Being Amish In Knox County
by Claire Beckett, Molly Birkhead & Patricia Owen
Ella Miller* sits in a soft overstuffed chair, rocking her youngest child to sleep, while another daughter plays nearby on the floor. A third child, four years old, watches her mother quietly from across the small room. Ella, a New Order Amish woman, knows well the misconceptions that the rest of us sometimes have about her people: "Outsiders wonder what we do, but really our lives are very full." The room is simply furnished- there is a couch and a rocking chair- and despite the family's four children, there are few toys in sight. But the room feels full, and the children do not seem to lack for toys or something to do. "We like to play games in the evening, especially since John is in school now. We play ‘Sorry' and memory games. We feel things like T.V. take away from that time that you would spend with your children. This is why we do not believe in that sort of thing, it's not for a religious reason."
To many of us, the Amish seem like a distant group of people, although in Knox County they frequently live nearby, share our schools, and shop at the same stores that we do. Yet, because of their distinct way of life, it can be hard to see the many similarities between the Amish and the rest of the community. The Amish place great value on family, community and church. And their worries about raising their children right and keeping them safe from the hazards of the world are worries shared by many non-Amish. Still, the gap between the Amish and the English is not one easily bridged by either group.
Amish first migrated to Knox County around 1810, looking for a place to farm and to establish new church communities. There has been another influx of Amish into Knox County in the past ten years. These Amish have mostly come from surrounding communities in Wayne and Holmes County, drawn by substantially lower land prices.
|"When a community first starts someplace, a lot of English (the Amish term for non-Amish) don't want to have anything to do with us. But over the years we've proved what we are. You still have English people who just don't know and don't seem to want to know, who won't sell a piece of land to us or something like that," says David Hershberger, an Old Order Amish man. At the same time, David recognizes that it is often the Amish who isolate themselves from the English: "I usually feel that you should talk to English people. If people are going to ask questions, then you have to answer them. We get too many Amish who just don't want to talk; they're afraid to get involved with something that they don't want to be involved with. I think that we shouldn't be ashamed of what we are, why we are Amish."|
"There's a lot of difference in the Amish, just like you'd have, maybe Catholics, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Baptist, all those. You see, we have difference like that too," explains Martha Stoltzsfus, a member of the Beachy Church. When we think of the stereotype of the Amish—the horse and buggy, homes with neither plumbing nor electricity, and clothing without buttons—the image that we have created is only of the older orders. It does not characterize all Amish. In reality there is tremendous variety both within and between the Amish sects. This is largely due to the rules established by each individual church community. Because there is no central authority in the Amish faith responsible for universal guidelines, each church has the task of deciding for themselves how to put their beliefs into practice.
The oldest, and generally the strictest order, is the Schwartzentruber. They typically keep to themselves and believe in very limited use of modern technologies. These are the Amish who sell baked goods in Gambier. The Schwartzentruber are followed by the Old Order, who have similarly conservative beliefs. David describes the Old Order: "We believe in farming with horses only, no modern motorized machines. If there's a motor used it'll be stationary. Like if you bale hay, you bring all the hay to the bailer, and that's it. Our costumes are what we think our forefathers wore, as near as we can tell, with our hats a certain height and our brims a certain width. And your hair should be a certain length, give or take. As for clothing, women wear no light colors whatsoever. The men wear white shirts for Sunday to go to church. Other than that, dark."
The New Order Amish hold beliefs that differ from Old Order, although they are not necessarily more liberal. Jacob Miller, a New Order bishop in Holmes County, explains how they are different: "We do not believe in the use of tobacco, but the Old Order permits it. And a few years back we voted to have telephones. We also believe in responsibility to the larger community, that the Old Order doesn't. We visit people in institutions, like prisons who need spiritual help; we preach to them and sing to them."
The final sect, the Beachy, also feel an obligation to the outside. Missionary work and community service are central to their beliefs. "We feel that it is the Christian duty to do missionary work, to help others out. A lot of our people are out in the mission field, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, also over in Arkansas," Martha Stoltzsfus explains. They are also notably different because they worship in a church building while all other orders rotate church services among the homes of congregation members. Beachy also drive cars, and we were surprised to find that some even had car phones. Consistent with the other groups, Beachy do not have televisions in their homes.
