AMONG THE AMISH
A few years ago I spent time in Amish country. It was exceptionally revealing
Intercourse is a small town built around a main street pimpled with tourist shops and spreading out like green butter into farmland on all sides. It is one of several original Amish communities in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, and, like the others, not exclusively Amish. Instead, as if in a multiple universe, two distinct cultures and peoples occupy the same space, the Amish, exotic in their plainness, and those of the world, as the rest of us are politely but definitively known by them.
The Amish and their Christian cousins, the Amish related groups, who are comparatively less strict, and the Mennonites, live, if not entirely outside the world as we know it, then as separate from it as they possibly can. They are literal interpreters of the Bible who came to this country in the 1700s from Holland, Germany and Switzerland after being persecuted by the Catholic Church for departing from its doctrine and becoming Anabaptists – people who are baptized as adults, when they understand what they are electing to do, rather than as infants when they obviously don’t.
They live their lives solely according to the dictates of scripture and resist modernity successfully. They dress plainly, without jewelry and the women, who are submissive to the men, don’t cut their hair. This is done as a fidelity to humility and a rejection of the sinfulness of individualism, which they greatly fear as an incubator of the cancer of pride. They mostly farm although some work in stores or have businesses and some are quite rich. They travel by horse drawn buggy or on foot, or on an odd-looking scooter that has bicycle-sized wheels but no apparatus to sit on or pedal. Instead the person keeps one foot on the scooter and pushes off with the other, like a skateboarder. Transport is meant to take them where they need to go, not beyond the community and into the world and its temptations.
The Old Order Amish, as the original strain of the genus are now known, do not have electricity or phones at home (in their place of business it’s allowed), drive cars, have radios or TV, or see the internet or read magazines, and use only the most rudimentary technology or none at all. All of the Amish and Mennonites formal, institutional education is given to them in a throwback single room schoolhouse, physically and spiritually far away from worldly grade and junior high schools, and stops at age 13.
The less conservative Amish, who broke away from the Old Order in the 1960s, drive cars and use electricity and phones in their homes and frequently own cellphones. They also have, as someone painstakingly explained to me but I was unable to keep up with all the points of differention, more advanced farm equipment. Each piece, from plows and harvesters to the machine that fills the silos, is one step more efficient than the virtually Middle Ages era tools used by the Old Order. “It’s where we draw the line compared to where they draw the line,” explained my patient friend, Leicester.
The attitudes to technology are a point of difference between the Amish but not the distinction. The Old Order believe the New Birth, our re-union into the fullness of God’s love, comes at death, that life is a journey towards that fulfillment. The other Amish believe that the New Birth comes with adult baptism, when a person chooses a life devoted to God. The Mennonites are just plain wild. They’ll let you photograph them.
It’s a misnomer that the Amish don’t have media, although the exposure is mild and limited. They read newspapers and have their own, the 116 year old The Budget, which has national distribution to 20,000-plus subscribers and a local edition in Ohio. It also has a website which only features material from the national edition.
The general prohibition against media, especially the internet, is not at all reactionary. It’s thoughtful and deliberate and, like all their decisions, taken on a case by case basis. With each modern development they evaluate whether it is helpful or harmful to their delicate ecosystem of faith and family life. For 250 years they have assiduously set themselves apart from the world and so they banish from their simple quill of choices anything that might pull them too far into it. Thus the rejection of popular media (like electricity before that) isn’t a superstitious resistance to change, but a closing of holes that could be exploited to invade and impurify their sanctuary.
The telephone was a major dilemma for them in the 1920s. Its usefulness was obvious but so was its threat: it would bring them into the world and, worse, the world into them. Their compromise was to put telephones in wooden booths at the end of fields mutually beneficial to multiple families, but unobtrusive to the home and too inconvenient to be habit forming. The jury is still out on cellphones.
We have a tough time understanding this. Depriving ourselves of something that is readily available is unthinkable to us. We have toys that are over 18,000 times more powerful than the computer that landed man on the Moon and we’re discontent, impatient for upgraded versions. But the Amish are not resentful for what they don’t have, they’re thankful they don’t have it, grateful for the absence of the distraction. I asked a young woman tending a vegetable stand if she watched TV (she didn’t) or wished she could, or wished she had access to the Internet, and she looked at me empathetically and said no, she didn’t. “It’s just our way of doing,” she explained.
