If you venture out to Pennsylvania, as well as parts of the Midwest, you’re likely to come across members of a special community. When we say special we mean truly unique – they’re known as the Amish. The Amish community is a group of traditionalist, Christian church fellowships with Swiss German Anabaptist origins. In some ways, they are similar to Mennonite churches, which also have Swiss origins.
The most important thing to know about the Amish is that they live a very traditional life, known for their simple living, plain dress and somewhat alarming reluctance to adopt the conveniences which we take for granted with modern technology. So, throw away your mobile phones and laptops, as well as any social media, and join us on a ride back in time, to where horse-drawn carts are the preferred mode of transportation, and communication is done face to face.
Electricity and the Amish
There’s a common misconception that the Amish are anti-electricity. But actually, Benjamin Franklin and the Amish are kind of friendly. While there are some extremely devout groups that follow the teachings to the letter, there are many others who understand that sometimes you just need to use electricity.
However, there’s a reason for avoiding electricity - an important teaching in the Amish community called “Gelassenheit.” The term, which can be translated to “letting be”, acknowledges the fact that the earth should be used as was originally intended by God. And also existing as people used to exist before technology. We know it works, because our ancestors did it – albeit everything was quite a bit slower.
The Amish are usually instantly recognizable due to their external appearance. How can you possibly go past those incredible beards the Amish men sport?! Again, the Amish uphold the belief that they should live as God created them – and they keep this commandment when it comes to shaving. The only exception is their mustache. But again, there is a reason for this: back in the 1800s, about 100 years after the church began in 1693, mustaches were more than a style.
Back then, mustaches were synonymous with wealth and high standing, as well as being part of the military. Of course, the Amish, who were devoted to a simpler, non-military lifestyle, lost the mustache - but kept the beard. Hence the clean upper lip, and bushy beard!
What Do They Call Outsiders?
Just like in J.K. Rowling’s fantastical wizarding world, where non-magic folk are referred to as Muggles, there’s a similar concept within the Amish community. If you aren’t Amish, you’re considered “English.” Regardless of your skin color, ethnicity or background, you’re flatly referred to as “English.”
This stems from immigration patterns dating back hundreds of years. At the time, the Amish couldn’t call the outsiders Americans, because they themselves were American. So, you can see what the problem was. But this habit has stuck, like many other things which make the Amish community so unique.
A Taste of the Real World
Now, any parent would know that children are extremely curious. More than anything, Amish parents see the massive differences between life in their insulated community versus life in the outside world. It’s tough, and there's no protection. But, some realize that the Amish life isn’t for them, and they’d rather experience life outside the community.
If you’ve got a rebellious teen on your hands, well, more the reason to give them the push to see what life can be like. But Amish teens know that they get their “free pass” into the outside world. Parents believe that by letting them go and not punishing them or making them feel they have no choice but to stay, may, in fact, make them want to stay.
The Concept of “Rumspringa”
Each teenager goes through a certain phase where they experience that first taste of rebellion – and the Amish are fully aware of this. They know that their lifestyle isn’t accepted by all, so they’ve created an event which is a rite of passage, in some ways.
Known as “Rumspringa”, which translates to “running around”, the event sees teens between 14 and 18 exiting the community for a period of time, to experience “English” life. Because you know, it wouldn’t be fair to not allow Amish kids to experience life outside their world. But in saying this, there’s another side which has led to some members leaving the community!
When “Running Around” Leads to More
In an interesting twist, it seems that this “Rumspringa” isn’t limited to a certain time – it is, in fact, an event that can last as long as the Amish person wishes. When teens are sent out into the world and allowed to experiment, you can imagine that some would be thinking twice about coming back. That’s the naturally curious ones, of course! You can imagine it would be extremely intimidating and difficult to live life so differently – the meeker spirits surely were running home after a couple of weeks.
Interacting with non-Amish people would seem strange, making these kids literal fish out of water. Some do indeed return to the community after a week, but others take the plunge and seem to enjoy the experience. It is not uncommon for some teens to spend years before they realize they want to re-join their family and community.
Choosing the Amish Life
For us “English” people, it’s difficult to imagine wanting to go back to living an inconvenient and somewhat restrictive lifestyle. But hey, who are we to judge? These kids have been raised knowing nothing else, and human nature shows us that we are afraid of what we do not know or understand. Imagine a 14-year-old being thrown out into the world and being expected to live and survive in a place totally foreign to them.
