10 Surprising Facts About the Amish

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“‘Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate,’ saith the Lord, ‘and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.’” This verse in the Bible’s second book of Corinthians may express the Amish worldview in a nutshell, but attempting to summarize the lifestyle of some 450 disparate Amish settlements in 30 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario is a fool’s errand. Derided as Luddites for years, the Amish are anything but backward. They are better characterized as surprisingly prosperous, remarkably prolific — and deeply misunderstood.


10. The Amish Originally Hailed From Switzerland, France

The Amish fled religious persecution in France.

The Amish began arriving in America in large numbers in the mid-18th century; Franco Folini

A commitment to finding their own religious path caused strife for the Amish from their very beginnings as Swiss Anabaptists in the 1500s. After many had migrated north to the French region of Alsace, a schism around 1693 gave the Amish their unique identity. But after the French Revolution, a drive toward universal citizenship, and along with that compulsory military service, created new problems for the Amish. By then many had already immigrated to William Penn’s North American colony of Pennsylvania, attracted by Penn’s message of tolerance toward Quakers. The rest of Europe’s Amish came to America in the large German migrations of the 1800s, many settling west of Pennsylvania in states such as Ohio and Indiana after making their way up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.


9. Amish Can Be Found in at Least 30 Different States

The Amish have branched out into many different occupations beyond farming.

Holmes County, Ohio, has one of the highest concentrations of Amish in America; David Goehring

Lancaster County in Pennsylvania has long been considered the center of Amish culture in North America, and certainly the Lancaster Amish affiliation is the oldest in the U.S., dating to 1760. But Ohio is today home to more Amish than anyplace else in the world, with the highest concentration in Holmes County in the northeast-central part of the state. While most Amish call Pennsylvania and a variety of Midwestern states home, communities have been established as far and wide as Maine, Florida, Texas and Wyoming. Historically, the Amish have led agrarian lives, but today, as their numbers have grown, they have established themselves in construction, furniture making, crafts and tourism-related enterprises, among many other occupations. Consequently, it’s no longer necessary for the Amish to live in regions with an abundance of affordable agricultural land.


8. The Amish Went Largely Unnoticed in the U.S. for 200 Years

The Amish were largely a mystery to the outside world until the mid-20th century.

Amish men work together to build a barn. The Amish are known for their fierce independence; Cindy Cornett Seigle

In 1937, 201 years after the Amish first arrived on American shores, The New York Times published an article headlined, “Amishmen battle to keep drab life,” that was ostensibly concerned with an effort by the Lancaster County Amish to fight the state consolidation of rural schools there. The article introduced the rest of America to these plain people “making a last stand against the devil.” In the decades that followed, the Amish occasionally gained sympathy from many people they call the “English” for refusing to participate in Social Security, shunning hard hats on construction sites and so forth. But admiration for the Amish has by no means been universal. Their determination to stick with primitive plumbing and mostly avoid modern health care subjects them to derision by many to this day.


7. Amish End Formal Schooling After the Eighth Grade

The Amish once went to school with other children, but that changed when busing became commonplace.

Amish children walk home from school. There are some 2,000 Amish schools in the U.S.; Cindy Cornett Seigle

For many years the Amish were content to have their children educated in public schools. That willingness quickly evaporated when America’s school systems fundamentally changed in the early decades of the 20th century. Moves toward district consolidation, compulsory high school attendance and busing (as automobiles became widespread and roads improved) drove many Amish parents all the way to prison as they fought for the old ways to be preserved. Ultimately, the Amish felt compelled to create their own schools; there are an estimated 2,000 of them in the U.S. today, according to the Blackboard Bulletin. Amish schools are still located within walking distance of a child’s home, and only extend to the eighth grade, to be followed typically by a local apprenticeship. Surprisingly, Amish schools do not include study of religion or the Bible.


6. The Amish Hold Church Services At Home

Amish hold church services in their houses.

Amish families hold religious services in their home; Johnny Appleseed 1774

The best way to characterize Amish religious custom is that the church comes to them, with services conducted every other Sunday in their own homes. Amish church districts are small, encompassing a few dozen households, and are rigorously delineated to take in the smallest geographic areas. Services are not limited to religious matters, with community guidelines and personal issues considered fair items for discussion as well. Other than God, there is no higher authority than the local church district. The Amish don’t evangelize, nor is religious observance limited to Sunday services. Silent prayers begin and end each meal; indeed, silent contemplation is central to Amish faith. Rather than debate items of religious doctrine, the Amish focus on the teachings of Jesus as laid down in the Bible’s New Testament, and attempt to live their lives accordingly.


