The Amish are a throwback to the “olden days.” They live simply and without most technology in the midst of the technology-laden world of the 21st century. They arrived in the US almost 300 years ago, intent on starting new lives free of religious persecution. Primarily, they settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today, there are almost 200,000 members of what are called “Old Order” Amish communities. These communities are concentrated in Lagrange, Indiana, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes County, Ohio. Amish culture remains iconic in America, with its plain dress and horse-drawn carriages; it is also known for its exquisitely handcrafted furniture and quilting.
The Amish are known for their simple dress. The men wear black pants and jackets, while the women wear long, dark, longsleeved dresses with white aprons and capes. Their customs set them apart from mainstream American citizens in many ways. For one thing, they have literally interpreted the Bible, which means that they adopt specific dress codes and behavior standards, even as they reject most modern technology. Photographs, too, are not allowed because these are considered “graven images” as discussed in the 10 Commandments. They believe that their faith in God is best represented by words and actions, so they strive to follow the examples given by the Bible and to accept God’s will in everything. Because of this, they are conscientious objectors when it comes to military service and turn the other cheek when they are personally attacked.
Strength of community and family are key in the Amish community. Humility and submission are highly valued, as set forth by Christ’s example in the Bible. Similarly, ambition and pride are rejected. Thus, there is no competitiveness, materialism, or individualism. For example, in the Amish community, one is not allowed to own an automobile because the Amish believe that this would cause division in the committee, separating “rich” from “poor” and bring about boastful pride.
However, the Amish do accept rides in automobiles if business or emergencies require that one go a great distance or need utmost speed. By the same principle, homes do not have telephones or electricity. However, dairy barns are powered from alternative energy sources. Frequently, too, there are small buildings that have communal telephones to place outgoing calls. Self-reliance and individualism are not accepted, but the community itself is independent of outside electricity sources.
Amish values continue to set them apart from mainstream American culture. Community members are expected to marry and have families. Their courtship tradition is unique, in that they can only marry other Amish, although those they marry may come from different Amish settlements than they do. Men and women follow traditional gender roles and often have large families. Divorce is forbidden. They also share a common language. English is taught in the schools, but Pennsylvania Dutch, an obscure German dialect, is spoken at home.
In addition to dress, Amish men have a unique style of facial hair. Once a man is married, he is expected to grow a beard. However, there is no mustache along with the beard. This is because they reject anything vain or military. In their home countries, the military leaders responsible for the persecution of the Amish had very stylish mustaches.
They have no system of government that’s formal or organized, but nominated preachers, bishops and deacons lead them. Shunning, which has been a much-debated practice, is a discipline measure based upon New Testament Bible passages. It’s used when a baptized member of the community “trespasses” against the community. What this means is that no other community members, even spouses, are allowed contact with the offender while he or she is being shunned. However, once the person who committed the offense asks for forgiveness, forgiveness is freely offered and the shunned welcomed back into the community.
In 1972, a landmark legal decision decreed that the Amish have the right to continue their way of life without government interference in terms of Social Security taxes and benefits, child labor laws, and compulsory schooling. In the Amish community, children attend school through the eighth grade in one-room schoolhouses. They are taught by single young women in small multi-grade classes. Consistently, Amish children have done better than their rural non-Amish peers on standardized tests. In the Amish community, the belief is that after the last formal bit of schooling, the next stage of maturing is best done within families, by learning a stronger religious faith and practical skills.
Once young people complete their schooling, the girls learn housekeeping and child-rearing skills alongside their mothers and other women, while the boys learn farming and carpentry skills alongside their fathers and other men. At 16, young people are allowed to experience freedom and are even encouraged to live among the “English” or non-Amish population, to see whether or not they wish to remain in the Amish community. A small number of young people do decide to continue to live with the “English,” but most choose to return to the Amish life, be baptized, and commit their lives to the community and fellowship.
The Amish are exempted from Social Security taxes, but must still pay other types of taxes, including property and sales tax. They do not carry insurance, but support each other as a community during emergencies. They don’t enroll in government care for the elderly, but care for their elderly at home.
Each Amish settlement lives independent of the other settlements. They share the same core doctrine but differ on issues of degree. Some differences may include how simple clothing is, or whether or not compromise is allowed in the use of modern technology, and to what degree. When disagreements happen, members may sometimes go to another community that better matches their own view of the faith.
Originally farmers when they immigrated from Switzerland and Germany, today, the Amish still use farming as their main source of income. They live separate from the world around them, but have shrewd business skills and have cultivated friendships and business relationships with the “English” in the surrounding communities. Many “English” help the Amish out free of charge, so that the Amish may preserve their way of life. The Amish raise crops such as barley, soybeans, tobacco, wheat, and corn, as well as other vegetables. They raise these crops both for personal use and for market. In addition, they are excellent carpenters and dairy farmers. They have also recently begun to develop cottage industries that include selling jellies, furniture, quilts and other handmade goods. “English” consumers have greatly praised these goods because they are of such high quality. The Amish first and foremost strive to give glory to God, and because of this, and workmanship is well above average and is an unspoken and lasting testament to faith.