After they complete their 'Rumspringa' and decide to return to the Amish community, the teens are baptized and officially welcomed into the faith. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: some teens decide that the non-Amish world is more vibrant and decide not to return. But with the community, it does not mean they are exiled after a certain time; they are always welcome to return and be initiated into the community.
The Scary Dolls
To Amish kids, who’ve grown up with these dolls, this is just like getting a Barbie. There is, of course, a reason for these homemade, simple dolls. They have no faces because they teach kids that looks don't matter.
In many ways, this is a wonderful idea, and could indeed help combat body image issues that have plagued generations of people. Not to mention more recently with the increase in social media use.
How Good is Your Memory?
We’re only asking this because, if you’re Amish, you’re going to need a great memory! With no such thing as a phone, computer, let alone Instagram account, there’s no real way for the Amish to record their happy moments. Well, at least not on paper or film. Cameras are not utilized, because they are considered modern technology. And they don’t paint, either. So, what do they do to mark an important occasion?
Let’s think about something like the passing of a loved one – surely you need an image to remind you of them from time to time. But actually, it is quite the opposite for the Amish. Having a photo or painting of someone is in fact considered irreverent, and is totally prohibited!
Strange Dating Rules
In Western society, it’s a worry for many parents that their children are sexually active. Many parents will put obstacles in the way of it happening. But the Amish, on the contrary, allow their kids to “sleep” together. However, it’s not at all what you're thinking.
The Amish take dating quite seriously, and it involves a process known as “bundling” – a girl and a boy who are seeing each other share a bed one night. They are fully clothed, and not touching one another, but they sleep side by side. This practice is supposed to help strengthen their bond.
It’s not unusual to hear of arranged marriages, particularly in traditional settings across the globe. Within the Amish community, there is no matchmaker, nor any type of forced hands into marriage. Despite the limited dating pool, and the common belief that the majority of Amish marriages are arranged, it seems that this is not the case.
While it all seems fine and well, we need not remind you that the Amish are a small community. So of course, there is a limited supply. But in saying this, too, the Amish are allowed to marry only a certain type of someone.
No Church? No Date!
In the Amish community, it’s only fitting that they only marry other Amish. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that we doubt an “English” person would be able to revert to the old ways and live a simpler existence.
However, there are a few restrictions - both people need to be baptised, and the dating, when it starts, is only allowed in public areas!
It makes sense that the Amish require quite a lot of time to consider things and make important life decisions; they have adopted a “slow” type of lifestyle, quite unlike our fast-paced technological modern society. Careful deliberation before making a decision is almost ingrained in the Amish psyche, and is often a decision that requires the acknowledgment and acceptance of the entire Amish community.
Dating, obviously, comes first, before getting engaged and then married – but not without the approval of the church and community. In saying that, there usually isn’t much red tape on the path to marriage. Once a man proposes, both he and his wife require the consent of the Amish church.
Very Simple Weddings
Now, these days, when it comes to wedding celebrations, the bigger the better. But for the Amish, weddings are extremely simple. The man isn’t one to shower his woman with diamonds, and on the actual wedding day, the bride doesn’t wear makeup, or even jewelry!
The bride’s hair is also covered and wears the customary blue dress. Yes, blue, not white! Many weddings for the Amish are conducted during the fall.
Not Your Typical Honeymoon
If you ever pictured yourself on a sandy white beach sipping champagne for your honeymoon, don’t ever go Amish! Why? Because the Amish tradition is to celebrate honeymoons at their parents’ house.
Privacy takes a back seat, and the wedding celebration happens with family, as well as the honeymoon. The honeymoon, in fact, starts at the bride’s parents’ place – and the next morning, they clean their house as their thanks. Unbelievable, right?
The Amazing Race
An Amish honeymoon is comprised of many activities, in different locations. It sounds like a treasure hunt, or more like the Amazing Race. After the night with their folks, the newlywed couple packs up their cleaning gear and go to the next house. They do the rounds, visiting each other’s relatives as husband and wife.
Ironic, considering that the point of a honeymoon is to get away from the family, not spend all your time with them! And if there’s no house in the picture, the couple stays at the bride’s parent’s house until they can move into their very own home.
