Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Watching the Amish riding their horse drawn carriages through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you catch a glimpse of how life would have been 150 years ago. The Amish, without their electricity, cars, and television appear to be a static culture, never changing. This, however, is just an illusion. In fact, the Amish are a dynamic culture which is, through market forces and other means, continually interacting with the enormously tempting culture of America. So, one might be led to wonder how a culture like the Amish, one that seems so anachronistic, has not only survived but has grown and flourished while surrounded by a culture that would seem to be so detrimental to its basic ideals. The Amish, through biological reproduction, resistance to outside culture, compromise, and a strong ethnic symbolism have managed to stave off a culture that waits to engulf them. Why study the Amish? One answer would be, of course, to learn about their seemingly pure cooperative society and value system (called Ordung). From this, one may hope to learn how to better America's problem of individualism and lack of moral or ethical beliefs. However, there is another reason to study the Amish. Because the Amish have remained such a large and distinct culture from our own, they provide an opportunity to study the affects of cultural transmission, resistance, and change, as well as the results of strong symbolism in maintaining ethnic and cultural isolation.
II. History of the Amish
The Amish have their roots in the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe, led by Martin Luther. Of these Protestant groups one sect was the Anabaptists. The first Anabaptist group was known as the Brethren. Anabaptists (which means rebaptized) believed that church membership should be voluntary (Good 1979, p.10). Because the Anabaptists believed that church membership should be voluntary and Baptism repeated as an adult, they were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. The Amish began as a break off of another Anabaptist group called Mennonites, named after their leader Menno Simons. The Amish, led by Jakob Amman, split in 1693, from the Mennonites over disagreements about purity and excommunication, also known as shunning (Good 1979, p.13). Shunning is the Amish practice of censuring its members. The actual process of shunning is the cutting of all social contact with the excommunicated member. Church members may not talk or interact in any way with a shunned Amish person without risk of being shunned themselves. Shunning is an extremely efficient manner of maintaining social order. Because the Amish are raised in a very communal society, shunning is a strong psychological punishment as well as a social force. The split over shunning was neither the first split in the Anabaptist movement nor between the Amish.
Eventually, both Mennonites and Amish were forced, due to persecution, to flee from Switzerland to Germany. It is from the German dialects (high German) the Amish spoke in Germany and Switzerland, that Pennsylvania Dutch originates (more on this later). The Amish, subjected to persecution in Germany during the 18th century, were forced to flee once again; this time to the United States to seek religious freedom. The Amish settled in Pennsylvania where there was rich, fertile soil to farm, as had been their heritage, and they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Microsoft Encarta 1997, Amish). The name "Pennsylvania Dutch" comes from the misinterpretation of the word Deutsch or German. It is interesting to note that the Amish settlement in Lancaster, PA, started at the beginning of the 19th century has increased to 16,500 in the 1990's (Kraybill 1990, p.6). Once settled in the Pennsylvania, the Amish began to spread out to the Midwestern states and Canada during the 19th and 20th century.
The split from the Mennonites in Europe was not the last split in the Anabaptist movement. In the United States and Canada there are several groups known as Amish, often each sect differing over the adoption of the surrounding culture's technology (rather than theology). The most conservative Amish group is known as the Old Order Amish. Newer Amish groups are called the Beachy and New Order Amish. While to the outsider it may seem that divisions are based on theology, they would be mistaken. Old Order Amish differ most from the Beachy and New Order Amish in that they don't use electricity, telephones and tractors--mostly issues of technology. A small theological difference is the way bible study is treated. The Old Order Amish believe that intensive bible study leads to critical interpretation of the bible (such as the Hasidic Jews study). This goes against their belief of a literal interpretation of the bible. Another reason has to do with the value of memorizing quotations from the bible. Religion, however, is not the primary difference between the Old and New Order Amish. The New Order Amish have a quicker rate of social change and acceptance of modernization than do the Old Order Amish. New Order Amish often use electricity to power farm equipment and even household appliances. It is not unknown for them to also have telephones in the house, which are banned in the Old Order. The Old Order do not allow telephones or 110 volt electricity as it quite literally ties the Amish to the outside world, eventually, they believe, leading to television and other "worldliness." Gas-powered tractors are often used by the New Order Amish instead of draft horses. Beachy Amish are similar to the New Order, except that they may own cars. (The Old and New Order Amish do not object to riding in cars but to the ownership of them. This is due to the negative increase in freedom and individualism it gives the Amish men). Differences between the Amish vary from state to state and between church districts. The Amish do not, like Catholics, have a central figure or consistent laws governing their actions. Instead, decisions are made in the individual church districts (usually 20-40 families or 50-150 members per church district) according to unwritten doctrine.
