There are few more intriguing communities and ways of life than that of the Amish and Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania and the surrounding US states. Settling there almost 300 years ago, they have maintained their identity and independence, acquiring an almost mythical status. It’s not easy – and unfair to generalise about these communities, but here are a few ‘facts’ that make these communities unique and precious.
Amish children only go to school through to the American 8th grade – that’s about age 12 to 13. All grades attend together in a one-room school house. Amish children (and adults) often ride around on scooters as a means of transport – though not the motorised variety! Amish boys and girls begin their search for a spouse when they turn 16. During this time, their given a lot of lee-way to ‘run wild’ - known as the ‘rumschpringe’, and they might even own and drive cars for a while. However, all this ends when they marry and accept their place in, and commitment to, the community’s faith and traditions.
‘Old Order’ Amish are forbidden to own cars but travel around in their iconic horse-drawn buggies, though they are permitted to accept rides from Englischers – the word for non-Amish people from outside their German-Dutch speaking communities. The strictest communities don’t use electricity as it is a connection to the outside world. Most families have a gas range, but a few still use wood-burning stoves to cook, heat food, and for warmth.
A typical Amish day, if there is one, begins around 4:30 am with everyone turning in for the night around 8:30 pm. Keeping separate from the outside world is getting more difficult. There are no phones in the houses, but some families have one in the barn and all buggies must have lights and indicators out on the road. As well as the buggies, Amish beards and bonnets are the most noticeable features of community members. An Amish man does not shave his characteristic beard after he is married but moustaches are forbidden. Amish women never cut their hair and keep it covered in a scarf or bonnet depending on the traditions of the order.
‘Old Order’ church services are held every other Sunday in the homes or barns of families who take turns hosting the service. There is no dedicated church building or property, and any hymns and all Bible readings are spoken in an old German dialect. The ‘Ordnung’ is the written and unwritten rule of the Amish. This lays down the expected behaviour by which the Amish are expected to live. It is passed down from generation to generation and most Amish know the Ordnung by heart.
If you’re thinking of visiting an Amish community, remember that it’s considered disrespectful to photograph Amish people. Like everything in their lifestyle, this is based on a biblical reference. The Amish represent an adherence to way of life disappeared from most of the western world. It might appear anachronistic, but it is a lifestyle choice. The Amish communities are not a theme park or a tourist attraction for the amusement of ‘modern’ society. Indeed, they are every bit as ‘modern’ as the communities of London or The Amazon, New York or The Steppes, Singapore or The Congo, Tokyo or the Sudan, and as such are deserving of respect rather than mere curiosity. – Les Ellison