We don’t think communities get much tighter than Amish ones. They are extremely kind to one another and are always available to help the community in any way. For example, in the building of new barns.
If a neighbor is in need, they have an Amish army to help! The entire community comes together to help build one – it’s known as “barn-raising.” Apparently, within the Amish community, this is a common and popular activity.
Avoiding Serious Ailments
There must be something in the water, or maybe it's just the traditional, organic lifestyle that allows the Amish to reap lots of health benefits. For example, it has been reported that the Amish rarely get cancer. We wonder if modern technology is to blame.
Health professionals will probably agree that their “simple” lifestyle contributes greatly to their health. Living within an Amish community seems to decrease your chances of contracting any sort of serious illness. The secret? Organic, homegrown produce. No mass-produced, genetically modified, preservative-filled nasties. Also, the fact that they keep away from alcohol and cigarettes surely has a lot to do with it too.
Back in the day, it was important, and more common, to be able to speak more than one language. These days, English is universal in business, science, and a myriad of other fields. For this reason, it’s become less important for people to know languages other than English. For the Amish, however, it is almost a rule that they all speak the mandatory three languages.
Firstly, there is the native German tongue, from which their traditions stem. Religious services and formal proceedings are, therefore, conducted in German. But there are two other common languages for the Amish.
English and Pennsylvania Dutch
Aside from their original dialect, which hails from Southern Germany and has largely remained the same since it was established in North America centuries ago, the Amish can also speak English and Pennsylvania Dutch. But how much do they use these older languages?
In school and in business, English is the choice language, as it is the most widely spoken language in the U.S., and it is needed to communicate with the outside world. Pennsylvania Dutch is reserved for everyday affairs, a somewhat vernacular for the Amish.
Are You Old Enough?
The Amish question a person’s age before allowing them to enter their church. Christians will know that you are baptized as a baby or toddler, and is deemed an important rite of passage. But the Amish do things slightly differently. According to them, being baptized should be done with careful consideration and after much deliberation. It is a choice.
The Amish are not, contrary to popular belief, a cult. This boils down to the fact that the Amish allow members to choose if they want to join, or go out and mingle with the "English". For this reason, the Amish do not baptize children – they feel that kids can’t make the conscious decision which will rule them for the rest of their life. The majority of Amish people are, in fact, baptized between the ages of 16 and 24.
The Great Rule Book(s)
It makes sense with such a fastidious cultural group that they keep a record of all of their rules and regulations. It would be impossible for one individual to remember all of the Amish code, right? So to simplify things, the Amish have two reference books. One is the Bible, and the other is a book called The Ordnung. The latter book means “order” or “discipline” in German.
The Ordnung is pretty much a book of Amish for dummies. It lists the do’s and don’ts when practicing an Amish life, providing the framework for day-to-day goings-on. If you find yourself ever breaking one of the tenets, there is a punishment for each and every rule, with varying degrees of severity.
Are Mennonites Amish?
Now, it is important to note that not every person wearing a bonnet and simple clothing is Amish. Adopting a similar code of dress, as well as similar customs, are the Mennonites. While there are comparisons that can be made between the cultural groups, they are not the same.
The Mennonites are also a Christian group, but are nowhere near as devout as the Amish. The Mennonites actually live in a more modern setting and don’t seclude themselves. The Mennonites are more tech-savvy and are even allowed to drive cars.
'Meidung' and 'Ordnung' are terms that you definitely don’t want to hear when you’re living in an Amish community. It comes as no surprise that the Amish people have a number of rules and regulations when dealing with their lifestyle and the customs they keep. But despite these rules, the Amish are in fact interested in the individual coming to their own personal conclusions without interference.
But of course, for those who overstep the line, there are consequences. In Amish terms, an individual, if in violation of Amish ethics or the code, is then deemed Ordnung. And if a person keeps misbehaving after punishment, they can be deemed 'Meidung', which basically means that they're banished from the community!
Three Strikes and You’re Out!
'Meidung' means someone is shunned by the Amish community. Depending on the crime they've committed, and its impact on the community, some members can even receive the almighty “Bann”, which sees them totally excommunicated.
Depending on the infraction, the shunning from the community can last as long as several months. While it may seem harsh, it is enforced to ensure that the individual can reflect on their wrongdoing and genuinely apologize.
Who Needs Fashion?
