What is It Actually Like to Be an Amish Person?
As humans continue to rapidly accelerate to replacing ourselves with robot overlords or otherwise see if we can’t make Wall-E into a prophetic mocumentary, one group of homosapiens refuses to go quietly into the night. And, while it may come as a surprise to you, this group is seemingly set to inherit the Earth, given their population is exploding, whilst birth rates for the rest of us are declining to an extent that most developed nations are already well past the point where their coming generations will be significantly smaller than the current. But not so for our butter churning brethren. We are, of course, speaking of the Amish, who provide for us a stark contrast to our fast-paced, egocentric lives, with their staunch and deliberate refusal to get swept up in any of it. But is Amish life really as idyllic as it appears from the outside? And just what is the reality of life as an Amish person really like? Well, hitch up your buggy, and let’s walk through the valley where they harvest their grain, shall we?
To begin with, it’s important to point out that there are a bit over three dozen distinct Amish groups and countless communities within those, with a surprising amount of variance in terms of what’s acceptable within one community vs another. That’s not to say there are no universals. For example, one thing you’ll find in every Amish community is a fierce sense of family and community, with members focussing on minimalistic, humble lives- on that latter point likely a million times as humble as thou art, with a rejection of highlighting the individual in the sense that standing out or acting like you’re something special, or what we might call “Kardashian Attention”, would most definitely see you shunned from the community. Which… I mean, hey, I’ve just had an idea you guys…
We’ll get to the specifics of shunning in a bit, but going back to humility, this is seen as a boon to community harmony, as well as just a key tenet of practicing their faith.
This brings us to another universal amongst Amish groups- their specific brand of Christianity, centered on the teachings of the Bible as interpreted by them. To be Amish is to belong to this faith. To reject the faith is to reject being Amish, and you will not be allowed to stay in the community past a certain age.
While exact beliefs vary a bit from Amish group to group, in an oversimplified nutshell, they put God and community above the individual and, as mentioned, strive to live a simple and humble life, with that simplicity being a sign of that humility and separating themselves from worldly things. Specific rules for a given community lie in the respective community’s Ordnung, and once baptized into the church, which is a choice you make as an adult, you are strictly bound by these rules and the will of your community, with each community self governed. The Amish also pretty universally highlight forgiveness and are staunchly pacifists, even to the point that if a local boy kicked them in the butt last week, they really would likely smile and turn the other cheek. But to sum up, they have a firm belief that part of living a good life is to be dedicated to creating a hard working and loving community kept separate from the world to help shield it from negative outside factors as much as possible.
As one Amish man named Sam notes, “I can see the big changes they have brought to society, which my children will never see. There is more independence on the individual level, but people have become more selfish – everything is for themselves. We value the idea of working for the betterment of everyone. Christ said we are to be a light to the world. We are not saying we want everyone to be Amish, or that we are better, but our goal in a selfish society is to show people that it works if we are honest in our dealings, respect people and go the extra mile.”
And if you’re wondering why we only used Sam’s first name in citing that quote, this once again comes back to the humility thing. In interviews, most Amish either prefer to remain anonymous or that only their first name is used.
But in any event, as for community structure and leadership in such a group where selflessness and humility are the name of the game, they do still have leadership of a sort. For example, each community of families elects a bishop, ministers, and a deacon. That said, when we say the community elects these individuals, this is only in part. While a vote is taken for this, when it comes to final selection of who has what role from those who received the most votes in the community, this is typically done at random, something to the effect of drawing straws to see who gets what position, more or less leaving it up to God, in a sense.
From there, these individuals’ job is to help guide the community and decide what technologies and changes to allow or not, as well as to lead worship services, which are typically conducted every other Sunday in one of the houses of the community. More specifically, typically the bishop is more or less the leader of the community and guides what the community needs to vote on or not and the like, with ministers and deacons being more central to church services, such as the ministers doing the actual preaching. As for the deacon, they are the one who typically privately discusses transgressions with community members to correct behavior to align to the community’s will.
Moving on to education, the education system for the Amish isn’t exactly as robust as their non-Amish compatriots, with formal schooling stopping at the 8th grade level, after which more trade-like instruction is the focus. As to why, it’s just generally thought up to an 8th grade education is sufficient for an Amish life, which as ever focusses on just enough to get by with something, but no more.
As to the nuts and bolts of their education, the children are usually taught by unmarried older teen girls in the community in a one-room schoolhouse type setting, where kids of all ages learn at the same time, though with specific assignments and lessons tailored to the individuals’ level. That said, in about 10% of Amish communities, the parents send their children to regular public schools alongside the non-Amish. But even in these cases, formal education stops at around the 8th grade level- a matter of some contention once upon a time between the Amish and the U.S. government.
As for their houses, a typical Amish home isn’t really all that different from many traditional American style houses, albeit a bit more rustic in some ways. For example, in place of electric ovens, you’ll typically find a wood or gas stove, with heat likewise provided in a similar way. In place of light bulbs, you’ll usually find gas lamps, lanterns, and candles. Depending on the community, you’ll even often find a refrigerator, just usually gas powered, rather than electric. Similarly, you may find something like a washing machine, though instead of electrically powered, likely using air power, with the ultimate source for the power for the air compressor often a community generator or solar and battery bank setup. Dryers, however, are not generally to be found, accomplished instead the all natural way of clotheslines and the like. Another thing many Amish homes feature is a large open area, perhaps an open basement, designed to make it easier for a community church service or event to be held there. But otherwise, an Amish house is very similar to many other homes you’ll find anywhere, sans electric plugs and TVs, and the furniture is perhaps more sturdy built than your typical Ikea special.
As for day to day life, as you’d expect from a more traditional society, the women tend to perform tasks such as cooking and cleaning and other such jobs around the house, while the men work more outside the home providing for the family. That said, in more liberal Amish communities in recent decades this has begun to change to an extent with some Amish women even starting and running businesses.
As for the jobs the Amish get up to, this has changed markedly in recent decades. Classically, the vast majority of Amish were very skilled farmers. While this is still a trade many Amish perform on some level, given rising prices of land, and in some cases how much a given Amish can sell their land for instead, the majority of work done by the Amish in modern times tends to lie outside of mass farming, sometimes in extremely lucrative ways, with Amish millionaires totally a thing. However, within the community, no one would ever be celebrated as such, and flaunting this fact would be a huge no-no.