“Someone can use the internet at the library,” Sam, who runs the Amish Mennonite Information Center tells me, although he clarifies that a young person should be supervised. The Internet is a powerful tool, he recognizes, but approached without care it’s potentially seductive.
“It’s the mis-use of the Internet, the cellphone, texting that’s dangerous. It’s not in a Godly way. Not everything you do is sinful [with technology]” says Sam. “What the church is saying is, when something is evil, run away! Don’t follow the evil, run the other way!
“People text naked pictures to each other, agree to meet to have sex — that’s where God would say ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’ve gone too far.’ ”
Driving in the late afternoon through the countryside I saw some of the flecks, like ocean spray, of the peaceful, rhythmic, unhurried Amish way of life. The simple clusters of white or red farm buildings and the silver silos like thick Minarets prodding the cloudy sky. A young boy in a light blue shirt and black shorts, walking on the slope of a hill alongside a long single file of horses returning to their barn, his blonde head golden in the dipping light. An older boy in a field, his back to the road, behind a horse drawn plow. A wide, blue dressed woman standing at the end of her sand-colored mud and gravel driveway. A man in a black suit and round rimmed hat parking his buggy in the copper warmth of twilight.
I drove up to a short, very young looking man who was mowing the verge of his lawn. He too was wearing the Amish dark jacket, pants and hat. I didn’t think he could be out of his teens. Had he, I asked, already gone through the period where Amish youth go into the world and experience what that has to offer, to see if that’s what they want or if they want to return, with finality, to their religion’s life of austerity and devotion? Yes, he had, he was married he told me, meaning that he had chosen to be baptized. His chin was thinly stubbled. Only married men grow the moustache-less beard.
Marriage was difficult I said to him, from experience. Oh yes it is he concurred. He’d gone into the world, and smoked and drank and experienced various things, and acknowledged the attraction of the temptations. It wasn’t easy, you had to turn away from that.
“It wasn’t for me,” he said. “I saw it would lead to a life of sorrows.”
GOD HAS ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. YOU DON’T
(Sign in front of a Mennonite church)
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
(Sign about a ¼ of a mile further down the road)
Well, which is it, I wondered as I drove past the second sign on my way to a church service on an August Sunday morning? How much time do we have? On the one hand the first message – a warning to us of the world, a polite reminder to the believers – seems pretty clear: only the foolish will linger at the life-long banquet table of intermittent pleasures, or delay in getting their spiritual affairs in order. On the other hand, the second sign could be interpreted as suggesting that while it’s important to be patient with others, does it not also suggest that we ourselves may not need to rush after all, and might it not be reasonable to expect a little patience from God if we don’t quite pull ourselves away from the table in time? Is it not confusing?
The devout are not confused. Faith resolves all paradoxes. The way the devout see it, only the non-devout fail to appreciate the simplicity and clarity of God’s instructions. Which is part of the reason they want to keep us at arm’s length.
The Summitview Christian Fellowship church is an unremarkable, unadorned building. Inside it is sparse and rectangular with bare, gleaming white walls. The large windows are trimmed with blond wood that matches the pews. There are no pictures, flowers or crosses, and three of the five signs in the room say “exit”.
The males sit on the right side of the church, the women and girls on the left, in plain dresses of various solid colors, like shades of foliage: blue, green, purple, dark blue, black. They wore their hair tucked up under plain white bonnets, except for the very small girls who wore bright blue dresses and their hair pulled off their faces in long braids or short ponytails. The boys and men were identically dressed in white Sunday shirts with a pleat down the center of the back and dark trousers. Occasionally a child would cross the aisle to be with its other parent. A boy, looking like a miniature grown up in his matching outfit, lay asleep in his father’s lap.
Some children, I noticed later, were shoeless. This is not from poverty or some religious reason but habit. “Sort of used to be that kids went barefoot in the summer. Plus, you save on shoes,” one of the men told me.
