Amish People Answer the Most Commonly Asked Questions
By Denice Rovira Hazlett
When Joe Yoder* hits the road for sales training at large furniture stores outside of Holmes County, Ohio, he presents information about the American-made, handcrafted pieces built in his shop. He talks about the mortise and tenon joinery, the dovetail, the solid-wood drawers, the detailed inlays. But almost without fail, after his presentation, there are questions. Not about the furniture, though. About Joe himself and the way of life he has chosen. People want to know more about the Amish culture.
"They ask if I have electricity, watch television, or drive a horse and buggy," Yoder says.
They also want to know about the faith and whether Joe and other members of the Old Order Amish church are Christians. "What do you believe?" they ask. And often another question, one that can be more difficult to explain: "Why?"
To find an answer, you have to look at the origins of the Anabaptist faith, a movement formed in Europe during the early 1500s when baptism was not only a matter of religion, but also of civil government, to be baptized meant to be counted as a citizen. A group of Christians, having studied the Bible and believing it to be the only true instruction for their faith, determined to reject infant baptism in favor of believer's baptism, or baptism as a professing adult. Other important faith points were voluntary church membership, separation of church and state, and an adoption of non-violence and non-participation in military service. And while the original term of "anabaptist" (meaning "rebaptizer") was created to mock the movement, faith groups like the Amish, Hutterites, some Brethren, and Mennonites adopted the term and still use it today.
Mennonites and Amish come from the same Anabaptist tradition and have much in common in terms of their faith stance, yet there are significant differences among Anabaptist groups. Amish primarily travel by horse and buggy, shun modern technology, and dress plainly, while Mennonites vary greatly in dress (some dress in modern clothing styles while others dress plainly,) transportation (most Mennonites drive vehicles, though some more conservative sects still travel by horse and buggy), lifestyle, and worship style. The Mennonites, in fact, are as diverse as most Protestant groups.
Joe is a member of the Old Order Amish church and a self-described history buff. He says the most common questions he hears about the Amish faith include technology use, electricity, government involvement, photography, and religious belief. He encourages those who are curious to visit the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio and take the highly informative half-hour tour to gain more insight into the history and beliefs of the Anabaptist people.
So, what are the most common questions people ask about the Amish? And what are the answers?
Do the Amish pay taxes?
There is a misconception that the Amish do not pay taxes. The truth is, the Amish pay the same taxes as their non-Amish (or English) neighbors, including income, corporate, property, sales, estate, and school taxes. As Yoder points out, those whose children attend private Amish parochial schools (one-room schoolhouses) pay school taxes twice for both local public and private Amish schools. The exception is a legal exemption from contributing to Social Security, unemployment, or welfare benefits since they choose not to draw from those resources, which are seen not as taxes, but as a type of insurance premium. Reliance on insurance indicates lack of faith in God to provide. In addition, caring for elders and those in need is the responsibility of the Amish community, not the government. In other words, the Amish have their own "social security" systems and have no need for those organized by the government. The exemption was made legal as part of the 1965 Medicare bill clause that released the Amish and any other religious sect in existence since December 31, 1950 that conscientiously objected to insurance.
Do the Amish use electricity?
Joe explains that the Old Order Amish group to which he belongs creates their own electricity by use of solar panels, wind power, generators, battery inverters, and other similar means. This power can be used for sewing and washing machines, home lighting, and lights and signals for horse buggies. There are about seven different denominations, or sects, of Old Order Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, and not all of those sects generate their own electricity, but none make use of the public electrical grid system. Yoder says, "We prefer that our lifestyle remains more simple and plain without all the distractions that come with grid power." And so, some Amish families opt to use power they generate themselves, while others choose to forgo modern conveniences. The goal is to avoid unnecessary temptation and keep the focus centered on God, community, and family.
What do members of the Amish community do for work?
While many families still live on farmland, few -- in some areas, fewer than 10% -- rely on farming as their primary source of income. During the past 50 years, Amish families have created incomes from building trades and home-based businesses -- quilt shops, produce stands, bakeries, woodworking shops -- and other things that require manual labor. Most Amish families do not rely on just one source for their income; many diversify with things like dairy or poultry farming, woodworking, or tapping trees to make maple syrup.
What kinds of technology do the Amish use?
This depends on the sect of Amish, but many Old Order Amish in Holmes County use telephones, fax machines, word processors, and PC-free fax-to-email services that don't require an internet connection. Yoder points out that the Amish are not against the use of technology; instead, they evaluate whether technology is likely to be beneficial or harmful to the family and the community. The Internet, for example, is viewed as potentially harmful, so the community chooses not to use it.
How do the Amish feel about having photos taken?
Many visitors to Amish areas are intrigued by the horse-drawn buggies, farmers in the fields, women hanging clothing on the line, or children walking home from school. It's tempting to pull out a camera and capture the moment. And while it happens all the time, the Amish community would prefer it didn't. Most will not pose for photographs because Exodus 20 tells believers not to make for themselves any graven image. But even more, it's a matter of humility, of not elevating one's self above others or placing a focus on physical appearance. The basic rule is if an individual can be recognized, don't snap the photo.
So why do Amish people choose to live the way they do? While there is not one simple answer, there is this: it is the way of life they believe is most pleasing and brings them closer to God, family, and community. As one man wrote during the Social Security issue of the 1960's, "We do not want to be burdensome, but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!" For the Amish, the choices they make are more than a way of life; it's the way to everlasting life.
There are many helpful resources available online as well as at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center that address these and other questions in greater detail. For more information, contact the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center at 330-893-3192 or visit them online at behalt.com
*Joe Yoder is a fictional name for a composite of many different people within the Amish community who answered questions about their lifestyle and faith.
Article shared here with permission from the HFG Member Directory