From the Peace Barn: Born Again and Amish

The Amish Papers - Chapter 4

Image of Amish buggy

My wife and I moved into our remodeled barn in January of 2021. Four months later, our son and his wife purchased a house about 30 minutes from us from a young Amish couple named Ervin and Lovina who were members of the Johnsonburg Amish community. We learned from our daughter-in-law that Lavina was born again and living an Amish lifestyle (although the Johnsonburg Amish were more liberal than the Smicksburg Amish). So we excitedly made arrangements to meet Lavina, and when we did, it was obvious that she was indeed born again. Lavina told us that one of her sisters named Elisabeth and her husband, Mervin, were also born again, and so we eventually were able to meet and interview them. Then, Elisabeth told us that one of her brothers, named Jonas, was either born again or very close to it, and he was a minister in their church! So we started making plans to meet Jonas and his wife, Ida.

I had also received some very positive feedback from some born again Amish readers of The Amish Voice regarding my previous articles. So I was happy to be realizing that there were some Amish people who are born again. That inspired me to write the following article that was published in The Amish Voice in January of 2022. I wanted Amish readers to know that they could be born again and remain Amish.

When this article was published in The Amish Voice, it was read by one of the Johnsonburg Amish ministers (who was not born again), who made copies of it to hand out to a small meeting of Johnsonburg Amish leaders. I suspect what concerned him was that I revealed that I had been in contact with some born-again Amish people in Johnsonburg, his Amish community. One of the two Johnsonburg bishops, named Levi, was at that meeting. He had been born again several years earlier just from reading an English Bible, and as a new bishop, he was trying to figure out how to share his new faith with his Amish flock. Reading my article created a desire in him to meet me, and he learned shortly thereafter that I was scheduled to have dinner with his cousin, Jonas, and Jonas’ wife Ida, the next day! So he asked Jonas if he could ask my wife and I if we would stop by at his house to meet him after our dinner.

That day, January 31, 2022, is a day I will always remember as very providential, as that was the day God connected us to minister Jonas and Ida, as well as bishop Levi and Fannie. It was at that meeting at Levi and Fannie’s home that we all agreed to start a secret Bible study, to which they would invite Amish friends and family members whom they thought would be interested, and who would also keep the Bible study secret (since such things are forbidden in most Amish communities). The article that follows was a catalyst to what we eventually referred to as the “Johnsonburg Awakening.”

In 1880, George Washington Hazlett purchased 109 wooded acres near Smicksburg, Pennsylvania, which he began clearing, with the hopes of one day operating a farm. In the process, he felled many old oaks, and he hand-hewed their trunks into long posts and beams for a future 50-foot square bank barn. Some of the hemlocks he harvested were sawn at a local mill into rough-cut planks for barn siding. By 1890, George had assembled everything he needed to build his barn, including quarried foundation stones, and with the help of friends, he erected a structure that still stands today, more than 130 years later.

In the 1940s and 50s, my great Uncle Clyde, George Hazlett’s grandson, built two rustic living quarters in either side of that barn, complete with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, plumbing and gaslights in every room. Uncle Clyde spent most of his summers at his converted barn, which I enjoyed visiting many times as a child. My siblings and I loved to hike the trails Uncle Clyde had cleared in his wooded acres, and swimming and fishing in the Little Mahoning Creek that bordered his property was always a special treat.

I would have never imagined it as a child, but my wife and I now reside at that barn, which we remodeled over the last few years into a lovely home that still features George Hazlett’s skill in the many exposed hand-hewn posts and beams. We’ve named it “The Peace Barn” because of the peaceful ambiance. The Peace Barn also highlights the skill of many local Smicksburg Amish carpenters and craftsman, who have done 95% of all the remodeling work, and who have become friends in the process.

It was in the early 1960s that a few Amish families moved from Ohio to the Smicksburg area, and today there are over 550 households that share about 20 surnames. The Smicksburg community is the 3rd largest Amish settlement in Pennsylvania and the 11th largest in the U.S., consisting of almost 3,000 souls.

