The Amish and Mennonites

A Look Into Folk Culture


The Plain People trace their origin back to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, where there was an emphasis on returning to the purity of the New Testament church. One group of reformers rejected the popular concept of infant baptism, and became known as Anabaptists. The Anabaptists believed that only adults who had confessed their faith should be baptized, and that they should remain separate from the larger society.

In 1536, a young Catholic priest from Holland named Menno Simons joined the Anabaptist movement. His writings and leadership united many of the Anabaptist groups, who later became known as "Mennonites."

One of the teachings of the Amish faith is called the ban or shunning. This is based on the New Testament command not to associate with a church member who does not repent of his sinful conduct. The purpose of this discipline is to help the member realize the error of his ways and to encourage his repentance, after which he would be restored to church fellowship.

This excommunication was at first only applied at the communion table. However, the followers of Jacob Amman felt the unrepentant individual should be completely shunned or avoided by all church members. This belief, along with other differences, led to Amman's split with the Mennonites in 1693. His followers were later called Amish.

These Anabaptist groups were severely persecuted throughout Europe. Thousands were put to death as heretics by both Catholics and Protestants. To avoid this persecution many fled to the mountains of Switzerland and southern Germany. Here began the Amish tradition of farming and holding their worship services in homes rather than churches.

Many Amish and Mennonites accepted William Penn's offer of religious freedom as part of Penn's "holy experiment" of religious tolerance. They settled in what later became known as Pennsylvania. The first sizable group of Amish arrived in Lancaster County in the 1720's or 1730's.

Today, the Amish can be found in 23 states here and in one Canadian province. Their settlement in and around Lancaster County is their second largest. Because of their large families, the total Amish population has more than doubled since 1960 to over 85,000. Very few of their children leave the church.

The Amish and Mennonite churches still share the same beliefs concerning baptism, non-resistance, and basic Bible doctrines. They differ in matters of dress, technology, language, form of worship, and interpretation of the Bible.

The Mennonites hold many of the same beliefs as the Amish, although they tend to be less conservative than their Amish neighbors. Worship services are held weekly in their meeting houses. Most Mennonites have relaxed dress codes, and have gotten away from farm-related occupations. While Old Order Mennonites still drive their all-black carriages, most Mennonite groups do permit the use of cars and electricity. However, some groups do require that car bodies and trim be painted black.


The Amish People & Their Lifestyle
(in Lancaster County, PA)


Amish girl on a scooter

Old Order Amish women and girls wear modest dresses made from solid-colored fabric with long sleeves and a full skirt (not shorter than half-way between knee and floor). These dresses are covered with a cape and apron and are fastened with straight pins or snaps. They never cut their hair, which they wear in a bun on the back of the head. On their heads they wear a white prayer covering if they are married and a black one if they are single. Amish women do not wear jewelry.

Men and boys wear dark-colored suits, straight-cut coats without lapels, broadfall trousers, suspenders, solid-colored shirts, black socks and shoes, and black or straw broad-brimmed hats. Their shirts fasten with conventional buttons, but their suit coats and vests fasten with hooks and eyes. They do not have mustaches, but they grow beards after they marry.

The Amish feel these distinctive clothes encourage humility and separation from the world. Their clothing is not a costume; it is an expression of their faith.


"Why don't the Amish use electricity?"

"Amish people interpret linking with electrical wires as a connection with the world - and the Bible tells them they are not to be "conformed to the world." (Romans 12:2) In 1919 the Amish leaders agreed that connecting to power lines would not be in the best interest of the Amish community. They did not make this decision because they thought electricity was evil in itself, but because easy access to it could lead to many temptations and the deterioration of church and family life.


Most of us today would think it impossible to live without the modern conveniences such as electricity and cars. What makes the Old Order Amish unique is not that they get along without modernity, but that they choose to do without it when it would be readily available. The Amish value simplicity and self-denial over comfort, convenience and leisure. Their lifestyle is a deliberate way of separating from the world and maintaining self-sufficiency. (Amish are less threatened by power shortages caused by storm, disaster, or war.) As a result there is a bonding that unites the Amish community and protects it from outside influences such as television, radios, and other influences."


"Why do Amish men have beards, but not mustaches?"

"There are quite a few scripture that mention beards in the Bible. An example would be Psalm 133:1,2. An Amishman does not shave his beard after he becomes married; a long beard is the mark of an adult Amishman. Mustaches, on the other hand, have a long history of being associated with the military, and therefore are forbidden among the Amish people."


"Do the Amish pay taxes?"

