The Plain PeopleThe Pennsylvania Dutch emigrated from Germany in the 1720s, when Amish and Mennonites followed William Penn and his “holy experiment” of religious tolerance. The two sects formed out of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement and the core tenet that only adult believers should be baptized. Menno Simons, a Catholic priest from Holland, joined the Anabaptist movement in 1536; his followers were known as Mennonites. Swiss bishop Jacob Amman broke from the Mennonite church in 1693, and those who followed him were called Amish. While Amman agreed with many Mennonite principles, he believed that church members should live apart from the world and its earthly temptations.
The Amish and Mennonites still share the same views about baptism and Bible doctrines, but they differ in how their beliefs should be applied in daily life. Moderate Mennonites, who have no restrictions about wardrobe or cars, go unnoticed in the general public, while Amish and Old Order Mennonites stand out with their old-fashioned bonnets and horse-drawn buggies.
The Amish stress humility, piety and community—individuality is a sin of pride. Plain, solid-colored clothing prevents vanity and marks the group as separate. Members shun technology for its power to erode traditional farming values and close-knit ties. (Horses and carriages limit the distance traveled away from home and family; hand-powered tools ensure the virtue of hard work.) While the Amish can't own a car, they may accept a ride if it's necessary, and a communal phone is generally allowed for emergencies and business uses. Each church district decides what modern conveniences to accept or reject, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and a set of rules called the Ordnung, which dictates how members express their faith through everyday living. Almost all congregations draw the line at electricity—and the intrinsic dangers of TV, radio and the Internet—but 12-volt batteries, diesel farm equipment and propane gas refrigerators are commonly used.
Though the Amish are strict in their values, they don't expect special treatment from the outside world. They speak English with others (their main tongue is Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect, and High German is used for worship). Dairy farmers rely on modern but non-electric equipment to conform to USDA standards. The Amish pay taxes but won't accept Social Security, Medicare or other government assistance, nor will they serve in the military.
Amish children are usually educated in one-room schoolhouses that teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and students leave at 16 to work in the fields. Teenagers are encouraged to go out into the contemporary world and “sow their wild oats” before accepting baptism into the church. Amish couples generally marry in their early 20s and produce large families (an average of seven children). Bachelors remain clean-shaven; married men wear untrimmed beards. Members shun drinking, smoking and swearing; lying is grounds for excommunication. A sense of community is key: church members assist newlyweds in buying farmland and establishing a household—barn-raisings are a traditional gift—and friends and neighbors help care for the sick and elderly.
In an age of computers and cellphones, the Amish face a constant struggle to preserve their simple way of life. Daily contact with visitors in Lancaster County offers another challenge—exposure to “English” ways. Many Amish believe that self-portraits are images of vanity or pride, so be respectful when taking photographs. Above all, watch for slow-moving vehicles as you travel the back roads. You'll know the Amish farms by their distinctive green window shades and, at night, the flicker of kerosene lamps.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country, PA
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