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October 12, 2007

An Illinois shunning story: did these Amish go too far?

Shunning. One of the sorest points of contention when Jakob Amman tore away from his Mennonite kin back in 1693. Still controversial today.

Meidung is the word the Amish use for it. Shunning is one of those things that have continued to define the Amish against their Mennonite cousins, and against the world at large.  If asked, the man on the street will be able to tell you what shunning is all about, at least in some vague way.  It shows up in pop interpretations of the Amish all the time, after all (i.e., see last week's Cold CaseOr, better yet, don't.)

But did you know that different Amish apply shunning to differing degrees?


One form of shunning--let’s call it the ‘lighter’ version--allows an erring member to have the Bann removed if he or she becomes a member in good standing in a related Anabaptist church.

This exempts the leaver from making a confession in order to have the ban lifted. This type of shunning is more common in Midwestern communities, such as large portions of Holmes/Wayne County, Ohio, and among the ‘non-Swiss’ Amish of northern Indiana.

Streng Meidung (strong shunning) refers to a more strict form of shunning, where the errant person is under the Bann for life, unless he or she makes a full confession before the church and fixes what caused the trouble in the first place.

Lancaster County, the Swartzentrubers, the Nebraska Amish, and according to Steven Nolt and Thomas Meyers in An Amish Patchwork, the Andy Weaver Church of Holmes County are among those that stick to Streng Meidung.

And that's not all--there are a host of smaller settlements scattered throughout the country that adhere to Streng Meidung--such as the one that I had a chance to visit in 2004, in an isolated corner of Illinois.

The dark side

This particular settlement, which I’ll leave unnamed, in many ways is not so unlike the myriad other smaller, conservative-leaning settlements formed by members leaving larger communities in search of stricter living.

Off the beaten path. Noticeably poorer. Homes somewhat ramshackle--peeling paint, missing siding, some families living in shop buildings.  The local furniture outfits--dusty, dreary, and a little dead--certainly not cranking like the spanky shops of the Amish around Arthur, the state’s centerpiece settlement.   People, on the whole, just seem a bit more wary of outsiders.


I did manage to talk to quite a few of them though. Though I was a bit puzzled when one fellow urged me not to talk to another family up the road--whom I thought was of his church.  When I pressed him as to why, he refused to elaborate.

On meeting aforementioned family, I learned that they had been excommunicated. And I started to get a picture of how shunning works in this particular settlement.

Later, as I spoke with two other families who had jumped ship along with the first, I was a shocked to hear them complain of harassment, even vandalism, perpetrated under cover of night by their former church kin. It seemed a bit un-Christian.  It seemed a bit, umm, juvenile.

I had never come across that sort of extreme treatment of former members before. Pretty primitive. Combine that with practices such as the use of outdoor privies, common in this particular settlement, and you can see why some Amish get labeled ‘backward’.


As I met other members of the community while selling books that day, it became more and more clear that this bunch was a different drink of water than the more mainstream Arthur folks. The leavers, however, were extremely open and frank about their situation. I remember thinking that it just seemed a healthier way to be.  Here were three families of the same stock as the rest, but now able to basically be themselves.  Unleashed, in a way.  They seemed happy.

But when speaking with either side, you could almost feel the unseen wall that prevented any seeing eye-to-eye. 

One of the families had actually responded to the harrassment, in a way--by painting a short Bible verse on the tree in their front yard, visible from the road.  To be honest, I can't recall the exact verse, but I remember the message of it being poignant for the situation they were in.  It was something which seemed to be directed towards their former church brothers and sisters, if I'm not mistaken, something along the lines of being blind to the error of one's ways.  In any case, that seemed to be the extent of communication between the two sides at that point. 

Vandalism and Bible verses painted on trees.

Meidung done us in

In a true 'our-way-or-the-highway' situation, three families chose the highway out in backwoods Illinois. I find myself wondering if any others out there have left since then.

The logic of a Streng Meidung is easy to see. Cutting off the stray sheep isolates and protects the remaining members. It inflicts emotional pain on the shunned, hopefully forcing them to rethink and rejoin. Tough love on a community-wide scale.

At the same time, for the thinking and feeling ones among those that remain, such extreme treatment could backfire.

The shunning mechanism has been called (by the Amish themselves) a key factor in the church's phenomenal growth. Others note that the practice has resulted in great schisms over the years. I won’t knock shunning--I think it can have a place in counter-cultural Christian communities like that of the Amish.

It’s just that when you get around the edges, things can get a little dodgy.

Just like anywhere else in society, I suppose.


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A question involving shunning in reference to the "Cold Case" episode aside from all the other things the writers got wrong.
Would the young man not have been under the bann since he left on Rumspringa and hadn't returned, therefore he was not a baptized member of the church subject to the bann?

Good question Bill.

If that was the case (left during Rumspringa) then there would be no grounds to excommunicate him--he hadn't ever been baptized. I actually wasn't following closely enough to tell, but I assumed when I heard that on the show that that was the case.

Shunning is such a strange things at time and so different from one place to the other. i can imagine it would not be a pleasant feeling at all. I know of a couple people who have left the amish church and are shunned. it has been hard for them.

No doubt Michelle. I understand it can be hard on both sides.

Having been "disfellowshipped" (different term, same result) from an "exclusive" church not of anabaptist background some years ago, let me tell you, it really does hurt. By an "exclusive" church, I mean a church who believes only they have the correct understanding of scripture and the true path to heaven, and therefore all other groups/fellowships/denominations are headed to hell.

Few will join an "exclusive" church without at least having a good grasp of what the group believes. Many will find their black and white approach to the scriptures very refreshing in the world of gray that exists in most modern churches. T

The problem occurs when you come to a different understanding of scripture than what is held by an exclusive church. Make this known, and you will automatically be under suspicion of "not rightly dividing the word of God". In our case, we were told that as long as we kept silent about our belief, we could stay. As that was unacceptable to us, we were disfellowshipped.

One has to understand that when you are involved in an exclusive church, almost all of your friends and/or relatives will be involved in that church. When one is disfellowshipped, all contact is cut, except the phone calls from the leadership trying to convince you of your error (we eventually got caller ID to stop the harrassing phone calls). All of a sudden, we found ourselves without any friends or a church to worship at. The emotional/physical/spiritual support system that we relied on was completely cut off. Oh well, at least our residence wasn't vandalized ;-).

As was policy in this particular church, they would read the decree of disfellowship at the Sunday worship service, perhaps more as a warning to others thinking of "leaving the fold" than just being informational.

I will tell you it is an experience I never want to go through again. But because of the experience, I enjoy researching other "exclusive" groups, including various anabaptist ones. I'm rather relieved that the various Amish groups that I know would not go as far as the groups mentioned in your story, but I hope your story as well as my experiences stand as a fair warning for anyone getting involved in an exclusive group: Know fully what you are getting involved in, and know what the outcome will be if you depart left or right from accepted church teaching.

Thank you Matthew for sharing that. I can't imagine what it must be like. I hope that readers of the blog will read your comment. It would make a good post by itself. I think your warnings are well worth heeding--I can understand the attraction of the black and white approach to the world, but that sword has another edge, as you know firsthand.

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