Day 43

A night with the Amish, continued

May 8th, 2010

I mentioned in my previous post that I had the chance to ask Lee and Mary Kathryn questions about Amish culture. Here are some things that I learned from them, as well as some observations I made:

Different orders and communities of Amish differ in their uses of modern technology. The Swartzentruber Amish are the most conservative and restrictive order, and won't even use electric lights on their buggies, driving at night with no turn signals and just a lantern to make themselves visible and light the way. Lee and Mary Kathryn belong to a different order (Old Order Amish, I believe) that allows limited use of electricity. In the picture above, you can see electric lights on the buggy (you can also see windshield wipers, but they are hand-operated). The lights run on a battery that is charged with a solar panel. There were a few other battery-operated things in Lee and Mary Kathryn's house that I noticed: LED night lights in the bathroom, an LED lantern, and electric clocks. They also had gas lights and gas heat (and probably a gas stove, although I don't know that for sure).

The specific regulations are determined by each community within the order, with representatives from each constituent church (there aren't physical churches, just groups that meet and worship at each other's houses on a rotating schedule) in the community meeting once a year to hammer out any changes to the rules. In Lee and Mary Kathryn's community, telephones used to be strictly prohibited. At some point they were deemed necessary for making doctor's appointments and other similar arrangements, so the community allowed one phone to be shared by the members of each church. Now each house is allowed to have a phone, but they have to be located outside the house. Lee and Mary Kathryn don't have their own phone, so they use a shared phone when they need to make a call. Businesses are allowed to have phones because they would not be able to stay competitive without them.

Lee and Mary Kathryn have one son who lives in Phoenix and is not Amish. They sometimes take the train out to visit him, and will ride in his car with him. There is a taxi service in Nappanee that the Amish sometimes use (if they're too old to get around on their own, if the weather makes other forms of travel dangerous, etc). I believe the idea is not that modern technology is inherently bad, but that it can be divisive to the community, so it is generally ownership of something modern, rather than use of it, that is forbidden. I don't think it's uncommon for an Amish person to work at a job that requires use of electricity.

In addition to the horse and buggy, many Amish in Nappanee use bicycles to get around. I probably saw more bikes there than in the rest of my trip combined.

They seemed to speak Dutch (Pennsylvania German) to each other, and English is taught in the schools. Their bibles are mostly in German.

I had heard that Amish kids had one year where they were allowed to live in the outside world and experience modern life, including drug use and pre-marital sex, before deciding whether they wanted to remain Amish. There is a nugget of truth to this. The Amish are Anabaptists, meaning they're not baptized into the church until they're adults. So there is often a period of time after children are old enough to live on their own but before they are baptized when neither their parents nor the church have much influence over them. For instance, James (Lee and Mary Kathryn's son) shared an apartment in Nappanee with a roommate for a few years before joining the church and returning to the traditional lifestyle. Lee and Mary Kathryn lived out west and owned a car for a while after getting married before rejoining the Amish community. The part of the rumor about drugs and sex is true for some, but not all. People raised Amish vary in their inclinations toward those activities, just like everyone else.

Lee and Mary Kathryn told me that many Amish children have cell phones, and sometimes even text each other during church services. I should have asked more questions about this. I guess this is not strictly prohibited because the children aren't members of the church yet, but I'm surprised their parents allow cell phones in the house. And how do they charge their phones? Do their families have solar panels or gas generators they use?

Lee and Mary Kathryn didn't want me to take a picture of them, because of the second commandment forbidding graven images, but they had no problem with me taking pictures of their house or their belongings.

Whew. I think that's most everything interesting I learned. If you have any questions, just ask them in the comments, and hopefully I will be able to answer.


  1. tim says:

    The things you learn just readin’ the the the the things that are written by the people who are asking the questions, instead of just walking by. Good stuff.

  2. Jason Eppink says:

    Thanks for this! I did a bit of reading on the Amish when I was working in Indiana, specifically about rumspringa, but didn’t realize the gradients. (Thinking about it now, of course there is! You just only hear about the sensational stuff.)

  3. Dave says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for typing out all of that ON YOUR PHONE. To the list of solar power’s accomplishments, I now add that it’s saved the lives of ones, if not tens, of Amish folk buggyin’ it up after dusk. I hope that they’re using solar phone chargers too- those hand-crankin’ ones apparently take forever. Maybe someone could tackle this niche market with a horse-powered charger.

  4. Lizzie K says:

    this picture rules SO MUCH

  5. Dennis Salb says:

    I love the Amish wagon. It reminded me of old Model-T paddy wagons used by the police.

  6. Craig says:

    Fantastic Info… cheers!

  7. Craig says:

    OHH SNAP I didn’t even notice the window wipers on it, Matt said “Notice The Lights” and I did..duh.

  8. Aaron says:

    So wait – what happened to their son who is NOT Amish? What made him not want to re-join the community?

  9. Marc says:

    My wife left this open on our laptop and I happened to start reading and I just wanted to tell you real quick how cool I think what you’re doing is–i love the stories and pictures. I wish I had done something like that before I had a family and committed to law school.

  10. Erica says:

    Wow, that was fascinating. And truly amazing that you typed that out on your phone. Although, I guess someone walking across the country would have the patience.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    This is really cool love the history lesson… I have enjoyed looking thru your pics and reading about your adventures…

  12. Dan says:

    Hi. Been reading up on your adventures. Great stuff.
    Just wanted to point out a possible mistake:
    The Amish don’t really speak Dutch, but German.
    This is a common misconception, I believe.
    It arose because the German word for “German” is “deutsch”,
    which sounds like “Dutch” to anglophone folk.

    Greatings from Germany!

  13. Kirk says:

    Awesome blog / adventure:

    Thanks for sharing… I was encouraged that the couple visited their son out west — I’ve read / and heard about many Amish family members are ‘shunned’ if they decide not to join the order. I find this aspect very sad.

    Very much enjoying your blog and since I grew up in NW Indiana (the Armpit of the Nation!) I am reading this section first :)

    Safe travels to you!

    – Kirk

  14. Barb V says:

    Since my first trip to Shipshewana, IN, several years ago, I’ve done a bit of research on the Amish. They are an interesting group of people, and I can’t help but admire their strong faith in God and their simplistic way of life. We could all learn something from them.

  15. JRP says:

    Thank you, Matt, for using modern technology to UNITE people through your travels and experiences!

  16. Maddie says:

    Hi Matt, I just had a quick question that I’m not sure if you will know the answer to. I’d heard in the past that the Amish don’t allow pictures to be taken of them (like you said), but the other day I was reading a magazine (Mental_Floss- the same place that I heard about you from!) and there was a photograph of an Amish girl playing baseball. Is this allowed because she’s a child, or do some communities have different beliefs in that aspect?

    Good luck on your travels! I love reading what you are doing!

  17. Brent says:

    I’m late to the party, but I will make one quick comment about the “Pennsylvania Dutch” issue. The phrase does refer to German immigrants, but it’s not clear that it comes from the German “deutsch.” Instead, “dutch” probably comes from an older root word that eventually turned into dutch, deutsch, and duits (English, German, and Dutch, respectively). It has only been relatively recently that the English word Dutch narrowed in meaning to refer to the Netherlands. I believe the Pennsylvania usage predates the narrowing.

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