Three Things I Learned from Hanging Around the Amish

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Photo via Anita Ritenour

When we moved to Ohio five years ago, we were surprised to find ourselves settled next to the largest concentration of Amish in the United States. All of a sudden, there were buggies rolling up the hill at Wal-Mart, lots of beards and bonnets on sunny mornings at the Farmers’ Market.

I determined to get to know a few. Making connections with members of that community became a priority for me. It wasn’t easy. Some Amish people can be standoffish, closed. We were fortunate to get to know a couple who were open to us. That relationship led to a chance to attend an Amish church.

Over the years, these interactions have taught me some important things. Here are three.

1. The Amish are more diverse than you might imagine.

From the outside it’s easy to assume all Amish people are the same: they all drive buggies, they all dress alike, they all refuse to use electricity. None of that is true. The Amish inhabit a wide spectrum.

On one end are the Swartzentrubers, a group that eschews most modern technology and restricts their social lives to those within the group. On the other end are the Beachy Amish. They might use the Internet and many drive cars. Between these poles fall a number of other sub-groups, the most prominent being the Old Order Amish.

Even among the groups, there is variation. Each Amish community functions independently to set its limits and structures. That means that an Amish community in one area might say no to having telephones, while another somewhere else might allow them.

These differences are subtle but important for understanding the Amish way of life.

2. The Amish, just like every religious group, contains people of varying religiosity.

If you go down to your local Presbyterian church one Sunday morning and look around, you’ll see a group of people living at various levels of commitments to their faith. The same is true for Amish groups.

It’s easy to imagine that every Amish person is deeply committed to his faith. The truth is that every Amish group has people who take their faith, on a personal level, more or less seriously. Of course, the group as a whole takes the faith seriously and structures the lives of its members by church services and meetings.

But that doesn’t mean that every single member of an Amish community is committed to acts of daily Christian devotion. It would be wrong to assume that every Amish person is committed to daily private study of the Bible or even to daily private prayer. Somewhere, I’m sure, there is an Amish person who is an atheist.

Because Amish customs obscure the individuality of the particular members of the community, we non-Amish tend to think they are all the same. Nothing could be further from reality.

3. We non-Amish are more caught up in our system than we think.

It’s easy to tell ourselves that we value the same things as the Amish. We care about family. We care about community. We care about living simply and not buying every single thing we’re told to.

Spending time with the Amish makes clear how often those sentiments are expressed within the assumptions of our contemporary consumerist system. Most of us never reflect on how deep our training in this system goes. It takes spending time around people who haven’t been trained in that system to see it.

When we non-Amish want to tone down our materialism, we mean we’re only going to the mall once a month; we don’t mean we intend to make all our own clothes. When we say we care about sticking with the place where we live, we mean we’re not going to move unless a really good job opens up somewhere else; we don’t mean we’re going to stop driving.

Being around the Amish has shown me to what a great extent the modern American puts convenience at the heart of life. For most of us convenience is a very big value. We like being able to jump into the car and drive to the store when we need something. The Amish often build barriers to convenience into their lives. They want to make it difficult to leave the family, the community, the place. And this, more than even their dress or other odd habits, makes them seem odd to us.

Living near the Amish has been an education and one of the best things about our time in Central Ohio. My goal is to learn even more, to make even more friends among that group because the more I learn about the Amish, the more I learn about the non-Amish and the more I learn about myself.


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