We’ve come to know quite a few of our Amish neighbors, and we’re thankful to be living among them. They are friendly, considerate, hardworking, honest and sincere. As Christians, my wife and I share many of the same values held by our Amish neighbors that stem from their Anabaptist heritage. I’ve jokingly told a number of my Amish friends that my wife and I are “half Amish,” as we raised our children without a TV, never sent them to public schools but rather schooled them ourselves, have been involved in churches that met in homes rather than church buildings, prefer rural living, and try, with God’s help, to obey Jesus’ commandments. And on a few occasions, I’ve even told some of my Amish friends that I’m actually more Amish than they are, because I actually believe the 1632 Dordrecht Confession!

Concerning that last point, having studied the history, beliefs and practices of early Anabaptism when it began in the early 1500s, and having also read the 1632 Dordrecht Confession, I’m so sorry to say that the large majority of my Amish friends do not enjoy the wonderful spiritual blessings of the original Anabaptists. More than anything else, the original Anabaptists believed the Bible, and they consequently rejected anything that was taught either by the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant Reformers that couldn’t be found in the Word of God. They expressly rejected all human, religious tradition that contradicted the Bible’s teaching.

One of those church traditions that early Anabaptists rejected—practiced by both Catholics and Protestants—was infant baptism, as they saw what anyone who honestly reads the New Testament easily sees, that the New Testament church, led by the apostles whom Jesus chose, never baptized infants, but rather, adults only. And they did so only after such adults repented of their sins and believed in the Lord Jesus. It was the persecutors of the early Anabaptists who consequently labeled them “Re-baptizers,” because they baptized adults who had previously been baptized as infants in the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches.

Another church tradition that early Anabaptists rejected (as did all the Protestants) was the (primarily Catholic) idea that one could earn one’s way to heaven by one’s own works. They read in the Bible that “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The early Anabaptists held to the biblical truth that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), so no one is good enough to be saved by their own merits. Grace from God is essential for salvation of sinners. And the early Anabaptists believed that God extended His grace through His Son Jesus Christ, who died for their sins and made salvation available for all who would repent and become His followers.

Yet another church tradition that early Anabaptists rejected was the (primarily Protestant) idea that one could genuinely believe in Jesus but not obey Him. They read in the Bible that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) and that faith without works cannot save anyone (James 2:14).

The early Anabaptists also believed that anyone who repents of their sins and believes in Jesus experiences a spiritual rebirth that transforms him into a “born again” (1 Pet. 1:23) “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). They believed Jesus’ plain words, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). They believed that a spiritual rebirth was essential for salvation. It was the starting place for a true relationship with God. And they believed that the new birth was not just a theological concept, but a living, experiential reality. People who experienced the new birth were genuinely transformed. They understood what the New Testament meant when it described true conversion as “passing from death to life” (1 John 3:4). It is a dramatic, inward change that affects everything in a person’s life.

The early Anabaptists also believed that the good works that are done by believers do not stem purely from human effort or outward conformity to an imposed and enforced Christian culture, but from the Holy Spirit, who literally indwells all those who truly believe in Jesus. They read and believed Paul’s words to the Galatian Christians about “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), and his words to the Ephesian Christians: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

All of these plain, biblical truths are found in Article 6 of the Dordrecht Confession, the 1632 Mennonite doctrinal statement to which all Amish people subscribe. It reads:

We believe and confess, that, since the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and, therefore, prone to all unrighteousness, sin, and wickedness, the first lesson of the precious New Testament of the Son of God is repentance and reformation of life, and that, therefore, those who have ears to hear, and hearts to understand, must bring forth genuine fruits of repentance, reform their lives, believe the Gospel, eschew evil and do good, desist from unrighteousness, forsake sin, put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness: for, neither baptism, supper, church, nor any other outward ceremony, can without faith, regeneration, change or renewing of life, avail anything to please God or to obtain of Him any consolation or promise of salvation; but we must go to God with an upright heart, and in perfect faith, and believe in Jesus Christ, as the Scripture says, and testifies of Him; through which faith we obtain forgiveness of sins, are sanctified, justified, and made children of God, yea, partake of His mind, nature, and image, as being born again of God from above, through incorruptible seed. Genesis 8:21; Mark 1:15; Ezekiel 12:2; Colossians 3:9, 10; Ephesians 4:22, 24; Hebrews 10:22, 23; John 7:38 (italics added).