But as for professions outside of being men of the land, common jobs Amish take up include everything from carpentry and various other construction work to even tourism and running restaurants. On the note of building things, if you’ve purchased an RV in the United States, there’s a strong chance an Amish person helped build it, which is kind of ironic in a lot of respects if you really think about it.
Not just functioning as skilled factory workers, it’s not uncommon at all for Amish to set up their own businesses with shockingly high success rates in this at around 90%. For reference, us lesser mortals who aren’t on our knees day and night, scorin’ points for the afterlife, see only about a 35% success rate for businesses at the 10 year mark. As to why the Amish have such a high success rate in their businesses, there are a variety of factors that go into this, from how invested their family and community are in their success and endeavors, to arguably the biggest factor being plain old extreme hard work, and extreme pride in their work. Although on this latter, important to point out not to glorify themselves, but God. Producing a subpar product or not giving it your best effort would not be glorifying God in your work and thus, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Amish are known for their product being pretty universally of extremely high quality. They also, by nature of leading minimalistic lives, tend to increase the odds of their businesses succeeding where others with higher expenditures might have to quit and try something else. Thus, hard work, community and family support, keeping expenses low, and producing quality products or services turns out is a recipe for long term success in business. Shocking.
As for their work ethic, this is something that’s instilled in any Amish person from a young age, taking the whole tenet of “by the sweat of your brow” from Genesis to heart to an extreme degree. Even Amish children get in on things, beginning work of some sort to help the family at quite young ages. For example, one former Amish, Ira Wagler, author of Growing Up Amish, notes “I was taken to the top of our house, given a goose wing and made to sweep steps as my job when I was only three. The message is you do not deserve anything unless it’s earned.”
Noteworthy here is putting the kids to work at young ages, sometimes in official businesses, much like with their schooling practices, is likewise something that occasionally has caused issues with the U.S. government in the past when it butts up against certain child labor laws.
That said, while children are expected to help out in the family and community in pretty much everything they are able from the first day they are able, there’s fun too, just more akin to years of yor, rather than more modern times on tablets, phones, and the internet. Instead, outdoor recreation and board games and the like are the name of game for fun. But, being Amish, where hard work and sacrifice are part of living in an Amish paradise, there’s also often an element of work to some of the fun, with things like quilting bees and the like being popular “fun” activities- centered around doing something productive, in this case making quits, while also socializing.
As to the scale some of these Amish businesses can reach, one unnamed Amish man has grown his business to over 500 employees, despite that he didn’t even start it until he was 50. In another case, an Amish cabinet making business produces some 6000 units per day, with Amish made cabinets, furniture, and other such quite sought after given the quality of product the Amish are known for. We’ll get into how one manages such a large business in a bit from a practical standpoint when we discuss the reality of Amish and their use of modern technology. But for now, we’ll just say it’s really not as difficult as you might think, even when dealing with non-Amish companies and employees.
Beyond producing goods, as alluded to, some Amish groups have also in recent decades embraced the outside world’s fascination with them to an extent, setting up tourism type businesses. While you might think if you come to visit you’ll be bored to tears, visiting Amish communities has become increasingly popular, allowing people to come see what their community is like, while also selling product like homemade baked goods, crafts like quilts to tourists. Some have even setup restaurants where you can go to experience authentic Amish cuisine. Which given so much of their recreational lives center around socializing while eating, and half of their populace are practically master chefs using natural foods, their cuisine is reportedly very good.
That said, one thing to note if you do go to a community who offers such tourism of a sort, or even just see an Amish person out and about, don’t whip out your phone and take a picture of them, nor even ask to take a picture with them. The former would be rude in any circle, but even more so for the Amish who don’t exactly like when people point and stare. But so much more than that, even on the latter of taking a picture with them, given the Amish attitudes towards an individual standing out and their focus on humility, and the whole Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image”, they are generally pretty anti-being featured in photos. Granted, it’s not like they can stop you from taking a picture from afar, but just good to know you’re committing something of a cultural fopaux when you do it, especially if they are central to the picture, and not just more or less in the background. Either way, it’s unlikely to be appreciated, to put it mildly. Although you’ll not ever see an Amish punch a tourist, even if he deserved it. And an Amish with an attitude is, indeed, almost unheard of.
But going back to work, much like non-Amish life, Amish families must find ways to support themselves, pay taxes, make money to buy things at Walmart, and most all the other stuff non-Amish do. They even generally use modern banks and the like. The differences primarily being first- they live much simpler lives without acquiring anything but the essential goods for life, and thus often have significantly fewer expenses overall. And second, instead of buying clothes made in some far off nation, they tend to make them themselves. Many communities are also relatively self-sufficient when it comes to a lot of staple food items as well. Although this isn’t nearly as true in more recent times as it once was, and many communities rely on the outside world’s ecosystem for many raw materials.
Speaking of clothing, as you no doubt have guessed from an individual standing out from the community being something of a no no, Amish clothing is pretty much universally extremely plain, with solid colors or simple patterns being just perfect, and embellishments or anything that says “look at me” strictly forbidden. And, in fact, Amish communities have strict guidelines on all this, even down to exact allowable hat brim width on a hat for males, though specifics vary from community to community. It’s also noteworthy that there are some things clothing can potentially indicate, such as whether a girl is married or not. For example, Amish women typically do not ever cut their hair, and instead wear it in a bun with a prayer covering bonnet over it. While, as ever, things vary from community to community, in a given community married women might also wear one color, such as white, for their bonnet, and unmarried another, such as black.
As for males, their homies do indeed agree they look good in black, and a beard on their chin usually indicates the man is married.
Speaking of facial hair, if you’re wondering on the whole beard but no mustache thing the Amish have going on, This tradition stems back to the early days of the Amish when wearing elaborate mustaches was almost universal among those in the military. (In fact, from 1860-1916 if you were a member of the British military, you were actually required to have a mustache.) In their early days, the Amish and other Mennonites in Europe were persecuted by these groups. In addition to that, the Amish, being, once again, a pacifist group, didn’t want to associate themselves with those who waged war, so strictly forbid their members from growing mustaches.
