The Old Order Amish are famously “plain” (their preferred descriptor), but their lives are anything but simple.
A dozen participants in a recent Good Faith Experience encounter with multiple Amish families learned just how complicated the “plain” life can be.
Well-tended farms in various stages of harvest bring a picture-perfect aspect to the rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where more than 35,000 Amish live. That’s a small percentage of the county’s total population of nearly 550,000, but it’s their presence that makes the area a tourist attraction.
That creates tension, given that a basic principle of Amish life is that one does not draw attention to oneself: hence the plain clothes that vary only by the color of men’s shirts or women’s dresses. Men’s solid-colored suspenders negate the temptation to wear a decorative belt buckle, and the only pins women wear are an assortment of straight pins holding their aprons together.
One-room schools with freestanding outhouses dot the countryside so that most children can walk or ride non-motorized scooters to school. Formal education ends with the eighth grade, or whenever a student turns 15 and is expected to take on a part time job in addition to responsibilities at home.
Math is emphasized most heavily, followed by lessons in English and German, along with a bit of history and geography. Science and social studies aren’t generally part of the curriculum.
Does that make things simple? Hardly. All children grow up to be bi-lingual or even tri-lingual, given that they speak a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch as their first language, and conduct church services in the same High German spoken by Martin Luther (They still use Luther’s translation of the Bible.).
Children likewise learn far more about electricity and mechanical things than the average American. Amish families live off the grid, but supply power to farm and dairy equipment with generators.
Lights and power tools (including drills used to whip potatoes) run on batteries, typically recharged by solar cells. How many volts does that take? How many watts of power are needed? How do you hitch a horse to a buggy, or harness a six-mule team to a manure spreader? Many people with college degrees couldn’t answer questions that are second nature to Amish children.
As one friend we visited mixed silage to feed the dairy cows, his five-year-old son climbed onto the stationary tractor that powered the big auger and operated the controls to fill the feed cart. His baby brother slept in a stroller beside the tractor while his mom – just four weeks after giving birth – carried heavy pails of feed to a pen of growing calves.
They do this twice every day, long before daylight and then into the evening. A battery-powered light attached to the movable tank that feeds milk into the hydraulic system provides illumination.
Does that sound simple to you?
While farming is the ideal occupation for many, there’s not enough land for everyone, so many Amish work in other fields, especially construction. Sheds, barns, decks, concrete floors, and masonry often have the Amish touch.
Getting to work by horse and buggy is often impractical, however, meaning that they have to employ an “English” driver for transportation. Coordinating that without cell phones – or even landlines inside the home – can be a challenge.
Clothes get plenty dirty on a farm. They might get washed in a generator-driven washing machine but are nearly always dried on a long clothesline operated with a pulley. Most of the clothes are also made by hand, including the men’s black pants.
Every girl learns to sew as well as to mow the lawn, raise a garden, can vegetables, and cook a variety of foods.
Boys learn to use power tools, do carpentry work, and operate farm equipment.
Everybody learns to harness a horse and drive a buggy.
While the daily challenges of life are anything but simple, life can get complicated in other ways. Many Amish are happily committed to the “plain” life, but others are inclined to stretch the limits to embrace “faster” behaviors.
A couple of women we know dare to wear sweaters with subtle sparkles woven into the material, to sell goods using the internet, and to operate more appliances with solar power than the local bishop would approve. They also happen to be more affluent than many others, which can lead to tension when they gather for church.
Worship takes place every other Sunday, always in people’s homes. Many homes have a large basement or a second floor over the carriage house to accommodate up to a hundred people.
The Amish don’t choose a church to their liking but are assigned to a congregation in their geographical district, one they can reach by horse and buggy. There may be a spectrum of folks from traditionally plain to somewhat “faster,” but they follow the same pattern of filing in by gender and age, chanting the same hymns in High German, and listening to two sermons.
Hosting the service involves a lot of cooking, cleaning, arranging, and setting up of benches and tables from a “bench wagon” that must then be reloaded and pulled by horses or mules to the next host family’s home. Space must be cleared for parking carriages and stabling the horses that may have been driven a dozen miles or more.
Even when not hosting, just attending church involves getting up early and tending to chores before hitching up the horses for what can be a long ride to the host home, even on the coldest of days. What follows is a three-hour service, followed by a meal and an afternoon of socializing before heading back home.
It leads me to wonder how many of us stay in our pajamas on Sunday mornings because we think it’s just too much trouble to get dressed and drive our comfortable cars a few miles for a much shorter service.
I suspect we could all learn something about faithfulness from the Amish.
Plain and simple.
Author’s note: If you would like to visit the Amish, feel free to contact me at email@example.com to help us gauge interest in future experiences.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.