"Self-employed Amish do not pay Social Security tax. Those employed by non-Amish employers do pay Social Security tax. The Amish do pay real estate, state and federal income taxes, county taxes, sales tax, etc.

The Amish do not collect Social Security benefits, nor would they collect unemployment or welfare funds. Self sufficiency is the Amish community's answer to government aid programs. Section 310 of the Medicare section of the Social Security act has a sub-section that permits individuals to apply for exemption from the self-employment tax if he is a member of a religious body that is conscientiously opposed to social security benefits but that makes reasonable provision of taking care of their own elderly or dependent members. The Amish have a long history of taking care of their own members. They do not have retirement communities or nursing homes; in most cases, each family takes care of their own, and the Amish community gives assistance as needed."


"What crops are grown on an Amish farm?"

"Main crops raised by Amish in Lancaster County, in order of acreage, are corn, hay, wheat, tobacco, soybeans, barley, potatoes, and other vegetables. Farmers also grow various grasses for grazing. Corn, grain, and hay crops usually stay on the farm for feeding livestock. Tobacco, potatoes, some grain and hay plus vegetables are raised for marketing. Farming is done with horsedrawn equipment with metal wheels (no rubber tires)."


"What do the Amish think of tourists visiting their area?"

"Amish people want nothing more than to simply be left alone. However, for the most part they have accepted the influx of tourism as something they cannot change. So far as their lifestyle, tourists have not changed the Amish. It is true that some have moved away, partly because of tourism, but also because of the high cost of land in Lancaster County. Others have opened small shops and are now realizing profits from the tourists."


"Why are all the buggies black?"

"Throughout the United States and in Canada not all buggies are black. The similarity of Amish carriages in any given area allows little for status, but speaks of all being equal. Therefore, members of a particular group can be identified by the buggies they drive. In Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, for example, there are five distinct groups of Old Order Amish living in the Kishacoquillas Valley. The two most conservative groups drive white-topped buggies, another has yellow tops, and two others use black buggies. Here in Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish drive gray buggies and the Old Order Mennonites drive black buggies."


"How does a barn raising work?"

"A barn-raising is indeed a community endeavor for the Amish. At daybreak, the Amish buggies arrive at the farm where the barn is to be erected. An experienced Amish carpenter/contractor is in charge and men are assigned to various areas of work. Often the framing is completed before the noon meal and in the afternoon the roofing is installed. Meanwhile the women are preparing a delicious noon meal, sometimes served outdoors. There is always prayer before a meal is served. The children play games and are available to run errands. But they also have a most exciting day as spectators at a truly amazing project of brotherly love---building a barn in one day."


"What language do the Amish speak?"

"In their homes and in conversations with each other, the Old Order Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German. We understand that it is similar to "Platt" that is spoken in parts of northern Germany. When children go to school they learn English. In their worship services the sermons are given in German. The German language, "Deitch", is also taught in Amish schools."


"Why do Amish men wear black hats?"

"Here in Lancaster County, the Amish men wear broad-brimmed hats of black felt. The width of the brim and hat band and the height and shape of the crown are variables which gauge the orthodoxy of the group and individual wearer. A wide brim, low crown, and narrow hat band denotes the oldest and most traditional style. Within church groups, one's age and status is often reflected by the dimensions of one's hat. For warm weather, straw hats are preferred by plain men."


"Do Amish families play games?"

"Yes, Amish families do play games and read together in the evenings. Parents are involved in their children's activities. However, there are not long evenings in an Amish family. When the children get home from school, there are chores that must be done. At an early age, children have responsibilities assigned to them. After the evening meal, the school homework must be tackled, and before long it is bedtime. Amish are early risers and therefore go to bed early."


"Do the Amish still milk their cows by hand?"

"Very few Amish, if any, do their milking by hand. Today they have modern milking equipment -- not electric, but operated by alternate sources of power. In order to ship milk, the Amish must have modern refrigerated milk tanks. They also have modern barn-cleaning equipment. Children get involved in daily chores at a very early age -- even before they start school. However, the chores are suited to the age of the child."


"What holidays do you ceIebrate and why?"

"Holidays observed by the Amish are the religious holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Whit Monday (the day after pentecost). The reasons for these observances are to fast and meditate on scriptures related to these days. We should also mention that December 25 is a solemn celebration of Christ's birth and "second Christmas" on December 26 is a time for visiting and family dinners."


"Do the Amish use modern medicine and doctors?"