The service is a mixture of scripture reading (“turn your Bibles to Phillipians chapter……” the numbers spoken too quickly for me to catch them but before I’ve even found Phillipians, the preacher has finished reading and everyone is putting their bibles down, their fingers having found the verses with the speed and nimbleness with which we find keys on a keyboard), community announcements, homily and general, simple but utterly sincere affirmations. They are there for one another, unfailingly and without a molecule of resentment. At one point one of the preachers petitioned for “an offering”, as they call them, for $10,000, to help pay the medical bills of a parishioner who still owed $15,000 for his back surgery. The Amish do not buy insurance of any kind.
“Close your eyes and bow your heads” said the preacher, addressing only the men, “and put up your hand if you contribute.”
I closed my eyes and bowed my head, then I realized I was here to observe – respectfully, as invisibly as possible, but not to worship, so I opened my eyes and saw that the right side of the church was spiked with raised hands.
The service lasted approximately an hour and a half and was conducted by two preachers who sat at the front on a plain bench on a raised platform and took turns addressing the congregation from behind a simple wooden lectern, in the even tone of a principal addressing a school assembly: kindly, paternally, gently reminding of the sinfulness of “selfishness and individualism” and, for its overall distastefulness, insurance.
When it was over, no one hurried to leave. They greeted and visited with one another. Men shook hands and some kissed each other on the lips, an adherence to the biblical exhortation to offer the kiss of charity, and several came up to me to introduce themselves and thank me for coming, and probably to find out what I was doing there.
They were friendly, smart, world-aware and looked me straight in the eye. I asked them how they stayed informed. The newspaper sufficed. What about when the World Trade Center was destroyed, how had they heard about that?
“My son had a friend who told him and he told me,” said a man called Amos. Did the Amish find a television to follow the unfolding news, given it was such an extraordinary occasion? “Some did,” he said.
I asked if they were following the Presidential elections. Was there a candidate they favored, even though they don’t vote?
“We leave that up to the Lord and have faith He will pick the right one,” said Amos.
A recent, early summer edition of the weekly national Budget informs us that they had a pleasant spring in Deer Lodge, Tennessee. In Bangor, California a few small showers briefly refreshed the land. They have not had it quite as good in Ava, Illinois the first paragraph of that report tells us: “Heat of the summer seems to be with us and humidity quite high. The spring has been rather challenging for the farmers to get corn planted and hay dry.”
From Gordonville, Pennsylvania, a town next to Intercourse, we learn that a missionary from Kenya preached the main message the previous Sunday and that “Mary Smucker spent most of the week in the Ephrata Hospital with a rare bacterial disease on her face.”
The writer goes on to relate that he and his wife took the Boston to Miami Amtrak, headed to Deer Field Beach, Florida: “ a 24 hour ride with speeds reaching 110 m.p.h. Our expectations were sky high. In our 53 years of marriage, neither of us used Amtrak for travel.” For reasons not elucidated, the trip “did not quite meet our expectations.” At this point the writer notes “It is now 6:00 Sat. evening” – ironically suggesting the immediacy, and ephemerality, of a blog post when in fact it is merely a flower of detail in an old fashioned and timeless news account.
The local edition of The Budget, published in Sugarcreek, Ohio, covers community news and sports, but the national edition is made up entirely of “Scribe’s letters”, as the paper calls its contributions, obituaries and In Memoriams. There are no photos and, unsurprisingly, no cartoons or comic strips, nor an Op Ed page. Letters to the Editor, presumed, I guess, to be redundant in a journal of all letters, nonetheless occupies a sixth of a page and, in this issue at least, comprises precisely three letters, one of them exercised over “the incident at Jake Schwartzes’ home involving the family’s laundry.” That writer hopes God gets ahold of the individuals and guides them to “a much more worthwhile pastime.”
There are ads for cooling fans run on batteries and engines run on oil, a couple for iffy-sounding weight loss products, including a fat patch, and for its own subscriptions the paper targets newlyweds. There is a particularly disturbing advertisement of something for de-worming your child.
The Budget does not cover the latest tabloid affairs. It did not report on the election and it has possibly never mentioned Google or Facebook. These are matters of the world and of no consequence to the faithful. It is hoped and expected that they would not be of interest either.
