Watching the Amish riding their horse-drawn carriages through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you catch a glimpse of how life would have been 150 years ago. The Amish, without their electricity, cars, and television appear to be a static culture, never changing. This, however, is just an illusion. In fact, the Amish are a dynamic culture that is, through market forces and other means, continually interacting with the enormously tempting culture of America. So, one might be led to wonder how a culture like the Amish, one that seems so anachronistic, has not only survived but has grown and flourished while surrounded by a culture that would seem to be so detrimental to its basic ideals. The Amish, through biological reproduction, resistance to outside culture, compromise, and a strong ethnic symbolism have managed to stave off a culture that waits to engulf them. Why study the Amish? One answer would be, of course, to learn about their seemingly pure cooperative society and value system (called Ordung). From this, one may hope to learn how to better America’s problem of individualism and lack of moral or ethical beliefs. However, there is another reason to study the Amish. Because the Amish have remained such a large and distinct culture from our own, they provide an opportunity to study the effects of cultural transmission, resistance, and change, as well as the results of strong symbolism in maintaining ethnic and cultural isolation.
The Amish originated from the Anabaptist movement of the early 1500s in Switzerland. Jacob Amman, who believed in conserving traditions and separation from the world more than the other Anabaptist, led a split from the Swiss “Mennonite” Brethren in 1693. Since the early 1700s when they first arrived in Pennsylvania as part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” the Amish have been living a simple lifestyle in accordance with their religious beliefs. There are approximately 150,000 Amish in North America. The largest group is in Holmes County, Ohio, with significant populations in Pennsylvania, northern Indiana and Iowa. Others are located in the eastern and mid-western states and Ontario, Canada.
Today the Amish people are much the same as those that first came over in early 1700s and live in much the same way. For instance Amish people interpret linking with electrical wires as a connection with the world – and the Amish leaders agreed that connecting to power lines would not be in the best interest of the Amish community. They did not make this decision because they thought electricity was evil in itself, but because easy access to it could lead to many temptations and the deterioration of church and family life. Most of us today would think it impossible to live without modern conveniences such as electricity and cars. What makes the Old Order Amish unique is not that they get along without modernity, but that they choose to do without it when it would be readily available. The Amish value simplicity and self-denial over comfort, convenience and leisure. Their lifestyle is a deliberate way of separating from the world and maintaining self-sufficiency. (The Amish are less threatened by power shortages caused by storm, disaster, or war.) As a result there is a bonding that unites the Amish community and protects it from outside influences such as television, radios, and other influences.
It is easy to label the Amish as remnants of another era; the Amish have sustained a unique and flourishing culture. The Amish have combined Christianity and simplicity to create a society that furthers family, community, and happiness in ways that American society and culture has not only been incapable of creating but is diametrically opposed to. The Amish, instead of being individualistic, have forgone many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. The Amish have been able to remove themselves effectively from mainstream American culture and create a seemingly static culture. The Amish, however, are not static but change slowly and deliberately. There have been a number of factors that have contributed to the growth, preservation, and change in Amish culture. Large Amish families and the use of modern medicines and nutrition have led to less mortality and encouraged population growth. Amish schools and education socializes youth to Amish values so that they tend to remain part of the Amish church. Amish economic practices ranging from the size of farms to the use of draft horses also functions to serve and protect Amish culture. The impedes for social change is largely caused by, but not limited to, economic factors. But Amish social change is a slow and careful exercise. Unlike the surrounding American society, where change is instant and in the hands of strangers, media, and bureaucrats, the Amish decide for themselves what changes to make. Change is experimented with and its effects observed. The only changes allowed are those that insure the fidelity to Amish culture. The combined efforts of ethnic symbolism, population growth, and resistance to outside philosophies, compromise, and social change has preserved Amish culture and allowed it to flourish. While many Americans may think that the Amish are a backward and quaint culture, in fact the Amish have been very innovative in preserving the simplicity of life and incorporating change, while ignoring the rush and superficiality of American culture and continue to live a godly life, fully centered on the teachings of the Bible.
In conclusion I would just like mention one thing that I think should be pointed out is that Amish survival in America would not have occurred if not for American society. I must emphasize that American political culture is as responsible for Amish survival in America as anything the Amish have done. America’s political culture emphasizes liberty, equality, and democracy. These beliefs allow for religious freedom and tolerance, which, without, would have inhibited Amish survival. It is the lack of these tolerances that forced the Amish from Europe and to the United States. Only since the early twentieth century has the Amish been considered incongruous with mainstream society. This is because until the mass use of electricity, cars, and television, the Amish except for their use of language and plain dress, would not have been distinct from most other 19th century farmers. This in essence allowed for the early survival and establishment of Amish culture in the United States.
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