"Most Amish and Mennonite groups to not oppose modern medicine. Their readiness to seek health services varies from family to family. Nothing in the Amish understanding of the Bible forbids them from using modern medical services, including surgery, hospitalization, dental work, anesthesia, blood transfusions, etc. They do believe, however, that good health, both physical and mental, is a gift from God and requires careful stewardship on the part of the individual. With few exceptions, physicians rate the Amish as desirable patients: they are stable, appreciative, and their bills will be paid. They do not have hospitalization insurance, but they band together to help pay medical expenses for anyone of their group who needs financial assistance. A designated leader in the Amish community is given responsibility for their mutual aid fund."


"Do Amish women still use midwives for childbirth?"

"Some Amish women go to "English" doctors and have their babies in local hospitals; others go to birthing centers; and some choose to have midwives who will deliver the babies at home. It is a matter of preference. We do not have statistics as to how many midwives are in Lancaster County."


"What are common Amish names?"

"According to John A. Hostetler, author of Amish Society, the most common family names among the Amish in Lancaster county are: Stoltzfus, King, Fisher, Beiler, and Lapp. The most common first names for males are: John, Amos, Samuel, Daniel, and David. The most common first names for females are: Mary, Rebecca, Sarah, Katie, and Annie."


"What are the differences between Amish and Mennonite groups?"

"It is impossible to answer this question with a few simple sentences. There are so many varieties of Mennonites and Amish around the world that we cannot cover the many shades of belief and practice among them. It is true that most Mennonite and Amish groups have common historical roots. Both were part of the early Anabaptist movement in Europe, which took place at the time of the Reformation. A group led by Jacob Amman broke from the Mennonites in 1693 and became known as "Amish." Amish and Mennonites are Christian fellowships; they stress that belief must result in practice. The differences among the various Amish and Mennonite groups through the years have almost always been ones of practice rather than basic Christian doctrine."


"How do the Amish hold a funeral?"

"Here in Lancaster County, funeral and burial usually takes place three days after death. A funeral director from the local area assists in a minimal way, which usually includes embalming, and sometimes includes supplying the coffin and the hearse. In death, as in life the simplicity is evident. A plain wooden coffin is built. Often it is six-sided with a split lie - the upper part is hinged so it can be opened for viewing the body. It is very simple - no ornate carving or fine fabrics. Traditionally a woman will wear the white apron she wore on her wedding day. In some Amish communities both men and women wear white for burial. The tone of the two-hour Amish funeral service is hopeful, yet full of admonition for the living. There are no eulogies. Respect for the deceased is expressed, but not praise. A hymn is spoken but not sung. There are no flowers. The grave is hand dug in an Amish church district cemetery. There will be only a simple tombstone to mark the spot, much like all the other tombstones in the cemetery - in death as in life, we are all equal and do not elevate one person above another."


"Is it true that dolls for girls have no faces?"

"Our understanding is that years ago, most of the dolls for little girls were rag dolls without faces. The Amish have retained this custom. We believe the reason is similar to the refusal to have pictures of people and is linked to the second commandment. (Exodus 20:4-6) At an early age children are learning not to have images, likenesses, idols."


"I have heard the Amish will place a small mistake or imperfection in a quilt or other handmade item. Why is this done?"

"We've heard that many years ago sometimes a scrap of fabric that didn't quite match was used inconspicuously in a patchwork quilt to give it "identity." We question whether this is true. We don't know of any quilters who would do that today. Amish quilts are all band quilted; stitches are very small and uniform. But, no matter how hard one tries, the stitches are not all identical and perfect. A quilt may have an imperfection, but it wasn't on purpose."


"Do the Amish play any form of musical instrument?"

"No. Musical instruments are forbidden by the Old 0lder Amish community. Playing an instrument would be "worldly." It is contrary to the spirit of "Glassenheit" (humility), and would stir up the emotions of those who are involved."


"I know that the Amish don't own automobiles, but in our area it is common to see them riding in other peoples' vehicles. Some even have made a business of offering rides, for a fee, to them. If the Amish don't believe in owning automobiles, it seems strange that they would ride in them. Seems inconsistent to me. Why is this?"

"Maintaining Amish standards, but accepting some modernization to meet needs of living, requires compromise that must not disrupt the social structure. By rejecting certain types of modernity and accepting others, some Amish appear to the outside world to be contradicting themselves - hypocrites. However, from the viewpoint of Amish culture, there is no contradiction. One of the more pronounced inconsistencies is the use of an automobile...although he may not own a car, a member may accept rides and willingly hires an automobile with a driver to transport him from place to place. There was little hesitation when the Amish decided "no" to car ownership. It would separate the community in various ways. If only wealthy members could afford it, the car would bring inequality. Proud individuals would use it to show off their status, power and wealth. Cars would speed things up dramatically, disrupting the slow pace of Amish living. So, they will use them but not own them, for then things will surely get out of control."


