The Amish community lives a way of life that is unthinkable to most modern citizens. They do not have technology in their homes, they work on the land or in the home and they rarely leave their home communities. They are expected to participate in community activities, to attend regular church services and to have lots of children. All their activities are governed by the ‘law’ of their congregation and failure to do so can lead to exclusion from their family and community forever.
There is little exposure to the outside world, and if a teenage Amish person decides to leave they will never be allowed back. As they have lived such a sheltered life, they are often ill-equipped to deal with modern living and do not thrive.
They do not use cars, own TVs or have access to the Internet. They dress simply and without embellishment. This way of living is so diametrically opposed to how most of the world live, that the Amish community is a great tourist attraction, as outsiders strive to learn the challenges and benefits of such a simple lifestyle.
Although it may seem like a very restrictive existence, statistics show that the Amish community is growing each year, primarily due to their huge families, often comprising up to ten children per family.
The Amish eschew modern technology and try to live as close to a simple, biblical life as possible. Their main form of transportation is the horse and buggy that they drive on public roads. This means that they have to conform to several practical additions to their ancient transport.
The buggies have to be fitted with headlights and turn signals as they are regarded as a vehicle in the eyes of the law. It is also possible to be arrested for being intoxicated when in control of a buggy. It is a rare occurrence as Amish do not drink alcohol as a rule, but one Amish boy was stopped by police when he attempted to engage in a chase with a police car after he had drunk a beer.
Amish children have restricted access to toys, and they rely on what can be made or provided by their artisan community. However, young girls do have dolls and they are dressed in Amish clothing and made of cloth. These dolls have a bare face with no features.
Amish believe that only God can make people, so even to make a reproduction of a person is regarded as inappropriate. Boy and girl dolls are made and are sold as souvenirs to tourists to make revenue for the Amish. They become quite valuable after a while and have sold for substantial amounts of money.
Despite the restrictions of the Amish way of life, their numbers are increasing by the year. In the early 1900s there were around 5,000 Amish in North America, today the numbers exceed 250,000.
This is not the result of outside people breaking into the community and converting to Amish ways because they are tired of the modern rat race. Rather it is due to a population explosion within the Amish families. Parents have a large number of children by modern standards, and despite high levels of infant mortality, the population grows. Most Amish remain within the community, therefore the population stays put and numbers grow.
While Amish children grow up in a more austere, simple environment than those outside the communities, they are given the chance to experience a taste of modern life in their mid-teens. This ‘running around’ or rumspringa, is meant to give 15- and 16-year olds an idea of what life outside their community is like and to give them the chance to move away if they want to.
If they do leave the Amish community, they will never be allowed back. As the children are naïve and innocent, their parties are reported to be wild as the children try and make up for lost time.
Amish believe that they should not cut their hair. The women do not cut their hair and men keep beards and do not cut them once married. Before they are married men are allowed to shave and cut their hair, but after marriage, they keep a full beard, as beards are mentioned in the Bible. However, mustaches are not worn by Amish men.
It is a serious offense to cut one’s own hair and it is regarded as an extremely serious crime to cut someone else’s hair. If anyone is found to be doing this, they can be shunned by their community.
Amish hail from European countries and Russia and those languages still remain in their settlements. Preaching and Bible reading is done in German, with church services taking place in High German, and singing is done in slow, melodic tones that are redolent of a bygone era. Music is not encouraged within the Amish community and simple instruments are only permitted in private.
High German is taught in schools, but schooling is carried out in English. The third of their languages is Pennsylvania Dutch and all three languages are used in separate circumstances. Pennsylvania Dutch is used for day to day conversation around the home, with family and with friends.
Bundling is a form of co-sleeping that some Amish communities in Pennsylvania still practice. It is practiced by courting couples to increase their bond without any contact taking place.
The bundling bed is a double bed that has a board down the middle to prevent the two sleepers from touching. The Amish courting starts at 16 for boys and a little earlier for girls. They practice bundling while fully clothed and wrapped in separate blankets. Amish look to the Bible for inspiration in their lives and bundling is referred to in the Book of Ruth.
An Amish wedding is very different to what would be expected in the outside world. They are simple events but involve the whole community. The wedding usually takes place in the bride’s family home and lasts for several hours, followed by a huge feast and celebration.
Most Amish weddings take place in the fall after the harvest, and traditional days for the weddings are Tuesdays and Thursdays. There will be no flowers, photographers or the other paraphernalia that we would expect at a wedding. The bride will make her own dress, usually in blue, and keep it as her dress for formal occasions afterward.
Statistically, the Amish are some of the healthiest people in the world. They have a purely organic, homegrown diet devoid of processed food and in most cases, alcohol. They do a lot of exercise in the form of physical outdoor labor for men and manual housework for women, hence obesity is low.
They have plenty of fresh air and are not exposed to as many fumes and pollution as their contemporaries outside. They do not have much exposure to technology to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Amish have some of the lowest incidences of cancer or respiratory diseases as a result.
