‘Our faith will be lost if we adopt technology:’ can the Amish resist the modern world?
Published by The Guardian (15th December, 2018)
Daniel Weaver does not vote, drive a car, read a paper, listen to music, watch sport of any kind, own a mobile phone or use a computer. But as we eat the food grown in his garden outside the window, he confesses that he did once see a film. He refuses to disclose what, brushing aside my questions as we sit talking around the dining table with his wife, five of his eight children and one grandson. “I am not proud of that,” he says. “I went against my parents’ wishes.”
But this one-off incident, many years ago, speaks to the reasons why this 52-year-old sold his thriving Ohio clothing business, one that supplied hundreds of stores across North America, and moved his family to this idyllic farm in upstate New York three years ago. Daniel is Amish – a member of a community famed worldwide for their plain clothes and use of horse-drawn buggies – and he fears the impact of modernity and the temptations of technology on his children, his church and his traditional Christian world. “Our values are different and we chose to safeguard them,” he says. “But if our people get lax and rub elbows too much with the world, then the world may not look too different – we become like the people outside.”
Instead, he has returned to the Amish tradition of farming, enjoying a homespun lifestyle that eschews things the rest of us take for granted – from televisions to trouser belts, in case they distract from a devotion to God. This German-speaking sect, which demands simple lives of self-reliance based on the Bible, may be at odds with the rest of today’s society – yet surprisingly, it is booming, rather than being swamped by a fast-evolving world of smartphones and social media.
In 1989, there were some 100,000 Amish scattered in 179 settlements across North America. Recent analysis by academics at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania found numbers have surged to 330,265 Amish in 546 settlements. It is the fastest-growing faith group on the continent, with predictions that there might be more than 1 million adherents by 2050. This marks an extraordinary turnaround: there were only 5,000 Amish in America a century ago.
Perhaps most remarkably, the reason for this population explosion is not just the traditional big Amish families. Children are actively choosing to stay in communities, resisting the lure of clubs, sport, music and technology. “I’ve heard a lot about Facebook, but it seems a waste of time,” says Michael, 15, one of Daniel’s four sons, over fresh tomato soup. “I can be doing things a lot more beneficial than going to bars or spending time looking at a phone.” Children can choose to be baptised into the church in their late teens – and researchers say retention rates appear to have risen in recent decades.
It is not just computers and cars that families turn their backs on. Many Amish reject mains electricity and some refuse indoor plumbing, while wives must follow the decisions of their husbands; divorce is an impermissible sin. Children carry out chores from infancy. Yet behind those distinctive long beards for men and white bonnets for women, there are some smart business brains, with soaring numbers of multimillionaires. I speak to one man running a firm with 500 employees that he started aged 50 in his barn, while others have become wealthy from land ownership as their population expands, driving up land values.
Most Amish people live in small communities of about 20 households, clustered around churches that set their own rules; they can now be found in 30 states, as well as Canada, Argentina and Bolivia. “When you have families of 13 people and most stay with the faith, then you end up with lots of people,” says Karen Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor and author of books on the Amish (though she is not Amish herself). “For the most part, I have seen shared labour and a sense of working together that we do not have any more. What I have always most admired is the strength of their families.”
A range of factors, from ending the draft in 1973, which forced young Amish men (as conscientious objectors) to carry out community work, through to a more recent trend towards educating Amish children in their own schools, has meant less interaction with the outside world. This has reinforced a sense of separatism and fuelled higher retention rates than in the years before the second world war, when differences with wider society were less stark.
New York’s Amish community is among the fastest-growing, with 58 settlements, mainly in the north of the state. Settlers are lured by land cheaper than in the Amish heartlands of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania – the photogenic backdrop for the film Witness, starring Harrison Ford as a police officer hiding in the community. In the small market town of Morris, where the Weavers now live, there are seven Amish households in an area that has seen scores of small farms go out of business.
But their neighbours seem to welcome them, not least because they have revived derelict farms. “They are well liked here,” says Leslie Stroh, a publisher who worked on Daniel’s fields as a boy. “They don’t integrate, and why should they? But they are still very open to us.” There have been tensions in other places, however, over issues such as horse droppings on roads, and refusing to install hazard lights on buggies.
