“Do Amish men wear underwear?”
In my mind, I closed my eyes and slapped my forehead in disbelief at the question. I’m always amazed at what people will ask when they’re learning about other cultures.
Yvonne and I took a guided tour of the Amish Farm and House in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Our guide, who was Mennonite, was knowledgeable about the history of the Amish and Mennonite communities in America and gave solid answers to a wide swath of questions. She stared at the man for only a moment before answering.
“Yes, they wear underwear.”
“Do they wear special underwear, like I heard Mormons do?”
“Well, no one has dropped their drawers for me, but I’m pretty sure they wear boxers or briefs like anyone else.”
Most of us harbor preconceptions about people who are different than ourselves, but seriously? Even if they don’t wear underwear (Amish men in certain other comunities apparently do not), this is what you most wanted to know?
The Amish have always appeared an anachronism to me, refusing to modernize because that’s how it’s always been done. That’s true to a degree. For example, married men grow beards without mustaches because in Germany and Switzerland (the “Pennsylvania Dutch” didn’t come from Holland), centuries ago, military men had mustaches and the Amish are pacifists. Single Amish men are always clean-shaven.
What I learned is that for the most part, there are reasons for the way they do things. Paradoxes exist: farmers can’t use diesel tractors, but they can use a propane-powered reaper pulled by horses. But in the context of their values, most of their ways make more sense to me now.
We in America belong to a highly individualistic culture. We value doing what’s best for ourselves over what’s best for society. In the 20th century, “civic values” were stronger than today but ultimately, we believe in the “inalienable right” of the individual to live his own life as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
Much of what the Amish do, or don’t do, stems from a collectivist mindset. Communities of perhaps twenty families worship together, support each other, and make their own rules within the larger tenets of Amish belief. Does a technology, or action, or behavior, keep a person connected to the community and their family? Does it make them too independent? Does it create distraction within the home? Is a tool or technology not just useful, but necessary?
Those are the questions that every Amish community must grapple with when something new comes along. That’s not to say that every community comes to the same conclusion. According to this chart, Lancaster Amish are actually on the progressive side, but the reasoning is the same for everyone.
Amish children learn German and English because prayers are in German. But they only go to school, taught by young Amish women in one-room schoolhouses, through 8th grade—higher education isn’t needed to work on the farm or to sell goods in a market.
The rest of us are “the English.” Amish communities use “English” doctors or attorneys since they don’t have the education themselves. They don’t drive cars because it makes it too easy to travel far from home, but if they must travel far, they’ll hire an English driver. They don’t put rubber tires on their buggies so that they won’t be too comfortable. We saw a woman cruising down a hill on a foot-powered scooter, baby-carrying trailer in tow—bicycles aren’t allowed for the same reason as cars.
They don’t use public electricity or natural gas because they don’t want to be physically connected to the outside world. They use propane-powered washing machines, battery-powered sewing machines, and solar cells to recharge the batteries. Telephones discourage face-to-face conversation. But many families in Lancaster have an emergency phone in a little hut well away from their house, with a solar panel to keep it charged.
We passed a woman wearing a battery-powered leaf blower on her back. No computers or internet are allowed in the home, but an Amish businessman with a store in town might have a computer there; it’s too difficult to have a successful business in the English world without one.
They don’t believe in insurance and are legally exempt from Social Security. They will go to the hospital when necessary, and pay cash. Amish communities will pool their resources to help one of their own. In Lancaster, there is a clinic that specializes in medical conditions due to inbreeding—since the Amish only marry within the Amish community.
How do they survive as a culture with all of the distractions of the modern world? I think it comes down to one of their basic beliefs, one that, according to our guide at the Amish Farm, resulted in the persecution that caused them to leave Europe for America.
Most Christians believe that a child must be baptized soon after birth. But the Amish believe that baptism is a vow to God, one that must be chosen, and a child can’t possibly make such a vow. When Amish children are in their latter teen years, they enter a time called Rumlaufen, when within limits, they are allowed to drive, use cell phones, get a job at the mall, and socialize with the English.
When that period of a couple of years is over, a young person must choose: do you want to remain a part of the Amish community, or do you want to leave and live in the outside world?
If they leave, they are on their own. They may visit their families and friends but they can’t eat or worship with them. If they choose baptism, they walk away from the outside world, but forge closer ties to the community they have grown up with and come to depend on. If they don’t abide by the rules after baptism, they will be shunned: emotionally and physically isolated from the community until they repent.
I can only imagine the weight of such a decision for a young person, the excitement and uncertainty of a world full of personal choices versus the safety and potentially soul-crushing rigidity of Amish life.
88% choose to stay. 12% choose to leave. Both numbers sound big to me.
Disclaimer: I had one day in Lancaster County’s Amish Country and I am certainly not an expert on the Amish. Yvonne and I asked every question we could think of and received what I believe were honest answers. This Wikipedia article gives a full history of the Amish and seems to confirm everything we learned. If I’ve made any glaring errors, please contact me and I’ll correct them.
All photos by Yvonne Lefort