A brief description of the Amish communities

We had the pleasure of visiting a small part of Pennsylvania (USA), a region often called Dutch Country. We went looking for magnificent landscapes of green pastures punctuated by old-fashioned farms with their towering silos, big barns and gravel pathways. We were not disappointed. We were also very curious about the Amish and the Old-Order Mennonite communities that have lived in this area for centuries, and who, due to their defining will to remain separate from the world,  have overtime become quite different from their neighbors, and have inevitably attracted speculation and curiosity, as well as tourism.

Amish country landscape with magnificent tree in Pennsylvania
Amish country in Pennsylvania

First you notice the buggies, the iconic horse-drawn black carriages that are so out of place on the paved roads, that seem to go too slow, and that cars have to carefully pass. Unavoidably you peek inside, to – not so discreetly – get a glimpse of the seemingly stern faces inside the carriage, driver handling the reins, staring at the road ahead. The driver might be a man, and in the few second you get to see him, you’ll notice first the beard, long and prominent, then perhaps the black hat. The driver might be a woman, with a bonnet on top of her head and a solid-colored dress. It’s only a few seconds, but if you are curious like me,  it’s enough to make you wonder what their lives could possibly be like, why they are in a 17th century-looking  horse carriage wearing period clothes and expressions, while driving on a 21st century paved road in the middle of the state of Pennsylvania, an hour and a half away from the city of Philadelphia, and a mere 20 minute drive from Lancaster, where the Zenkaikon convention was taking place and was therefore filled with anime-costumed youth. Such a big contrast! The general idea that visitors have is that these people in their buggies live in the past, in some sort of time bubble….

View from a horse drawn wagon in Amish country Pennsylvania

So who are these people in their buggies?

The short answer is, they are Anabaptist Christians, either Amish, Old Order Mennonite or Brethren. They have chosen to remain relatively separate from the society around them. They adhere to very specific rules and traditions that govern their everyday lives, including the way they dress and the technology they accept. They have decided to do so in order to better focus on what they believe are the most important things in life: God and Community.

As outsiders, ignorant of everything about them, we first notice their appearance. They drive horse-drawn buggies, and wear ‘plain’ clothes all very similar, like a uniform. The men have long beards, a characteristic haircut and black felt hats in winter, straw hats in summer; unmarried boys sport no beards. The women and girls wear plain, modest long dresses, some with a white or black apron,  and a hair covering. The children we find extremely cute in their dresses, and pants with suspenders, their bonnets or straw hats. We gawk at the children in a pony-drawn carriage, or the many kids playing joyfully outside their school-house during recess. We were told we shouldn’t take pictures of people, as the Amish in particular do not care for pictures . But we and other tourists snap away at the buggy parked in front of the stores, sandwiched between a pick-up and a car,  and the Amish woman driving it doesn’t hide her slight irritation when she comes back and sees us. It must be extremely annoying to be a touristy spectacle in your own home, going about your everyday mundane business. These communities have paradoxically become a tourism magnet because of their perseverance to remain separate from the world. I find it curious to reflect on the fact that they used to be able to mix into the surrounding dominant culture, but the world changed around them, the horse-drawn carriages became automobiles, fashion changed drastically, yet they held on to their ways.

A brief historical context

The Dutch Country is home to Amish, Old-Order Mennonite and Brethren groups. These communities are defined by their religion, they are Anabaptist Christians, which means that they believe in adult baptism, as opposed to the catholic practice of baptizing babies. These three groups (Amish, Mennonite and Brethren) have the same roots. They differentiated themselves first from the Catholic church, for which they were persecuted and killed, then from each other. Those that followed Menno Simmons in 16th century Holland became known as Mennonite. Then, in the 17th century, a group of Swiss Brethren had to flee their lands to keep their lives, and settled in Alsace ( now part of France). They followed the teachings of Jacob Amman and  became known as Amish. The Amish distinguished themselves from the Brethren by  adopting a stricter approach to how they interpreted the teachings of the Scriptures, specially the need to keep a distance from the rest of the world and shunning those who left the community or disobeyed its rules. In the 1700’s Amish, Mennonite and Brethren groups followed William Penn’s invitation to move to the now state of Pennsylvania, then a haven of religious freedom.

The more I’ve researched the Anabaptist communities, the more confused I’ve become by the many, many, slightly different communities within the groups. It is for example somewhat confusing and inaccurate to speak of the Amish as a whole and make generalizations. Within the Mennonite and Brethren there are even wider variations.  I’ll do my best to summarize, focusing mainly on the Amish community. I’ll present important aspects of the overall culture to get just a little more understanding into their world.

Dolls wearing plain cloths in Amish style at a market in Pennsylvania
Dolls wearing plain clothes, sold in a market in the area.

Amish culture

A central aspect of the Amish and Old-Order Mennonite cultures is the concept of Gelassenheit, or submission to God and authority.  In order to achieve this submission, these communities have chosen to separate from the world, which means to not associate with those who have different beliefs, and not be influenced by them. Their lives, a constant dedication to a higher authority, are structured and determined  by strict and numerous rules, collectively known as the Ordnung, which they consider necessary to maintain their way of life.

  • Ordnung- Gelassenheit

Gelassenheit refers to an unwavering submission and  dedication to a higher authority, that of God, but also the rules of the community. This submission translates into the very important concepts of humility (not thinking or trying to prove  oneself above others) and obedience.

Ordnung is a set of expected behaviors that clearly structure life, from dress to rituals and gender roles. These rules are not written or permanently set; the Amish are spread over many small geographical communities, and the Ordnung varies slightly from district to district. The rules are abundant and make Amish life very organized and, in a sense, predictable.

