Why the Amish want no part of progress

In a fertile corner of Ontario six hundred Amish relatives of the Pennsylvania Dutch tend their tailored farms without machinery and live by rules laid down in 1525. Envy us? Not at all—and here are their reasons

Edna Staebler September 27 1958

Why the Amish want no part of progress

In a fertile corner of Ontario six hundred Amish relatives of the Pennsylvania Dutch tend their tailored farms without machinery and live by rules laid down in 1525. Envy us? Not at all—and here are their reasons

Edna Staebler September 27 1958

Why the Amish want no part of progress

In a fertile corner of Ontario six hundred Amish relatives of the Pennsylvania Dutch tend their tailored farms without machinery and live by rules laid down in 1525. Envy us? Not at all—and here are their reasons

Edna Staebler

Their faith, their families and their prosperous farms are all that concern the Old Order Amish who live close together in Ontario's Waterloo and Perth counties. They insulate themselves from the age of sputniks, tension and speed by obeying the biblical precept, “Be ye not conformed to this world," and by trying to live as their ancestors did in 1525.

By Edna Staebler


at all—and here are their reasons

X heir faith, their families and their prosperous farms are all that concern the Old Order Amish who live close together in Ontario's Waterloo and Perth counties. They insulate themselves from the age of sputniks, tension and speed by obeying the biblical precept, “Be ye not conformed to this world," and by trying to live as their ancestors did in 1525.

They shun modern invention. If they buy farms with well appointed houses they tear out electric wiring and bathroom fixtures, remove oil furnaces and telephones. They won't own a radio or a television set; musical instruments are taboo. They don’t go to movies and won't face a camera. Bundled in shawls, they ride in topless buggies behind their sleek horses; w'hen asked w'hy they won’t buy a car or a truck they reply, “Because the Lord didn't drive one when He lived on earth.”

They cannot be forced to violate the teachings of Jacob Amman, the Swiss Mennonite bishop w'ho founded the Amish sect in 1693 by exhorting his followers to return to the ways of the Mennonite martyrs at the time of the Swiss Reformation. The Old Amish won't go to court, won't swear an oath; their word is accepted as their bond. They won't fight in a war—and Canadian law has been amended to exempt them. They won’t vote. They won’t take old-age pensions or family allowances—that would obligate them to the government. They won’t buy life insurance which they say is a gamble in men’s souls. Their children stop school on the day they are fourteen because higher education might lead them astray.

The style of their clothing, prescribed by the traditions of their sect, has not changed in three hundred years. The married men have bushy beards reminiscent of the Old Testament but won’t wear mustaches because they consider them “worldly.” Parting and clipping the hair is prohibited. It is Dutch cut: banged over the forehead, thick and long over the neck and the ears. They wear broad-brimmed black hats with round crowns, no neckties, their barn-door britches have no flies; their suit coats, fastened with hooks and eyes, have nothing so ornamental as buttons or so fashionable as collars and lapels. The women wear long, severely plain dresses and aprons cut from an identical pattern and closed with invisible pins. Their hair is never cut; centre-parted and drawn tightly into a knob, it is always covered by a kerchief, an organdy cap tied under the chin, or a black coal-scuttle bonnet. They spurn make-up and jewelry and don't wear wedding rings.

Rigid austerity is the rule of Canada's four congregations of Old Order or “House” Amish (about six hundred people). They have no church buildings. For worship they gather in each continued on page 51

Why the Amish want no part of progress

Continued from page 21

other’s houses or barns and sit on backless benches through services three hours long. Their homes have no carpets, no drapes; tied-back white curtains have no frills; wails have no pictures, chairs are not upholstered. If a baptized member of the sect fails to comply minutely with its various regulations he—or she—is lieble to be 'placed in the Ban. " He is excommunicated from the church, not allowed to eat at the table with his family or sleep in bed with his spouse; fellow church members do not drink or eat with him or take anything from his hand until he repents of his sins and is allowed back into the congregation by a \ote of the members.

But despite their self-imposed depri\ations the Old Order Amish have fun. They do some things that seem not unworldly. They love to play practical jokes, they go to every auction sale in ¡heir district, their weddings and funerals are feasts. They make and drink cider and beer, they smoke cigarettes, the young folk play boisterous games, ¡hey bundle, and the daring ones dance. Though they don't own cars, they'll ride in them. They'll enjoy a non-Amishman's radio; they will “borrow" his phone: some turn up regularly at a neighbor's house to watch television, where they laugh hilariously at the commercials. Some like the fights, others prefer ballet and opera, and one red-bearded Amishntan never misses a ball game.

A number of books and articles have been written about the Old Order Amish who live in eighteen American states. A musical comedy about them. Plain and Fancy, was successful in New York and London. In Pennsylvania where the Old Amish are the most colorful part of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture they are advertised as a tourist attraction and their images and folk art appear on greeting cards, ornaments, pottery and souvenirs. But the Amish who live in Ontario have been almost ignored and unknown.

One day I drove twenty miles northwest from Kitchener to the heart of the Old Amish country where the hills are gentle, the great barns are painted, the fields are rich with manure, and the names on the mail boxes are a constant repetition of Kucpfer, Albrecht, Nafziger, Jantzi and Zehr.