Stopping in the centre of this quiet town, I meet an elderly Amish man visiting the post office on his bicycle, who turns out to be Daniel’s father, Roy. A widower who moved here a year ago, following his son, he politely answers my questions and talks me through some of the Amish community’s basic beliefs – about following “the old ways” as set out in the Bible. Later I learn the family was driven to move by cheaper land, tensions over technology in their previous church, and Daniel’s desire to spend more time with his family. He is building a store to sell local produce, while Sam, his eldest son, runs a dairy farm.
That evening, Daniel asks me to join his household for dinner, an unusual invitation. But the meal is punctuated by laughter, as the Weavers describe a way of life that revolves around faith, family and work. “I feel you can be trusted, so you are sitting at my table,” Daniel says. “But on a friendship level, our values are very different. We would not want to mix with you, because if our children came to your home, they might sit and watch television.”
We discuss their attitudes to issues such as girls’ and women’s rights, the conversation carrying on into the following day. “The Bible says a husband must love his wife and if a wife follows his lead then you will have a happy family,” says Sam, 28, a father of four. “If God’s ways are followed, then a contented family will result under our culture.” When I press him on the fairness of this, he argues they are all – men and women alike – following divine command. While the family insist all key decisions are shared, it is noticeable that the women are reticent in these male-dominated discussions. They are also more likely to carry out the traditional tasks of cleaning and cooking. Ira, Daniel’s wife, describes her day to me: “quiet time praying”, then “the girls help with breakfast and we are done by seven so the men can go out.” Her husband tells me Ira is not a “women’s libber”.
The couple’s lively one-year-old grandson, Nathan, joins us at the table, along with his father, Josh. His wife – Daniel and Ira’s oldest daughter – died of Hodgkin lymphoma when she was just 23, soon after the boy’s birth. They tell me this was deeply painful and that they miss her profoundly, but believe there is a higher purpose to such loss. “To us, death is not God’s punishment. God is in control of life and death,” Daniel says.
The Amish are followers of Jacob Amman, a hardline Swiss bishop who broke with the Mennonite faith in 1693. The Amish began emigrating to America in the 18th century, mostly settling in Pennsylvania. In the 1930s, they came to wider attention and were romanticised for resisting moves to shut down the small schools their children attended. Later generations have found other aspects of their lifestyle to admire: in the 60s, counterculture rebels looked to them as off-grid pioneers; in the 80s, they were celebrated for their traditional craft skills; more recently, it’s been their long tradition of organic farming, with branded grocers opening in New York City.
Outsiders are allowed to join the community – though only an estimated one in three stick with the creed; they are encouraged to spend time living the Amish lifestyle for several months before baptism into the church. Converts include Marlene Miller, a former high school majorette who joined half a century ago, after marrying an Amish man. In a memoir, she wrote that the hardest things were learning to speak German and to sew; just three of her 10 children are still in the faith.
Although clearly devout, with hymn sheets stuck to his own kitchen table for the family to sing together, Sam admits to me the day after our dinner that, as a teenager, he questioned his belief – if it “was a learned thing rather than the truth”. He has friends who have left to join “the English” – the Amish term for outsiders. He also confesses that, as a bird-watcher, he would love to have a camera. “But our values are down to our connection to a faith that will be discarded if we adopt technology.”
Sam, who has travelled abroad, says he is old enough to remember a pre-digital era, before computers and smartphones. “I can see the big changes they have brought to society, which my children will never see. There is more independence on the individual level, but people have become more selfish – everything is for themselves. We value the idea of working for the betterment of everyone. Christ said we are to be a light to the world. We are not saying we want everyone to be Amish, or that we are better, but our goal in a selfish society is to show people that it works if we are honest in our dealings, respect people and go the extra mile.”
Watching him lead one of his young sons around the lush fields and milking his cows, assisted by a younger brother and automated machinery, it’s clear this thoughtful man loves the rural way of life, with his 800 cows and renovated old buildings. He is scathing, however, about industrialised farming, with tens of thousands of cattle in one place. “In America, we are so driven by capitalism that everything has to get bigger and bigger all the time,” he says.
