Let's talk about the old order Amish--various questions

I spent the long weekend in Lancaster County, PA in “Amish Country.” I had an excellent time and the fresh produce is simply amazing. Highly recommend.

However, I found myself having a million questions about their lifestyle but also felt guilty for what seemed like an interrogation so many questions I had went unasked. I also felt guilty for treating these people like a curiosity similar to watching animals in a zoo, so again, I didn’t explore as much as I might have for fear of insulting them. A few questions, but I’m sure I’ll have more, and this thread could also be used for additional questions because I find it fascinating:

  1. I was under the impression that the old order Amish shunned electricity. Not true. They have batteries on their buggies which act as flashing lights and turn signals. They have lamps in their homes which run off of Dewalt batteries, similar to those used in cordless drills and the like. I did manage to ask the question of why is it forbidden to have regular electricity run into your house but to use battery powered electricity and was told that they did not want a “connection to the outside world.” But it seems to me that using gas and diesel generators to recharge batteries is as much of connection to the outside world as just using electricity in the first instance.

Further, there is no objection to them having land line telephones (but not cell phones) wired in their homes, although it is usually only wired to an outbuilding. How is this not exactly if not more so having a connection with the outside world than electricity?

  1. The Amish only go to school through the eighth grade. After that they go to work on the family farm or apprentice to learn one of the trades that the Amish are allowed to have. However, my question is may an Amish child continue onto high school, college, or a graduate degree and still be a member in good standing in the community? The Amish have no issue with going to outside doctors for their medical needs or outside lawyers for their legal needs. Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with an insular community to have Amish doctors and lawyers?

  2. If I went through the complicated and convoluted process to convert to old order Amish, would they say, “Hey, this is wonderful. We can use you as our lawyer!” or would I be standing behind a plow and a mule in the fields?

  3. Their system of inheritance is fairly unique in that the youngest son inherits the family farm (if no sons, the youngest daughter inherits). The older sons practice a trade while the older daughters are housewives. It would seem to me that with the average family size between 7 and 12 children that in a few generations you would have very, very few farmers and a whole lot of people practicing trades that there is no use for. I was also curious as it is unseemly in the Amish culture for a woman to do farm work, once she was married (assuming a youngest daughter inherited the farm) is there a system of coverture where her husband would take title to the farm? If not, would she be shunned in the community if she took charge and made directives regarding how the farm should be run?

That’s just a few questions for now…

Re: Your question about the proliferation of Amish who don’t inherit the farm but go into trades: You should ask the related question of how many Amish leave the community.

AIUI, every Amish youth, during a teen-age year, is given an opportunity to leave the community for a year, go live in a Big City, and sample life outside the order. At the end of that, they are given the choice to return to the community or leave. But it’s a all-or-none choice. If one leaves the community, they will be shunned.

The Amish and Mennonites don’t pretend the outside world doesn’t exist, nor do they want no connection with it. I think you are misinterpreting their desire not to be adversely influenced by the outside world. It is an arm’s length relation but they realize that compromise is needed for them to live within that ‘outside world’.

They are required by law to have lights on their buggies, and they use electrical devices and fuel driven engines for practical purposes that they don’t think will corrupt their souls. They also have communal property that individuals would not own. In each community there is usually a communal telephone. They may have a communal sawmill with fuel driven engine.

That’s not quite right. If I understand right, an Amish child who decides to permanently leave the Amish community during rumspringa is not shunned afterwards. They are treated henceforth in a way equivalent to the way that in non-Amish families children who decide to move far away from them are treated. They don’t communicate or visit their families very often, but they are not shunned. They are treated in a friendly way, but they just don’t often get to see or talk with their Amish families. If I understand right, an Amish person who returns to their family after their rumspringa and is baptized into the church and then years later leaves the Amish community is indeed shunned. Incidentally, something like 85% of Amish don’t leave the community either during or after rumspringa. Because they don’t leave very often and have more children than average, the percentage of Amish in the U.S. is slowly increasing. Also incidentally, the state with the most Amish people is Ohio, not Pennsylvania.

If I understand right, the Amish have nothing strictly against electricity or any other modern technology. They just don’t want their members to waste their time on activities that have them doing things not associated with the church. They don’t want them to spend their time watching television or going online or going to movies or spending their weekends getting drunk in bars or going on vacations hanging out on beaches in revealing swimsuits with non-Amish people.

Most states with large Amish populations now require buggies to have lights, but not all Amish groups were happy about it. Some didn’t even like having to have reflectors.

I appreciate all of the comments because I am very interested, but I have to get ready and run, but this is what I heard as well. The children get a free choice to leave the community so long as they don’t choose to get baptized into the faith (no infant baptism). If they decide to leave, then that is fine. Maybe grandma is disappointed, but you can still come home. If you take the opportunity to experience the outside world and then come back and get baptized into the faith and then leave, then the shunning begins.

The community impressed me as they do not try to proselytize and allow their children a free choice. A very NON cult-like behavior.

I could understand the explanation that they feel that they must comply with secular law, that they are pacifists, etc. but that doesn’t explain their use of lamps powered by Dewalt rechargeable batteries.

First, every Amish community can interpret Amish rules and practices in their own way. So some communities that appear identical to outsiders will differ between themselves in ways that matter very much to them.

My imperfect understanding, based both on research and the occasional encounter with Amish in my area, is that they hold the community as the primary unit of society. Anything that promotes/supports that community is good. Anything that interferes with it is not good.

Too much contact with the outside world is seen as threatening/weakening the Amish community. It’s not that they have NO contact, it’s just that the contact is at arm’s length. They are happy to do business with you, or even engage in small talk on a train ride, but they’re not going to exert an effort to become close friends or invite you home. As neighbors they’re standoffish, but polite.

