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November 25, 2008

An Amish America Q-and-A with a Lancaster County Amishman

"It is very definitely a gray area, in fact it is nearly black."

An anonymous Amish friend from Lancaster County has offered candid answers to some questions on Amish life.  In this first of two parts, he comments on topics such as the Amish presence in the media, Amish internet usage, friendships with non-Amish people, and the benefits and challenges of living life as an Amish person.  Lancaster County Amishman

This is just one of a number of blogs and websites focusing on the Amish. Amish have been portrayed in the media in multiple ways-on film, on television, in books and in newspaper articles. What's your impression of all the attention given to your people by the world? Why are outsiders so interested?

Let me start by saying that by far the greatest majority of Amish people are for the most part oblivious to and non-chalant about the attention in the media given to us.  It is assumed by most Amish that the information about us that is given by the media to others is generally distorted to varying degrees.  There is practically no desire amongst the Amish to make sure we only get good press.  In other words we don’t have any highly paid spin doctors.  The general feeling amongst us is, it’s better to walk the walk than to talk the talk.  If you live an honest and upright life there is no need to “talk the talk”.  Your life speaks for itself.

The Amish along with all Christians are called to be a light to the world.  The light being spoken of in that passage are not the klieg  [spot] lights of the media, but rather the truth of Christ.

With all that being said, there is still a portion of the Amish people that is at least curious about what is being said about us.  Though none of the Amish are planning on spending any money to make sure we get good coverage.

The more serious and authentic coverage can even help some of the Amish understand themselves better.

And also there is kind of an awareness that the tone of the media coverage is usually somewhat more respectful and sympathetic than it was 50 or 75 years ago, especially in the academic circles, for which there is an appreciation amongst the Amish.

And that really is what this conversation is about—to better understand and appreciate each other without a fear of losing our respective identities.


You've mentioned you've read this blog before.  I also have some Amish friends and acquaintances that have email accounts and even business websites. I think some non-Amish readers may be curious on how all that web stuff works in terms of how it fits in with the church?

For example, the last time I visited your home I didn't notice any kerosene-powered desktops or anything like that. So more specifically, when would Amish folks get on the web, how common is it, and does the church have an issue with that, is it gray area, or generally okay?

Until computers were acquired by the company I work for, I was only on the web once or twice and then didn’t get much out of it.

By far most Amish experiences with computers are work-related.  I only have access during lunch or break periods and occasional slow time or during the course of doing my job.

In some Amish communities there is somewhat of a distinction made between work-related use and ownership and use at home.

A computer in a home just simply would not fly.  I personally have no desire to have one at home largely because of the problem of monitoring who sees what with the children.

At work, were you to visit any of those bad websites you would lose your job.  And so it should be.  With a little determination you can circumvent all the filters and safeguards and get on a bad website.  There is no better deterrent than mutual accountability and facing certain consequences.  As to how common using the internet is, perhaps 10-20% of Amish people would have some Web experience either on a PC or a cell phone.  It is very definitely a gray area, in fact it is nearly black.

But if one is respectful and doesn’t brag or become challenging about his computer savvy, not a whole lot will happen as far as discipline is concerned.  In other words if you behave yourself otherwise, things generally stay quiet.


What do Amish people feel about Amish/non-Amish friendships? How common are they, and is the average Amish person interested in having non-Amish friends?

And what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of such intercultural relationships?

All Amish people that have friends also have non-Amish friends.  The typical Amish person treasures friendships of all kinds provided that our respective identities are not challenged and ripped down.  One of the benefits of inter-cultural relationships is one can gain a balanced view of his own culture and identity.  Once can appreciate the good parts of his own culture and can also take an honest look at the shortcomings and potential improvements to his life.

Most of the time I come away from an intercultural encounter with a greater appreciation of my own heritage.  Two Scripture passages come to mind.  The first is in Acts where the writer says that unto every man (person) is appointed a time and a place.

In the context of intercultural relationships that becomes quite obvious. Also in Hebrews it talks about running with patience the race set before us.  That ties right in with “thou shalt not covet”.  If we do not begin to covet, friendships with non-Amish are very rewarding indeed.


The next couple of questions may seem a bit simplistic, but let's try them anyway.  First, what in your opinion are the biggest benefits that come from being Amish?

This and the next question are probably the most difficult to answer because a typical Amish person doesn’t have a lot of formal training and is not really learned in critical analysis and rational thinking from a modern perspective.

To illustrate this point, in a fairly recent scholarly study, testing was done on Amish school students on some basic curriculum questions and such and apparently there was a question that asked students to write something about their school that would be good for the rest of the world to know.

She received not a single coherent response.  In short, we are not very good at selling ourselves, even while we are generally quite adept at being ourselves.

But now to try and answer the question.  I would have to say the sense of belonging to something larger than yourself.  The comfort of community and the strong family ties.  Another thing is the simple and equal ecclesiastical structure in the sense that the clergy is not  necessarily more educated or wealthier than any of the laity.  The fact that ministers are chosen from among the members by the use of the divine lot eliminates a great deal of politics, a fact that I personally greatly appreciate.  The unsalaried ministry and the use of each other’s homes for church services lessens the pressure to give to the church and enables all alms to go directly to the needy.  In other words it is not all about money.