The Amish (all groups), since arriving in Pennsylvania, have largely remained an agricultural society. In fact, their skills in farming are exemplary. It varies whether the Amish work in dairy, cash crops, or other agricultural fields. Amish farms tend to resemble most family farms. They are small and self-sufficient, made to meet the needs of the family. In fact, most Amish are banned from having large operations, thus keeping a balance of power in the Amish community and reducing individualism and pride.
Recently, however, economic necessities and land prices have forced a growing proportion of younger Amish off the farm and into other business ventures. The most common of these are carpentry, handicrafts, black smithing, dry goods, etc. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, loss of ariable land to development, as well as a large population increases of both Amish and outsiders, have crowded the remaining farms. There are of course, other economic reasons for changes in the Amish market such as price competition with the "English" and exterior market forces.
Many Americans have heard the rumor that the Amish keep large stashes of money and are, in fact, wealthy. This is not only false but it has led to many robberies of the Amish and bitterness from those who do not believe the Amish pay taxes. The Amish, like most Americans, keep their money in banks. They also pay taxes. The only major tax they are exempted from is the Social Security tax and its benefits. While there may be a few wealthy Amish, they are few and would not boast about it. Most Amish have very little money and many live at what the government calls the poverty line ($14,335 for a family of four) [Gelles and Levin 1995, p.259]. However, the Amish, while surrounded by a cash economy, do not participate in it. It would be unwise to apply our class and economic statuses to the Amish. They are, after all, largely agricultural, grow their own food, and are self-sufficient. They often have none of the utility bills to pay, no car to maintain, and no insurance (the Amish insurance is their community). Another reason the Amish do not need to raise much capital has to do with farmhands. Unlike most farmers who have hired help, the Amish can rely on their children and large families for help on the farm. Many older Amish hand down their farms to their children. This keeps many Amish men from going into debt and leaving the Order and furthers the growth of Amish society. Much of an Amish man's wealth is in assets such as his farm, horses, equipment, etc. In this aspect, the Amish live more like middle class citizens than poverty stricken farmers or wealthy land owners. Thus, it is important when considering the Amish, to not apply our cultural and economic values to them. These same Amish cultural and economic values are also responsible for Amish social change and preserving church membership.
The Amish educational system is very unique and reminiscent of the educational system of the 19th century. Amish children usually attend single-room school houses until the eighth grade, taught by a young unmarried women. Most Amish don't attend high school and college is not permitted. While the Amish educational system may seem inadequate for today's world, it fits perfectly into Amish society, preparing Amish youth for further roles in Amish society. Amish education also serves as a major way to prevent socialization by the outside world. It is the Amish way of asserting social control over its youth to remain distinct from the rest of society.
Amish schools do not focus on religion, though there is a strong emphasis on Christian values. Instead of religion, more practical subjects are taught to "scholars" (the name Amish give to students). English, arithmetic, practical math, reading and writing skills are the main focus of Amish education. Since the Amish usually enter into areas of farming and craft, and children are required to help on family farms, Amish youth are not required to have more than an eighth grade education. This did not used to be so. For many years Amish parents were arrested for not sending their children to high school. Amish parents felt that would conflict with their moral and religious beliefs by teaching evolution and sex education. High school students, Amish parents feared, would also teach their children harmful behavior. It was not until Wisconsin vs. Yoder (1972) that the Supreme Court agreed, in a 7-0 decision, that the Amish had the right to educate their children in manner they felt necessary to preserve their culture, yet required mandatory education until eighth grade (Good 1979, p.36 and Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 1997, Amish ). College is not permitted because of the fear of instilling a sense of superiority in scholars. I want to emphasize that the Amish do not frown on education--they respect it and require the resources of college-educated veterinarians for their animals and doctors for their health.