They may use a horse and buggy for trips into town, clip-clopping along the roads alongside thundering trucks, but the Amish will take taxis and trains when needed. I am surprised to learn that both Sam and Daniel have flown abroad, to places such as Guatemala and Haiti for charity work. Daniel explains that the Amish reject many modern items for fear of assimilation. So they do not own cars, for instance, because the machines detach people from their extended families too easily and can create envy, not because they are deemed “sinful” in themselves.
Daniel does not buy a newspaper, because he does not want his children becoming interested in sport – “sport seems to be the God of America, so competitive and with so much money” – yet they play volleyball and he will happily read a paper if he finds one on a train. So they know about their disruptive president, despite opting out of the electoral process. Yet when I mention Donald Trump’s bellicose language on North Korea, one young adult asks me if his country has gone to war.
Given the world’s political turbulence, such ignorance might sound almost blissful. But some who leave the Amish community have spoken about a dark side to the peaceable Amish facade; people who leave the church can be shunned by their families for the rest of their lives. I am told of one person, for instance, who was recently barred from attending her own mother’s funeral, having walked out of the sect.
Former church member Ira Wagler wrote a bestseller called Growing Up Amish, the story of how he stole away in the middle of the night, aged 17 – finally quitting the church nine years later, on his fifth attempt. “People put the Amish on a pedestal but they are just people,” he tells me. “There are some very good things about their culture that I respect, now I have joined the real world. I was taken to the top of our house, given a goose wing and made to sweep steps as my job when I was only three. The message is you do not deserve anything unless it’s earned. But if someone’s barn burns down, you help rebuild it.”
Wagler tells me that Amish children have little sense of the outside world. “My childhood had great security, with black-and-white boundaries in a very warm community. It was on a farm, so we worked and played – out in the fields or fishing in the creeks. I have very warm memories.” But he points out the flipside of such isolation, and the intense pressure to stay loyal to the church. “It is mind control. You knew that if you stepped outside the culture you’d go to hell. It was only in my mid-20s that I realised: you don’t have to be Amish.”
Like others, he talks about the impact of technology, which many Amish recognise has confronted them with existential dilemmas. Some already use mobile phones; children are secretly using social media; and those with businesses often need email and a website. Meanwhile, firms and retailers are using notes and coins less; a cashless society could ultimately force even the most conservative groups to adopt technology.
“The smartphone is a threat to the Amish not only for the darker aspects of the internet, such as access to pornography, but also for the way it can change the way we behave,” says Erik Wesner, founder of the authoritative Amish America website. “We have all got quickly used to finding instant solutions online. These can erode traditional values that the Amish revere, such as patience and dependence upon their community. And unlike a car or pickup truck, a smartphone is easily hidden.”
Yet Wesner believes the Amish will adapt, with more conservative groups resisting the digital age for as long as possible, just as some still resist electricity and modern plumbing while the majority retain defining markers such as austere clothing and a ban on car ownership. “They do gradually change, although at slower pace.”
One comparatively recent adaptation has been the shift from farming to business. One study found more than 10,000 Amish-owned firms across the US – with lower failure rates than average, despite the fact that most Amish leave school at 14, making them unlikely entrepreneurs.
One of the biggest is a kitchen cabinet business started by Ola Yoder in his barn two decades ago. It now churns out 6,000 units a day from an industrial park in Indiana, employing 500 staff. Unusually, Yoder, now 72, spent seven years outside the Amish in his early 20s. “I saw how other people lived and decided it was not for me or my kids,” he says, although he still has many “English” friends. He also spent time working for a major company. “They had rules about drugs and swearing, but no one enforced them,” he says. “In corporate America, it is all about climbing up the ladder.”
Yoder bans mobile phones at work, asking why you would want to employ someone who is always texting, and says he sticks to Amish values in business. “Success is about finding peace within yourself and your family. For the Amish, money is just a tool to enable you to live your faith. What good would it do, to have smart cars and fly all over the world?”
Before I leave Morris, with its rolling farmland and warning signs urging drivers to beware of horse-drawn buggies, Daniel tells me he knows outsiders think their approach to life looks outdated and tough. “But all those seeking freedom seem to have more traps than ever – all their cars, computers and televisions seem to make their lives more morose,” he says. “I think our lifestyle is actually easier.”
That may be true. But only time will tell, as their numbers continue to rise, whether they can hold out against what Sam Weaver calls “the glitz and glamour” of the modern world.