On that note of being pacifists, this has caused the Amish some issues in the past, such as during WWI where some were drafted, but would refuse to fight or participate in the war, seeing most drafted spending the war in prison for this, as well as being subjected to a variety of abuses. WWII was slightly improved on this front, but those drafted were still required to do alternate work in the modern world for the cause, which was quite a culture shock for many and infringed in many ways on their religious beliefs.
Going back to marriage, given the emphasis put on family and giving glory to God through being a boon to your community, choosing not to get married isn’t really a thing among the Amish, though contrary to popular belief, marriages aren’t arranged. Rather, as teen Amish begin to approach marriageable age, the boys will begin being allowed to court the girls and interact in new ways.
This brings us to the practice of rumspringa- a period usually starting around 16 and ending around 18-22 where in some Amish communities, the youths are no longer considered quite as subject to their parents’ oversight, but also not baptized into the Church either, so allowed to be a little more free with themselves than they will be once they choose to join the church officially.
That said, while many documentaries and shows that cover this would have you believe rumspringa is a time when Amish youths go off and have wild drug and alcohol infused orgies for a few years, this isn’t reality for most, though we will get to the more wild side in a bit. In fact, many communities, particularly smaller ones, don’t really allow much of any additional freedoms of this nature at all. More just a general acknowledgement that young people aren’t going to live up to the code of expected behaviors as rigidly as adults, and consequences for them for not are sometimes much more lax as a result, even with the occasional looking the other way completely. However, when factoring in that Amish codes of behavior are extremely strict, this slight lessening for these youth would probably still seem very strict for most raised outside of an Amish community. With, in many communities, about the most the rules become relaxed being to allow teen girls and boys to participate in something called Singings, though even then in some communities these are chaperoned by parents.
As one former Amish woman, Misty Griffen, notes, “In strict Amish communities like I belonged to teenagers are usually required to be baptized at 17 years old, the same age they start dating and going to youth singings. If they don’t obey the church rules they can be shunned. If they’re shunned, they won’t be allowed to date or attend youth social gatherings, and that is a big deal for a teenager. So they would usually try to avoid getting shunned.”
She also states, “In the stricter Amish churches, young Amish women are held to a higher standard of behavior than young men. Some of the teenage girls used to wonder about makeup though, and tried to imagine what they would look like wearing it. That’s about as far as it went among the girls in my church.”
Another former Amishman who remained unnamed stated, “Rumspringa was not allowed in my community… In my community you either left or you didn’t. You could return depending on the circumstance but you would still be shunned for some time. It was not something that was allowed.”
Going back to Singings, which does seem to be mostly a universal among Amish communities, these might be deemed a highly religious version of a nightclub, in which the kids get together in a family home and sing gospel songs without instruments, as the Amish don’t allow such. Then after, they eat and socialize with one another. Once it’s closing time, so to speak, if one of the young men wants to attempt to take things to the next level with one of the young women, he would then typically ask her to allow him to give her a ride home in his buggy. If all that goes well, they will continue to focus on one another in their socializing endeavors. This often includes dates at the girl’s home where the young man socializes with the girl and her family, plays board games, etc. They also otherwise may write letters and the like. If in a community which is a bit more lax about what their youth are allowed or not, they may even in some cases use social media to correspond during this period, though obviously this isn’t the norm in most Amish communities. But among communities that allow such extra freedoms, Facebook is apparently quite popular among those Amish youth.
If things don’t go well over the course of this style of dating, the whole thing may be repeated with other potential partners until they find someone they match well with on both sides. Again, with all this not really in some respects being that different than any other teen dating, except the marriage on the other side tending to be somewhat accelerated and the focus instead of continuing to date around into adulthood before settling down.
Another quick point here is that unlike in the outside world, divorce is strictly forbidden in Amish communities, so once you’re hitched, you’re hitched for life if you wish to remain Amish.
Other activities besides Singings that are quite common among Amish youth include playing sports like volleyball, baseball, and bowling, as well as hiking and various outdoor parties, generally centered around a picnic type socializing event.
All that said, particularly among regions where the Amish populace is quite large among a cluster of communities, there does in some cases exist some level of more wild debauchery, if a particular youth wants to join a clique of other Amish youth that wants to partake in such. This, too, however, is not really that different than normal teens with there always existing some wilder elements and other groups of friends who are more tame. However, even in these more wilder cases, it’s typical for the youths to still live at home during this upwards of several years of their life. Just, on the weekends, they may venture out into neighboring non-Amish communities and partake in all modern life has to offer.
Even then in these so-called “wild” cases, for most, this usually just involves things like using the internet, going to movies, maybe getting a driver’s license, buying a cell phone, exchanging their plain Amish garb for more typical “English” fashion, as they call it, when out and about; maybe a more modern haircut, socializing via social media, and other such activities more or less typical of any teen. This may sometimes include partaking in alcohol at parties and premarital sex, but it’s not really any more the norm, and arguably much less so, than you’d find among most non-Amish teens, even for the Amish who venture out in this way.
That said, also much like any teen with extremely strict, overbearing parents, when they first get out on their own, some Amish youth quite enjoy partaking in wild, party life of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And even apparently have good luck with the opposite sex among the non-Amish, as noted by one Amish youth who stated, “The English girls prefer us Amish guys because we’re stronger and better built and we party harder.” He also likewise states the Amish girls are noted as quite wild when out and about on their own rumspringa from his region, with English boys liking Amish girls better for their propensity to get hammered and eagerness to do anything after.
That said, once again, these communities and this type of extreme behavior are more the exception, rather than the rule. Further, while you’ll often read that Amish elders and parents actually encourage such sewing of oats, so the youths can really experience life outside of their Amish community and get it out of their system, this isn’t typically accurate at all either, with most parents in communities that allow such venturing out as a common thing, tending to do what pretty much all non-Amish parents do too when their kids are going out with friends- urging them to make good choices, and often requesting they return by a certain time.
