A Visit to the Amish of Lancaster

by Bea Sheftel

(c) Copyright April 1999


The Amish are also known as the PLAIN PEOPLE. Their religion started in the sixteenth century in Switzerland. Like many others who protested against the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation and broke away from the rule of the Pope. Originally they were known as the Swiss Brethern. They had three major conflicts with the church.

1. They were peaceful and did not believe in military service.

2. They believed in the separation of the Church and the State.

3. They felt that people should wait until adulthood to become baptized and enter the church.


One of the early leaders was a Catholic priest, Menno Simon. He became their leader. This is where the name Mennonites comes from. Many people believe the Amish are the original group and the Mennonites are the splinter group, but the truth is the Mennonites came first.

Going against the state religion was no easy thing to do back then. The believers were persecuted, hunted, killed, even burned at the stake. Many died a martyr's death. This forced the band of believers to move around the Rhineland area of Europe.

Around 1690, a Mennonite Bishop by the name of Jacob Amman preached that the Mennonites were too liberal. He wanted the people to adher to the strict standards of their original founders. The follows of the Bishop were called Amman's men, and that is the origin of the Amish. It is pronounced with an emphasis on AH.

Religious persecution continued in Europe and in England, not only against Anabaptist such as the Mennonites or Amish, but others like the Quakers. One of the leaders of the Quakers was the son of Admiral Penn, a naval war hero in England, and a close friend of King Charles II. To honor his debt to Admiral Penn, King Charles II offered William Penn land in the New World. This was the beginning of Pennsylvania. William Penn set up this land as a place of religious freedom for all. They offered pieces of land in his colony to others who were suffering religious persecution.


William Penn came to the New World in 1682. First he had to made piece with the Indians who inhabited the land the King had given to him. He found the land to be rich in natural beauty with soil that was good for growing vegetables. There was a profusion of trees, black walnut, cedar, oak, chestnut. All would be useful for the building of a new settlement.

The county of Lancaster was not established until 1730. In the early year's of William Penn this area was wildnerness. The Susquehanna River was the frontier until after the French and Indian wars.

William Penn established forty-five thousand square miles as Penn's land, and offered religious freedom to all who would come and buy property from him. He had land agents in Europe offering this new land. To the persecuted people of Europe this looked like Providence at work. The first counties were Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester in the 17th century. The English Quakers stayed close to Philadelphia. Later in 1710 some Scots settled in the frontier which is now Lancaster County. The Mennonites first settled in the Pequea Valley. The first meeting place for the Mennonites was built in 1719 by Bishop Hans Herr.

Other religious groups soon joined the Penn experiment. French Hugenots settled in the Paradise and Strasburg areas. The leader of the Hugenots was Madame Marie Ferree.

Next came the Scotch-Irish who preferred the frontier which is now southern Lancaster County. The New World was still under the control of the English, but people were restless with the rule of the King. They had many issues with him as he used the colonies to enhance his own riches.

The Amish started to arrive around the 1720's. Lancaster was settled by English and German settlers. The fertile valleys to the east, Conestoga and Pequea, were cleared and farmed by the mennonites and Amish.


Most of this land is still owned by the Amish and farmed in a similar fashion. And these farms are still some of the most productive in the world. Driving through the area during the summer visitors pass the fertile farmlands green with life as the Amish grow corn, barley and other crops.

The Amish church prefers its members to be tied to the land as farmers. Unfortunately,available land today is scarse due to the growth of the tourist industry and the profusion of malls, motels, and recreation areas. Amish families are large and it isn't always possible for every son to be given a piece of land to farm. This has caused a migration to other areas in Pennsylvania and even other states in search of good farm land. Now there are Amish groups or settlements in over thirty states and Canada.


Some Amish have no choice but to take jobs in shops, stores, small factories and home-owned enterprises. This has created a new sector in the Amish community called tradesmen. Amish men today might be carpenters, masons, brick layers, or shop keepers. Many farm families grow tobacco as a cash crop. This is used as filler for cigars.


