December 23, 2006

Living in an Amish paradise

I went to school in Waterloo, Ontario, only a few miles away from the heart of Old Order Mennonite country. The local culture had me hooked pretty much from the first time I spotted a horse and buggy. There are relatively few places in the world where you can find a hitching post or stall standing outside a modern supermarket - or, as often as not, find it occupied as its owner shops for prepackaged groceries inside, while dressed in a long black dress, bonnet, and . . . Nikes. As I knew of the Old Order Mennonites and Amish only as a sect that had eschewed modern technology, the seemingly selective morality the Amish practiced in their day-to-day lives fascinated me for the eight years that I lived there.1

In the aftermath of the Amish school shootings on October 2 in Lancaster County, I heard an interview on CNN with Donald B. Kraybill, a sociology professor at nearby Elizabethtown College and expert on Amish culture, give a background interview and discuss how the community would cope with the tragedy. Later the same day, I came across an article by Howard Rheingold from the January 1999 issue of Wired, also citing Kraybill, about the adoption by some Amish of cellular telephones.2 This article suggested that there was actually a (more or less) logical rationale behind the selective rejection of technology. I decided to find Kraybill's book The Riddle of Amish Culture3 and finally learn something about this paradoxical sect.

The church is central to Amish life. There is no central authority for the sect: each community is divided into districts along geographical and population lines. Every other Sunday the church meets in a different home for worship, a common meal, and fellowship; there is no purpose-built church building. Each district is overseen by a bishop and a group of ministers, who are chosen by lot from the male members of the church and serve for life. The bishops are responsible for preserving the Ordnung, the unwritten traditions that regulate community life, including dress, the use of German, the colour and style of Amish buggies, and the use of technology.

Contrary to the common perception, the Amish are not anti-technology. Nor is their selective use of some modern conveniences arbitrary or hypocritical. Rather, they are late adopters who first carefully consider the effects of new technology on the community before rejecting or accepting it (as Rheingold puts it, the Amish are "adaptive techno-selectives"). Kraybill describes this decision-making process in terms of "social capital." The Amish value community over individuality. Stronger community ties, face-to-face visiting, and a visible distinction from the world increase social capital, so technologies that encourage them tend to be the ones that are adopted. Conversely, technology that depletes social capital by discouraging these things tend to be rejected. Somewhere in the middle are things like calculators and gas-powered weed trimmers, which are often used discreetly and have no visible negative effects, and are quietly tolerated.

The cover of The Riddle of Amish Culture depicts two teenage girls in Plain dress, skating on rollerblades. However incongruous the photo may seem, it illustrates the concept of social capital well. The Plain style is the uniform of the Amish: by mandating a common style of clothing in simple colours for all, it acts against vanity and pride manifesting themselves in gaudy, trendy, or expensive outfits. Rollerblading is an activity that can be done in groups. Thus the incongruous elements actually work toward the same goal of building social capital: Plain dress builds it by marking the girls as social equals and distinct from the "English," while the rollerblades build it by making an opportunity for personal interaction.

Ownership and use

The car is one of the technologies that the Amish are famous for rejecting. When motor vehicles first appeared on the roads, they were generally the playthings of the rich. Even today, when a car is a practical necessity rather than a luxury, it is still a status symbol: who rich you are determines what make of car you can afford. Also, the car enables people to go long distances very quickly. Thus it decreases social capital in at least two ways: it creates class distinctions, and erodes the boundaries of the community. Possession of a car, or even a driver's license, is a serious violation of the Ordnung, worthy even of expulsion from the church.

However, while the Amish forbid the ownership of a car, they do not forbid their use outright. Rather, they recognize the benefit of cars for shopping trips, visiting distant friends and relatives, or transporting Amish construction crews to work sites. While car ownership decreases social capital, car use can increase it. Thus the Amish will often hire local drivers to taxi them (and they have always made use of surface public transportation, though not air travel).

A similar situation obtains with the use of the telephone. On the one hand, the phone depletes social capital by decreasing the need for personal contact. Why visit when you can phone? It also harms the community by enabling gossip behind closed doors. On the other hand, the Amish recognized the benefits of having a phone for emergencies or calling business contacts. Hence the bishops reached a solution: the "community phone," installed in an outbuilding (a "telephone shanty") and shared between households. This compromise gives the Amish the benefits of telephone use while making telephoning into a public act to discourage its abuse. Of course, the option of using a pay phone or a willing neighbour's is also available. As Rheingold points out in his article, however, the introduction of tiny, portable cellphones has posed a new set of challenges to the Amish community, quoting Diane Zimmerman Umble, author of Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life:4

In the early part of the community discussion, electrical and telephone lines carried substantial symbolic freight. . . . But now, in the absence of the line, behavior can't be monitored in the same way. It is harder to maintain separation between home and business when you have a cell phone in your pocket. In that sense it tests the community consensus about what is allowable.5

Air, oil, and electricity

More than the automobile, the Amish are known for shunning electricity. The grid is almost the epitome of "worldliness." Not only does electricity come from (and force dependence upon) the world, but it powers many worldly conveniences such as hair dryers, microwave ovens, and deep freezes; and it enables the introduction of worldly influences through radio, television, and the Internet.