As one Amish man, Dennis states, “We don’t give our young folks leave to go out and sin just to get it out of their system. What we give them is a little space so they can be with people their own age and find a partner.”
Which is all the real purpose of this period- deciding once and for all whether you wish to remain Amish, and, if so, finding a partner to settle down with as quickly as possible.
Now, given all the niceties of modern life and how much more freedom we have in it than the Amish, you might at first think a large percentage of Amish youth would choose to leave, rather than return to the very strict and extremely hardworking life of an Amish person, especially for the women who in Amish communities are pretty much pigeonholed into a life of being baby factories, subservient to their husbands to an extent, and all manner of such things more associated with a woman’s role through much of human history. But, in fact, only about 1 in 15 Amish children choose to leave their community, though this varies from community to community. And it’s also noted that boys are much more likely to leave than girls. Combined with the high birth rates per family (upwards of about 7-10 littles per babymama), this has seen Amish communities growing quite rapidly. With the entire North American populace of Amish in 1920 being only about 5,000 people, and today rapidly approaching 400,000, and expected to pass 1 million within about 15 years, with no slowing in sight.
As to why so few choose to leave. Consider it from the perspective of that Amish youth- instilled from birth with an extremely strong sense of family and community first over the individual. Yet leaving the community can be construed as tantamount to turning your back on your family and community in a quite extreme way. In fact, while every community and exact family situation is different, it’s not uncommon for a teen who chooses to leave to be ostracized. On this, because they are not yet a member of the church officially, they won’t usually technically be shunned by the church. However, they often are nonetheless virtually banned from a practical standpoint, or at least relationships very strained if they do try to come back and visit their friends and family.
And as you might imagine, leaving can also be quite traumatic for the individual- to suddenly be on your own without your community or family or friends to have your back, and even no longer really allowed much contact at all with them, if any. On top of that, being alone for the first time in your life when entering a world that is extremely foreign to you in many respects, and doing so with only the equivalent of at best an 8th grade education and, in some cases, few marketable skills. As the aforementioned Misty Griffen notes, “When I entered the outside world, I realized I’d need to learn a whole different set of skills. No one was looking to hire a quilter or a noodle maker.”
And in some cases, the pressure to stay goes even further. While, again every community and family are different, there is in many cases a general perception of if you leave your community, you’re going to go to hell, or it’s the devil trying to tempt you away. As one Amish girl noted, “God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be Amish like my parents, but the other part wants the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want to do.”
That said, officially this isn’t usually the stance of their teachings, as the youth haven’t yet chosen to join the church. For an Amish individual choosing to leave after being baptized, this would be a much more serious offense, and they absolutely would be shunned by the church.
Misty Griffen notes of this of two people she knew of who, like her, also left, “They visited the Amish community once but were only allowed to stay for a few hours. The rule of thumb if you’re shunned is that you can only visit every few years. You would have to eat at a separate table. It is like this in most Amish churches, but some of the most liberal Amish churches have relaxed the shunning a bit. I do know that usually, parents and siblings don’t want to enforce the shunning policy, but they have to or they’ll be shunned themselves.”
Thus, from all of this, you can see why almost no one chooses to leave. And perhaps also why in more recent times rates of Amish youth leaving has actually been decreasing, presumably in part because the gap between typical Amish life and the modern world is ever growing.
That said, some do choose to abscond, such as one Linda Byler who decided to leave her community at the age of 23 so she could attend college, in her case Penn State Shenango. She states, “I have always been a very curious person. I enjoyed school very much, but what we learned seemed so limited. When my older siblings went to school and brought home their textbooks, I would spend hours reading and looking through them. Once I started school, I learned about children in non-Amish schools who were learning more subjects, and I felt like I was being cheated… When I interacted with people outside my religion who attended regular, public schools, it was so painfully obvious that they could learn and become whatever they chose to be, and I was confined to a very limited world. This is when education and learning really became a passion of mine, and I would constantly read the dictionary and the encyclopedia. I was just being the person who I felt I was.”
As for her leaving, she states, “Even though I felt pressure from members of the community to join the church from the time I turned 18 years old, I would not do it. I did not believe in the doctrine, and so it would be much easier on my family if I never [joined].” Ultimately she was able to live with a non-Amish family she’d previously done housekeeping for, and got help obtaining her GED and ultimately attended college and graduated with a 4.0 with a degree in business administration, going on to become an investment accountant.
She concludes, “There are so many beautiful, positive things about the Amish; however, there are some parts that I did not believe in nor could follow. Through all of this, however, I can honestly say that I drew from what my parents taught me at a young age – to work hard, be free, but most of all, stay true to myself. I will always love them for what they taught me, and I know that they would be very proud of my accomplishments.”
In another case, one unnamed Amish man chose to leave his community because of the conveniences of modern life he was missing out on. He states, “I remember cutting firewood and just wishing I had a chainsaw to make it easier. I feel like I always knew I would leave, but just waited until I grew older.“ But that, “Easily the hardest thing was leaving my family and knowing how disappointed my parents would be.”.
As often happens, once again, this decision cost him his family and community. “I was told not to come back unless I planned to stay Amish… I was never baptized so it’s not considered shunning by the church. I was disowned by my family.” Matters for him weren’t exactly helped given his choice to not only leave, but join the military after doing so, something that the extremely pacifist Amish could never really accept. As to why he chose the military, he states it appealed to him because of “the structure, the rules. They both tell you how to cut your hair and what to wear. Also there is a similar sense of community or family.”
A much darker reason to leave the community was in the case of the aforementioned Misty Griffen, who did so to escape being sexually abused by her local bishop.
Yes, despite Biblical doctrine, family, and community and all of that being integral to Amish Amishing, as with any group of humans, awful people exist everywhere, even if generally a minority in most communities.
