Joe Wittmer, PhD, Responds to Questions Regarding the Amish (Installment #3)

Until his death Joe Wittmer (see Installment #1) managed this question and answer section for the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom's web site. He was reared in the Old Order horse-and-buggy Amish faith in Indiana until age sixteen and was the author of The Gentle People: An Inside View of Amish Life (3rd Edition, 2007). 

1. Are the Old Order Amish Changing Their Values and Rules for Living? If yes, how?

Although changes have occurred (most notably in the types of careers now evident for their youth since farms are gradually disappearing) in the Amish culture, their values and rules for living have remained virtually intact. The creed of faith they follow today can be traced to the historical document known as the Dordrecht Confession of Faith first signed in the Netherlands in 1632. This creed was formerly adopted by the Amish forefathers in Alsace in 1660, in Pennsylvania in 1725 and is strictly adhered to today by the horse and buggy, Old Order Amish.

The Old Order Amish are determined to preserve their chosen way of life, and, as noted, have not changed substantially (for changes that have occurred, see Question 2 below) since the religious sect came to America in the mid 1700's. To better illustrate this fact, I found a quote from an article, Historical Sketch of Early Amish Settlers, written in 1920 by L. A. Miller, an early Amish historian:

The Amish are people of distinctive characteristics, among them being their plainness of dress, the use of hooks and eyes instead of buttons, and plain colors in dress materials in preference to the printed varieties; their confession of faith: the inter-marriage only of members of the same faith; non-resistance of violence; the use of the ban, or excommunication; forbid the taking of oaths. They reject infant baptism, accept no public offices except those connected with the management of their schools; and their ministry (bishops or elders, ministers, and deacons) is chosen by lot from the congregation. Concerning their marriages, the names of the couples are always published in advance, usually a week or two weeks before the ceremony, and both bride and groom are required to be members of the church (Miller, L.A. 1920).

If I were to write a brief description of the Old Order Amish today, 90 years since the above was written, I would change very little!
The Old Order Amish have an unequivocal belief in the Bible as it has been interpreted for them by their forefathers and current Bishops and elders down through the years. They never question or waiver where their Biblical principles are concerned.

2.  Are the Old Order Amish at all Willing to Compromise with the “World?”

As stated above, the Old Order horse and buggy Amish have resisted many of the more modern aspects of the progressive “world” surrounding them. Yet, even though they have basically “stood still” over the years,  they have flourished in America and have enjoyed  unprecedented growth. They have done so by having large families (approximately 7 plus children per family) and by resisting America’s melting pot of cultural assimilation. However, the major reason for their ability to thrive and maintain and enhance their mostly stress free live style while living in the midst of a hectic, progressive society, has been their willingness to compromise with the modern “world.” That is, they have been willing to compromise with the spirit of progress and change when it does not jeopardize the integrity of the basic tenets of their religion or conflict with their values and moral code.  In addition, they will not compromise nor negotiate with progress if it disrupts family and/or community stability.

To many “English,” the Amish peoples' compromises with the spirit of progress seems an odd mixture of tradition and twenty-first century progress. That is, such compromises with the modern world are often baffling, perplexing and puzzling to their non-Amish neighbors. For example, I am often asked, “How can they ride in my car but not own one of their own?” Another contradiction noted by their non-Amish neighbors is the fact that the Old Order Amish church forbids telephones in members’ homes but yet sanctions their use of the community pay phone (the shanty phone) located in a small shack at the end of the road. Some non-Amish have asked me how the Amish can reconcile shunning electrically but yet sanction the use of a 12 vote battery for power. Still others have wondered aloud how the Amish sanction having a modern tractor sitting in the barnyard for use around the barn but in the fields they pull modern farm equipment with horses. Admittedly, each of these seem contradictory and I can see why they are perplexing and puzzling to the average non-Amish person.

Although the Amish culture’s speed of change is extremely slow, they do change if they do not view that “change” as making them “a part of the “world.”  For example, hypothetically, it may be that if and when the American society at large switches to atomic power or some other alternative power to electricity, the Amish may sanction the use of electricity. The Amish church leaders may agree to members’ use of a new piece of equipment, a gas refrigerator, or a new kitchen gadget and one sees it in use for a length of  time. Then suddenly, and without fanfare, the church may forbid the continued use of such a gadget and declare it as “worldly.” That is, the Amish church may be slow to forbid the use of a new gadget or invention, but once the church leaders have evaluated it as being a detriment to the values and moral code of their society, they will quickly outlaw its further use.

