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Who Are the Amish?
If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in Lancaster County, you’ve probably noticed the unusual amount of plain-dressed folk who get around by horse-and-buggy. Our Amish friends make up roughly 5% of the Lancaster County population, according to a 2010 census. This religious group of people, with roots in the Anabaptist tradition, are well-known for their commitment to a simplistic lifestyle, free of modern conveniences and technology.
Why don’t they use electricity or telephones?
Many practices of the Amish can be traced back to a simple concept from the biblical book of Romans, which says, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The Amish tradition is to follow this missive very closely, by not partaking of worldly leisure and pleasures. They have chosen to live similar to how the pioneers lived in the “olden days,” and many do not take advantage of modern conveniences and technology. They are always asking the question, “Is it necessary?”
This is not to say that the Amish NEVER use electricity or telephones. Change is always occurring, even within the Amish community—it just doesn’t happen quite as fast as it does other places! Some Amish families own businesses that require them to have electricity in their shops or cell phones to take customer calls. Sometimes they will set up a telephone line at the end of the road, a community phone that all the neighbors can use for business or in case of emergency. The general rule of thumb is that they don’t want wires to come into the house that connect them to the outside world.
Why do they wear such plain clothes?
In keeping with the tradition of “being in the world, but not of it,” the Amish choose to wear plainer clothes that don’t distract. They value virtues like modesty, humility and temperance, and so they dress in such a way as to keep the focus on a person’s character, rather than their outward appearance. Even among the Amish communities, though, there is some variety. Some sects will allow brighter colors or fabrics with slight patterns woven into the material (never printed), while others keep to very simple, muted or darker colors.
Why don’t they like getting their picture taken?
Again, this practice lends itself to a biblical principle, this one from the Old Testament: the 2nd commandment says, “Do not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” The Amish believe that photographs can all too easily become an idol, so they prefer not to have their picture taken. That isn’t to say that they never have any photos in their house—they might have a calendar with landscape photos—but they rarely (if ever) have people in them.
Amish families rarely mind if their photo is taken from a distance—they’ve come to realize that it comes with the territory! Many of them don’t mind close-up images, they would just choose not to have them in their homes. However, it’s important to be respectful, and ask permission before taking any photographs (just as YOU would want to be asked first too)!
What’s the difference between the Amish and Mennonites?
There are so many different sects within the greater Mennonite and Amish churches that it would be nearly impossible to examine all the nuances of the two. Since both trace their roots to the same religious tradition, most of the differences are found in everyday lifestyle and practice, not in doctrine or theology. The Mennonites are a group who followed a man from Holland named Menno Simmons, who rejected the Catholic church and became the leader of a sect of Anabaptist followers. The Amish are a group who followed Jakob Ammon, a Swiss preacher who wished to reform the Mennonite church and split from it in 1693.
Theologically, the Mennonites and Amish believe similar things. They both come from the Anabaptist tradition, which means that they believe in adult baptism. They are both peace-loving people, who do not usually go to war or choose violence. They believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, who died and rose again to forgive all past, present, and future sins of mankind.
Generally speaking, the Amish are stricter in their practices. Many orders still hold to the practice of shunning (which is excommunication of any members who decide to leave the church. Their church services are very simple, without the use of instruments for worship. They converse in Pennsylvania Dutch much of the time (some of the young Amish children don’t even learn English until they go to school).
Though Mennonites and Amish both dress plainly (by the secular world’s standard), the Amish are the more conservative of the two. Amish wear plain, solid-colored clothes, with no patterns. The women always wear dresses, and the men wear black pants with suspenders. Plain Mennonite women still wear dresses all the time, but they are often patterned and made from brighter colors. The men wear jeans and collared shirts (sometimes plaid or striped). Some branches of the Mennonite denomination do not have a strict dress code, so you might see people who identify with the Mennonite religion but dress just like you or I would. Both Amish and Mennonite ladies wear a cappe to cover their hair, though the color, size, and design varies.
Amish people do not drive cars, but choose instead to travel by horse and buggy. Some buggies are closed, some are open, and sometimes they drive small carts. Mennonites drive cars or vans, though there are some sects who only drive black vehicles.
How is their church run?
The Lancaster Amish community is divided up into independent districts, each with their own school and church. There are over 100 different districts in the county! The church is run by three positions, always held by men: the bishop, the minister, and the deacon. The bishop is the general overseer who presides over meetings, weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc. The minister preaches the sermons each week. The deacon is in charge of alms and discipline. These positions are chosen by “lot,” which means that all the men who are qualified (determined by the church) draw straws or pick up a book. The man who draws the short straw or picks up the book with a piece of paper inside has been chosen by God to fulfill that position, and he will hold it for life.
Are all Amish men farmers?
No, not all Amish families live or work on farms anymore! Many of them still do (about 50%), but many have branched out into other businesses. You will find Amish cabinet and furniture shops, quilt shops, grocery and dry goods stores, harness shops, blacksmiths, equipment dealers, and more! Amish people prefer to purchase items from other Amish people, and so somebody has to produce and sell all the things they need. Sometimes, teenagers and young adults will get a job at a non-Amish business. The Amish usually do not get jobs that require a higher education (like a doctor or a lawyer), since they don’t go to school beyond 8th grade.
What are their schools like?
Amish children attend a one-room schoolhouse from the age of 4 or 5 until the 8th grade. Their lessons will be taught by a young, unmarried woman. They do not ride buses to school, but instead walk or ride scooters. This means that there are lots of Amish schoolhouses in Lancaster County, since there must always be one within walking distance of every farm! And don’t worry—they make time for recess too, just like your elementary school does! You’ll often see the children playing outside during their free time, jumping rope or playing baseball together. The Amish do not believe in higher education in a formalized setting, choosing instead to instruct their children in practical life skills, such as farming tasks, animal care, kitchen and general household skills, as well as religious instruction.
What does rumspringa mean, and what do they do for it?
The word rumpsringa is a Pennsylvania German word that means “running around” or “skipping or jumping about.” It refers to the “running around years” that an Amish teenager goes through before joining the Amish church, almost a rite of passage. It usually begins around the age of 14 or 15, and ends when the youth decides to either formally join the Amish church or else leave and join the non-Amish world (usually around the age of 18 or 19, though it varies). Among the Amish community, the term usually just refers to their adolescence.
Amish adults accept rumspringa as a time in a teenager’s life when they have the opportunity to “see the world” if they want. A certain amount of misbehavior is expected and accepted. Because the men and women who have joined the Amish church are expected to hold to a higher standard of living and obedience, the youth are allowed to be a bit more “wild and free” since they haven’t made their commitment to the church yet and are not officially bound to the rules. Some youth will engage in “worldly” activities such as wearing non-traditional clothing and hair styles, owning a cell phone, getting a driver’s license and a car, and engaging in promiscuous sex, underage drinking or recreational drugs. That isn’t to say that all the Amish teens go out and act recklessly or inappropriately, just because they are in rumspringa. In fact, many of them continue to dress the same and don’t act much different than they do during the rest of their life. The young people hold singings during rumspringa, where they gather together on Sunday evenings to play games and sing hymns together. Ultimately, about 95% of the Amish youth choose to join the church after rumspringa, and follow the Amish lifestyle for the rest of their lives!
Are there Amish communities anywhere else?
While Lancaster County is often considered to be the “central hub” of the Amish community, it is by no means the largest concentration of Amish families. The state of Ohio has the largest Amish population, followed by Pennsylvania and Indiana. There are Amish communities in over half of the US states and some provinces in Canada.