She says of all this, “I was raised as Amish by my mother and stepfather from about six years old—they were incredibly abusive and isolated my sister and me on a remote mountain ranch in Northern Washington State. I think our extreme religious appearance led to people leaving us alone, which benefited my mother and stepfather. At 19, I tried to escape the ranch, but my sister and I were taken to a strict Amish community and informally adopted by two separate families. We became baptised church members. My sister and I believed 100 percent that we had to be Amish or we’d go to hell…”
As for the bishop, she states, “As soon as I moved in with the bishop, he started sexually assaulting me. I was quiet about it; I would have shouldered some of the blame if I’d come forward. But after about six months, I became suspicious the bishop was molesting his 12-year-old daughter too, after catching him hastily buttoning her dress back up one day. So I decided to go to the police. Among [many Amish communities], going to the police is severely frowned upon. Sexual predators are often shunned for just six weeks, then taken back into the church, and children are not taken out of their homes. So I knew I had to report him to the police. But the police told me I didn’t have enough evidence for them to charge him, and a month later he moved to Canada with his whole family. The detective told me there was nothing more we could do, as there was no paper trail… Finally, after seven years, I started to write my memoir to raise awareness of child and sexual abuse in strict religious communities. Two years after it was published, the bishop came back into the US, and his oldest daughters reported him for child abuse in an attempt to save their youngest sister. The detective that was called in [happened to be] reading my memoir at the time. I was put in contact with the children, and the bishop was sentenced to 10 years in prison for child sexual abuse.”
As for leaving for her, she states the hardest part was “Trying to block out the idea I’d go to hell. The Amish believe that if you’re baptised into their church and then leave, you will 100 percent go to hell. When you have believed something your whole life, you can’t just get over it in a few days. So even though I felt I was doing the right thing, there were moments when I was afraid and questioned myself. The biggest physical challenge was that I didn’t know how to survive or act in the outside world. I didn’t know how to get a job. I had only a third-grade education. It felt like being teleported from the 19th century into the 21st—I put on a brave face, but in reality I was terrified.”
She also states in her community, which was much more isolated than most, they would tell her about the outside world, “That it was dangerous; that everyone was looking to kidnap you, take advantage of you and use you for their own personal gain.”
Of her actual leaving, she says, “I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I left early one morning—a non-Amish couple drove me to Seattle. When leaving the Amish, no one usually says goodbye. You’ll just be met with more lectures on going to hell. But I actually saw the bishop and his wife watching from the window. No one physically tries to stop you when you leave the Amish, but they don’t help you either. You leave with nothing…. I went to live near Seattle, Washington. My stepfather’s older sister took me in and gave me a job at her furniture store. She was nothing like her brother. She was a very kind and gracious woman. She helped me enter modern society and got me on my feet.”
Not just big things, many little things were also an adjustment, she states, “Almost everything on the outside seemed strange. For example, I had to learn to use deodorant. I found it very strange to brush something under my arms; I’d seen it before but hadn’t understood what it was; I thought it was a form of solid perfume. I also found it exhausting to pick out clothes to wear every day. In strict Amish communities like where I’m from, you have only two work dresses, then a few church dresses in different colors. Everything felt loud and scary. The electric lights hurt my eyes, and I was constantly turning them off. I was even scared of the hairdryer at first, because it made so much noise. I felt very overwhelmed for about six months.”
That said, it wasn’t all bad. She goes on, “One of the best things was not feeling like I was constantly being watched anymore—like people were looking for me to make a mistake so they could tell the minister. Everyone on the outside was kind; they encouraged me to embrace my talents and be myself, unlike in the Amish community, where you’re pressured to conform. I also really enjoyed going to different restaurants and trying different foods. But probably the most amazing thing about the outside world was running water, hot and cold. I still marvel at this sometimes. I no longer had to heat water on top of the wood stove.”
As for those who chose to remain, however, as noted, they can look forward to being baptized in the church, and, once done, are eligible to get married and are also now very strictly subject to their community rules.
Usually not long after this occurs, the individual will also get married, though this isn’t always immediate, with some needing a bit more courting time. In these cases, even though technically considered adults, they are usually still allowed to take part in the Singings and other such youth events, where they can continue to party like it’s 1699.
From here, they get to work at their chosen profession and generally get to making babies, with birth control almost universally strictly forbidden in Amish communities, except for in certain communities if a particular woman is found to be at very high risk of extreme complications should she get pregnant again. In these cases, she may be allowed to use birth control of some sort if her and her husband decide it is right to do so. But even on this one, many such things are simply left up to what they deem God’s will.
That said, even in a community where birth control is not allowed even for such a high risk individual, as we’ve covered before, the pull and pray method isn’t just effective for those who pray like the Amish, but for anyone. This method, also known as “Coitus Interruptus” or the “withdrawal method”, was for most of human history one of the most popular methods of preventing pregnancy, but in recent times has been cast aside in many cultures. It turns out though, as long as you get the “pull” part right, there really isn’t much praying necessary. According to research done in 2008 at the Guttmacher Institute in New York, the withdrawal method, when executed perfectly, is 96% effective over the course of a year practicing it for preventing pregnancy. For comparison, using a condom, when done perfectly, is 98% effective in that same year and oral contraception has a “perfect use” rate of 99.7% effective. Now, this is when all three methods are done “perfectly”, so what about in actual practice with everyday people? The pull and pray method is roughly 82% effective while using a condom is roughly 83% effective, so you are only getting a 1% improvement for your money and effort. The pill, in contrast, does offer a much better “actual use” rate of about 96%.
BUT as strengthening your community and family via popping out babies is a way to give glory to God, let’s just say the Amish in general aren’t likely to bother with even this form of birth control, with, as mentioned, the average Amish woman popping out about 7-10 crotch goblins in her lifetime.
Now, you might think that an awful lot of Amish women must die in the process of this then, given historically women giving birth this many times without aid of modern hospital facilities didn’t exactly have the best survival rates, with infant mortality rates likewise not always ideal. On this, about half of all children didn’t make it to adulthood until about a century or so ago. But this is not actually the case here among the Amish. You see, while in general most Amish do embrace more natural medicines and things of this nature, many communities are happy to utilize modern medicine and hospitals, and even vaccination rates among the Amish are actually relatively high. No doubt they haven’t heard about the mind controlling chips Bill Gates puts in the vaccines to get us all to use Windows.