At the end of a long muddy lane I came to the large white brick house of a twenty-six-year-old couple who had children aged two and four. The pregnant little wife, wearing glasses and the plain garb of the Old Order, welcomed me to her warm, well scrubbed kitchen with its brown varnished woodwork. Though she had never seen me before and knew nothing about me she asked me to stay for dinner. “Then you can talk to my husband too: he knows much more than 1 do,” she said.

The two children, Christian and Magdalena, giggled shyly and hid their heads behind her skirts till she said, smiling, 'Ach you sillies, go and play once.” Then they leaned over the woodbox beside the shining black cook stove and peaked at me under their arms. The

little girl’s shapeless grey flannel dress was covered by a grey apron, her long hair was braided. The boy wore a homemade collarless shirt and long trousers that buttoned across the top and the sides as a grown Amishman’s do.

While she peeled potatoes and shredded cabbage for a sour-cream salad, the young woman told me why the Old Amish live in a colony. “We’re awful fond of our mommies and don’t like to get too far away from them.” She put a big slab of smoked ham into a frying pan. “Besides, we don’t like to have to drive our horses too far for church service and to visit each other or to help with the threshing and butchering or if something is wrong. And it’s better for us to be all-together-like to keep our own ways.” She smiled and put up her hand to make sure the kerchief tied under the knob of her hair had not slipped from the crown of her head.

“Are all the Old Amish farmers?” I asked her.

“Oh yes, they always have been; we wouldn’t know how to be anything else. We daren’t live in town or the city; it says it right in the Scriptures that we should look after the earth.”

Her husband, a slight man with bright eyes, came in and smiled at me shyly. “Chris has been plowing,” his wife said. “It takes him longer than those that got tractors but he loves to walk with his horses.”

Chris dipped water from the stove’s reservoir into a basin, washed his hands and face, combed his long hair and his crackling black beard, then Sat at the head of the laden table. The family bowed heads silently till Chris sighed and said heartily, “Reach for whatever you want."

After dinner the wife, Lyddie, took me to her clean cold-storage cellar with smoked sausages hanging from the ceiling and the walls lined with shelves full of canned beef and pork, hundreds of jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, crocks of pickles and apple butter. “We’ve got to have lots for all our visitors,” she explained when I marveled that one small family could need so much food. “And 1 never feel right if I don’t have pie and cake and fruit and cookies and coffee cake on the table for three meals a day.”

New Orleans to Waterloo

In the kitchen Chris sat on the rocking chair rolling a cigarette while both children perched on his knees, laughing and chattering.

“Listen those kids jabbering in German,” Lyddie laughed; “they can talk English as good as we can. When we’re alone we talk either the one or the other so they’ll know both when they get to school.”

“Ours ain't the High German,” Chris told me, “it’s the Pennsylvania Dutch that the Mennonites talk.”

“But it’s just a little different yet," his wife said. “Most of our folks came from Alsack-Lorrainey; my grandfather told me his grandmother used to speak French.”

"But they talked German too. The first Amishman that came to Canada was from Bavaria,” Chris told me in his slow drawling voice. “He landed in New Orleans in 1X22 and walked most of the way to Waterloo County where he picked out some wilderness that he thought would make a good place for a colony. Then he went to the Governor of Upper Canada to ask him if it would be all right to bring people over here. The governor said, ‘go ahead.' but the Amishman was taking no chances. He went

right to the palace of the King of England and got it in writing with a gold seal that the land would really be his.”

l.yddie smiled, “Then people came over and had families and spread out and that's how we're here.”

The young couple and 1 chatted all afternoon. They asked me innumerable questions: how old I was, what 1 did in town, what 1 thought of taxes. The young woman showed me the man's muhtze, a tail coat, which was made of dark serge and would probably last him for church services, weddings and funerals as long as he lived—“Unless he gets fat.” she laughed. She showed me her black satin bonnet and the dainty w'hite organdy prayer cap with its finely pleated back that the little girls wear for church.

“We don't have inanv poor”

They told me that the preaching is held every other week in the homes of church members, the benches being taken in a wagon from one place to another. The men sit on one side of the room, the women on the other, the older ones together. A song leader starts off the unaccompanied hymns, there are kneeling prayers and two or three sermons by the preachers and bishops who have had no training but the constant reading of the Bible and the book of Amish rules. The deacon collects the offering—there are no church dues—and all the money is put in the bank and distributed when it is needed among the poor of the congregation.

"But we don't have many that's poor off,” Chris said. “Our aim is to save money to buy farms for our children so they can get a good start when they marry.”

“As soon as the kids quit school they can work away from home if somebody wants them among our own people,” l.yddie told me. “That way they can earn themselves something; the girls go where there is a new baby or if somebody’s sick or got too much to do, and the boys hire out.”

“But usually the youngest stays at home and takes over the home farm when he marries,” Chris said. “Then the old folks move into the doddy house, a few' rooms attached to the big house where they can live by themselves and yet be close and connected to the young people if they get sick or need help, and the old man can still do some chores.”

"What if something happens that wipes people out, like a fire or storm?”