When I returned to the Information Center, Sam was not busy so he agreed to talk some more with me. I acknowledged that I thought there was, overall, too much media and that a great percentage of it was crap by anyone’s standards. But didn’t his people see some value in the media? Wasn’t it at least a little worthwhile to have a greater awareness of the larger world around them?
“Just what’s happening in the world? We get that in our [local] paper. We get enough of that. We don’t need more.” He sat back in his wooden chair, relaxed but not entirely comfortable discussing this. He is a youthful looking older man, slight, with a grey beard and dark hair. His skin is smooth and his eyes and smile are kind.
We talk about the Amish young. They are considered youth until they marry, even up to “25, 28 years old.” If a person isn’t married by 30 “they probably forget about marriage.” The community figure that person just isn’t interested in it.
Kids sometimes take unsupervised car trips to Philadelphia, the nearest city, where they are exposed to things the church wishes they weren’t. They shouldn’t do that, he says, you have to have guidelines.
“We may be overzealous,” he reflects. “Maybe we should look at ourselves more. Maybe we can learn from you. We mean well. We just are trying to preach the Truth. But maybe we are a little too much sometimes.”
What if Jesus were alive today, would he object to technology?
“Technology is not for God’s children,” answers Sam, definitely. “Our message is, be careful, it could be dangerous. Not, ‘you’ll be condemned for using the internet, you’ll go to Hell.’ Jesus wouldn’t say that.
“What we read of people being involved in the sex world, of what’s going on on the Internet, we’re just saying, it’s dangerous.”
I asked him why the Amish eschew insurance.
“We’re well taken care of with hospitals, doctors. When they see we’re self-pay, they cut their bills in about half. They’re generous.
“The idea is to help each other, to not reach out to the world, say ‘c’mon, help us.’ We’re not of that society. We want to keep the brotherhood of love flowing in the community. Keep it Bible based.”
He makes circles with his hands on his desk.
“We’re living in this world, we’re happy in this. Why would we want to get out into the evil world?”
Tourist brochures in Intercourse promote attractions such as an Amish Farmland Tour (“A roadside view of the Amish at work and play in the air conditioned comfort of our coaches.”), or The Amish Village, meant to recreate life on an Amish farm, with a barn, farmhouse, paddock and postage stamp-sized bit of farmland knotted together; in reality it looks more like a themed Miniature Golf course. Another advertises the Amish Country Homestead, a guided tour through a “replica of an Old Order Amish home….see how the Amish live today without electricity, their style of dress, how church is held at home.” It’s not quite Disneyfication, but it’s a bit like a petting zoo.
We buy their baked goods and farm produce, and their handmade quilts and Chinese made souvenirs, and tip toe preciously around their meticulously ordered, happy lives. We take buggy rides around the edges of their properties, because maybe, on some plane, you can reduce 250 years of religious devotion to an amusement park ride.
I ignored the mythologizing of the Amish. Mythology is never about the protagonists anyway, it’s always about us, and what we perceive as having lost so long ago we wonder if we ever had it. We lacquer the Amish in the illusion of unreachable virtue, so that we don’t have to countenance at least some of the places where we may have gone wrong, and they may have stayed right.
A Mennonite pamphlet, published by the rather severe sounding Rod and Staff Publishers, of Crockett, Kentucky, refers to radio and television as those “sewer pipelines pouring the filth of the world into the home,” equating it with such crises as “pride and prejudice, fighting, killing, divorce and remarriage,” among others. I think that’s a bit over the top, but is it completely wrong? Given what a large proportion of our media content is about loss, human failings, and reveling in others’ misery and humiliation, wouldn’t it be kind of nice every once in a while to know the weather’s good in Kansas, and the planting is coming along, and that Mary Smucker’s face is getting better?
I am not envious of their life, but that they have managed to preserve the life they want. I can barely preserve half the life I want.
My last night there I went for a walk. It had rained ferociously earlier and now the sky was clear and the roads were dry and invisible in the dark. The air was clean and the land smelled fresh. Behind me I heard the tick, tick, tick, tick of a horse’s hooves as a buggy approached, and the sound of its wheels, like rainwater running down the side of a house, as it passed, its red reflector lights shrinking to nothing.