But in any event, in a minority of communities, having your baby in a hospital is also accepted even without complications being the driving point of being there, though, again, this varies from community to community in terms of what level of modern hospital care is accepted. And cost is also always a factor given the Amish won’t get medical insurance and most of them live in the United States where a hospital visit may just result in you needing to take a second mortgage out on your home without. That said, given the community and family support one another, if a given person does require expensive medical care for some reason, but can’t afford it, this is accomplished via the community banding together and pitching in to help pay for such. Similarly in the case of some disaster, the community will pool resources to help a given family or group of families rebuild, as well as provide labor to do just that, with arguably the most famous representation of this being barn raising. In these, the men of the community get together and rapidly erect the barn while the women go about making food to keep the men going on the long days of hard work to make it all happen.
Speaking of babies, given that the size of the Amish populace about a century ago, as mentioned, was only about 5,000 individuals, and today is approaching 400,000 and still growing fast without much in the way of new blood added (though this is actually possible, if you’d like to join an Amish community, which we’ll get into later how you do it), you might at this point be wondering about inbreeding and its effects on the Amish.
Well, first, we should note that some new blood does get introduced in the more wild of the rumspringa, with teen girls occasionally finding themselves pregnant from an outsider. If you’re wondering how the Amish handle this or really any premarital pregnancy regardless of who the father is, it’s typical for the girl in question to promptly announce she’s chosen to join the church officially, get baptized and then as quickly as possible get married after to give some semblance of appearance that she isn’t a whore of Babylon and in need of a good shunning.
But as for the more common case and choosing a baby making partner via marriage, the Amish have some pretty hard rules about marrying in a little too close of a relation, with it typical to not allow anything closer than second cousin marriages. That said, in most cases all Amish are pretty closely related, and this does cause some level of issue, though also has some benefits.
You see, contrary to popular belief, inbreeding, even closely, isn’t always a bad thing from an evolutionary standpoint. Just like bad genetic factors can often manifest in negative ways, good genetic qualities can do the same. And even in theory over a long enough time, the bad genes may just work themselves out from those individuals sort of dying out, while the positive ones dominate. Thus long enough inbreeding with the right starter stock can even be a boon.
And we see all sides of this within Amish communities. For example, according to a study done by Northwestern University, the Amish they studied had an almost universal presence of a gene that has been associated with an average of about a 10% longer lifespan for those who have it. The gene in question also has been linked to a number of positive health factors like better insulin levels, blood pressure, and the like, which has been hypothesized to be why, in part, Amish life expectancy even in communities without as robust of modern medical care allowed is so good.
Of course, other factors are probably helping out here a lot as well, like how much more physical exercise the Amish get. For example, one study by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2004 showed the average Amish male in the study took 18,425 steps each day and the average female 14,196 steps. As you might imagine from all this, obesity among the Amish is also almost non-existent at a rate of only about 4%, which also comes with all manner of health benefits. It’s also noted that the Amish have much lower cancer rates for various reasons. With, for example, their much lower skin cancer rates despite historically working long hours outside attributed to their clothing and hats covering up most of their skin.
That said, there are also downsides to this level of inbreeding, with certain things Amish communities experience higher rates of than the general populace of the regions around them, such as various metabolic disorders, dwarfism, and the like. However, while the Amish do know why this happens and that they’d benefit from some new blood, they don’t really get too bothered about it and simply accept it as God’s will.
Speaking of Amish tending to live long lives, while they do eventually often retire from their normal profession at some point, as long as possible, and in what ways as possible, they still help out where they can with their family in terms of doing various tasks and remaining a valuable contributor to their family and community. On top of that, ending up in a nursing home or the like, even for the ones that become unable to take care of themselves, is an extreme rarity, which goes back to a strong sense of community and family taking care of one another without outside help. This is exactly what they do here, with the younger generations caring for the old in whatever way they need, no matter how infirm they may get.
And as for the elderly supporting themselves financially, this is once again done by the family and community. Going back to taxes, we should also point out that the Amish have been, since the 1960s, exempted from having to pay social security simply because even before when they were required to pay it, they’d never accept it back in their old age.
In any event, one thing we’ve alluded to many times over the course of this piece is the act of “shunning” and that the Amish tend to have very strict rules for their community members, with guidelines for everything from hat brim width to hair cut to what technology one is allowed to use or not, with there being a surprising amount of variety in all this from community to community.
So what exactly is shunning? Well, as ever, exactly what this involves varies from community to community. But in a nutshell, this is a form of ostracizing a community member for doing something that wasn’t up to the standards of behavior or rules as outlined within that community. This wouldn’t be leveled against someone lightly. It’s more of a form of punishment when all other avenues of getting the person to correct their behavior or whatever the community doesn’t like have been exhausted. After which, if they still persist in their ways, they may be shunned.
During a shunning, other Amish will no longer aid you as before in anything, and you may not be allowed to live there or eat at the same table as community members. Communication may also be severely restricted, if allowed at all, etc. Essentially, you’re in all respects no longer a member of the community during your shunning because your behavior does not line up with community standards and you have refused to change your ways after repeated warnings. Thus, you’ve been voted off the island, so to speak, and must remain so until you repent and change your ways. Essentially sort of an extreme timeout for adults, which may end up being permanent if the person doesn’t conform to what the community wants.
While all this might seem like a rather quant punishment, consider how this must be from the perspective of someone raised with an extremely strong sense of community and belonging within that- suddenly being without all that support or social contact can no doubt be rather traumatic, let alone the certainty that if you don’t change, burning in hell is your ultimate reward.
As for what offenses might get you such punishment, this includes all manner of things similar to things that non-Amish wouldn’t exactly be wild about from peers, though perhaps a little more rigidly controlled by the group given the strong sense of community cohesiveness amongst the Amish. As for more specific things that are a little more distinct to the Amish, for example, if you were discovered using some technology the community doesn’t normally allow, or perhaps in a way not allowed, even if the technology is otherwise accepted. This could include something like a cell phone, which may in your community be allowed at your place of business, but not allowed in your home.
Now, at this point you might be saying to yourself, “Wait, Amish people use cell phones? I thought they hadn’t paid their phone bill in 300 years?” And the answer to that is, “It’s complicated.” So now let’s discuss the Amish and technology and the many misconceptions people have, shall we?