The Ordnung determines everyday aspects of life, such as  the very codified way the members of the community look, from acceptable colors to wear, the presence and number of suspenders, the color of the female bonnet and how it varies according to age and marital status, the shape and size of men’s hats. It also determines what the buggies  look like, for example if glass windows are acceptable or not, if rubber is allowed on the tires or they should be all metal, if safety lights can be added, and so forth. Gender roles are clearly defined: women are mothers and homemakers, although in many cases they also work in the family business. Men are the heads of the family as it is a patriarchal society, where men are thought more capable in general, in charge of the family’s livelihood. It is also a society where violence towards other human beings is frowned upon. They have for example avoided fighting in any of the wars that have taken place around their communities over their history. They believe in non-resistance, if someone hits you, you turn the other cheek, and you forgive. This of course is a much more complex concept than described here, for more information please see the references at the end of the post.

  • Technology

The Ordnung also determines what technology is accepted. Most, if not all, Amish and Old-Order Mennonite are conservative in their use of technology as compared to our mainstream society. However how strictly they abstain from modern technologies varies from district to district. The most obvious example is the use of horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. Most do not accept a connection to the electrical grid. Some however use solar power for numerous devices, or gasoline generators that power compressed-air engines. Washing machines powered this way are accepted, although from what I can tell they use a different type of washing machine, not the standard models. Dryers are not used, and a tell-tale sign of an Amish home is the long line of clothes drying in the wind. Farm equipment technology also varies widely, some only use horse-drawn equipment, while others accept the use of tractors etc. Sometimes they can use it in their farms as long as someone else owns it and/or drives it. Like in all societies, even very strict ones,  rules can be bent and worked around, and this is a good example. Another good example is the telephone. Wires from outside may not enter the home, line telephones are forbidden inside the house, yet in some districts you will find small telephone-houses outside, perhaps between two properties. Cellphones are still debatable, not clearly prohibited yet not completely accepted.

  • Separation from the world

The Amish consider that the Ordnung maintains social cohesion and interdependence between the members of the community. The Amish retreat from the wider world, separate from it, in order to praise and focus on God, but they do so as a society, not as individuals. The community is the most important thing next to God. This is how they decide what changes from the wider world, which they cannot of course fully escape, they will accept or reject. Does it bring them together? Does it help them better surrender to God?

It is under this perspective that we should understand these communities. The codified way of dressing helps them stay humble, helps them all feel the same. Vanity and  pride are terrible things in these communities where plain is the ideal, and standing out from the crowd is frowned upon.  Riding in buggies helps restrict travel, as the distances become longer with the slower pace of horses,  and keep people closer to home. Not using modern farming equipment creates interdependence between community members, they need each other. And so on, and so forth. They do not shun everything about modern society or new technologies as a whole, they are simply much more conservative and deliberate about what they accept. This is why some Amish have horse-drawn buggies that have solar-powered night lights and turn signals, or why you see little kids playing with their pony-carriages but also with roller-skates. Some Amish can ride public transportation if needed but cannot own cars. Some communities even head down to Florida in buses for their winter holidays! Many farmers have cows that they milk commercially. They have modern milking equipment and must adhere to standard modern safety rules (like refrigerating it) , while other communities choose to milk their cows and goats by hand.

  • Rumspringa

The Amish believe in adult baptism, which means that you join the church as a conscious adult. It is a choice one makes. (There is the obvious debate as to whether there is really any choice at all when the alternative is to be shunned, totally excluded, from the community… ) The Amish have an interesting tradition called Rumspringa. It is a time when young people can do some of the things they renounce when they join the church. It usually  starts when youth turn 16, and ends around 22, when they formally join the church. What they are allowed to do varies greatly from community to community, but it could be being allowed to have a car, add a stereo to their buggy, dress like “the English” (non-Amish), drink, party, flirt… This does not necessarily translate into a wild and  rebellious period, although much media attention has been cast over instances where it does. Rumspringa simply means less or no adult/ church supervision, meant to let them experience the world before joining the church. The vast majority of youth choose to remain within the Amish community. Amish studies scholars have concluded that about 80-90% of the youth get baptized and choose the Amish way of life after Rumspringa.

As a last thought, I think it is important to add that the Amish were some of the earliest immigrant communities to settle in the (now) USA. I find it fascinating that the way of life they fiercely protect and focus on preserving is now so at odds in many aspects with mainstream American culture: glorified individualism and self-reliance, the culture of pursuing pleasure and enjoyment as a central tenet of a life well-lived, the focus on a faster and more efficient world addicted to technological innovation, the fascination with violence in its many forms, the omnipresence of media and a myriad of contradictory opinions and codes of behavior… This should, as tourists, at least give us food for thought.

I feel it is important at this point to clarify that not only am I not an expert on this subject by any means, but I am a complete outsider to this group of people. These are my views based on the little research I’ve done over the past couple of weeks, and there might be incorrect information, and wrong interpretations.  Please do comment and correct me if you are so inclined!

More information:

Amish studies center at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College . Website full of accurate and concise information.

Books:

Kraybill, Donald B., Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. The Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of Amish Culture. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Folsom, Jan. The Amish: Images of a Tradition. Mechanicsburg, Pa. : Stackpole Books, c1995

PBS documentary:

The Amish, DVD, directed by David Belton (2012; American Experience).

And last, the Hollywood movie, with characteristic errors in cultural portrayals and “artistic liberties”, yet still interesting and an easy glimpse into Amish life:

Witness, DVD, directed by Peter Weir (1985; Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures)

Old covered wooden bridge in Amish country in Pennsylvania
Old wooden bridge in Amish country

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