V. Family Structures, Courting, Marriage, Funeral
A. Family Structure
The Amish family is comprised of a large extended family. Families usually are composed of two parents (divorce is unthinkable), seven children (since no birth control is used), and often grandparents and close relationships with cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Since the Amish don't have cars and remain largely in agriculture, families tend to stay together and keep in close contact, unlike in urban societies. This has allowed for extremely large extended families with much interaction. These large families provide the foundation of Amish society and for the welfare of other family members. This strong family unit is a major reason that most Amish become members of the Amish church. Another interesting fact about Amish families is the "Grandpa House." The "Grandpa House" is the additional house or addition to a house built to house grandparents after retirement (Hostetler 1983, p.33). After many years of work, the grandparents can be taken care of by their family and are very interactive with the grandchildren.
Amish courting practices, at one level, are surprisingly similar to that of the English. Like most Americans, Amish youth meet at group gatherings (in the case of the Amish, in church gatherings, youth groups, or singings). Amish parents give their teenage youth a great deal of freedom to stretch rules and "spread their wings," with very little parental knowledge or interference. This is to allow the youth to "get things out of their system' before choosing to become baptized Amish adults. After becoming fond of one particular youth, a young couple begins to court in secret. Often, the young male will drive the female home after church (with "fancy" courting horse fittings) or get together and/or they will sneak away together to be with each other while others politely ignore them. Often the young Amish man will visit the female at night and she will proceed to make him a snack. However, at this point they are under the careful observation of the church and family. Though there is some individual choice in courting, there is only a selected group that youth may associate with. Because of this, there is no room for courting non-Amish, which would lead to excommunication. This is just another example of Amish social control.
After the young couple decides to marry their names are "published" several weeks before they marry. Being "published" is the Amish way of announcing publicly a couples intention to marry. Most marriages take place during November and early December after the harvests (Good 1979, p.52).
Amish marriage, like the Amish, is a simple affair. The entire church will be invited to the marriage which will be held on a Sunday, as well as other relatives and friends. It is not unusual for there to be over 200 people at a wedding! Four hour services are held at weddings, usually beginning at 9 a.m. The sermon is long but is followed by singing from the Ausbound , the Amish book of hymns. The actual marriage consists of a blessing done by the whole community and simple vows. The communal blessing during a marriage is an example of the importance of community in Amish culture, unlike in American culture where two individuals fall in love and then recklessly get married. Also, at Amish weddings there is no fancy dress, ring, or kissing, though everyone is dressed in their Sunday church clothes and the bride wears a special, but plain, new apron that will be used for Sunday church. After services, a large meal is served, with dishes brought from all of the visiting families. For the couple's honeymoon, they will travel for several months to visit with families in their church and friends. It is during their honeymoon that they will also receive their wedding gifts at each visit, largely practical items that they will need for their new home and life.
Death is also treated simply. Most Amish bury their dead three days after death. They are buried in their Sunday clothes with the women in the apron they were married in. Coffins are usually simple and made of wood (Good 1979, pp.66,68). The whole church attends and contributes to the meal afterward.
Despite what many think, the Amish are Christians. What creates this confusion about the Amish is their Conservative nature, adult baptism, and the lack of evangelism. The Amish have no religious opposition to evangelism but rather it has been forgotten and never revived. This was not always so. Early during the Anabaptist movement, both Amish and Mennonites possessed a zeal for evangelism. As the Amish were further persecuted, they were forced to abandon evangelism and keep their beliefs and religious activities inconspicuous, thus, saving their lives and philosophy (Amish FAQ, 1997). In order to survive, the Amish had to make cultural compromises now and then. This trend has continued until the present day so as to make evangelism almost seem improper. By not being evangelistic, the Amish have also served the purpose of excluding outsiders from their ranks, thus preserving Amish culture.
Amish church services do not take place at a single site but rather the church moves around to the houses of church members. The movement of church services most likely also has to do with the persecution the Amish dealt with in Europe. But it also serves the purpose of reinforcing the philosophy that the people are the church and that religion is central to the Amish way of life. Men and women are separated at church services and enter from separate doors. Older members sit up front and nursing mothers with infants sit in the rear. Small children may sit with either parents and are kept quiet with small toys and candies.