Baptism in the Amish church usually happens in late teens or early twenties. Amish are not permitted to marry unless they have been baptized, and they must marry another Amish member. The baptism takes place later in life as the Amish believe that the participant needs to be old enough to make up their own mind if they want to join the Amish faith.
When baptized, the Amish make a commitment to the Christian faith and to honor the ordnung (rules) of their settlement. This commitment is made for life and failure to do so can lead to shunning from their community.
While the majority of the Amish in North America reside in America, there are around 5000 in Canada. They live alongside a very similar sect called the Mennonites. Although they are a small community, they live in various settlements in Ontario.
Many Amish migrated to Canada around the time of the Second World War to avoid military conscription, which is at odds with their non-violent beliefs. They could take advantage of alternative service schemes in Canada and stayed in the country once that was over. There have been Canadian Amish settlements since the 1800s and according to Amish America, the Milverton settlement is one of the oldest in North America.
The Mennonites are a religious group who adhere to strict biblical teachings and the value of congregation and community. Some Mennonites choose to live very simply, like the Amish, and there are many similarities between the two groups.
Mennonites came from across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century. The Swiss-German strain came in the early 1800s, whereas the Russian strain came 70 years later, primarily from Ukraine. More recently, Mennonites have moved to Canada from Mexico where they had originally settled. In the less strict Mennonite congregations, there have been additions from many cultures in the last 50 years and these now include diverse cultures including Chinese and Hispanic.
The Amish way of life is fascinating to their modern living peers. Communities are sources of great interest and the Amish have adapted to this interest and profited from it. If tourists are respectful, they are welcomed and the Amish set up stalls to sell homemade produce, handcrafted items, and other souvenirs.
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, one Amish elder even offers free rides to tourists in his horse-drawn buggy! Indeed, it is hard to miss the tourists in Lancaster, as over four million come each year to learn more about the Amish way of life and buy their products.
Amish families are traditionally large, with seven to ten children being considered normal. The family is the most important institution to the Amish and roles are clearly defined. The man goes out to work on the land or as a craftsman and the woman stays in the home and cooks, cleans and looks after the children.
While sex before marriage is not allowed, it is actively encouraged afterward. The Amish believe that all children are gifts from God and they should have as many as possible as a result. Contraception is not allowed, so Amish families tend to have very large families.
While the fundamental beliefs of the Amish remain rooted in the Bible and the life of Jesus, there are several differences between communities and settlements. Each congregation has its own autonomy, so rules are subject to flexibility. They live by an unwritten code or ‘ordnung’ that encourages followers to use the life of Jesus Christ as their prime example.
For example, some Amish travel using drivers to take them away from their settlements, while some retain only horse and buggy transport. Some eschew technology while others use electronic communication and fiberglass wheels for their buggies. They may even employ heavy machinery to help with the harvest.
The Sunday church service is a vitally important part of Amish life. Services are not held in a church, but rather in a home or barn. This hosting is rotated and everyone in the community contributes to the food and equipment needed for the service. A cart, laden with provisions, will draw up at the host’s home and the community will pull together to help with preparations.
The services are up to three hours long each Sunday morning and are a huge event in the weekly calendar. Women will wear their best dresses, often their wedding dress, if they are married.
Telephone communication is available to the Amish and has been since the early 1900s. However, they choose not to have a phone in the house, but there is a phone booth installed at some point in their settlements, away from homes.
While there is no formal policy on cell phones, this is not a common feature among the Amish, although some teenagers use some form of electronic communication to keep in touch with Amish in other settlements. There may be some cell phones among the adult population, but this is kept discreet. Each settlement has its own autonomy, so different practices are acceptable in different communities.
Any formal education within the Amish community deliberately ends in the eighth grade. There are two reasons for this. Primarily, bodies are needed to work on the land and to learn the crafts that sustain the communities.
Secondly, the Amish believe that any higher education might give children ideas that might lead them to question their Christian faith and values. This limited education is seen by outsiders as a hindrance to the Amish children. They will not have learned enough to be able to survive effectively outside the Amish community, so they may feel pressured to stay even if they want to break out.
The Amish are accepting of their lifestyle and day to day living being photographed, but they do not like themselves being photographed. They regard this as a violation of the Second Commandment. They don’t like to have a fixed image immortalized in print.
They are usually happy for tourists to take pictures of the scenery of their lives but do not like their faces to be focused on. They don’t own televisions and don’t want their lives to be exposed to the wider world. However, in recent years some Amish have broken away from this and allowed themselves to be filmed for some reality TV shows.
The Amish are primarily self-sufficient and prefer to deal with illness within their own community. However, they will accept outside help and modern medicine in serious cases. They do not benefit from health insurance, so if a member is ill, the community will pull together to pay for any medical care that is needed.
However, this means that they do not usually vaccinate their children and there is a belief in some sects that if someone gets ill or dies it is God’s will. As a rule, they do not have tests or take medicine as they believe it is interfering with God’s work.