3. I Sometimes see Amish Riding in a car With a Non-Amish Driver Which seems like a Contradiction to me. How can they justify Riding in a Car but Not Owning One?

Many “new” things are forbidden because church leaders are worried about the long time consequences of the use of these products or inventions. For example, the Amish leaders may not feel that there is anything wrong with a car, but may be deeply concerned about the detrimental effects that owning one would have on their current youth and future generations. To the Amish way of thinking, owning a car would give members easy access to non-Amish and thus the possibility of a close association with “non believers” and thus be led astray  from the church. Amish leaders believe also that owning a car would negatively affect the slow-paced, stress free life valued so highly by the community. They are convinced that owning a car would make it too easy for members to have access to faraway places and would challenge the concept of a small community of believers worshiping in one another's homes within a small radius from one another. Their leaders are also  convinced that owning an automobile would introduce speed, mobility and social status now absent in their society. But most importantly, it would lead to members autonomy and total independence, among the most dreaded of taboo characteristics. Also, if one were to own a car they would be required to obtain a drivers license which would necessitate having a taboo photo taken and would automatically “unequally yoke” such an owner with the non-believers who also hold such a license. Of course, not owning a car also maintains the horse and buggy as one of the main symbols of Amish life and maintains the harmony and equality of status among members of the community. Non ownership of a car also is definitely a boundary maintaining device that distinctively separates them from the larger society. Although it may be perplexing to non-Amish, to the Amish way of thinking, participant members not owning a car but yet being permitted to hire a person with a car to take them places of necessity make cultural sense. That is, it permits members some aspects of modernity while maintaining  tradition and a sense of community.

4. Are all Amish Groups the Same?

No, there are several different "Amish" groups and various "off-shoot" groups in existence today in some 30 US States, Canada and various South American countries. Like most other religious denominations, there are several distinct branches among the Amish. However, the best known ones are the Old Order Amish, the New Order Amish, the Beachy Amish, and the Amish Mennonites, in order of increasing liberalness. There are also the Swartzentruber, Troyer, Weaver, Byler, Renno, and "Nebraska" Amish subgroups, among others. The Old Order Amish are by far the largest Amish branch (probably around 90 percent of the total). However, the differences among the branches are often subtle. 
    The Old Order (known also as the horse and buggy Amish) broke from the Mennonites back in the 15th Century while the New Order broke from the Old Order church around 1965. The New Order do things quite differently than do the Old Order. However, I plan to answer questions in this Q & A section only as they concern the Old Order, horse and buggy Amish. In general, I will refer to the Old Order Amish as simply "Amish" in the context of responding to questions.

Each specific Old Order Amish community (known among the Amish as a "settlement") is divided into geographical church districts of some 35-45 families each. Since large families are common (8 to 9 children each on average), each church district usually consists of between 250 to 350 men, women and children. There are no church houses or buildings of any kind that will have been built specifically for the purposes of worshiping God. The Old Order Amish meet for church and other religious ceremonies in members' homes.

The Old Order Amish "rules for living," a specific church's Ordnung (German for "church orders or rules for living" and pronounced "ott-nung"), vary somewhat from church district to district and from Amish community to Amish community. Although they are similar in their beliefs and "rules for living," an adjacent church district (within the same Amish community, and maybe just across the road) may be uniquely different, or vary very little, from the neighboring church district. For example, one my permit thin, rubber treads on their buggy wheels while the neighboring church, just one mile over, may permit only steel bands on their buggy wheels. Another example of these differences often centers on top buggies. For example, while one church district may ban tops on their buggies altogether, another may permit them for everyone, while a third, next-door, neighboring church district may allow top buggies for all members except the unmarried men, etc. However, all Old Order Amish groups follow the same, basic Biblical principles and reveal a strong, unwavering, and tenacious belief in the Bible (see number 1 above).

5. Why do the Amish Reject the Modern World so Vehemently?

Rejection of the "world," as Biblically defined, is basic to the Amish religion. And, to truly understand and appreciate the Old Order Amish, one must first understand that everything they do, seven days a week, is based on the Bible. In my opinion, the Biblical tenet they follow most diligently, and the one that most profoundly and appropriately depicts the overall belief and philosophy of the Old Order Amish religion, is the verse that instructs them to be "different" from the "world" and to be a "peculiar" people (Titus 2:14). My Old Order Amish father, now deceased, used to love to say that the "world" began at the last Amish farm house on the edge of our settlement and that all Amish should remain "different and apart" from it.