The Amish of Lancaster are the most prosperous of the sect, but not all Amish are equally prosperous. Farms have big mortgages which continue from generation to generation.

The Amish farmer in Lancaster often lives in a big, sprawling house. But he has eight to ten children to raise. His parents and perhaps his wife's parents live with him as well as other older relatives. The Amish do not believe in nursing homes. They keep their elderly with them in their homes. Farming is a family occupation. While the Amish are rich in land, some are cash poor. However, the Amish are not interested in worldly possessions. They aren't concerned with having an expensive car, a big TV, or fancy clothes. Their goal is eternal life and humility is a way of life taught by the rules or Ordnung.


Visitors to Lancaster see many signs such as Dutchland and they hear the Amish called Pennsylvania Dutch. This was a mistake made by the earlier settlers who thought the Amish were Dutch because they spoke German or Deutsch.

The Amish consider anyone not part of their religion to be English because we speak English. The Amish speak English also, but their first language is German, and their conversational language is a dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch. It is a mixture of German and English.


The group known as the Pennsylvania Dutch include different settlements of Amish and Mennonites. Each community follows the rules of their elders. So there are two main categories, the plain and the fancy. Today, the largest group are the fancy while the plain are the minority.

The Mennonites range from the very conservative to the ultra liberal and dominate the area in Pennsylvania. It would be hard to tell a liberal Mennonites from a an Anglican, or other Protestant group. They can have television, drive cars, live in fancy homes and dress in modern fashion.

The Amish, also called Old Order Amish, live in the twentieth century in much the same manner as they did in past centuries. They are deeply religious. They have a strict interpretation of the Bible. Their family ties are strong as is their work ethic. Whole families work together in the field rather hire someone to help them, or depend on expensive machinery.

All Mennonites and Amish still believe in living in peace with their fellow man. During past wars they were Conscientious Objectors. This alone did not exempt them from military service during World War II. When drafted, they served as medical aids and in other non combatant positions.


The Amish believe they must remain separate from the world in order to attain their ultimate goal of Salvation. They do not Evanglize or seek converts to their faith. They have no electricity, no automobiles, not telephones in the house, no radio, no television, no jewelry (not even wedding rings), no cosmetics, no modern clothing, no central heating or other modern amenities. If someone does convert to the Amish way of life, it is usually because they marry into it.

Over the years, some of the rules have been relaxed for the benefit of the community. Amish may ride in an automobile as long as they don't own it, they may use a public phone, and have batteries for lights on their wagons.  There are telephones in some areas dominated by the Amish. These are set in little buildings which resemble out houses and are shared among several farms. These phones are not for personal use, but for business and for emergencies.


There are no Amish doctors or nurses because education ends at 8th grade. However, the Amish are not against modern medicine and they do use doctors and hospitals. An Amish woman may decide to have her baby in the hospital or with a mid-wife at home. The Amish go to doctor's when they are sick. They do not take part in preventative medicine. The lack of polio shots and other preventative measures endangers the health of Amish children. Today there are Amish children with polio and other preventable diseases.


Amish clothing is very plain. The women have plain dresses in lavender, blue or green. These are solid colors with no prints, palids or designs allowed. Over this they wear a black cape and apron. In cold weather they add a shawl or cape. When they go out in their horse drawn buggy or into town they wear a black bonnet on their heads. Under the bonnet is a white linen prayer cap which is worn by every Baptised woman. Girls dress as their mothers.

The men do not wear jeans not even when working in the fields. They have black pants which are called broad fall. These are supported by suspenders. Shirts will be of the same solid colors as the women's dresses, except for church services. Then they wear white shirts. Coats are black and collarless. For hats in winter they wear black felt-flat-topped hats with broad brims. In the summer they wear the same style made of straw. Boys dress as their fathers.


To be an Amish woman is to be under the rule of a husband or father as well as the church which dictates every aspect of a woman's life. There is no equality or women's lib in Amish households. Women are never allowed to cut their hair or go to the beauty parlor. They are not even given a choice of hair designs. They must part their hair in the middle, roll it, and tie it into a bun on the back of their heads.


