When the lights went out on the eastern seaboard last August, the historic power failure affected everyone in the area. Everyone, that is, except the Amish, the famously traditional Christian sect that calls itself “the plain people.” Since they do not use electricity even when it’s available, the Amish continued to heat with coal, oil, or gas, and light their rooms with propane lamps.
Skyrocketing gasoline prices after the blackout didn’t bother them either; the Amish don’t own automobiles. Indeed, they continued, as always, in horse-drawn carriages that traveled slowly but surely down the road.
It’s not that the deeply religious Amish consider modern conveniences intrinsically evil – after all, although they tend to take the Bible literally, the scriptures make no mention of cars or telephones. But the Amish believe that some contemporary inventions could have a negative impact on their way of life. Bent on preserving a 500-year-old culture based on a strongly bonded family, heavy tradition, and a rigid work ethic, the Amish feel they must ban devices that could result in inappropriate behavior. These, of course, includes vehicles that provide increased mobility, and could thus cause a split within close-knit Amish communities.
Over 150,000 Amish live in 22 American states and Ontario, Canada. Their numbers have been steadily increasing over the years, as they raise very large families and only about 15 percent leave the fold. While Ohio boasts the highest Amish population, the oldest settlements are in Pennsylvania. The first large group of Amish immigrants to America put down stakes in Lancaster County, where about 22,000 can be found today.
It doesn’t take long to discover that most Amish keep their distance from “the English” – their term for everyone who is neither Amish nor Mennonite – and it is immediately obvious that setting up interviews might be difficult. So my husband and I began a recent visit to Pennsylvania’s Amish country with two of the many commercial enterprises that have sprung up to offer outsiders a glimpse into the Amish world. Only later did we speak to half a dozen Amish men and women.
WE STARTED with the Amish Experience, which included an introductory lecture, a multi-media production, and a tour of an Amish home (actually a replica, faithfully furnished with Amish items). Our guide explained that the Amish descend from the Anabaptists, a 16th-century group that disputed certain aspects of the early Protestant reform movement in Europe. Unlike other reformers, the Anabaptists believed that adults should enter the church of their own free will, and thus rejected infant baptism. They also advocated a complete separation of church and state and, since both concepts were too radical for the times, they suffered severe persecution at the hands of both Protestants and Catholics.
Eventually, a large group fled to Switzerland and Germany from other parts of Europe, together with Anabaptist leader Menno Simons. They hoped to escape the torture and death that often awaited members of their group (cutting out a victim’s tongue before burning him or her at the stake was a common practice).
In 1693, an offshoot of the group, unhappy because the Anabaptists were drifting away from their original beliefs, followed Jakob Ammann. They became known as the Amish, and the remaining Anabaptists became known as Mennonites.
Although they differ in their clothing, education, and behavior, Mennonites and Amish come from the same stock; all are firm pacifists, and share the same religious beliefs.
The Amish pray in High German and speak in a German dialect (the Mennonites generally use English). As a result, the Amish are often called Pennsylvania Dutch – a misleading term, since “Dutch” should really be “Deutsch,” German.
Surprisingly, there are no Amish churches. Every other Sunday, a different family hosts a service in its home. We began our tour of the “homestead” in a room that had been cleared of everything but backless wooden benches and would be used for worship.
After sitting immobile for nearly four hours (a good lesson in discipline for young children, we were told), participants push benches together for use as tables. That’s because everyone remains for lunch and the hosting family has to seat – and feed – about 160 people! Contrary to a rather popular misconception, Amish homes are quite modern and, at least in Lancaster, include indoor plumbing. Amish families also own five standard appliances: a washing machine, sewing machine, refrigerator, stove, and water heater – all run on alternative power. Even the milking machines in the barn make do without electricity, and are operated by compressed air.
Instead of a computer or television, the kitchen is the center of family life for the Amish – and not only because it’s the only room in the house with heat. The idea is that without modern distractions, children and parents can enjoy each other’s company during long, cold Pennsylvania evenings. The large kitchen table we saw was strewn with readers, homemade toys, simple games, and a child’s report card. Among the school subjects were an unusual number dealing with obedience and self-control.
Amish clothes are distinctive, and haven’t changed much in the past couple of centuries. Males wear suspenders to hold up their pants, since they don’t have zippers or belts. Their shirt colors vary from burgundy to light green, but are always a solid color, and even the youngsters always wear a broad-brimmed black or straw hat. After they get married, men leave their beards long and untrimmed and, as he nears 40, a single man will grow a beard as well.
Girls and women don long dresses with sleeves and an apron, and add a cape as they grow into their teens. Young and old wear a cap over hair that is never cut, and thus is worn in a practical bun. Dresses are closed with straight pins – a fashion older than the zipper and button.
If you ask Amish people why they continue to wear the same garments as their ancestors, they invariably reply: “That’s the way it has always been. We just do.”
Amish children have always studied in old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouses. When one-room schoolhouses were abolished in 1969 in favor of graded classes in central schools, the Amish rejected the idea out of hand. The concept of compulsory education had always been a problem for the Amish, who remove their children from school after the eighth grade.
Initially, those who refused to comply were sent to jail, but that didn’t change their stance, and in 1972 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Amish were exempt from the new legislation. Today, America’s Amish run hundreds of private one-room schools for their children. Their textbooks, reprinted on Amish presses, are out of date. At age 14, their children are back on the farm.
THE AMISH do not dismiss technology altogether. They use 12-volt batteries for headlights and turn-signals on their carriages. And, if necessary for business, or to visit friends or family far away, they will ride in someone else’s car. If they have to get in touch with a doctor or contact someone urgently, they will use a neighbor’s phone.
The Amish have always been self-sufficient farmers who refuse any kind of government subsidy. But today land is scarce, and the Amish have had to branch out. In Pennsylvania you can find Amish men and women selling produce in the markets; some men work in industry, and a number of families have joined the booming tourist business. They have even become accustomed to the ever-present tourist camera, despite their own prohibition against photographs.
Headed toward an Amish farm from which the family runs a shop, we asked a cheery woman selling candy what she thought about problems in the Middle East. Aware that the Amish were familiar with both the Old and New Testaments, we naively assumed an avid concern about terrorist violence.
Unlike some other Amish, who don’t read the paper very often, this merry soul had some knowledge of a war over the Holy Land. But “people there should learn to love each other, for we are all God’s children,” was all she had to say on the subject.
We tried again at an Amish farm that offers a Saturday “barbecue with the plain people” in which jovial Amish women serve their typical starchy fare and stay to chat. With our notebook full of questions about the Amish connection to the Holy Land (if any), we approached two women and two men wearing carpentry belts and asked for a moment of their time.
“Sure,” said one, in heavily accented English. “But we must soon go back to our work.”
To our surprise, none of these Amish evinced either a longing for the holy sites or a strong desire to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, like so many other Christians. And then we realized why: the Amish aren’t allowed to fly, and as for taking a boat, well, that would mean leaving the farm for an extended period – an unpleasant prospect.
“How did you get here?” joked one of the men, as he began pounding nails in an addition to the barn. “Do you have wings?”