It makes sense that the Amish, what with their frugal and conservative lifestyle, would be against the idea of standing out and making a statement with one’s clothes. The actual reason for this is not because of the potential interaction with modern society, but rather because within the Amish tradition, it is important to avoid both vanity and selfishness. Seeing all as equal, regardless of how they look, is crucial to their philosophy.
The Amish, as a result, have women wear simple dresses, and men sport black pants and a plain shirt. Not a smudge of makeup or any fancy accessories – and not even a zig-zag stitch out of line!
The Darker Side
So far, we’ve seen how restrictive and traditional the Amish community is to the eyes of outsiders, and while there’s no problem with how they choose to spend their days, there is a slight issue for their offspring. The Amish are a small, insular community, with no interaction from the outside world. Thus the dating pool is spectacularly small – and as a result, interbreeding occurs.
The genetic risk factors are nothing short of alarming, particularly when first cousins are having children together. Of course, the Amish are aware of this, and do not purposely want their children to marry their cousins and so forth – but it’s just the consequence of living within such a community.
Throwing Caution to the Wind
They say you shouldn’t shirk from your responsibilities on mundane things, but with the Amish, it’s a little more serious. These days, DNA testing is all the rage – which could probably be a huge help in determining and avoiding potential genetic issues before a baby is born. For the Amish, however, DNA testing is strictly forbidden.
It makes sense, though – you don’t exactly want to find out that your spouse is actually your cousin. The Amish acknowledge that if inbreeding occurs, it’s God’s will.
Breaking Bread Together
While it seemed that the Amish were behind and somewhat removed from society, within their groups, there’s a great sense of community and belonging. The Amish are sharing, generous people, and regularly host communal meals. Basically, families put on a big spread for their Amish brothers and sisters, using food and drink as a way to bond the community tighter.
It is extremely important to keep this tradition because the sharing of meals provides a place to communicate and enjoy oneself. The way it works is that each family brings something to the table to share. Whether one family specializes in meat or dairy, or another in baked goods, each will provide a plate or dish to share with the community.
School’s Out Past 8th Grade
Forget going to college, the Amish stop going to school past the 8th grade! They believe that learning anything more than what you do in this grade is unnecessary. Formal education isn’t required because most of the Amish will work on the land or focus on tasks that don’t require a university education.
It may seem a bit sexist, but the Amish, being as conservative and traditional as they are, ensure that men have chosen their life’s profession by then, and the women automatically go into domestic roles. There’s no need for calculus here, it seems!
No Church Building
While many make pilgrimages to visit beautiful old churches and places of worship all over the world, this is not the case for the Amish community. Places of worship are superfluous for the Amish people – so if you’re searching for some stained-glass monolith in Pennsylvania, you won’t find it.
The Amish are not ones for flashy churches or cathedrals – in fact, they take it a step further. The Amish believe you can teach the Bible anywhere and everywhere. This allows them to practice their faith wherever they feel comfortable.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Church
As we’ve found, the Amish do not believe in building churches. Their take on houses of worship is that God is everywhere – and God lives within people. So in order to initiate a church service, all the Amish need is a gathering of people! Anywhere and everywhere can be a location for an Amish service.
Whether it’s outside in the stables, on the paddock, or inside someone’s humble abode, Amish services are simple. There are no candles, no incense, no altars, no icons, no nothing. It is very bare-bones and about the spirit of the community.
Not Ones to Gloat
With religion, sometimes it can be somewhat of a contest of whose beliefs are better. This is not the case with the Amish. These conservative pacifists are, of course, against any type of tension. It is not about superiority or a competition – rather it is ‘just as it is.’ The Amish are respectful of other cultures, and just because their way of life observes things differently to other religious groups, does not mean in any way that they’re above others.
The Amish see arrogance as a sin, and this idea keeps them grounded and living their lives peacefully.
Not a Fan of Birth Control
Just as it is within similarly strict religious communities, the Amish strongly believe that birth control is completely unethical and unnecessary. In the bedroom, the Amish again look to their tenet of “letting be” – so whatever happens is what God intended. They do not believe that they can play God, and choose to not interfere with the natural order and way of things.
Contraception is something the Amish don't believe in. In fact, for them, it’s important to have a big family. Being pregnant is a miracle and is viewed as God’s blessing. The average Amish couple can have as many as 7 children! That’s quite a lot of mouths to feed.
