Recently, a local woman attended an Amish church service, and recorded her impressions. We’re so pleased that she has agreed to share them with us–and with you. This is a two-part article, so be sure to take time to read the conclusion tomorrow.  –Editor

My plan to arrive early for the Amish church service is successful. It is 8 am and only a few people are around. Opening the door to the tall white shop building where the service is going to be held revealed the backless wooden “church benches” neatly lined up in twelve long rows. These are set apart several feet with a wider gap through the middle. Inserted into several of these rows are comfortable looking white chairs with cushions on the seats. Along one wall large farm equipment has been pushed together to make room for the service. This pile is neatly covered with a huge piece of opaque white material.

The black buggies start arriving. Some are single seated, others double. The horses pulling them toss their heads and prance in the cold February air, fighting against the tight rein the men use to keep them in control. Women dressed in heavy black shawls and black bonnets crawl out of the buggies, turning to help their little ones jump down safely from the two-foot-high step. With their children in tow, they head for the shop.

After the women and children are off the buggies, the men with their broad-rimmed black hats and full beards drive the horses out to the graveled barnyard. They unhitch the horses and tie them up inside the large barn. Church service starts at 8:30, but until then it is visiting time. I settle myself in a corner of the shop and watch the people coming in the door. A mother comes in with 5 little girls. The oldest, a round pudgy girl with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, is in third grade she proudly informs me when I ask her.

The next to arrive is a slender young mother with a pink-blanketed bundle in her arms. Hands quickly reach out to hold her baby so she can remove her wraps. Carefully pulling away the warm pink blanket reveals a sleeping infant with fuzzy red hair and a button nose. Several young ladies crowd around to get a peek at the newest arrival. The door creaks open again; a silvery-haired lady shuffles in with her worn wooden cane gripped in one hand and the other hand tightly clutching the arm of a middle-aged woman. Her face reveals the effects of time, and her quiet determination to go to church shows in her eyes.

The building is filling up fast with scattered groups of ladies chatting together. At the far end of the building, young ladies neatly dressed in their colorful dresses and white capes and aprons gather to share some giggling secret and plan what to do after church. The eight-foot tables that are set up to hold the heavy wraps and bonnets are being piled higher and higher until the stacks of clothing threaten to tumble.

In the lower part of the barn, away from the penetrating wind, the men gather to make small talk and wait until the bishop signals them it’s time to go in and be seated. The younger boys pile in the heated milkhouse to crack a few jokes and jostle each other good-naturedly until their turn comes to go in.

The clock creeps toward 8:30. Married women start seating themselves on one side of the room, according to age with the older ones getting the white chairs and cushions, but the younger ones scorning these comforts choose to sit on the backless wooden benches.

At 8:30, the bishop, ministers, and deacon come in, shaking hands respectfully with the women and girls before taking their reserved seats in the middle row of benches. (Each church district has 1 bishop and 2 ministers and 1 deacon. A district consists of anywhere between twenty and forty families. If a district gets to big to be comfortably housed, it is divided into two). The rest of the men file in after the leaders and fill up the benches opposite of the women. Last of all, the young girls and boys file in and take their seats on the remaining benches.

The bishop starts the service by prompting the song announcers to begin the singing. Using thick black songbooks called “The Ausbund”, the melodious strains of the German song rises from the people. This songbook records many songs written by the Anabaptists during their times of persecution from 1635 to 1645. As the second line is being sung, the bishop and ministers leave the room to meet privately and pray for the day’s service.

The second song we sing is O Gott Vater, Wir Loben Dich, translates as “O God Father, We Praise You”. This song was written in 1590 and has been sung in every church service for years. It has four verses with eight lines each and the whole song lasts twenty minutes. The song announcers ask four men, visiting from another district to lead this song, each leading a verse.

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