The most conservative Amish are known as house Amish because they have no church building, but worship in the homes of members. Services are held on alternate Sundays. There are enough families in each district so that a family will only have to host a service once a year.


Like the rest of us, the Amish are individuals. Some adher strictly to the rules of the church. Others are not as strict in regards to their children. Photographs are considered graven images by the Amish and it is a sin. To take a photograph of an Amish person is to insult them. However, some of the children and young people who aren't baptised yet might allow pictures. The commercial photos of the Amish are the result of zoom, telephoto lens.


In their desire to be separate from the world, the Amish do not accept any form of government aid. They obey the laws, but they don't accept social security or medicar or welfare. Farmers are exempt from paying social security taxes, but those who work for other businesses pay into the system even though they will never take their share out.


The newspaper most widely read by the Amish is a weekly published in Phio and called THE BUDGET. It is a family-oriented newsletter. Amish will also read other newspapers and magazines but not the more worldy ones dealing mainly with fashion and makeup. The Amish often are excellent readers and make use of the small public library in the center of town.

The Bible is standard reading as is the Book of Martyrs. Women are likely to have women's service magazines such as Country Woman or Womens Household which cater to rural homemakers.


Even though the Amish religion is strict only a small percentage of young people decide not to join the church. The population of Amish continues to increase since they don't lose many members, and they have large families. In my travels in Lancaster I have met many people who no longer are part of the Amish community. Some have turned to the more relaxed churches of the Mennonites, others have joined more traditional churches. If the person who lives was Baptized, then that person is excommunicated or shunned. If he marries and has children, his children will NOT be shunned. While families are heart broken when their children leave their faith, many have worked out ways to continue to see each other.


One woman explained that when her Amish family invites them to a family outing on the farm, the shunned members sit at a separate table. They are not spoken to directly. However, the children can converse back and forth and in this way families are kept together without disobeying the rules of the congregation.


I have received many requests from people in this country and abroad asking how they can join the Amish church. They visit Lancaster and see the beautiful farms and sprawling white farm houses and think this is the life for them. They think becoming Amish is taking a trip back in time. They don't realize how much they are used to which they'd have to give up. The Amish do not encourage conversion. A convert would need to know high German to understand the service. They would have to put away a lot of their ideas which might not be so easy to give up. Amish are non violent, remember. If struck, they will not hit back. Whatever happens to them, good or bad, is considered God's will. Formal education stops at 8th grade. Girls then learn from their mothers all they need to know to live the Amish woman's life, and boys learn from their fathers or through apprentiships. To come in from the outside world into this life would not only be hard, but nearly impossible. The Amish would rather we each practice our own religion and work out our own salvation is fear and trembling. To become an Amish person is to be bound for life by the rules of the Ordnung. To disobey the rules and not reprent is to be excommunicated or shunned. This is something no church elder wants to happen. So if you envy what you think is the simple life of the Amish, buy yourself a farm and create your own peaceful world. The Amish are friendly people. They are good neighbors even to people who aren't Amish.


The Amish Way of Life: Articles and photos on the Amish. A Must see research site!
Amish History: The history of the Amish and Mennonites
An Amish/Mennonite cookbook: Explore the hearty foods of the Pennsylvania Dutch
Amish Furniture catalog: The simple styles of the Amish explored on the pages of this catalog
Amish Crafts: You can view charming Amish crafts as well as order any. This is an example of Amish trades and is a way they can support their lifestyle.
Introduction and index to articles on the Amish: Index to articles on the Amish of Lancaster
The Secret Lives of the Amish: Ebook on the Secret Lives of the Amish of Lancaster
Amish Children: How do Amish children live and play in their strict culture?
Amish Weddings: Amish wedding customs
Amish Men At Work: Are all Amish farmers?
Amish Women: The lives of Amish Women

Bea Sheftel


United States

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