Amish Baptismal Classes
July 20, 2011
It's that time of year when the Amish young people get baptized. Every parent hopes that their child will choose to be baptized by the age of 17, for then, the church will have control over them, and the chances are greater that they will never leave the Amish life. To the Amish, baptism means church membership. By it, they become a voting member of the community and can then be disciplined for their disobedience to the Ordnung - their list of church rules.
The youngie, as they are called, usually begin baptismal classes in early spring. They are expected to meet with the bishop, ministers, and deacon after dinner on a church Sunday for 12 to 18 weeks - which is every other Sunday. Each applicant is expected to read the 18 articles of the Dordrecht Confession on their own and in German. As you remember, they do not even understand High German. They speak a low-German dialect that has a lot of English incorporated into it.
Every Amish family owns a German prayer book that includes the Dordrecht Confession, some hymns, the order of service for baptisms and marriages, plus some rules for godly living. A 2001 publication of their prayer book is in both German and English. The introduction encourages the Amish not to lose "the rich heritage of German reading material," for if they do, they will "lose much of the blessing that could be [theirs]." It goes on to make excuse for offering the English translation - it is to be used as one would use a German/English dictionary - "to clarify the meaning of the German." Interestingly, it also says that because of the "complex paragraphs and overlong sentences, the Dordrecht Confession is not easy to understand in ANY language." I beg to differ.
Here, in this community, each baptismal class begins with the youngie sitting on a bench before the elders of the church. They are then asked, "Do you have anything to say? What is your desire?" To which the first applicant has been instructed to answer, "My desire is to renounce the devil and all the world, accept Jesus Christ and this church, and this church is to pray for me." The rest of the applicants respond one by one with, "That is my desire too."
I have been told that the young people are never asked if they did indeed read the 18 articles of the D. Confession. Nor did they ever understand them, even after the church elders tried to explain them. Understanding was never an issue. To them, it is only a tradition to be fulfilled. Also, a Bible was never present during these classes. For the most part, the baptismal applicants don't even discuss among themselves whether they understand or not.
After having the 18 articles explained to them, they are ordered then to read the entire Ordnung. (In some communities, the list of rules can be over 20 handwritten pages long.) After reading the Ordnung, they are given a trial period to live up to the rules. On the 8th church Sunday, the members vote whether the young people are living good enough to be baptized. As in the case of one young man I know, he just could not break free from his smoking habit, so he didn't pass the vote.
After passing the vote, the youngie meet at the bishop's house the next Saturday to review the 18 articles. The bishop then asks the boys if they can go along with the articles - their women aren't expected to understand or discuss religious things. The boys are also asked if when they are married and, perchance, chosen to be a minister, deacon, or bishop, would they be able to uphold and believe the 18 articles. They are then instructed on what will happen and what to say at their baptism It is a very solemn occasion. For many, it only means the end of their rumspringe days (their run-around time), but for others who truly want to amend their ways, it is considered their "born again" experience. Some bishops declare that their baptism cleanses them from all sin, which causes great confusion when they find themselves still sinning the next day.
One day, Mr. Weaver told me that he was born again at his baptism. I asked what had changed in his life. He and his wife exclaimed that he made big changes -- meaning, he was quite a rebel before baptism, and he gave it all up. I was asking about changes in the inner man -- he didn't know what that meant. Then, I asked him in whom was he trusting for salvation at his baptism. After thinking for a while, he replied, "I don't know."
Each community chooses their own baptismal program to follow from their prayer book, but they always preach the same sermon for every baptismal service - the story about Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian - putting great emphasis on the words, "What doth hinder me to be baptized?" To which Philip answered, "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest." And the Ethiopian replied, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." I have yet to meet an Amish person that has understood what it means to believe that.
In the Amish prayer book, there are several baptismal formats to choose from, with four to six questions in each. The bishop begins by saying, "So now, if you are still willing, and it is still your desire, you can go down on your knees." While on their knees, with head bowed, the bishop asks:
1.) Do you believe and confess that Jesus Christ is God's Son?
2.) Do you believe and trust that you are uniting with a Christian church of the Lord, and do you promise obedience to God and the church?
3.) Do you renounce the devil, the world, and the lustfulness of your flesh and commit yourself to Christ and His church?
4.) Do you promise to live by the standards (Ordnung) of the church and to help administer them according to Christ's Word and teaching, and to abide by the truth you have accepted, thereby to live and thereby to die with the help of the Lord?
After answering "yes" to each question, the bishop proceeds to cup his hands on each one's head. While declaring that he is baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, another pours water on the head three times. The wife of the bishop or deacon will pour on the girls. The bishop then goes back to the first applicant, grabs his hand, and declares "In the name of the Lord our Father, rise up and I'll greet you as a brother/sister." He pulls them up and gives them a holy kiss - which is always on the lips. Needless to say, his wife does it to the girls.
As a member of the Amish church, one can now be excommunicated for unrepentant disobedience to the Ordnung. If a young person leaves the Amish before he is baptized, he will always be welcomed in their homes. If he leaves after he's baptized, he will not be allowed to enter any of their homes - unless one wants to be rebellious by allowing him in. The fear of excommunication weighs heavily over their heads.
So many former Amish have exclaimed to me that they did not understand anything about their baptismal classes. Very few even questioned their beliefs because, all their lives, their questions were answered with, "Don't ask questions." They are told as little as possible before baptism in order to get them to blindly accept and join the Amish church. They truly believe that the Amish church is the only church accepted by God, and that leaving the Amish church is sure punishment in hell. Their fear of having a loved one leave the Amish is so great, they will do some really bazaar things to persuade their children to stay Amish.
How utterly sad that, in all their baptismal teaching, no mention is ever made of their need to submit to their creator God as the highest authority. (Obedience to parents comes first.) No mention of the condemnation our sinfulness brings upon us before a holy God. No mention of the importance of Christ's deity. No mention of the blood of Christ which has been sprinkled on the mercy seat for the remission of our sin, and no mention of the freedom from sin and its curse this salvation by grace gives to us.
I challenge you to ask an Amish person what his baptism means to him. It could lead you into a wonderful opportunity to share the truth from God's Word, and possibly see a soul saved from eternal damnation.
Charlott Wagner, the author, is a missionary to Amish people in Michigan
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