Contrary to popular belief, the Amish are not really anti-technology or strictly stuck in the past. Rather, it’s more accurate to say they are much more thoughtful and deliberate about technology than the rest of us, who more tend to dive right into new technological toys that other humans create without really thinking about how it might positively or negatively impact our lives and community.
For the Amish, every new piece of technology, and even old pieces of technology that have been around for a while, are weighed in terms of their effects they have on the community and Amish life and religion. If a given technology is disruptive to the community or separates them in some way, or seen to contribute things that are contrary to Amish ideals, this technology will typically be rejected. That said, it may be the case that it’s not rejected universally, simply for certain environments or scenarios, with the home itself guarded most closely. And we should explicitly point out here that different Amish communities vary pretty drastically on what technologies are incorporated or how.
But as an example, one unnamed Amish man uses as part of his business a propane powered forklift, hydraulic powered saws, certain cordless power tools, etc., and even has a phone with voicemail that he uses regularly. Yet another Amish business owner named Stephen even has a website for his business, and uses a computer and spreadsheet software to help manage his company.
Even outside of business, some of the more liberal Amish communities allow a community computer with access to email, just not allowed in the home itself, and generally purchasing a computer with its software setup specifically for Amish sensibilities, not allowing things like the general internet, video, or music. Even for communities not so liberal to allow a community computer, most do have a community phone and voicemail. Just, once again, you aren’t likely to find this inside an Amish home. That said, it’s incredibly easy to hide a cell phone with full internet access and all of it, something that some community leaders lament, particularly when it comes to youths who may be less strictly adhering to community rules because teens are going to teen.
In some Amish communities and businesses, power tools are also widely used, just usually as alluded to of the air or hydraulic powered variety, rather than electric. They also may hire, for example, Non-Amish individuals to haul their product or supplies around in their vehicles, do their accounting, and perform all manner of tasks using modern technology that the Amish themselves may not be allowed to use.
That said, some communities are far more restrictive on technology use, even in business; it just depends on the community and what it’s going to be used for. For example, one Amish man named Ben who owns a deli states he still chooses to do all his bookkeeping by hand and that, “I would really love to have Quickbooks, because it’s a pain to balance my checkbook.” But that the use of a computer is a big decision and that he generally lives by the policy of that “You shouldn’t be the first in your neighborhood to adopt the new technology and neither should you be the last.”
Speaking of computers, also contrary to popular belief, the Amish don’t necessarily shun fancy things like electricity. If whatever is using that electricity is deemed a benefit to the community, and not something that detracts, and otherwise does not hinder or violate any core tenants of their beliefs, it may be a good candidate to be at least experimented with to see the effects it has once partially adopted. And, if all good after, officially allowed to be used in specific ways.
Just, with electricity, you aren’t likely to find an Amish community willing to be tied to the main power grid, as this sort of violates the general goal of remaining apart. As Professor Donald Kraybill and author of The Amish notes, They “don’t want to get too engaged and too embedded in this world… because you may lose your ultimate, eternal goal of completing the journey to heaven.”
However, having solar panels and battery systems to be used in very specific ways is something many communities do have, just probably not hooked up to your home.
And when looking at things like transportation, while you won’t find an Amish person owning a car, outside of perhaps rare communities potentially allowing one of their youths during their rumspringa to have such, they are in most cases happy to utilize cars and busses and even trains and ships in specific scenarios. One account we read even discussed a newly wedded Amish couple who went on a cruise for a sort of honeymoon. A key facet here is that unlike cars, these forms of mass transport are not typically used for personal status or prestige and not owned by the Amish. Amish youth also typically may use non-motorized scooters to get around, although interestingly bicycles are usually a no-go in most communities owing to being a little too easy for youth to venture far away from the community relatively quickly. This is sort of an extension of not really allowing car ownership, as it’s generally seen as too easy for the community then to go off far afield any time they want. A horse and buggy for things reasonably close by, and allowing hiring others to drive is a bit of a practical compromise for adults, and a non-motorized scooter is considered something of a practical compromise for kids vs. a bicycle.
Planes, however, are generally considered a no-no, deemed an unnecessary extravagance. That said, even here there are exceptions for certain uses with some communities still allowing air travel in the case of, for example, a medical emergency where someone needs to be airlifted to a hospital.
The overarching point in all of this being, once again, it’s not so much that most Amish people are anti-technology or universally against anything the modern world has to offer. They are just extremely deliberate and thoughtful about what they allow, and how they allow it for a given scenario to make sure it’s going to be a benefit to the community and their faith.
That said, despite the accelerated adoption of technology among the Amish in recent times, they still on the whole do practice a much simpler way of life from our perspective, something that appeals to many longing for the days of yore.
Now, if you’ve followed literally any of our work for more than a few weeks, one thing you’re going to find very clear is that unequivocally we are of the opinion that the past was the worst, despite what many with rose colored glasses constantly espouse. All this really does is show that person really needs to crack a history book or read in depth about what life in the past was really like. Not just necessarily even talking major events, but what day to day life was really like. Yes there are specific exceptions throughout human history of this or that which may have been nicer from your perspective, or perhaps even a universal perspective. But we are speaking in generalities. Have cancer or basically any health ailment? No time better to be alive than today, except maybe tomorrow. Are literally anything but a white, heterosexual male in the western world? Good luck in the past. Have fun with that. Are a white, heterosexual male in the Western world, even a King? Ya, good luck with that too. A modern middle class person has it better in most ways in day to day life, and likely to live a lot longer life with countless aspects of that life just nicer. Turns out there is just something nice about being able to drink a glass of milk and not get tuberculosis directly after, and not having half your children die before adulthood.
That said, in some respects the Amish have found a balance in this- keeping a lot of the good elements of the past, while incorporating some of the good elements of the now, and in ways to help ensure they are a positive in your life, and don’t go the other way.