Again, however, the proscription against electricity is not an absolute. Amish dairy farmers conceded to public health concerns in the 1960s by installing refrigerated bulk tanks and electric stirrers. But instead of running off the grid, the power comes from 12-volt batteries charged by diesel generators. Farmers may also operate electric welders to maintain their farm equipment, and merchants may use a 110-volt inverter to power a cash register. The Ordnung is difficult to change but not cast in concrete, and as long as the power is self-generated, electrical equipment that is vital to one's livelihood is permitted.

But what the Amish are forbidden to do with AC power, they find other ways to do. One dictum that guides the bishops' decision-making is, "If you can do it with oil or air, you can do it." Hence the Amish have become quite industrious at devising hydraulic or pneumatic alternatives to electricity. This "Amish electricity" powers state-of-the-art machinery in Amish metal or woodworking shops. Even a home kitchen might have an air-powered mixer or food processor (along with modern propane stoves and refrigerators).

Horsepower and diesel power

A similar dictum is, "If you can pull it with horses, you can have it." The horse is a visible symbol or Amish culture that separates them from the world. Tractors are forbidden in the field, because they replace horses (and are seen as taking a step towards cars). Other self-propelled farm implements are similarly prohibited. But an implement like a motorized hay baler is permitted, as long as it is drawn by horses, because it enables farmers to bale and store hay more efficiently. An automated bale loader would still be prohibited, because it takes away work that could be done by young Amish. But again, when technology is vital to one's livelihood, the bishops are more tolerant. In nearly all Amish communities, tractors are permitted in and around the barn, where they supply needed mechanical power. Wikipedia's article on the Amish even mentions one farmer who was ordered by his bishop to buy a tractor for field use, because his arthritis prevented him from working with horses. All vehicles, self-propelled or not, must have steel wheels - again, because rubber tires are seen as a step towards the car. (Since in the Waterloo area, many buggies are built with automobile tires, I infer that this particular rule is not part of the local Ordnung.)

Since I am (apparently) one of the last people in the world to resist owning a cellphone, I used to describe myself to my friends as a "Luddite." Now that I've read The Riddle of Amish Culture, I tend to think of myself as "Amish." I don't hate technology like the Luddites (I am, after all, writing this for a blog).6 Rather, I've observed the negative effect that the callphone has had on social interaction, and decided I don't want to contribute to that effect any further. Similarly, I don't own a car, primarily for economic reasons, but also because I can go about my daily life without one (or borrow or rent one when I do need it), so it is a needless luxury.

The Amish have thought long and hard for over 300 years about what a Christian society should look like. Indeed, the centrality of the church, the emphasis on community over individual, the strong social safety net, and the careful consideration of technology's effects on their society are all derived from Biblical principle. That's why it's a pity that having thought so intently about the social aspects of Christianity, the Amish have missed the heart of the Gospel itself. Amish piety is practically graceless. Salvation comes through obedience to the Ordnung and trusting that God will work things out for the best. For an Amishman to say he knows he is saved, is considered the height of arrogance. Even knowing too much of the Bible (which presents assurance as a fact) or interpreting it for himself is a sign of pride. Amish piety is a nearly graceless form of works-salvation that is no salvation at all. Sadly, their culture and the Ordnung severely limits their exposure to other Christians who could explain the way of God more accurately.

Kraybill, though scholarly, is an accessible writer, making The Riddle of Amish Culture an easy read despite its complex subject matter. He is sympathetic without being uncritical. While the book focuses on the relationship of the Amish with their technology, he also covers other aspects of Amish life, such as education, social welfare, their relationship with the "English," and the effect of tourism on the community. Kraybill's history is basically limited to major controversies in the sect in recent years; a more comprehensive look at their origins and history would have been nice. But for anyone wanting an in-depth introduction to this deceptively primitive counter-culture, this is an excellent place to start.


1 The Joy of Sects footnote: I believe that technically the local horse-and-buggy Anabaptists were Old Order Mennonites rather than Amish; the difference is one of history and tradition. The general principles I describe in this article apply to many Old Order sects, even if specific practices differ by group or community. Be aware that I am speaking in generalities.

2 Howard Rheingold, "Look Who's Talking," Wired January 1999, 128-31, 160-63; available from <>; Internet; accessed 21 December 2006.

3 Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001).

4 Diane Zimmerman Umble, Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996).

5 Rheingold, "Look Who's Talking," 163.

6 You Can't Crash a Notepad footnote: But I did write the first draft with pen and paper.