The Amish broke off from the Anabaptists in Switzerland in 1693. They followed Jakob Ammann (from which the term Amish derived), who created a schism in the church after he advocated for a literal interpretation of the bible. The first Amish immigrants came to the United States in around the 1730s. They primarily settled in three areas in Pennsylvania. They are now found primarily within Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and surrounding states. Their population increases each year. In the beginning of the 20th century there were only about 5,000 Amish, today there are over 250,000.
When we think of the Amish, we primarily think of buggies, bonnets, butter churning and a zero-tolerance policy on electricity. But, this list may enlighten you to some of the lesser-known facts about the Amish.
Amish children only receive up to an eighth-grade education. They are taught in one-room private schools by Amish teachers, where they learn reading, writing and basic arithmetic. They also learn Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish’s version of German. The Amish believe that this basic education is sufficient enough for their way of life. After they finish school, they are put into vocational training like agriculture or craftsmanship. In America, it is compulsory that children attend school until the age of 16. The 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, established that it was unconstitutional to force Amish children to enroll in school past eighth-grade, as it was a violation of their First Amendment right.
When Amish youths turn 16, they can venture out and experience the “English” (American non-Amish) world. During Rumspringa, or “running around,” teens can drink, dance, date and enjoy technology, all without judgment from the church. They then decide if they want to return and dedicate their lives to the church. You’d think that with this taste of freedom, none of the Amish youths would come back. However, almost 90 percent of them do. If they choose not to, the church won’t shun them because they have not yet been baptized under the faith.
The Anabaptists, from which the Amish originated, believed in adult baptism. The Amish have carried on this tradition. Unlike other Christian faiths which baptize in infancy, the Amish believe that one must consciously accept God. Only then can they become fully Amish.
Amish children are afforded some playthings, like these faceless dolls. The dolls are not allowed to have any distinguishing features to protect children from developing vanity. They also believe that all humans are equal under God’s eye. If one dolls looked better than another, children could develop an ego. Also, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, people are not allowed to create idols with human characteristics, since God was the original creator of mankind. Faceless dolls don’t have a human likeness.
While Amish outwardly disapprove of the use of electricity, there are some exceptions and loopholes. Many Amish communities allow one public phone. The Amish even have a computer that was manufactured specifically for them. The Deskmate is essentially an ‘80s-era computer that allows you to do basic word-processing and accounting. It doesn’t have internet, music or video-playing technology.
Bundling is a strange practice meant to strengthen non-sexual intimacy in courting couples. In the practice, the man and woman are put in a bed and are bundled up tightly in separate blankets to keep wandering hands at bay. Sometimes there is a plank of wood placed between them for further protection. The couple then stays up all night talking.
This represents one of the darker sides of the Amish community. Lancaster County, Penn., one of the largest Amish settlements, has been called the “puppy mill capital of America.” The Amish have turned to dog farming to increase their income. They view these dogs as livestock. They engage in cruel practices like shoving a wire down their throats to damage their vocal chords to prevent barking, and thus prevent the discovery of the puppy mill.
Amish men might make bigger deals about their beards than your average hipster. The beard represents a sense of identity for Amish men, it is also representative of their marital status. Amish men remain clean-shaven until their married, then they start growing a beard. Also, if an enemy really wants to hit an Amish man where it hurts, they cut off their beard.
The Amish are pacifists and believe in non-violence. That is why the Amish refuse to serve in the military. There’s only ever been one man convicted of murder in the Amish community. Edward Gingerich showed signs of mental illness from an early age. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but nonetheless married and started a family. In 1993, Gingerich had a psychotic break and brutally attacked and killed his wife Katie by stomping her head in with his boot.
The only acceptable musical instrument in the Amish community is the human voice. The Amish think that playing a musical instrument encourages feelings of pride and superiority. The Amish are all about community, and the ability to play an instrument expresses individuality.
Because the Amish are a tight-knit community that descended from only about 200 individuals, there’s a higher chance of inbreeding. Because of this “founders effect,” the Amish have higher rates of genetic disorders. For example, the genetic disease Severe Combined Immunodeficiency occurs in one in every 40,000 to 70,000 births in the United States. In one Amish home, the Stoltzfuses, the rate is one-in-four. The Amish also refuses to get genetic testing to see how closely related they are to their spouses.
This is a surprising fact, Verne Troyer, a.k.a. “Mini-Me” grew up Amish. He said, “They never treated me any different than my other average-sized siblings. I used to have to carry wood, feed the cows and pigs and farm animals.”
There are two ways that the Amish punish members that “transgressed” in their community. They can shun the individual, a practice called meidung. When a member is shunned, they are ignored by the community, not allowed to eat with others, to shame them into repentance. Those who are shunned are usually welcomed back into the community, even for charges like rape.
Excommunication is the harsher penalty, where the transgressor is banished from the community, and their family is forced to cut ties with them completely.
Traveling through Amish country, you’ll probably see signs prohibiting taking photos of the Amish. The Amish believe that photographs are “graven images,” that represent vanity and idol worship. However, the Amish are still widely photographed. The Amish have bent the rules on this slightly. They make the distinction between naturalistic photos (the Amish in their natural habitat) and posed photos, ones where they pose specifically for the camera.
However, they don’t seem totally opposed to reality TV, as there are three shows about the Amish (though mostly scripted): Breaking Amish, Amish Mafia and Return to Amish.