In contrast to what is believed by so many Amish today—the idea that a person cannot be certain of his salvation, and if one is certain, it is an indication of pride—the original Anabaptists universally believed that those who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus have their sins forgiven and become born-again children of God, as we just read from Article 6 of the Dordrecht Confession.

How could someone who is spiritually reborn, has his sins forgiven, and has become a child of God, rightly say, “I don’t know if I will be accepted by God to enter heaven, because I am not certain I am good enough?” Such a belief contradicts not only the Dordrecht Confession, but the entire message of the New Testament.

It is not prideful for people whom God has forgiven of their sins and made into His children to believe their sins are forgiven and they are God’s children. Rather, it is an expression of faith, rather than of unbelief, in what God has said.

The truth is, it is prideful to even hope that one can be good enough to gain heaven, because God has declared that no one is good enough for that, which is why Jesus died for our sins. Hoping to be good enough to gain heaven is one sin, among others, that people need to repent of to be born again.

All these simple biblical truths are also affirmed in Articles 7 and 8 of the Dordrecht Confession:

Concerning baptism we confess that all penitent believers, who, through faith, regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost, are made one with God, and are written in heaven, must, upon such Scriptural confession of faith, and renewing of life, be baptized with water….

We believe in, and confess a visible church of God, namely, those who, as has been said before, truly repent and believe, and are rightly baptized; who are one with God in heaven, and rightly incorporated into the communion of the saints here on earth. These we confess to be the chosen generation, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, who are declared to be the bride and wife of Christ, yea, children and heirs of everlasting life, a tent, tabernacle, and habitation of God in the Spirit.

All of these truths in the Dordrecht Confession are straight from the New Testament. How could someone who is regenerated by the Holy Ghost, made one with God, has his name written in heaven, is chosen of God, has become a royal priest as well as the bride and wife of Christ ever rightly say, “I don’t know if I will make heaven, because I’m not sure I’m good enough?” What would you think of a child who said to his father, “I don’t know if I am your child, or if I have the right to live in this house with you”?

As I said earlier, this is the heart-breaking tragedy that I’ve witnessed among my Smicksburg Amish friends. And how terrible it is for them to miss out on the greatest blessing that was enjoyed not only by all their Anabaptist forefathers among the Swiss Brethren, but also Jakob Ammann (from whom the Amish derive their name), all the early Amish believers, and not to mention all the first Christians we read about in the book of Acts, plus all true believers around the world since then, which include myself, my family, and many of my friends. I’ve personally met thousands of born-again followers of Jesus all over the world in more than 40 nations to which I’ve traveled. There is nothing better on earth than being born again by God’s Holy Spirit. It can happen to you!

Sadly, I’ve found that most of my Amish friends do not want to talk about these things. They seem to be afraid of being led astray and the consequent excommunication and shunning they would suffer. Their fear is even more tragic, as there is no reason why one can’t be born again and continue to live a traditional Amish lifestyle. Worse, the New Testament teaches that those who persecute born-again people prove that they themselves are serving Satan!

Through readers’ responses to some of my previous articles in the Amish Voice, I’ve been blessed to hear from a number of born-again Amish believers across the country who are enjoying the wonderful blessings of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and who know they are “new creatures” and children of God whose sins have been forgiven. And while they continue to live within traditional Amish culture, they’ve found new joy in the assurance of salvation and a relationship with the Lord they never dreamed of. Like all truly born-again believers in Jesus, they wish everyone was born again. They are the true “Old Order,” having now joined the “Original Order,” which is the oldest Order!

I have also learned that in 1971 another nearby Amish community was birthed from the Smicksburg community, nine years after its founding in 1962. The Troutville community has since grown to be almost as large as the Smicksburg community, consisting of more than 2,500 people. The Troutville Ordnung is definitely more liberal than the Smicksburg Ordnung. From the Troutville community, another community was birthed in 2005, which now consists of over 500 people. The Johnsonburg Ordnung is even more liberal than the Troutville Ordnung.

