Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Angela M. Moe

Second Advisor

Dr. Whitney DeCamp

Third Advisor

Dr. Jesse Smith

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Cynthia Visscher


ex-Amish, culture, religion, defection, "English" world, becoming an ex-Amish


As a largely understudied and misunderstood religious group, the Amish appear to be a relic of more traditional times. Because they are a secluded group with little influence from the outside world, they remain relatively untouched by technology and social media. This results in a strict, fundamentalist church community with extremely high rates of retention. Distancing themselves from outsiders and temptations in the English world aids in retaining strong church boundaries, and results in a population that doubles every 20 years (Kaufmann 2010). Acknowledging these aspects, this research delves into the lives of those who have defected from the church in which they were raised, often giving up all that they know.

Through 25 semi-structured, qualitative interviews with 14 men and 11 women, this study looks at the following research questions:

(1) How does an Amish person make the transition to becoming ex-Amish?

(2) What factors were involved in the participant’s decision to leave Amish culture?

(3) What has life been like since leaving?

The participants ranged in age from 25 to 78 years and came from various communities across the United States, with different levels of Ordnung (i.e., Amish rules and regulations). Using the principles of constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz 2014), the data were analyzed using emergent and overarching themes.

The analysis chapters are broken down into three main areas relating to the participants’ exits. First, the traditional retention factors that previous research deemed useful were analyzed for existing relevancy. Not surprising, the data suggests that these factors, like birth order, boundaries with the outside world, gender, education, and baptism, are in fact more complicated than they appeared 20 years ago. Further, the findings point to relationships with others while leaving, the age the participant is when leaving, and how long they are out of the community as fundamental influences when defecting from the Amish. The second theme explored here relates to the participants’ rationales for leaving. Using Bromley’s (1998) contested exits (i.e., defectors, whistleblowers, and apostates) and Mauss’s (1969) breakdown of defectors (i.e., intellectual, social, emotional, religious, cultural, psychological, alienated, total, and circumstantial), it becomes evident that when a participant exits quickly they do not necessarily have the time to weigh the alternatives or test out new roles, as more recent research on becoming an ex suggests (Ebaugh 1988; Smith 2011). As a result, this more detailed analysis was needed.

The final theme that emerged involved the difficulties the participants encountered when adjusting to their new world. As one could imagine, there were issues of culture shock when it came to meeting or dating new people or trying new things. Even more subtle challenges were identified, however. Being secluded for most of their lives until the point they defected, many of the participants had difficulties with more common tasks, like finding a job, going to school, getting an apartment or even a driver’s license. These issues and others made life in the English world more difficult, especially when compared to those who had left other religions. This study concludes with a discussion of the findings (briefly highlighted here), methodological issues and limitations, theoretical implications and the contributions of this study.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access