With all that being said, the strong community and family ties is not something that only the Amish can have.  The strength of those ties varies among the Amish as well, and are subject to individual volition.

In other words, you get out of family and community about what you put into them.  The difference between the Amish and Modern America is I think that with Amish the sense of community and family is more intrinsic and reached through a more intense cultural osmosis.

In other words it is something that is passed from one generation to the next, orally and by example, starting at a very early age, in fact it starts at the beginning of the child’s comprehension.

And last but not least is the opportunity to be a follower of Christ in a simple and faithful way.  I realize that this way of life is a gift from above and without the help of the Lord it would be impossible to endure unto the end.  The nice thing is that anyone can choose to be a follower of Christ whatever your lot in life is, and in whatever cultural context you live in.

No need to be Amish in order to believe in the Lord and have eternal life unless of course the Lord wants you to be Amish.

Lancaster County Amish church


And what's the 'hardest thing' about being Amish?

Now for the “hardest question”.  Let’s start by saying that for different individuals there are different answers.  For the modern or postmodern soul the hardest thing would be the lack of unlimited personal choice.  But for the Amish person who knew who he or she was ever since he or she can remember, that plethora of choice is nothing but a whirlpool of confusion, and it makes no sense at all to ride that whirlpool for awhile to try and find yourself.

The Amish person basically has two choices, that is ‘To be or not to be’.  Yet “the hardest thing” also varies from one Amish person to another.  Some chafe at the technological restrictions of the Ordnung.  Some wish for more intense spiritual expression, in other words they do not appreciate the quiet and deep spirituality that can come from traditional methods of worship.

Others are frustrated by the career limitations.  This is ironically being increased by the shift from an agrarian way of life to one that includes entrepreneurship. 

The latter is the one that probably bothers me the most.  One of my fears would be to get stuck working at a dead-end job for somebody else the rest of my days.

So for myself I would say the hardest thing is the irony of knowing that being an educator, an engineer, a banker, an accountant, a veterinarian would be an enjoyable and fulfilling career as long as it would last, but the price to pay for achieving a career such as that would most likely entail the sacrifice of your Amish identity.

I think that had I entered into that world or had been pushed into high school and college by my parents as many American children are, I probably would have met with some success.

But on the other hand I cannot imagine being any happier than I am now. 

And I certainly would not want to wind up being a lonely and eccentric professional pushed away to a nursing home where nobody understands me anymore.  All things considered, I think it is best to simply seek to do the Lord’s will and follow his plan for my life.  I was born in 1965 in Lancaster, PA to a specific set of Amish parents and that was not an accident but rather part of a plan.

Every person’s circumstances are in the same way part of a plan, but in a different context.


If you weren't Amish, what do you think you would miss the most about being Amish?

The family being together at home without interference from an electronic cacophony.

Living with a devoted wife who is also your best friend, without the specter of divorce looming just over the horizon.

The get-togethers with your Rumspringa friends that last through a lifetime.

The walks to church on a peaceful Sunday morning.

The fellowship after a church service.

And most of all, belonging to a body of believers that cares enough about your soul to steer you back to the narrow way spoken of in Matt 7 whenever you stray.

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To be continued:  Look for the second part of this Q-and-A coming soon.

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Comments

Wow, that was great. Your blog provides the kind of information about the Amish I've always wanted. And this particular Q&A provided some of the best info!

Ohhhh, this is a great post Eric! I love that sentence:"But on the other hand I cannot imagine being any happier than I am now"
Thank you!

This writer put into words things I myself have felt as a person who straddles several cultures and languages (none of them Amish). The enjoyment of being who I am and belonging to my family, but appreciating and learning from others is one of the things I enjoy about this blog.

I don't think, though, that I could have put this into words so well as your writer. Among so many other things, clarity is also a gift his unique experiences and beliefs seem to have given him.

Thanks for sharing.

This interview is fantastic! Very thoughtful and informative. Thanks for posting it.

INteresting interview. But I can see that this Amishman is a bit more educated and aware of world happenings than the average. I wonder how the response would be from the "average" Amishman"-i.e. who has no interaction with internet? And whose personal inclination is not towards it in any way?
Just curious... I am sure each individual would have his own take.

This is a fantastic interview, amazing in fact. A very articulate and educated individual was the subject of your interview. Very impressive indeed.

I'd say your friend is probably a little more astute than many of the Amish that I have met, but then again he seems to be more astute than most of the non-Amish I have met as well!

Thanks for the interesting read. I am anxiously awaiting the second part of the interview.

Thanks for the wonderful comments, I am glad you all enjoyed this post. I appreciate that my friend has taken the time to offer these insights and I am looking forward to putting up the next part.

Great idea! Here is a question:

Recently there was a TV report on young Amish runaways. If a teenager has not yet been baptized, why would he/she feel the need to run away? Does the Amish church have discussions about runaways and how to reduce the number of these?

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