Of course, many members of the Smicksburg, Troutville and Johnsonburg communities are related to each other, which causes some strain among them due to the differences in each community’s Ordnung. But I have to confess that I have been pleasantly surprised to meet some members of the Johnsonburg community who are born again and who aren’t ashamed to say so. They love to talk about their personal relationships with the Lord, and it is evident that the Holy Spirit indwells them and is living through them. They sometimes gather for Bible studies. They are full of joy, and no wonder, because they are certain that they are going to heaven as long as they don’t fall away from their faith. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. They understand, just like the original Anabaptists, that holiness is not outward conformity to a list of manmade rules, but that true holiness stems from a born-again heart, and it is the Holy Spirit within them who instructs and empowers them to do what is right and please God.

I’ll close by sharing a contrast I’ve observed between the Smicksburg and Johnsonburg Amish.

One day when three of my Smicksburg Amish friends were installing a floor in our barn, I showed them some video on my large-screen TV that was filmed from the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times every day. It is fascinating film footage, as you can see the curvature of the earth, as well as the oceans, land masses of continents, mountain ranges and cloud formations from a vantage point of 254 miles above it all. In the nighttime video footage, you can see the lights of large cities and small villages. My Amish friends really enjoyed seeing what they had never seen before.

I asked one of them, who is a local bishop, if it would be wrong of me to invite local Amish families to our house to watch an amazing documentary on my TV about how penguins live in Antarctica. (Many local Amish families take their children to the Pittsburgh Zoo, and it is considered to be an acceptable, educational and recreational activity.) He said that was a “gray area,” and expressed hesitation because “it could lead to other things.” That is, watching something harmless on TV could lead to watching something on TV that is not harmless. And he was correct. If you don’t watch anything on TV, there is no chance you might watch something bad. However, there is also no chance you might watch something good! (Eliminating all TV is somewhat akin to eliminating all sex in order to avoid fornication.)

I own a TV, and I don’t watch anything that any Amish person would consider sinful. On the contrary, most Amish people would consider everything I watch on my TV to be morally uplifting. For example, my wife and I have recently been watching a dramatization about the life of Jesus called The Chosen. It is being viewed around the world by millions of people, many of whom previously knew nothing about Jesus. That is a good thing!

A television is not a dangerous thing to someone who is born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If I was to begin viewing something on my TV that was not pleasing to the Lord, He would immediately convict me, because He lives in me by His Holy Spirit! Beyond that, I have no desire to view what displeases Him, because He has changed me when I was born again. So I don’t need a set of rules to regulate my behavior. As the apostle Paul wrote, “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18).

My son and his wife, who live among the Johnsonburg Amish, recently had a local Amish family at their house who wanted to watch an episode of The Chosen. So, together they watched an episode that was all about Jesus’ miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee. It is an uplifting dramatization that reminded all of them of Jesus’ power and compassion. No harm was done! Rather, God was glorified. And because my son, his wife, and the Amish couple are all born again, there is no danger that the next time they get together they will be viewing an ungodly, worldly, sinful movie! None of them have any such desire.

And that is the primary difference between being born again and not being born again but trying to conform to a set of rules to try to please God. Until you are inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit, you may limitedly achieve an outward appearance of holiness that is imposed on you by Amish culture. But on the inside, there is still impurity, and that impurity has a way of coming to the surface.

In future articles in the Amish Voice, I hope to introduce you to some born-again Amish Christians who are still living within Amish culture. If you are one of them, I would love to talk with you or meet you in order to hear and share your story with readers who are not yet born again. Your story might help open eyes and hearts to the greatest blessing made possible by Jesus’ death—eternal life, which is something the Bible teaches Christians can know they’ve possessed:

These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (1 John 5:13).

It’s time for spiritually-hungry Amish folks to recover their spiritual heritage and become members of the Oldest, Original Order, the one found in the New Testament! And it’s time for born-again Amish folks to take the necessary risks to truly love their fellow Amish who are not yet born again by sharing with them how they, too, can experience the blessing of the new birth!