The Amish believe in voluntary baptism, which some consider odd. But voluntary baptism serves an important purpose. It allows Amish youth to experiment with the outside world and see if they wish join the Amish church and make the permanent commitment of living a godly life. Amish youth may own cars, listen to rock music, go to movies, and explore other aspects of American society during their late adolescents. It is striking that 80% of the Amish adolescents still choose to stay and join the Amish church. Amish youth often become members of their church because of the secure life that church membership provides. When Amish join the church they are becoming members of a twenty-four hour, seven day a week culture--not the "I am a Christian only on Sunday." Anabaptisim has also gone through an interesting social change. Anabaptisim, originally used make church membership voluntary, has become a cultural filter, selecting out those who can not make the commitment to Amish culture.
VII. Amish Survival In America
It baffles the mind that the Amish have not only survived but have thrived in America. The Amish, to a large degree, have been able to erect and maintain an invisible social force field which has protected them from antithetical influences from American culture. How have the Amish achieved such growth and prosperity? Much of it has to do with the large Amish families, strong symbols that distinctly set the Amish apart from the rest of American society, and compromise with society. All these factors have contributed to the success of the Amish.
With an average of seven children per family, the Amish population increases significantly every generation. Even after death and disease, the average number of children per family remains at an incredible 6.6 children (Kraybill 1990, p.8). Amish use of midwifes, hospitals, medicine and nutrition has largely been responsible for the decrease in child mortality. An increasing factor in deciding the growth potential of the Amish is the number of Amish youth who actually join the church. If most Amish youth left their churches, this would offset any gains by large Amish families. Amish youth however tend to remain with an average overall total of four out of five youth remaining Amish (Kraybill 1990, p.9). In Lancaster Co., PA, the number of those who leave the Amish varies between 10-24% (Kraybill 1990, p.9). Keeping the youth, which is "key" to Amish survival, can only happen though if Amish youth are socialized in traditional Amish values.
There are several reasons that such a large number of youth remain Amish. Amish schools effectively socialize their "scholars" through eighth grade and because Amish youth are kept from high school and college, they do not have the opportunity to assimilate modern ideas or philosophies that could led them stray. Economic factors also play a part. The large Amish extended families provide good job security as well as business opportunity. Amish culture also has a strong sense of identity, even as obvious as dress and language. Amish youth can identify with their culture. By leaving, they would be losing friends, meaning, identity, and even a secure marriage. Because the Amish are surrounded by such a strong sense of identity, it is almost impossible for Amish to leave their church. If they did, they would be losing all that is familiar and, most importantly, who they are. These factors and, of course, others have contributed to the strong growth in Amish population.
Growth, however, is not solely responsible for Amish solidarity. The Amish, through remarkably resolute ethnic symbolism, have created a cultural shield that has led to the cohesion of Amish society. There are many examples of Amish symbolism. Amish clothes are distinctly different from those of most Americans as are the men's beards and hair cuts. They provide a visual cue that says "we are different." The horse and buggy are the most recognizable Amish Symbol. The horse and buggy symbolizes the Amish's simple and pure life and is almost immediately recognized as a symbol by most Americans. The horse and buggy also restrict Amish travel, thus limiting Amish interaction with outsiders. Horses and buggies also cause the Amish to slow down and not make many trips for "things." Language, however, is the strongest Amish symbols. Speaking Pennsylvania Dutch isolates the Amish from English speaking America. It creates a distinctive world that serves to bind Amish Society together and sharply divide Amish culture from American culture.
There are other ways the Amish show cultural resistance to American society. By not bringing 110 volt electricity into the home, the Amish are able to resist the influence of television, radio, the Internet, and other mass media, thus partitioning themselves from outside contact. The growth of Amish shops, stores, and businesses provides jobs and shopping within Amish society. Buying and selling in the Amish market keeps money from flowing into the larger American economy (Kraybill 1990, p.10). The majority of Amish also do not have phones in the house. The fear is that ownership of phones will lessen the need for face to face social contact and also let in outside culture. If the need for social contact is eliminated, cohesion of Amish society would diminish. Amish schools also serve to resist cultural influence from the outside world. Amish schools serve to socialize Amish youth, further reinforcing Amish ideals and separation of Amish culture from that of the outside world. Amish do not own cars because that, like electricity, would allow for more contact with the outside world. But that is not all that ownership of a car would do. Cars would also encourages a sense of individualism and freedom, that are detrimental to Amish society and hence banned by most Amish churches.
