The Amish are a community that is often touched upon in media and pop-culture but few of us know much about. This is because of their reserved, but not secretive, nature that has led the communities in which they reside, to become quite isolated from the modern world, especially as they tend to shun the use of modern technologies.
Here we take a look at a few of the little-known facts about these traditionalist Christian church fellowships and hopefully tell you something you don't know about them.
1. Mixed Health
For the most part, the Amish community is exceedingly healthy and this comes from their agrarian lifestyles where they have high levels of physical activity and live off the land. With diets that consist of what they can grow and rear, they don't have any preservatives or junk food and because they avoid the trappings of modern life, they also only suffer a fraction of the stress from it.
However, due to an insular community lifestyle, the gene pool tends to be quite small with a population of around 250,000 hailing from roughly 200 families. This can lead to some congenital defects but, given their private nature, the general public is often aware of these in the Amish community.
2. Origins and Beliefs
The word “Amish” is derived from the name of Jakob Ammann, who was a Swiss anabaptist. Taking from his teachings and beliefs, these churches take a very literal interpretation of the bible and this is why they avoid much of the technology of the modern day and keep their communities isolated.
Anabaptists believe that baptism should only be done once one is able to willingly confess their faith and as such, in the Amish faith baptism happens most often between 18-22 years old and until then the person cannot marry and when they do, it must be to another church member.
Their literal interpretation of the bible means that they serve strict tenets of non-violence making them strict pacifists that do not take part in the military or any other form of organized militia. Only one man has ever been convicted of homicide within their community although they have come under attack on various occasions.
When events like this do occur, it can be devastating to a community, especially one as private as these when police and media descend upon them.
4. Modern Appliances
Part of the Amish lifestyle often sees communities shunning modern luxuries but, depending on the views of each community, this can change from place to place. While their houses are not connected to power grids, many Amish have gas-powered generators to operate appliances like refrigerators and water heaters.
They do not have phones but there may be a phone booth in town whilst cars are not allowed but accepting a lift or hiring a taxi is not seen as a problem. One of the strangest concessions is the Amish laptop called a Deskmate. A no-frills computer, it is solely for work, does not connect to the Internet, play videos, or have any games and only has word processing and spreadsheet capabilities.
5. Toys and Recreation
With a distinct lack of electronics and an ideology that revolves around discouraging a lack of vanity or pride, Amish children's toys are often carved out of wood and represent the things they see and work with day in and day out. This means a lot of them are wooden farmyard animals or cart horses.
One such toy is the faceless doll that has the same dress as the Amish but no facial features. This comes from both the religious belief that humans should not make graven images and that only God can make people and that a perfect face may encourage vanity.
When teenagers turn 16-years-old they enter a small period of time referred to as Rumspringa where they are allowed to undertake activities usually not permitted in Amish communities. This is to allow them to experience the outside world and decide whether they want to stay on in the Amish community or leave and become part of the outside society.
Often more symbolic, some go to a movie theater or for a driving lesson but some have been known to consume drugs and alcohol. Many leave the community for this period and visit large cities or towns and should they choose to leave they are excommunicated and may never speak to anyone from the Amish community again, including parents and siblings.
7. Amish Celebrities
Although Amish communities do not elevate anyone above others, therefore do not have celebrities, there are some noted stars who were raised in Amish communities. The actor Verne Troyer was raised as Amish and went on to play Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films. Despite his congenital disorder making him just 81 centimeters (2’8″) tall, he claims the community “never treated me any different than my other average sized siblings. I used to have to carry wood, feed the cows and pigs and farm animals.”
Another star who was raised Amish was Kate Stoltzfus who featured on the TV show Breaking Amish which followed her Rumspringa experience and her decision on whether to stay a part of her Amish community or to leave and go out into the wider world. Kate left to become a model and even did a shoot for Maxim magazine.
8. Retention Rate and Population Numbers
The Amish first immigrated to North America in the early 1700’s, primarily settling down in Pennsylvania and with relatively small numbers, they set up their isolated settlements. However, despite rumspringa giving teenagers the chance to experience things outside of their religion, between 80-90% of Amish children stay within the church.
The Amish tend to have large families with six or seven children and occasionally get a rare convert, despite not being evangelical or recruiting, so that their population doubles every 20 years or so.
9. Barn Raising
Seen as a festive time in Amish communities, barn raisings are an economic and social event where the community comes together to build a barn for one of its members. It is exactly this type of event that typifies the community spirit and reliance on your neighbor that the Amish try and engender in themselves.
Another example of this are the church services that take place in a different member's house each week rather than a single church building.
10. Gender Roles
Whilst men are the typical breadwinners and head of the household, women take on more of a homemaker role which includes cooking, home management, and helping neighbors. When out in public, the wife will generally follow her husband's lead. A woman is required to sew her own wedding outfit (often it will be blue) and will then continue to use it for Sunday services.
Amish men will often grow beards due to them being prevalent in the bible but this is only permitted once that man is married and he will begin growing it from his wedding day onward. The men do not often grow mustaches, however, as wearing elaborate mustaches was common among those in the military for a period and the tradition stems from not wanting to be associated with any sort of military or organized fighting force.
11. Shunning and Ex-Communication
Should members of the society go against the community or the church they can be punished in one of two ways. The first is shunning, where the rest of the community limit contact with the transgressor so as to show them how life outside of the church would be without their neighbors as well as shaming them back into the church.
The more serious punishment is excommunication where contact is completely forbidden and the person being punished is banished from the community. Breaking the no contact rule can lead others to be excommunicated. You can be excommunicated for owning a computer, drinking alcohol, or even refusing to kneel during church.
Amish children learn in community schoolhouses and are taught by Amish teachers where they learn skills specific to the community such as vocational training in farming and carpentry. Often, this will see members of the community come in and teach these specific skills to the next generation.
The schools are usually one-room parochial schoolhouses due to the relatively small sizes of these communities.
Very few Amish cast ballots in Presidential elections as they feel it does not directly affect them with only around 10-15% of them doing so, however, this does not mean they are devoid from political life altogether. Often they will vote on local community matters that will affect them, such as zoning etc.
The Amish believe in a law of God above all other law and support the separation of Church and State.
Often uncomfortable around outsiders, whom they refer to as 'English', the Amish isolate themselves but do not completely cut themselves off from others as they aim to coexist without it impacting their lifestyle and traditions.
Some groups are used to tourism and are more than willing to show people around their communities as a way of earning money, albeit in a limited capacity to make sure not too much outside influence affects them.
Despite trying to avoid outside influence and modern technology, the Amish are not against using modern medicine, especially in serious cases, although they will try and avoid it if possible.
The Amish don't believe in medical insurance though and therefore often lack the funds to receive any major treatments which will often result in community pooling together funds to pay for a sick community member.