Flying the White Flag
The Amish are pacifists, and when it comes to the military, they are bundled into the conscientious objector group. You won’t see them enlisting any time soon.
Much like the Quaker community in Pennsylvania, the Amish are anti-violence. The community is focused on preserving the peaceful way of living they've created for themselves over the years.
But Why the Pacifism?
It is important to the Amish to uphold their Christian duties and keep the peace – specifically the zen haven that they’ve created for themselves within their community. It’s also crucial that they not use any type of force on another human being. Because they cannot do any harm to their fellow humans, they avoid the military like the plague.
There probably isn’t even any type of law enforcement individual in their community – maybe just a spiritual leader or two.
Love Thy Neighbor
It is fitting that, within a Christian community, the all-important tenet of “love thy neighbor” is closely observed. This is particularly important within the Amish community, especially given the fact that their cohort is so small and relatively secluded.
As mentioned earlier, there is the activity of “barn-raising”, which helps to bring the community together. It’s important to note that every act of physical labor is performed without modern technology or physical aides – so this highlights how truly selfless the Amish are!
Spare Time? No Worries!
The Amish are actually crazy about traditional board games! Considering they don’t have modern technology, or the likes of social media to take up their free time, this makes total sense.
Almost tailored for winter days around the hearth of a fire, the Amish are fans of Scrabble, Settlers of Catan and even Monopoly!
Hunting for the Prize
It is no secret that the Amish live off the land. This of course extends to the forests nearby, where tasty critters live their days. Therefore, Amish men like to hunt to provide for their families.
Commonly a male past time, the women traditionally stay at home and wait for the men to return with some nice game meat for dinner! Sometimes women can join in on the hunt too, though this is more common in families where there are more boys than girls.
A more refined version of “hunting”, another favorite pastime of the Amish is called “birding.” Amish birders hunt, but without the guns. It’s pretty much just bird watching; observing birds in their natural habitats.
It seems more fitting, given the pacifist nature of the Amish community, though its popularity differs depending on the group. According to Rich Stevick, a professor of Amish studies, there are “impressive numbers of Amish birders in Ohio and Indiana”, as opposed to in Lancaster Country.
Yodeling is Not For the Faint-Hearted
And also apparently not common in every Amish community! The art of yodeling is mainly practiced within the Swiss Amish community of Adams County, IN.
In the book 'Plain Diversity: Amish Cultures and Identities', authored by Steven Nolt and Thomas Meyers, the yodeling of the community is explored. Nolt and Meyers go on to say that "they yodel both German-language folksongs and English-language ballads. Many of these English lyrics are in the vein of traditional love songs or accounts of desperados-yodels that the church does not approve of. The presence of such deviant English songs may be puzzling, but they point to the strength of the ethnic tradition among the Swiss group."
Going Once, Going Twice, Going Three Times...
The Amish have a host of activities they participate in to pass the time. One of those, interestingly enough, is going to auctions! Whether you’re 9 or 99, going to an auction is fun for all! The thrill of buying something and bidding against your neighbor is always entertaining. Not to mention the fact that you can eat and drink and chat.
We wonder what sorts of items would go up for auction – perhaps livestock or haybales, or maybe even clothes. We’re sure there must be plenty of interesting knick-knacks from past generations!
“It is very definitely a gray area, in fact, it is nearly black.” In an interview on 'Amish America', an anonymous Amishman from Lancaster County offered some honest answers about life in the community. It's definitely interesting to hear the thoughts of a person who’s living the Amish life.
“For the most part, (Amish people) are oblivious to and nonchalant about the attention in the media given to us. It is assumed that the information is generally distorted to varying degrees. There is practically no desire amongst the Amish to make sure we only get good press. In other words, we don’t have any highly paid spin doctors.”
The Light of the World
For the Amish, the most important calling is that of being a light to the world. The light that’s referred to in the Holy Bible is not one “of the media, but rather the truth of Christ.”
So, to better understand the Amish, one must understand their relationship with God, and their commitment to serving Him and spreading his word, at least within their community.
On Being Amish
The final question asked was “if you weren’t Amish, what do you think you would miss the most about being Amish?”.The Lancaster Amishman answered quite simply and profoundly.
The man answered, “The family being together at home without interference from an electronic cacophony. Living with a devoted wife who is also your best friend, without the specter of divorce looming just over the horizon."