However, even that’s a rose colored glasses view as, in reality, unless your thing is waking up at 4:30 in the morning milking your cows, milking and plowing so long that even Ezekiel thinks that your mind is gone, or you enjoy the traditional role of women and men in the home and all that jazz, and like having the community decide literally every facet of acceptable behavior for you right down to the exact clothing you’re allowed to wear, and watching and critiquing you and you them 24/7, then you’re probably not going to enjoy being Amish. Again, the Amish are pretty incredibly strict on a number of things, especially once you become a full adult member of the community after baptism. It’s your community’s way or, quite literally, the highway. Don’t like it? Well, leave and never come back.
That said, this type of life and religion can still be appealing to some, and in fact, some even choose to leave behind modern life and join the Amish, despite not being born into such. So, if you think you’re really righteous, and think you’re pure of heart, and would like to spend most of your life living in an Amish paradise, how would you go about joining them?
Well, for starters, you should know it’s not easy and not all communities are going to be so inviting. A rather unique thing about the Amish faith among Christian sects is that they aren’t out there evangelizing and trying to get anyone to join up. They prefer to simply set an example by their work and lifestyle, but otherwise keep to themselves.
But some communities do allow outsiders to attempt to join. And if it’s your thing, one of the first things you’re going to need to do is to learn Pennsylvania Dutch. Now, a bit of a misnomer, this is not actually Dutch, but an offshoot of German, with it often called “Dutch” simply from people mispronouncing the original Pennsylvania Deutsch, as in German. Although, as we’ve noted before, it maybe doesn’t matter as we’re firmly convinced that both the Dutch and Germans are just having us all on, and the languages they present to the world publicly are really just the product of randomly mashing their hands against the keyboard as a bit of a joke on us all. I mean, this is supposedly a valid German word: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. Ya, we’re on to you our Dutch and German friends.
But as for the Amish, while the Amish do learn English in school and speak it when talking to outsiders, internally most communities use Pennsylvania Dutch when talking amongst each other, and High German during worship services and in their Bibles. Thus, if you want to be Amish, you need to learn these languages.
When joining the Amish, you’re also going to need to be indoctrinated into the often extremely strict rules and way of living within a given community, which, again, varies from community to community. On this, it’s going to take you a while to pick up on everything and adjust your behavior and the things you talk about or don’t, and even the way you talk about certain things.
If, in the end, you accomplish all this and become the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like, showing yourself to be an outstanding member of the community over an extended period and enjoying the day to day life and lifestyle of the community, you may be allowed to be baptized into it and otherwise become a fully fledged Amish. Although depending on the exact community, you may still be considered something of an outsider for many years.
But the point is, if you’re willing to put in the work and don’t mind the restrictions and the like, it is possible to join, just not very commonly achieved, even by those few that try. As while many elements of Amish life are very appealing to some, particularly if sick of the modern rat race and life of humans, there are an awful lot of elements that aren’t so easy to adapt to for one not raised with certain beliefs and rules. And even within the Amish community, you still need to make a living, and generally need to work extremely hard to do it as ever. Again, as the Great One summed up- it’s hard work and sacrifice, living in an Amish paradise.
In the end, what most people looking to the Amish are often really doing here is just longing for our collective seemingly idyllic past of a much simpler life, and projecting that on to Amish society and idealizing it. Except, just like that supposed idyllic past, this version of Amish culture doesn’t really exist, with reality being a lot more complex and nuanced, and something most today would not enjoy living in.
As the aforementioned former Amishman Ira Wagler states, “People put the Amish on a pedestal, but they are just people.” He goes on, “My childhood had great security, with black-and-white boundaries in a very warm community. It was on a farm, so we worked and played – out in the fields or fishing in the creeks. I have very warm memories.” However, the dark side of this he states is, “It is mind control. You knew that if you stepped outside the culture you’d go to hell. It was only in my mid-20s that I realised: you don’t have to be Amish.”
Another former Amishman notes, “though there are good things about growing up Amish, I would never go back to being Amish. And the biggest reason for this is because of religious bondage. It may appear as though they live a quiet and peaceful life that’s free from the cares of this world. But the fact is, they cannot escape the stresses of life and the struggle of trying to make a living for their large families. And their lives are not easy, because they believe that they HAVE TO live this way to please God. Sadly, whenever man sets out to please God by what he does or doesn’t do, he’s living in bondage.”
That’s not to say the Amish don’t have a number of extremely admirable qualities to their general culture and people as we’ve outlined. Just, you don’t need to be Amish to adopt many of these things. Like, think your cellphone is ruling your life? Make the choice to turn it off and add structure to when and how you are allowed to use it. Essentially, start by mimicking our Amish friends and being more deliberate about what, and even who, you allow in your life and what and who you cut out.
Love their sense of family and loyalty to it? Well, spend more time with your own. Don’t like them? Well, do you really think all Amish people like all their many family or community members? Or maybe do they just choose to stick together and have each other’s backs despite this? Granted, you may have this mindset as well and your family not, so unable to develop this within your family. But the point is, for many, it’s a choice not to be deeply involved with family and in your community. If you want this, especially on the community level, it can usually be found if you’re willing to put in the effort, just like the Amish do.
The list goes on and on. But the overarching point being, in some ways, the reality of being Amish is a simpler life, particularly as many personal choices are taken from you, which has its pros and cons. But in a lot of ways, the life of an Amish is also a lot more complicated, and certainly vastly more controlled. Some may prefer all of this. The types of work. The extreme structure and rigid rules. The strict religious aspects of it all. And for those who do, more power to you. There really are a lot of positives about Amish culture we could all stand to learn from. But given how few people from the outside world choose to try to become Amish, and even fewer who actually succeed, let’s just say we’re guessing, much like if most who pine to live in the days of yore were actually granted their wish, most would almost immediately regret this decision.
In the case of the rose colored past lovers, probably about the time they have to take a crap and realize toilet paper without splinters wasn’t a thing until about a century ago. And have fun with approximately 1/3 of your children dying as a baby, and half not making it to adulthood, which as mentioned was the norm in recorded history up until a little over a century ago. The past was the worst.
In the end though, while you’d probably think it bites living in an Amish Paradise, we can all probably benefit from taking a leaf out of the Amish’ book and be more deliberate about our lives and what and who we allow in or not. And instead of pining for the elements of the past we like, maybe doing something about actually making it our reality, while still keeping the elements of modern life that are positive to us.Expand for References
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