Tying into the electrical grid is seen as joining the outside community. Doesn’t matter if that makes sense to you or not, that’s how they view it. Using solar power, or batteries, or a fuel-powered generator, is not. It’s power generated and utilized within their community. Again, doesn’t matter if you see it that way or not, that’s how they see it. If they’re charging the DeWalt batteries for their lights with solar panels even better from their viewpoint.

The Amish do adopt new technology - but on their terms, after consideration of how it will impact their communities. They are definitely not the sort of people who are bleeding-edge adopters of the latest new toys.

In regards to phones, they’re undoubtedly handy in an emergency, which is the justification for their existence within their communities, but they don’t want people using them as a social tool. If you want to interact with someone you go see them, or they come see you, and you interact in person, not over a phone. Hence why the phones wind up in outbuildings or even in a tiny shack where four properties intersect or something of the sort - it discourages casual, social uses of the tool but it is still available for emergencies.

Sometimes things that would never otherwise be allowed are permitted for safety reasons, like orange triangles on horse-drawn buggies and lights for same. They used to be largely anti-vax but when vaccines stopped being presented as good for the individual but rather protection for the community most of them flipped and are now getting vaccinations.

A lot of what looks crazy from our viewpoint starts to make more sense if you drill down to their starting point for the rules.

This is becoming an issue as Amish communities increase in population but acquiring new land is getting more and more expensive.

The Amish ARE allowed to work outside their communities. Factory, work, for example, and at such jobs they are allowed to used things like computers for that job (not for entertainment) and phones and non-Amish attire if that is required for safety reasons. I am not privy to the details but how the Amish are going to adapt to the situation going forward is apparently a topic of considerable debate among the Amish.

Speaking as someone who grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, when you’re driving along a back road at twilight or night and you suddenly come around a curve and there’s an all-black buggy plodding along right in front of you, you’re damn glad they’ve got a big orange reflector on the back. As, I imagine, are they, considering the alternative.

We live near Smicksburg, PA, an Amish community. For awhile I was kayaking a lake near Smicksburg after work, where I met an Amish dude who boated/fished the lake, not for fun, but for food.

It was kinda cool; he towed his rowboat behind his buggy, on a homemade “trailer”. He fished on Wednesdays, so I began kayaking Wednesdays. I gave him any bobbers/lures/rigs that I came across while paddling. If I was around when he was heading home, I’d help him load his boat and rig his horse. The horse was tied to a tree while he fished.

I once asked him if he ever had second thoughts about his lifestyle and all he was missing in the greater outside world. He looked at me with the most serious expression and said, “every day”.

I once bought a shed from an Amish sawmill/woodworker. It was delivered to me on a big truck, driven by an Englishman employee.

I showed them where I wanted the shed. The Amish guy told his employee how to back the truck, every turn of the wheel, etc. When it was time to tilt the trailer he told the guy which button to press and for how long.

They set the shed down right where I wanted it, but it was frustrating watching all the extra work they went through to accomplish the job.

They don’t need an explanation for your misunderstandings. Why do you think there is something wrong with the use of lamps powered by DeWalt rechargeable batteries? Is there some other brand you think they should be using?

St. Mary’s county, MD has a fair-sized Amish population. There’s also a Mennonite community - I understand they have no issue with driving, and they generally seem to own minivans. But mostly, it’s buggies, some pulling trailers, or bicycles. I’ve never seen an Amish person actually astride a horse, tho. There used to be a lot of phone booths around here, but they’ve all disappeared in recent years. I’m not sure what replaced them. And at least one market uses a solar panel to run their cash register.

I still find myself shaking my head when I see a horse pulling a powered farm implement - like “what’s wrong with this picture?” One day, I stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, and saw a young Amish man playing a stand-alone video game (Pac-Man or something) in the lobby of the restaurant.

My husband had a large workshop built in our yard - the crew was an Amish man and his 3 sons. Everything they used came in a trailer, and they were driven back and forth by an older guy in a pickup who sat in his truck while they worked.

In my experience, they’re cordial, but not overly friendly. But they grow some amazing produce!

Our friends/neighbors have a farm market. They buy stuff from the Amish for resale. The market is run primarily by the wife, and the Amish aren’t thrilled with that arrangement. They keep eyes downcast and do not make small talk with her.

If she is tied up and the husband deals with the Amish, they are cheerful and friendly.

This is unnecessarily hostile, and is thread shitting.

I apologize @UltraVires, it was unnecessary to take that tone.

A local market here (which is not Amish country) is advertising their locally made Amish salsa.

I’m pretty sure they aren’t using an authentic Amish recipe.

Not a problem. Accepted.

However, you are absolutely right. They don’t owe me an explanation as to how they live their lives anymore than I owe them an explanation for how I live my life. This is what made me hesitant to ask more questions.

I largely admire their ability to keep communities together and stay out of the hustle and bustle of the world. So I am not asking as a sort of gotcha to tell them that they are wrong. These things just strike me as inconsistent, and far from debating the point, I was wondering if there was a consistent top down rationale for it.

This, exactly. And this is why it’s so darn hard to explain the Amish lifestyle. What’s frowned upon in one community might be accepted in a community in the next county. There’s an Amish community about 30 miles from my house which uses no internal combustion engines. But farther down the road there’s another group that use tractors to farm, but the tractors must have steel wheels. My parents used to visit some Amish friends in Iowa that didn’t have electricity, but had a propane-powered refrigerator.

I gave up trying to understand the Amish years ago. As long as they keep serving homemade pies in the restaurant that I occasionally visit, I’m happy.