An important similarity among all Amish groups is their shared language. The Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch which is a version of German that began to evolve when Amish first settled in the United States. Pennsylvania Dutch is the first language that Amish children speak, and they usually do not learn English until starting school at the age of six. In addition, standard or High German is spoken during church services.
Although the differences among the Amish are many, the basic religious beliefs of all the communities are the same. The Amish belong to the Anabaptist branch of Christianity. Mennonites and Hutterites are also Anabaptists. These faiths are rooted in the fundamental beliefs of pacifism, the separation of church and state, and anabaptism. Anabaptism means that baptism occurs not at birth, but when a person can consciously commit his or her life to God. This way, if individuals choose not to commit themselves to the Amish church, they can leave the community, unbaptized, in search of what they are looking for.
"I think that outside people think that the lack of material things is our salvation. It is not; it just helps us in simplicity, in keeping a simple life," says Ella. This simplicity of life is common across Amish communities, regardless of their material differences. Many of these traditional values do not have an explicit religious base, but help the Amish to maintain their spiritually-centered lives. "We want to live a separate life," Ella continues, "the styles and fashions that come and go, we try to stay away from them to keep our simplicity; to focus on Jesus Christ." This existence also helps keep families and communities strong. According to the New Order Bishops of Holmes County, in their book The Truth, "the mobility and communication that is made available through modern technology encourages the break-down of family intimacy. Modern conveniences should not be utilized at the expense of a cohesive family structure. It is therefore needful to restrict access to that which is harmful."
"America is suffering right now because families are not strong. We believe that it is so important for the mom to be at home taking care of her family, teaching them," says Ella. The majority of Amish mothers spend their days at home with their children, as this is believed to be the best way to get children to understand how to follow the Amish faith. Fathers also often work close to home, as Martha Stoltzsfus says: "My husband and I both come from a big family, twelve kids each, and were raised on a farm. We still think that the best family life is on a farm. Farming is what a family life was and what we practiced. Since we were raised on a farm, we were all together. We ate breakfast together, we had our devotion all together, had dinner, and in the evenings we were all together."
Despite this effort to keep families close, young people's desire to leave seems to be a growing problem within some Amish communities: "A lot of our families lose their children to different denominations other than Amish. That's one rough thing about our people," says David.
Although most of the Amish that we have spoken to have friends outside the Amish faith, they share the concern that too much contact will harm their community. "We've got some nice neighbors," says David, "but we don't get involved too much with outsiders. We have problems that the young people would like to leave and go to the English. It's hard when you're young to understand why we keep our simple life. This has happened different times already."
"I knew since I was young that I would leave the Amish," says nineteen-year-old Matthew Garber, a young man who left his community when he turned eighteen. He now works construction and lives as the English do. "My brothers and I used to sneak off to a neighbor's farm, where we would ride horses and dirt bikes and watch videos." Even Jacob Miller, who is now a New Order bishop, remembers being tempted in his youth: "When I was young, my parents were strict with me, kept me in line. There were things that I would want to do that they wouldn't allow. I'm glad now that they kept me away from those temptations."
Although the Amish want to remain isolated, they make it clear that they do not think of themselves as superior: "We make mistakes just like everybody else. We're not better than anyone else is. We got too many Amish communities in the United States that think they're better than anybody else. That's wrong," says David. He continues: "It's just a different way of being brought up. If an English person accepts Christ he can go to heaven same as an Amish. There could be something that the English do that's a sin for an Amish to do, but I still don't think that it's wrong for the English person to do that because he was brought up differently." Jacob Miller agrees: "We don't promote that we are the only church, but simply know Christ as our Savior."
David Hershberger, of the Old Order Amish, lives on a homestead with three of his children, thirteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One afternoon we stop in to visit him and find him at work outside, surrounded by grandchildren. A teenage boy is working up on a ladder, while David supervises from below. School-aged boys mill around, passing a hammer or a nail up to their brother from time to time. Several pre-school age girls and boys play a few feet away, hopping through the rungs of another ladder laid upon the ground. From time to time David looks over and says something in Pennsylvania Dutch to the little children, who respond with a giggle.
An Amish homestead in Knox County
|For the Amish, spending time with family is of the utmost importance, especially with children and grandchildren. "With all of the little ones now," says Ella, "I enjoy spending time with my family. For now, my children are my hobby."|
*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals.
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