This article primarily discusses the conservative Old Order Amish fellowships that observe strict regulations on dress, behavior, and the use of technology. There are many New Order Amish and Beachy Amish groups that use electricity and automobiles, but still consider themselves Amish.
The Old Order Amish—like those recently arrived near Depauville–are found primarily in 21 states with Ohio having the largest population followed by Pennsylvania and Indiana, and in Ontario, Canada.
The Amish separate themselves from mainstream society for religious reasons: they do not join the military, draw no Social Security (and are exempted by law from paying Social Security taxes), nor accept any form of financial assistance from the government. The Amish rely on their church and community for support, and thus reject the concept of insurance. An example of such support is barn raising, in which the entire community gathers together to build a barn in a single day.
The Amish prefer to have minimal contact with non-Amish. However, increased prices for farmland and decreasing revenues for low-tech farming have forced many Amish to work away from the farm, particularly in construction and factory-labor, and, in those areas where there is a significant tourist trade, to engage in crafts for profit. The Amish are ambivalent about both the consequences of this contact and the commoditization of their culture. The decorative arts play little role in authentic Amish life (though prized Amish quilts are a genuine cultural inheritance), and are in fact regarded with suspicion, as a field where egotism and vain display can easily develop.
The Amish are united by a common ancestry and culture, and they marry within the Amish community. Most speak a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch (or Pennsylvania German), which the Amish call Deitsch. While they meet the criteria of an ethnic group, the Amish themselves generally use the term only to refer to accepted members of their church community. With an average of seven children per family, the Amish population is growing rapidly.
The Amish are descendants of Swiss Anabaptist groups formed in the early 16th century during the radical reformation. Called “Mennonite” because of the spiritual leadership of Menno Simmons, a leader who left the Catholic priesthood and teachings, faithful Mennonites believe that the only spiritually successful life–the life acceptable to God–is that lived by the power of God in obedience to the Holy Scriptures. Such a life is possible only through a continuing fellowship in Christ.
The Amish movement takes its name from that of Jacob Amman, a Swiss Mennonite leader who believed the Mennonites were drifting away from the teachings of Simons, particularly the practice of shunning excluded members. Amman insisted upon this practice, even to the point of expecting a spouse to refuse to sleep or eat with the banned member until he/she repented of his/her behavior.
The first Amish began migrating to the United States in the 18th century, largely to avoid religious persecution and compulsory military service. The first immigrants went to Berks County, Pennsylvania. No Old Order movement ever developed in Europe and all Old Order communities are in the Americas.
The Amish are not an anti-Baptist group, as some are convinced from the name “Anabaptist”. They were mockingly called Anabaptist (re-baptizers), because of their rejection of infant baptism. The Amish and other Anabaptists do not believe that a child can be meaningfully baptized; Amish children are expected to follow the will of their parents in all issues, but when they come of age, they are expected to make an adult, permanent commitment to the church.
The Amish practice of adult baptism is part of the admission into the church. Admission is taken seriously, for to leave the church after joining means being shunned forever by one’s friends and family. On the other hand, those who do not join the Church are not shunned.
Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their revulsion toward Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and the high value they place on Demut or “humility” and Gelassenheit — often rendered “submission” or “letting-be,” but perhaps better understood as a reluctance to be forward or assert oneself in any way. The willingness to submit to the will of God, as expressed through group norms, is at odds with American culture. They are nonresistant and rarely defend themselves physically or even in court; in wartime, they take conscientious objector status; their own folk-history contains tales of heroic nonresistance.
The anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on neighbors, or which, like electricity, might start a competition for status-goods, or which, like photographs, might cultivate individual or family vanity.
It is also a cause for rejecting education beyond the eighth grade, believing that the basic knowledge offered to that point is sufficient to prepare one for the Amish lifestyle. Further study, they feel, may ignite personal and materialistic ambitions. The American emphases on competition and assumption that self-reliance is a good thing are in direct opposition to core Amish values. In many communities, the Amish operate their own schools, typically one-room schoolhouses with teachers from the Amish community. These schools provide education in many crafts, and therefore is eligible as a vocational education and fulfills the nationwide requirement of education through 10th grade or the equivalent.
There are Amish children that go to non-Amish public schools. In the past, there have been major conflicts between the Amish and outsiders over these matters of local schooling. But for the most part they have been resolved and the educational authorities allow the Amish to educate their children in their own ways, often by having the children repeat eighth grade until they are old enough to leave school.
Rumspringa (“running around”) is the general term for adolescence and the period leading up to serious courtship. As in non-Amish families, it is understood as a practical matter that there will likely be a certain amount of misbehavior during this period, but it is neither accepted nor overlooked. At the end of this period, Amish young adults are expected to find a spouse and be baptized. Some choose not to join the church and are ignored, shunned, while other communities practice hardly any shunning, keeping close family and social contact with those who leave the church. Shunning is also sometimes imposed by bishops on church members guilty of offenses such as using forbidden technology. Church members may also be “called to the carpet” to confess before the congregation.
