The Amish people are also known as “the plain people.” This is because they lead a very simplistic lifestyle that is free of the modern conveniences that the majority of the country takes for granted. This lifestyle is born of their religious beliefs, to which they are strongly devoted. To the outside world the Amish are a curiosity. Their method of dress, horse-drawn buggies and unassuming manner often seem like a step-back to a simpler time. While their lifestyle may seem unimaginable to people who do not live it, it is one that they embrace fully.
The roots of the Amish culture extend back to 1525 with the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. The Anabaptists were part of the Protestant Reformation. They were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers), because they rejected the practice of infant baptism and insisted that adults must voluntarily choose baptism as an adult. The term Amish was used to describe the followers of Jakob Ammann, who was a Anabaptist leader in the late 17th and early 18th century.
Many Amish groups immigrated to Pennsylvania in the United States in the 18th century in order to escape religious persecution in Europe. In the United States, Amish settlers spread as far as Maine in the north, Iowa in the west, and Alabama in the south. Today most Amish live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Most Amish people speak English and a language called Pennsylvania Dutch, which is similar to German.
In the mid-19th century, the Amish community fragmented over discussions about how to adapt to modern society. The Amish people split into two groups as a result of their disagreements. One group took the name of the Amish Mennonites, while the other more traditional group took the title of Old Order Amish. At the start of the 20th century their population was less than 5,000, and as of 2010 their combined population was 249,000, according to the United States Census.
Religious Beliefs and Traditions
The Amish believe in one God. They believe that their faith calls for them to lead a lifestyle that consists of hard work and discipline. In addition to discipline and hard work, their religion also calls for them to lead a lifestyle in which they practice humility and calmness. Standing out as an individual through self-promotion or self-expression is forbidden. They closely follow the word of the bible, which is seen as the Word of God. People who do not adhere to the teachings of the church are subject to shunning by the church and the community.
Amish religious services are typically held within the congregation members’ homes. Mass often involves communion and foot washing. Adult baptism is also a tradition. Popular holidays celebrated by the Amish are religious holidays. Celebrated holidays include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Whit Monday.
Beliefs About Technology
According to their beliefs, the Amish are not to conform to the world. For this reason they use technology selectively and shun certain modern conveniences. The Amish do not use electricity, so there are no televisions, computers, or radios. Amish do not own cars, but may accept a ride from someone who does. Members do not own cars as it would create inequality within the community.
The Amish adopt technologies which serve their communities rather than weaken them. What is permitted varies wildly from community to community, since the local church district decides what technologies are allowed. Photographs are usually not allowed as it may cause vanity. But harmless technologies like calculators and flashlights are permitted. Some may use turn signals on carriages and steel wheels on farm equipment.
In many communities, the Amish are allowed to use technologies that they are not allowed to own. For example, they might hire a taxi to visit someone far away or use a computer at work, but not at home.
The Amish enjoy music, although they do not dance to music. Singing occurs in church and consists of songs from a German songbook that is called Ausbund. Children also sing religiously themed songs in school, prior to the start of the lessons for the day. Singing while performing chores, or working is also acceptable. In addition to religious music, the Amish also enjoy country music and may even enjoy other forms of music when heard outside of their community. In terms of instruments, they are not allowed to play string instruments; however, some may play the harmonica.
Schooling and Socializing
Traditional Amish schools are simple one-room houses where grades one through eight are taught together. Children attend school until they reach the eighth grade. It is their belief that education beyond the eighth grade is unnecessary for the Amish lifestyle. Following the completion of their schooling, boys and girls are instructed in the duties that they will fulfill in life. Boys are instructed on farming, while girls are instructed on their household duties. The Amish community is a highly social one. Women often meet to quilt together or may perform chores together.
The clothing that Amish men and women wear is meant to reflect their faith and express their simplicity and humility. Males typically wear dark suits with pants that are held up by suspenders. For work, shoes are brown, while more formal occasions call for black shoes. Amish men are also seen wearing hats when outdoors. Men wear black felt hats or straw hats in warmer weather conditions. The hat’s dimensions reflect the wearer’s age and status within church groups. The Amish women and girls do not wear pants. Their wardrobe consists of full-skirted dresses in solid blue, brown, gray, or green. Over the dress they wear an apron, and a cape. When in public they wear black stockings, shoes, shawl, and a bonnet.
Farm Life and Barn-Raising
Until recently, most of the Amish lived on farms. The farms were diversified, small operations with chickens, cows, and only a small amount of beef cattle. Some continue this tradition, but today most farms are more specialized. These specialized farms have dairy cows, and some even have hogs and/or chickens. The specialized farms are also more mechanized with the use of mechanical milkers and cooling tanks. Traditional farmers still milk cows by hand then ship the canned milk to cheese plants.
When a barn needs to be constructed, Amish communities engage in what is called a barn-raising event. Because the building of a barn requires more labor than a single family can muster, an entire community of people is typically called in to complete the task. The work is done largely by volunteers and is completed in a matter of a few days, typically in June and July, which is the time between harvest and planting periods. The family that needs the barn provides the materials, such as timber for construction. While the construction of a barn is a community effort, the resulting structure was owned by a single family. In turn, that same family would participate in barn-raising events for other families. Men carry out the construction work while women bring food and children are brought to observe and learn so that they can participate in the future. Barn raising is an ongoing tradition among modern Amish communities.
Farming still plays a role in the lives of the Amish, but many of the Amish are abandoning their plows. The largest changes in Amish culture have taken place over the last century as less than ten percent of Amish households make their money from farming. In spite of their growing involvement in commerce and business, Amish people remain in rural areas and many of them combine hobby farming with work off the farm.
In recent decades, many Amish families have opened shops. Most tend to be small, family owned businesses and employ less than ten people. Most of these businesses create wood products such as outdoor and household furniture, small barns, lawn ornaments, and gazebos. But other successful businesses include bakeries, quilt shops, and greenhouses. Many home-based shops are very profitable and some of the larger businesses may make millions of dollars a year.
To learn more about the Amish and their way of life, check out these resources:
- The History, Beliefs, and Lifestyle of the Amish People: This page includes a brief explanation of certain aspects of the Amish people. Readers can learn about the branches of Amish groups, location and language, requirements, clothing, and religion.
- American Experience: The Amish: This is a PBS video on the life of the Amish people. The video explores the community, lifestyle, and faith of the Amish.
- What’s Next With the Amish: This is a Time magazine article that explores the future of the Amish.
- The Amish Mennonites: Read this historical publication to learn about where the Amish came from and how they settled in Iowa.
- Amish Population Nearly Doubles in 16 Years: This is a NBC News article that explores the population growth of the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
- How the Pennsylvania Dutch Got Their Name: “Dutch” is actually a mispronunciation of “Deutsch,” meaning “German.”