An Amish sect member who wishes to remain in good standing with the church has no alternative but to be "different from the world" in all aspects of life. That is, the above Bible verse dictates that, as an Amish person, you must be different from the "world" in the way you dress, the language you speak (a German dialect some refer to as Pennsylvania Dutch), personal grooming, etc.

Amish sect members do not dress, speak or behave like members of the "world." They reject the "world" and work hard at remaining "apart from... and separate from the world." And, to the Amish, if you are not Old Order Amish, a member of an Amish "off-shoot" group, or Mennonite, you are a "worldly" person. Being "worldly," or to be perceived as such, is not something an Amish person ever wants to be guilty of as it could result in excommunication.
Of course, the Amish have no choice but to peacefully co-exist with non-Amish people in the Twenty-first Century world that man has created. But they believe strongly that they are to; " … live in the world but not of it." (I Peter 2:11). In addition, they feel that the Bible mandates they live separate from the, "…blind, perverted world" (Phil. 2:15) as much as is humanly possible.

"Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world..." (I John 2:15). This Bible verse best sums up why the Amish choose to live the way they live: simply, without fanfare and very different from the fast-paced, stressful, ungodly "world'' that surrounds them.

4. Do the Amish Have Psychological and Physical Needs Different from Those of Non-Amish?

Old Order Amish men, women and children have the same needs for love, companionship, to have fun, to be physically safe along with other basic needs and wants similar to those of any other members of the human race. How these needs and wants are satisfied is the major difference between Amish and non-Amish. And, Amish and non-Amish Americans use very different methods to satisfy these basic needs.

Some non-Amish individuals have mistakenly assumed that the Amish are like them, or at least should want to be like them. Psychologists refer to this concept as "assumed similarity," and many of us are often guilty of this when dealing with minority groups, especially those radically different from us in religion. For example, recently, after concluding a speech, an individual in the audience asked, "Are you telling us that they really don't want to drive a car, that they really don't want running water and that they really don't want to own a television set or a computer? Come on, Dr. Wittmer, this is the new millennium, the 21st Century! Amish people surely must secretly want those things." The answer is an unequivocal "no!"

In sum, the Old Order Amish really do not want to use our modern devices or appliances and they really do not want to be like us in most respects! Matter of fact, Amish relatives often tell me how they truly feel sorry for certain non-Amish acquaintances of theirs because of the stressful lives they see them living. And, without question, the Amish attribute this stress to the "outsider's" moral code, values and their reliance on "worldly," modern conveniences. They directly relate much of the stress they witness in non-Amish to the automobile, television, the computer, cell phones, etc.

5. Why Don't the Amish use Electricity?

As noted above, the Amish lifestyle is a deliberate and conscious effort to separate from the "world," as defined in the Bible. Their goal is to maintain self-sufficiency in the midst of the turmoil that surrounds them in today's secular, tumultuous "world." According to my late father, Amish leaders decided, when electricity became commonplace before the middle of the 20th Century, that linking with electrical wire truly would constitute a counter-to-the-Bible, seamless connection, to be "yoked" with the "world" and "non-believers." They were convinced that this would violate the Bible's instruction not to be "conformed to the world." That decision, has of course, protected the Amish community from outside influences such as those brought into non-Amish homes via television, the internet, microwave ovens, etc. as well as from many other modern appliances and devices that Electrical appliances are conspicuously absent in all Old Order Amish homes.

There are, of course, many appliances that the "world" operates via electricity that can be, and are, converted to run efficiently on natural gas by some Amish church groups. So far as the Amish are concerned, the word here is "natural" in that it is not man-made. However, most Old Order Amish families with whom the writer is acquainted still use coal or wood burning heating and cooking stoves and an "icebox" instead of a refrigerator.

The Old Order Amish have become highly skilled at using natural methods of producing ice during winter and then storing it in straw and specially built sheds to make home made ice cream, a real favorite among the Amish, and for use in iceboxes during the long hot summers. Winter ice cutting "frolics" are a major social event among the Old Order Amish. I personally visited an Amish "ice shed" this past September which contained much more stored ice than would be needed to last until the coming winter freezes!

In addition, most Amish families have windmills on their farms to generate wind power to pump water, run blacksmith tools, furniture making tools, etc. Many also creatively dam up creeks to generate water power for use in operating specific machinery. Again, wind and water power are acceptable to the Old Order because they are a natural, Godly source of power and not connected to man made power lines which generate "worldly" electricity. And, whether it is generating power or for whatever purpose, the Amish will always work with God's natural way, with nature, never against it! To them, generating power in this natural manner is "different" from the way the "world" generates its power and is thus not "conforming" to the ways of the "world!