5. U.S. Military Once Forced the Amish to Fight Against Their Will

The Amish are recognized as conscientous objectors and exempt from military service.

The Amish fiercely resisted serving in the U.S. military; Bob Jagendorf

Amish pacifism has its roots, like so much of Amish life, in the example set by Jesus Christ, who preached forgiveness and encouraged resisting the urge to fight back against acts of injustice. The Amish avoid resorting to violence at all costs. Inevitably, this has led to difficulties with the government during times of conflict, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. This has caused great strife; in World War I. military leaders went to great lengths to break down Amish men and force them to fight on the battlefield, but always without success. Beginning with World War II, Amish declarations of conscientious objection were respected. Amish citizens were assigned alternative duties on the home front, from working in hospitals to the national park system, or were even given furloughs to go back to the farm.


4. Amish Groups Accept Some Modern Technologies, Shun Others

The Amish shun many modern technologies.

An Amish woman uses a cellphone, a technology shunned by many group members; Vilseskogen

There once was a time — the 19th century — when the Amish were among the most technologically advanced in their region, particularly when it came to agricultural implements. That ended when the scale of technological change expanded in the 20th century. The Amish are not and have never been anti-technology for the sake of it, although attempting to understand why some devices meet with their approval while others do not can be perplexing. Essentially, developments that may be perceived as a threat to an Amish community’s viability are likely to be banned, a philosophy that serves to promote isolation. An Amish merchant won’t accept credit cards, but may be happy to take a check from a local bank. A washing machine is fine, as long as it’s powered by a gasoline engine and not connected to the electrical grid.


3. The Horse and Buggy Help Preserve Tight-Knit Amish Communities

The Amish believe that horse-drawn carriages by necessity keep their community closer together.

Amish buggies are a common sight on roads in Indiana (shown here) and many other states; Cindy Cornett Seigle

More than the hats and bonnets Amish men and women wear, the horse-drawn carriage is the primary visual symbol to the rest of the world of what it means to be Amish. But to the Amish, the horse and buggy represent far more than a quaint reminder of the past. It takes at least five times as long to get where you’re going with a horse than it does a car. Such a methodical form of transportation emphatically constrains the boundaries of an Amish community, which is entirely the point. Caring for a horse requires consistent, daily effort. And although buggies may look different from one community to another, within a local order they all appear exactly the same. No allowance is made for the pride the Amish associate with the well-known love Americans have for their cars.


2. Young Amish Have Some Unique Courting Practices

Some Amish do have premarital sex, although the practice is severely frowned upon.

An Amish wedding. Amish courtship rituals vary widely between different groups; Abby LadyBug

One of the more unusual Amish customs, bed courtship, dates to the European years, but has since faded in practice. A teenage Amish boy and girl sharing the same bed for several hours while fully clothed has been replaced, at least in some Ohio communities, with chair courtship, in which an Amish girl sits on a boy’s lap. For the most part, however, Amish courtship rituals are not dramatically different from what most young Americans experience. Practices inevitably vary from one Amish community to another, but in nearly all of them Sunday evening singings are the primary events for bringing young people together, sometimes preceded by sports like volleyball. Dating never begins before the age of 16. And while premarital sex is, perhaps not surprisingly, frowned upon, it does occur among a few of the more liberal Amish groups.


1. Phase Known as Rumspringa Gives Amish Youth a Chance to Get Wild

Amish teens goes through a phase known as rumspringa, where they test the outside world.

Two Amish teens soak up the sun at Florida’s Siesta Key during their rumspringa; Kat via Flickr

Second only to the misperception that all Amish are ultra-orthodox in their ways is the belief that rumspringa, a Pennsylvania German word for “running around,” gives Amish teenagers a window in which they can choose whether they wish to remain Amish. That’s not its intent. The practice garnered attention in the outside world in 1997, when two young Amish men in Pennsylvania were arrested in a drug bust. Some Amish youth may experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol during rumspringa, but for the vast majority of them it’s simply a rite of passage in which they’re given permission to come out from under their parents’ supervision and spend more time socializing with their peers. Rumspringa generally ends with marriage. The Amish are free to leave their communities at any time, although the rate of attrition is quite low, especially among conservative orders.

Todd Hill has many Amish neighbors in rural Ohio and lives just minutes away from the largest Amish district in the world. He also has an extensive collection of books on the Amish.

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Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.