The Amish are divided into dozens of separate fellowships, which are each broken down in turn into districts or congregations. Each district is fully independent and has its own Ordnung, or set of unwritten rules, which differ from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the use of tobacco (permitted among older and more conservative groups), the color of buggies, or various other issues. The Ordnung is viewed as a guide to community standards, rather than doctrine that defines sin, and is not meant to incur suffering.
“Black bumper” Beachy Amish drive chromeless automobiles and are rejected as non-Amish by most other groups, while conservative fellowships may disagree over the number of suspenders males should wear (only one is needed, so two could be seen as vanity) or how many pleats there should be in a bonnet. Groups with similar policies are held to be “in fellowship” and consider each other members of the same Christian church. These groups can visit and intermarry with one another, an important consideration for avoiding problems with inbreeding. Thus minor disagreements within communities over dairy equipment or telephones in workshops can create splinter churches and divide multiple communities.
Dress code for some groups includes prohibitions against buttons, allowing only hooks and eyes to keep clothing closed; other groups allow members to sew buttons onto clothing. In some groups, certain articles can have buttons and others cannot. The restriction on buttons is attributed in part to their former association with military uniforms, and also to their potential for serving as opportunities for vain display. Straight-pins are often used to hold articles of clothing together. In all things, the aesthetic value is “plainness”: clothing should not call attention to the wearer by cut, color or any other feature.
Women usually wear long dresses in a solid, plain color such as blue. Aprons are often worn, usually in white or black, at home and always worn when attending church. A cape which consists of a triangular shape of cloth is usually worn beginning around the teenage years and pinned into the apron. In the colder months, a wool shroud is sported and pinned to hold together. Heavy bonnets are also worn over the prayer coverings when Amish women are out and about in cold weather.
Men typically wear dark-colored trousers and a dark vest or coat, suspenders, and broad-rimmed straw hats in the warmer months and black felt hats in the colder months. Typically, single Amish men are clean-shaven and married men grow a beard. In some communities, however, a man will grow a beard after he is baptized. The wearing of beards is largely based on the same beliefs against shaving that leads Hasidic Jews and conservative Muslims not to shave their beards; mustaches are generally not allowed, because they are seen as symbols of both pride and the military.
The Old Order Amish avoidance of modern technologies such as automobiles and electricity is largely misunderstood–they do not view technology as evil. Individuals may petition for acceptance of a particular technology in the local community. In some communities, the church leaders meet to review such proposals. In others, it is done whenever necessary. In the 1970s, an Indiana farmer was ordered by his bishop to buy a conventional tractor because his severe progressive arthritis and no sons to harness the horses for him, the tractor was seen as a need, rather than a vanity. The rest of the community continued farming with horses.
The Amish will hire drivers for visiting family, monthly grocery shopping, commuting to the workplace off the farm, though this too is subject to local regulation and variation. Regular bus service between Amish communities has been established in some areas.
Electricity is viewed as a connection to, and reliance on, the “World”, the “English”, or “Yankees” (the outside world). The use of electricity also could lead to the use of household appliances, which would complicate the Amish tradition of a simple life, and introduce competition for worldly goods that would be destructive of community.
However, in certain Amish groups, electricity can be used in very specific situations. In some groups, electricity can be produced by 12-volt batteries. The reasoning behind the twelve-volt system is that it limits what an individual can do with the electricity and acts as a preventive measure against potential abuses by not powering worldly, modern appliances such as televisions or hair dryers. Electric generators can be used for welding, recharging batteries, and powering milk stirrers. In certain situations, outdoor electrical appliances may be used: lawn mowers (riding and hand-pushed) and string trimmers, for example. Many Amish families have non-electric versions of vital appliances, such as kerosene-powered refrigerators
Amish communities often adopt compromise solutions involving technology which may seem strange to outsiders. For example, many communities will allow gas-powered farm equipment such as tillers or mowers, but only if they are pushed by a human or pulled by a horse. The reasoning is that Amish farmers will not be tempted to purchase more land to out compete other farmers in their community if they still have to move the equipment manually.
The telephone is another technology whose avoidance is often misunderstood. The Amish dislike the telephone because it interferes with their separation from the world; it brings the outside world into the home; it is an intrusion into the privacy and sanctity of the family and interferes with social community by eliminating face-to-face communication. However, some Amish use the telephone primarily for out-going calls, but with the added restriction that the telephone not be inside the home, but rather in a phone “booth” or shanty placed far enough from the house as to make its use inconvenient, and commonly shared by more than one family. Many Amish, particularly those who run businesses, will use cellphones and pagers, utilize voice mail service, or use trusted English neighbors as contact points for passing on family emergency messages, but most Old Order Amish will not.
The Amish as a whole feel the pressures of the modern world. Child labor laws, for example, are seriously threatening their long-established ways of life. Amish children are taught at an early age to work hard. Amish parents will supervise the children in new tasks to ensure that they learn to do them effectively and safely. The modern child labor laws conflict with allowing the Amish parents to decide whether or not their children are competent in hazardous tasks.
The Amish sects provide for their elderly and disabled; one visible sign of the care Amish provide for the elderly are the smaller Grossdaadi Heiser or Daadiheiser (“grandfather house”) often built near the main dwelling.