Amish, however, do not completely restrict change or social interaction with the outside world. They also have to compromise with the outside world to survive. Most of these compromises are limited to farming and have economic roots such as competing with non-Amish farms that are necessary to insuring Amish survival. One example that peaks the curiosity of visitors in Lancaster Co. is when they see Amish driving in cars or trucks. While the Amish can not own cars and trucks, there are no restrictions on driving in them or hiring outsiders to drive Amish produce or products to market. In fact it can be necessary for economic purposes. To the "English," what the Amish allow or prohibit can seem bewildering. The regulation about electricity is a good example. It's not just YES or NO. The issue, in terms of 110 volt electricity, is that 110 volt electricity connects the Amish to the secular world, whereas 12 volts does not. Generating your own 110 volt power is also different than depending on it from the outside world. While 110 volt electricity from power lines may be banned, it has become necessary as farming has become more mechanized and competitive to use 12 volt batteries. The use of 12 volt electricity can be used to power numerous farm and shop implements without connecting the farm or shop to the outside world through wires. In some churches, electrical generators have come into use. Amish dairy farmers during the 1960's started using generators to power bulk tanks in order to refrigerate their milk at the request of milk companies, otherwise Amish farmers faced termination by milk companies (Kraybill 1990, p.73). Again, the use of electrical generators were a necessary comprimise.
Most other mechanical equipment can be, and is, powered by compressed air or gas. This provides the same amount of power as 110 or 220 volt electricity but without the use of power lines. There is great confusion about the Amish's use of mechanical equipment. Many think that none is allowed. However, certain mechanical devices, such as hay bailers, are necessary to operate a farm in America's contemporary farm economy. Another compromise that the Amish have had to make is the use of the diesel engine. While usually limited to the barn area, the diesel engine serves a number of purposes on the Amish farm such as compressing air for shop equipment, and charging 12 volt batteries. Old Order Amish sometimes even use tractors around the barn . The purpose of this is to use the tractor to do labor that draft horses can't do as well as to use the on-board engine to power equipment around the barn. Amish tractors differ from most tractors in that they have steel wheels instead of rubber tires. How is this a compromise? By using steel wheels, the Amish are restricted to using tractors on the farm and not using them as cars on roads. The New Order Amish tend to use tractors with rubber tires as well as using the tractor instead of draft horses in the field. The New Order Amish use of tractors in the field provides them with the competitive edge they need to remain in the agricultural business. Some Old and New order Amish have invented ways to have farm equipment pulled by draft horses but powered by a built-on engine, these devices are called "Amish tractors." While there are many more compromises, the main purposes of compromise is to remain as a competitor in the agriculture and shop economy. It is these compromises that have allowed for the survival of Amish culture and Society.
IX. Social Change
We have discussed Amish survival and, in the last section, I mentioned that the Amish compromise to survive. The compromises that the Amish make are part of the Amish social change. But how do the Amish make their social changes? Are they unconscious or conscious changes? Amish social change is a conscious action made by individual church districts but controlled by unwritten Amish rules.
When the Amish decide to make a social change, such as allowing electricity, certain things are considered. One such thing is whether a change will link the Amish to the outside world. Both cars, electricity, telephones, computers, and tractors are commonly thought to connect the Amish to the outside world, thus, they are banned. But when the use of diesel engines are considered, economics also become a factor. A diesel has many useful purposes around the Amish farm and at the same time does not connect the Amish to the outside world. 12 volt batteries provide an alternative to 110 volt electricity while not connecting the Amish to outside temptations through power cables.
