Beards, Buggies & Barn Raisings – A Traveller’s Intro to Amish Culture & History
June 18, 2018
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You recognise immediately when you’ve arrived in Amish Country – the buggies and bonnets are a dead giveaway. There aren’t too many places in the world that you can see one culture living so distinct within another. Ohio has one of the largest settlements of Amish in North America, giving you the opportunity to learn firsthand about Amish culture and history. However, before you plan a day in Amish country, here is a little primer to answer some common questions and give you a better understanding of what you will see.

Amish history

The Amish originated out of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland beginning in the 1520’s. They are part of the Anabaptists (along with groups such as the Mennonites and Hutterites) who believe that baptism is only valid when the person confesses their faith to in Christ, and therefore reject the idea of baptizing infants, insisting that the church should be a voluntary group of adult worshippers.

The Anabaptists experienced persecution by the Protestant and Catholic churches. They moved throughout Europe to parts of France, Germany and Holland, and eventually to Poland and Russia from the mid-16th century. The Mennonites and Amish split over differences in beliefs in 1693. Those who followed Jacob Ammann were given the name Amish.

The newly formed Amish sought refuge in the religious tolerance of North America in the mid-1700s, particularly in Pennsylvania. Over time, groups of Amish settled in other regions of the United States such as Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, as well as parts of Ontario, Canada.

Amish horse & buggy
Amish farmer at work ploughing a field
Amish farmer at work ploughing a field

Amish faith

Here are a few interesting aspects of Amish faith that will help you to understand some of their lifestyle choices that we will get into in a moment.

Religion: Amish take the scripture seriously, strictly adhering to their interpretations of the Bible.

Adult baptism: Meaning that members of the church have chosen to be there. Although practices of excommunication and shunning may leave room for doubt.

Separation of church and state: The chummy nature of church and state in Switzerland during the 16th century was the catalyst for the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists challenged the accumulation of wealth and power by a small few and were persecuted as a result.

Conscientious objectors: Refusal of violence, along with political power and suing in a court of law. This is why the Amish don’t serve in the military, police force or hold political office.

Non-conformity: The Amish do not value egotistical behaviour, which leads them to have an anti-individualist attitude. An obvious example is their uniform dress, which removes a point for comparison between individuals.

No physical place of worship: The Amish do not have a physical church or similar place of worship. Instead, they meet in homes and barns with a rotating roster. Their more liberal “religious cousins” the Mennonites do use dedicated meeting houses for church services.

Amish lifestyle

Let’s clarify some Amish cultural facts and answer commonly held questions.

Use of technology: The Amish do not believe that technology is inherently evil, they decide whether or not to adopt new gadgets and ways of life depending on how they believe it will affect the family unit and community.

Uniform dress: Amish must not be prideful or arrogant, so they level out the playing field when it comes to potential points for comparison, such as wearing uniform dress.

Beards (men): Men grow beards, but never a moustache. Beards are thought to be mandated by the Bible but are only grown in preparation for baptism or after marriage. Moustaches are associated with European militaries that persecuted early Anabaptists.

Prayer caps (women): Women wear prayer caps, and do not cut their hair, due to their interpretation of the Bible.

Barns-raisings: Building a new barn is a community effort and generally all able-bodied people are expected to assist. Men build while young boys assist by fetching tools etc and women provide food and drink to the workers. With a lot of preparation and the assistance of the entire community, an entire barn can be built in one day.

Food: Amish cuisine draws from the traditions of their heritage in Switzerland and Germany. Being self-reliant, they will cook with ingredients grown or hunted themselves and traded with other community members.

Rumspringa (running around): The period of late adolescence prior to adult baptism, when Amish kids are let off the leash a little. They may choose to experiment with outside culture and activities such as learning to drive a car and wearing non-Amish clothes.

Language: The Amish mostly speak in German, a dialect sometimes referred to as “Pennsylvanian Dutch.” They are generally bilingual, speaking English as well.

Education: Amish are not educated past the 8th-grade. They can attend regular school up until this level, although in areas with heavily populated Amish, schools could be exclusively Amish students.

Crafts: Amish are famous for their exquisite patchwork quilts, which are mostly handstitched and are often community projects. Similarly, they are highly skilled wood-workers.

Faceless dolls: Amish dolls do not have faces because “all are alike in the eyes of God,” and the featureless dolls are in line with the Bible’s commandment against graven images.

Amish Doll
Amish Doll
Amish wardrobe
Amish wardrobe

Amish community & organisation

Amish communities are generally organised in three ways, that can overlap and interweave:

Settlement: Refers to geographic location. Holmes County is home to one of the largest Amish settlements in the world with approximately 42,000 constituents.

Church district: A group of families that come together for worship. When a church district grows too large (around 40 families), it’s divided into two. The Holmes County settlement encompasses 227 church districts.

Ordnung (order): The level of “Amish-ness”, is usually determined by the church leader. Each order provides the guidelines for living, such as what is acceptable in terms of dress and use of technology.  There are 11 different Ordnung in Holmes County.

If you want to get a taste of the Amish’s unique and fascinating lifestyle, Holmes County, Ohio is a great place to start. See my guide for a one-day visit, to see the cultural experiences Amish Country has to offer.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Beards, Bibles & Barn Raisings – An Traveller’s Intro to Amish Culture & History

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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