"Do the amish believe in gas power?"

"Yes, the Amish use gas. Bottled gas is used to operate water heaters, modern stoves and refrigerators. Gas-pressured lanterns and lamps are used to light homes, barns and.shops."


"Is it true the Amish are exempt from Medicare and Medicaid withholding? What legal basis is used for this?"

"Medicare and Medicaid are a part of the Social Security system. Old Order Amish believe that if the church is faithful to its calling, many government programs and commercial insurance are not needed. That conviction forced them to testify before Congress because they did not want to receive Social Security benefits. What they wanted instead was the right to look after their own elderly. They were finally given approval, if self-employed, to be exempt from paying the tax. Seldom do Old Order Amish individuals accept Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid."


"Why do Old Order Amish not like having their pictures taken?"

"Old Order Amish and Mennonites forbid photography of their people, and their objection is based on the second commandment, Exodus 20:4: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth"."


"Do the Amish look upon the rest of society, those who are not of an Anabaptist tradition, as heathen?"

"The Amish have deliberately made decisions as to what will or will not be allowed among members of the Amish community. The Amish do not pass judgment on outsiders."


"I understand your belief in nonresistance and pacifism. Does this principal extend to personal situations where you are confronted with imminent evil - say a known murderer confronting you and your family in your home? Can you use force to preserve your life in this situation? To what extent? What is the Biblical basis for your position?"

"Both Amish and Mennonites are committed to a lifestyle of peace and non-violence. Yes, this pervades every aspect of life. However, no one can predict with certainty how anyone would really react to an absolutely unprecedented crisis such as described above. Emotions as well as thoughts are involved and the situation is personalized. Having said this, we would hope that as people who have practiced a lifestyle of peace, we would not resort to force and violence in a crisis situation such as the one described.

We must briefly make several points:

1.       There is no assurance that use of force would save my life or the life of my family if confronted by an attacker.

2.       We could recall many accounts of unhoped for deliverances, whether by mediation, nature, or divine Providence, when Christians refused to use force when confronted by an attacker.

3.       If the result is death at the hands of the attacker, so be it; death is not threatening to us as Christians. Hopefully the attacker will have at least had a glimpse of the love of Christ in our nonviolent response.

4.       The Christian does not choose a nonviolent approach to conflict because of assurance it will always work; rather the Christian chooses this approach because of his/her commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.

The analogy to war in the situation described above tends to break down when we think of the vast preparations for war -- accumulation of weapons, training of the military, etc. War is planned and seldom is aggression so clearly defined with the defense staying on its home turf.

Some of the Biblical references for peace and non-resistance are: Matthew 5:38-48; John 18:36; Romans 12:18-21; and I Corinthians 6:18."


"Why are Amish schools different?"

Amish girls walking to school

For the many Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite children living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the ringing school bell signals a time to shift attention from field work to school work, a time to drop the plow and pick up a pencil.

Old Order children attend one-room schools through the eighth grade and are usually taught by a young, unmarried woman. As a result of the County's growing Old Order population, enrollment in their one-room schools is surging. During recent years Old Order leaders have been over-seeing the construction of new one-room school buildings at the rate of about five per year.

A 1972 Supreme Court ruling exempted the Old Order sects from compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade. The one-room schools restrict worldly influences and stress the basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic. The importance of the community and cooperation among its members are also emphasized.


The following is a description of a typical day in an Amish school:

Amish boys walking to school

"School for Old Order Amish and Mennonites is only a part of the learning necessary for preparation for the adult world. Children have formal schooling in one-room schools to 8th grade and then have a structured learning program supervised by their parents. Classes in the one-room Amish schools are conducted in English, and the children learn English when they go to school. The teachers are Amish and they have no more than an eighth grade education themselves. When the landmark United States Supreme Court decision of 1972 gave exemption for Amish and related groups from state compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade, Chief Justice Burger wrote: "it is neither fair nor correct to suggest that the Amish are opposed to education beyond the eighth grade level. What this record shows is that they are opposed to conventional formal education of the type provided by a certified high school because it comes at the child's crucial adolescent period of religious development."


Mennonites, on the other hand, have dozens of parochial elementary schools, more than 20 high schools, eleven colleges, and three seminaries sponsored by Mennonite groups in North America. Mennonite families choose whether to send their children to public or church-sponsored schools. Higher education became a vocational necessity as Mennonites left the farm. Missions and service opportunities also gave rise to the need for higher education."