On Monday we left Niagara Falls and crossed the border into the USA from Canada. There were five busses in the queue ahead of us and it took an hour or so for us to clear immigration and to get on with our day’s trip. Fortunately, we didn’t have to unload all our baggage – we just walked through the immigration line with our passports. For the rest of the day, it was just a very long driving day as we headed south through Upper New York State and then into Pennsylvania to the city of Lancaster.
This took us into one of the areas of America in which the Amish live. In fact, we had dinner with an Amish family at night – a good lot of home cooked food but no alcohol or photographs. We were served home cooked bread, chicken, ham and pork meat loaf, mashed potato, pickles, with shoo fly pie and chocolate cake for desert. Many in the group headed to the bar on their return to the hotel for a top up of alcohol.
I had always thought that Amish were a fundamentalist group of Christians, Whilst they are; they are much more an ethnic group who are known for their simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. Their movement began in Switzerland in 1693 when a group of Anabaptists led by Jakob Ammann split from a group of Mennonites because they thought that they were too progressive. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish. In the early 18th century, many Amish and Mennonites emigrated to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons.
On Tuesday morning, we drove though some very scenic farmland and visited some Amish groups. Because of their culture which avoids anything that is too worldly, it is difficult to get very close access, so our first part of the day was a visit to an interpretive centre where we were told about the Amish culture. We had a look through an Amish house – very simple, bare boards, clothing without any buttons that could be ostentatious and no electricity . Attached to the house was a school house. Children generally leave school after finishing eighth grade as by then they are considered to know enough to be able to manage their way though life.
I knew that Amish people did not use electricity (as it connects them to the outside world) and still use horse drawn buggies and farm machinery. However, we could see that they used washing machines powered by compressed air and refrigerators that run on gas. I found it hard to understand some of the ambiguity between the things that were allowed in their lives (washing machines, for example) and things that were not (fancy buttons, bicycles and driving cars). The test (although it varies a little between communities) seems to be based on the question of “How would this thing impact our family life and our faith”?
My little research shows that the key values incorporated into the Amish culture are their rejection of arrogance pride, violence, haughtiness along with a high value being placed on humility, calmness, composure and placidity which are often translated as “submission” or “letting-be”. The Amish’s preference is to submit to the “Will of Jesus”, through common group behaviour which is quite at odds with the rest of the western world’s culture of individualism. The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Modern innovations like electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity and become ‘graven images’. However, what is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be all inclusive. While there are a few generalities that are true for all Amish, Individual communities may have different ideas over matters such as the width of a hat-brim or the colour of buggies.
Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a requirement for marriage, and once a person has affiliated with the church, he or she may marry only within the faith. Church districts average between 20 and 40 families, and worship services are held every other Sunday in a member’s home. The district is led by a bishop and several ministers and deacons.
We visited a dairy farm and learned about methods for producing milk. In reality, they are not much different from any other dairy operation – producers have to meet standard hygiene standards and are paid on butter content, etc of the milk. The difference is that there is no electrify (cows are milked by vacuum created by a diesel engine) and the farm is ploughed by mules. The farm has been in the same family for four generations but seems hardly viable – only milking 34 cows. These have to be kept indoors all winter. They had a nice little gift shop and Jill bought a superb Amish quilt. The revenue from the shop is an important source of supplemental income.
From there, we visited another family with the opportunity to ask any questions about Amish culture and way of life. It was the answers given by Samuel through which I was able to understand much of the culture that I have described in this post.
Lunch was at a very American tourist stop in the little town named, would you believe, Intercourse! There were busload after busload of American tourists, all of whom I judged to be at least 108 years old. Advanced age must be a requirement for a tour ticket in the US. In the centre of the village was an ice cream parlour and I have to say that this is the first time that I have ever had an ice cream in the middle of Intercourse!
We reached our destination for the day in Washington DC late in the afternoon and we had an evening tour around some of the memorials that were floodlit.