Just Plain Interesting: Springboards for Research on the Amish

Even among the Amish there are differences in belief in practice. Some are strict adherents to the old ways, while others are a little more flexible. The stricter groups are the Old Order, including the Schwartzentruber, the group that lives in my hometown. The use of electricity, telephones, and tractors is not permitted. No musical instruments are allowed in worship, as this is seen as worldly and would stir up the emotions of those involved. Yet, in New Order households, minimal use of electricity, telephones, and tractors is permitted. New Order groups are less strict in the practice of shunning than are Old Order groups.

Even among these groups, some things remain the same. They speak their own dialect of German (sometimes referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch) at home. Worship services are two to three hours long and are held in homes every other week. Preaching and singing are in High German, which the children learn in school. Amish children attend school only through the eighth grade. In addition to High German, they study reading, writing, arithmetic, and English. They strive for peace and nonviolence in all areas of their lives. They have a strong sense of community and will come to the aid of anyone in the community who is in need.

One way they serve others in their communities is through barn or house raisings. When a family loses their barn or house through carelessness or because of lightning, within a matter of days the community will host an all-day “work frolic.” The children who are too young to help in any other way may take care of younger children, play, or make themselves available for errands.

The Amish also band together for quilt sales. In areas of the country that have large Amish communities, these sales help offset the medical expenses of the community, as they do not believe in health insurance.

Are Their Lives Contradictory?

Some non-Amish see the Amish as contradictory people. After all, they do not own or drive cars, but they will accept and even pay for rides from “Englishers.” Most don’t have telephones in their homes, but they may have them in public areas. The Amish do not see these practices as contradictory, however. They do nothing out of idleness; everything they do has a purpose. If they owned cars, they might be tempted to ride around for no purpose. Yet, if they have to call for a ride and then pay for it, they will use the time wisely. If they permitted phones in the home, valuable time might be lost by its idle use. However, if they had to go to an English neighbor’s house, their place of business, or the community “phone shack,” especially in unpleasant weather, they would have a very specific reason for their call, such as arranging for a ride or making a doctor’s appointment; they would keep the call short; and then they would go back to their work.

Some changes are necessary, whether to accommodate changes in English laws, growth in their communities, loss of farmland, or curious tourists. When such situations arise, the community takes a vote and decides how to handle the change. For example, when government regulations concerning pasteurization required electricity, some Amish began cheese-making businesses instead of selling milk. Some Amish have taken on non-farm jobs, either in industries needed by the Amish, such as blacksmithing and buggy making, in factories, or by opening businesses frequented by Englishers, such as bakeries, quilt shops, or bed and breakfast inns. Some unmarried Amish girls may work in restaurants.

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Okay, time to get to work. Using the information in the article and the websites and nonfiction books listed in the sidebar as starting points, answer these questions. Feel free to do your own Internet searches or use different books if needed.

• Mapping activities

(1) Find Lancaster on a map of Pennsylvania.

(2) Trace possible routes the Amish could have taken from Europe to Pennsylvania.

(3) Begin with the states mentioned in the introduction. Do further research to find other states in which the Amish have settled. How do they choose where they will move? Locate the states on a map.

• Questions for all students

(1) Why did the Amish leave Europe?

(2) Why did they choose to settle in Pennsylvania instead of one of the other American colonies?

• Questions for younger students

(1) Read one or more of the books from the picture book list in the sidebar. Do the unit study if one is provided. What are some character traits they consider important?

(2) Why are they called the Plain People?

(3) What holidays do they observe?

• Springboards for research (middle/older students)

(1) How are ministers and bishops chosen?

(2) What is a singing?

(3) Research their clothing customs and answer these questions:

Why do they wear only solid colors?

Why do women and girls wear the distinctive head coverings?

  • Why are no buttons used?

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