Another way the Amish regulate social change is through experimentation. Despite what many think, the Amish are very liberal to new inventions and ideas. An example would be the tractor. For several years, until the 1960's, tractors (which became popular during the 1950's) were allowed on Amish farms but, after years of experimentation, Amish Bishops decided to "put away" the tractors and several other mechanized devices (Kraybill 1990, p.60). Tractors and other self propelled machines were eventual "put away" because they were leading to rapid farm growth as well as taking away jobs that could be given to the next generation of Amish. So, instead of tractors, the Amish began to put small engines with farm equipment on wagons which are pulled by draft horses ("Amish tractors"). Another example of Amish experimentation is the telephone. At the turn of the 19th century, it was not uncommon to find a telephone in the house of an Amish family. As the years passed, telephones removed the need for social contacts and visits which are a valued part of Amish life. The telephone also increased the amount of gossip, which is frowned on. For this reason, Amish churches banned the ownership of phones in the home. This has not however eliminated them from shops and communal out door phone booths shared by several Amish families can still be found. What to the curious observer may seem like a crazy group of arbitrary rules, it is quite the opposite. Each change in Amish culture is meticulously considered and crafted by each Amish church
While there are some things that change in Amish society, there are several entrenched traditions that will never change. Clothing and language are two examples of those traditions that will never change. If such changes did take place, Amish culture would loss much of its identity and symbolism. Such things as fabrics and construction material which are not the defining philosophies of the Amish are much easier to change and often do. Fabric is no longer made from wool, flax, and cotton but rather synthetic materials. Amish homes are, today, almost indistinguishable from any other Americans farm or home. The use of gas stoves and refrigerators has even become popular. Because stoves and refrigerators are such an integral part of Amish life and they have not led to any decisive changes in Amish culture, their use has been permitted. Gas powered stoves, refrigerators, and laundry machines have also increased the amount of leisure and comfort in Amish life. Amish social change is a slow but conscious process and it has many causes. The Amish are a dynamic but stable culture and it is amazing that they have been able to maintain such solidarity and slow change even with the progressive and rapidly changing world that surrounds them. These changes do not reflect religious belief, but rather survival and necessity. These social changes are also not universal but vary form different church districts and even then from farm to farm.
Remnants of another era, the Amish have sustained a unique and flourishing culture. The Amish have combined Christianity and simplicity to create a society that furthers family, community, and happiness in ways that American society and culture have not only been incapable of creating but is diametrically opposed to. The Amish, instead of being individualistic, have forgone many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. The Amish have been able to remove themselves effectively from mainstream American culture and create a seemingly static culture. The Amish, however, are not static but change slowly and deliberately. There have been a number of factors that have contributed to the growth, preservation, and change in Amish culture. Large Amish families and the use of modern medicines and nutrition have led to fewer mortalities and encouraged population growth. Amish schools and education socializes youth to Amish values so that they tend to remain part of the Amish church. Amish economic practices ranging from the size of farms to the use of draft horses also functions to serve and protect Amish culture. The impedes for social change is largely caused by, but not limited to, economic factors. But Amish social change is a slow and careful exercise. Unlike the surrounding American society, where change is instant and in the hands of strangers, media, and bureaucrats, the Amish decide for themselves what changes to make. Change is experimented with and its effects observed. The only changes allowed are those that insure the fidelity to Amish culture. The combined efforts of ethnic symbolism, population growth, resistance to outside philosophies, compromise, and social change has preserved Amish culture and allowed it to flourish. While many Americans may think that the Amish are a backward and quaint culture, in fact the Amish have been very innovative in preserving the simplicity of life and incorporating change, while ignoring the rush and superficiality of American culture and continue to live a godly life, fully centered on the teachings of the Bible.
One thing that I think should be pointed out is that Amish
survival in America would not have occurred if not for American
society. Though it may seem a contradiction of what I have written
above, I must emphasize that American political culture is as
responsible for Amish survival in America as anything the Amish have
done. America's political culture emphasizes liberty, equality, and
democracy. These beliefs allow for religious freedom and tolerance
which, without, would have inhibited Amish survival. It is the lack
of these tolerances that forced the Amish from Europe and to the
Only since the early twentieth century have the Amish been considered incongruous with mainstream society. This is because until the mass use of electricity, cars, and television, the Amish except for their use of language and plain dress, would not have been distinct from most other 19th century farmers. This in essence allowed for the early survival and establishment of Amish culture in the United States.