The changing face of the Amish


An occasional visitor may notice changes more readily when observing a community once every few years, compared to a resident who accepts incremental changes day by day.

While some things change, there are other things that never should. On the beauty of wood, Amish minister and farmer David Kline describes the value of red elm and white ash for home heating in his book “Great Possessions.” Scenic beauty of pastoral farmland, cottontail rabbits, rolling hills, the passing of four seasons, all are in the category of things that should never change.

Do you remember the summer of 1970 in Holmes County Ohio? Dusty and dry following the year of the devastating ’69 flood in the Killbuck Valley, when black and white Holstein cows were seeking greener pastures. Buggies and horses are returning home after dark from a youth social at the neighbor’s pond. Visitors are heading back to Cleveland in their blue Ford Fairlanes with cheese and trail bologna from Alpine Alpa or Guggisberg Cheese.

The chaotic events of the 1960s in America, including war and social change, set the stage for the decade of the 1970s. Americans were called upon to be tolerant and accepting in a different way than ever before. In northeast Ohio, the lives of four students were taken as the government tested the limits of the right of lawful protest. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was established to create change of how we could live in this world without treating the earth like the “liquidation of a business,” according to founder Gaylord Nelson.

In 1965, exemption from the self-employment tax (Social Security) for those that have a religious objection and also make reasonable provisions for their members became law. In the early 1970s was the establishment of the requirement that Amish buggies would display an SMV (slow moving vehicle) sign on their buggies. While the SMV sign in most Amish communities was finally accepted, the Amish were giving no ground that state governments should expect all students to attend school until 15 or 16 years of age, depending on the state. In 1972, the Wisconsin vs. Yoder case, upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court, settled the conflict of mandatory school attendance past the eighth grade. Since this time, Amish parochial one or two room schools, employing their own teachers, have increased in number to nearly 100 in Holmes and surrounding counties today.

By the beginning of the 21st century, ‘diversity’ has become a word of value rather than a snide remark to point out another’s differences. The Amish were not without challenges in the face of shifting world views during this time. Post World Wars and the emerging acceptance of one’s German heritage in America, the Amish were one of the remaining cultural religious sects migrating from Europe in the 1800s whose primary language had not been changed to English. By design of the Amish to remain ‘strangers of the world’ in their everyday practices, their choice of family communication has now been accepted and even respected in today’s world. Sociologists and historians concur that Amish survival in America would not have occurred if not for American society. The American political culture emphasizes liberty, equality and democracy.

These elements are as responsible for the opportunity for the Amish to thrive as much as anything that the Amish have done. Since their settlement in the early 1800’s, the Amish in our Holmes County area have always contributed to the economic vitality of the region. Of course many changes have taken place, but none more profound in the past 40 years than the transition of both Amish and English (non-Amish) families away from farming as their economic occupation of choice. Although earnings from farm acreage have diminished as a percentage of per capita income, the number of acres reported in farmland, as compared to our neighboring counties in Ohio, has not. So, while income from the land has diminished, the responsibility to exercise good stewardship has not.

“The shift from farm to non-farm employment is the biggest social change in the last century in Amish life,” states Dr. Don Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College. The loss of farming as an occupation deprives the Amish of some of their cultural bonds, including the opportunity to work together. Traditions such as group thrashing and hauling firewood are part of the past. Working off the farm hampers other family traditions, such as eating every meal together.

Relating to an Amish man, the old adage was you had to have a wife and a Bible and 80 acres. Now they say you can have two acres and a wife and a Bible and a shop. Just a little more than one generation ago, about 90 percent of the families in this community made their income from farming, now 90 percent do not. Amish are now working off the farm in record numbers changing daily family life in the home. The growth of shops, stores and businesses in the Amish community, mostly owned and operated by Amish and their families, provides jobs and shopping while keeping people close to home. The buying and selling of goods and services within the community circle sustains the economy and the culture. Sustaining local family businesses by circulating economic earnings and assets is an economic key to success for any small community in America today.

Through the operation of small businesses and inherent contact with the outside world, Amish are influenced by a world obsessed with speed and convenience. Years ago I knew of many people that traveled to our area to make arrangements with Amish to build custom furniture. These custom building arrangements would be made and take months to complete. Now most of my friends who visit this area are delighted that you can immediately select and consume hand-crafted fine furniture from one of our newly established furniture retail establishments.

The Amish also are opening up to once-banned forms of technology, changes that will influence generations to come. Kraybill continues to research and explore the different ways in which Amish communities cope with technology by rejecting, accepting, adapting, and inventing new forms. How do Amish communities determine which technological advances to accept and which to reject? The answer to this question befuddles most English people. Kraybill has discerned that there are many identifiable cultural regulators which determine whether the Amish will accept a technology into their culture or not.

“From the Buggy to the Byte” is the working title of a current research project relating to the understanding of technological adoption in Amish communities. Three of the most critical cultural regulators of technology change are 1) Economic Impact, 2) Visible Change, and 3) Relationship or Adaptability to the Ordnung (the unwritten regulations of each Amish community). Economic Impact – if the technology is likely to create higher profits, then it is more likely to be accepted. Visible Change – a change that is noticeable is more likely to be rejected than a less noticeable one. Relationship or Adaptability to the Ordnung – change that contradicts the Ordnung is less likely to be accepted, but change that adapts to previous Ordnung rules will more likely be established. Over the years, Amish have become masters of selective technology adoption and there is no reason to believe that this trend will waiver.

To some it is puzzling that the Amish have not only survived but have thrived through the middle to the end of the 20th century. Economic development is not just a matter of economics. The Amish have achieved growth and prosperity through their large Amish families as well as the influence of their strong work ethic. With the average of seven children per family, the Amish population increases significantly every generation. Some estimate that the Amish population doubles every 20 years. A factor in the growth potential is the increasing number of Amish youth who actually join the church. Keeping the youth is a key to Amish survival. Besides socialization into the community through school and church practices, economic factors play a role in assimilating Amish youth into the church. Large extended families provide job security as well as business opportunity.

The Amish will have to continue to compromise with the outside world in order to survive. To thrive they will have to continue on their path of economic profitability and family resiliency. Some foresee the demise of the American family. In contrast, a local Amish minister predicts that even with a lower number of children per family, more young people will want to stay in the Amish community for the security and the family values taught.

Watching the Amish riding their horse drawn buggies through Holmes County, it would be easy to assume that you are experiencing life as it might have been a century ago. Amish life could appear to be static, never changing. In fact, the Amish are a very dynamic cultural community. Through market forces and other means, they continue to interact with the enormously tempting culture of the modern world.