“The word of God teaches us that when one member suffers all the rest suffer with him,” l.yddie said. "Those that want to can have their property and stock valued and when there’s a loss we all pay in enough to cover it according to how much we’ve got.”

Chris explained, "It's just like insurance only because we pay after the loss we have no money on hand and are not a company. All the two or three thousand Church Amish and ourselves are in it together so no one has to pay very much and maybe only every few years.”

In the village of Millbank 1 met an Old Amish bishop who had retired from farming but still performed his church duties of marrying, baptizing, banning and burying. He was a short, square, heavy man of fifty-five, with a smiling round face surrounded by grizzled whiskers. He wore black work clothes with rubber boots that came up to his knees. He told me very kindly that the Old Order Amish do not like publicity and he was afraid his people would criticize him if he gave information about them. He said all their ways that seem strange

to outsiders were direct biblical commands or could be traced to the days when their ancestors were persecuted in Europe. “And if you want to know about that you can read it in books,” he said as he turned his broad back and stomped firmly away from me.

The Amish are an offshoot of the Mennonites whose creed arose when the establishment of a state church in Switzerland was opposed in 1525 by a group of ex-monks and scholars who wanted a religious order that was free of compulsion. The new sect spread rapidly over North Switzerland; it taught nothing but love, faith and forbearance but its followers were exiled, tortured, or burned at the stake. Thousands of martyrs died without offering resistance.

Persecution continued for two hundred years. Church services were held secretly in houses and barns; when educated leaders were imprisoned or murdered, simple farmers chosen by lot became preachers and bishops. The humble Mennonites, evicted from one place, would patiently begin again in another; they ranged throughout central Europe, some found their way into Russia, many emigrated to America. Wherever they settled, the land blossomed under their care.

When Jacob Amman conceived the notion that the Mennonite church in his day was too liberal and urged his followers to return to the ways of the martyrs, he gave religious significance to practices that had once been merely custom. He preached that the faithful should not be yoked in marriage or in organizations with unbelievers, and revived the strict discipline of the Ban. Amman's division from the Mennonite church spread across the Swiss borders into Alsace and Germany and was carried soon to North America where all the Amish now live.

The tenacious way in which the refusal to conform of the Old Order has been maintained in compact agriculturalindustrial areas probably comes from the strong sense of martyrdom that is seared into their memories, holding them together and making them look with apprehension and disapproval at the wicked ways of the “world.”

I called at the sprawling brick house of an Amishman who owned fifty cows and all the land along one mile of road. When 1 knocked at the door it was opened by a sullen-faced, older woman who reluctantly let me come in. She looked disapprovingly at my grey kidskin coat and said, ”1 suppose that is mink?” Her daughter, twenty-eight, wearing the little black prayer cap of the unmarried girls, was sweeping the large kitchen floor; the mother took the broom from her and thrust viciously under the stove.

”Ach mamma, I wish you wouldn't do that,” the girl said. “You know if you work hard you'll be sick again.”

The mother glowered as she swept round the chair that 1 sat on. “I can’t sit around when there’s work to be done.”

Neither woman spoke to me voluntarily. The girl put two old-fashioned irons to heat on the stove; the mother emptied a basin of water into a slop pail, then pulled on a pair of rubber boots, folded a shawl over her head, and said, “I'll hunt the eggs.” She gave the girl a look that said. “You be careful.”

While her mother was gone the daughter was more friendly. She told me that though she hates going to the nearby cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Stratford, she had once enjoyed a trip by car to Indiana to visit some Old Amish there. She showed me the embroidered patches of a “friendship quilt” she was collecting, and a crocheted pineapple pin

Then, “Would you like to look at our hymn book?” she asked me.

She brought me a copy of the Ausbund, the oldest Protestant church hymnal in use in America, compiled in 1564 and written by martyrs awaiting their death. It is printed in German without music, its tunes having passed orally from generation to generation, defying both rhythm and time. Some of its hymns have as many as seventy-four verses and take over an hour to sing in the doleful one-part drone of the Old Order Amish that sounds like the chanting of monks. Some of the hymns are tong discourses on doctrine. Hymn 140. with thirty-two long stanzas, describes in detail the story of Hans Haslibach of Bern, his imprisonment and torture and the prophecy that at his death three signs would prove his innocence: when his head would be severed from his body it would leap into his hat. the sun would turn red and the town would flow crimson. Another hymn describes the trial and death of Michael Sattler, an ex-monk turned preacher, who because he had opposed infant baptism and warfare had his tongue cut out, his body pinched and torn with red-hot tongs, and was then burned at the stake.

She told me that the Old Amish used to make their own coffins but now they get them from the undertaker and sometimes they're a little too nice. She said the casket is taken on a horse-drawn wagon to the graveyard and there it is buried by the relatives of the deceased. There are no monuments in the cemetery. The graves are marked with small slabs on which are engraved only the two initials of the dead. There are no family plots: “There’s just rows and rows,” the girl said. “One for little children and babies, one for half-grown kids, one for single people, one for married ones that ain't old, and one for the old folks.”

She folded a towel she had ironed and put it away in a drawer. She kept looking out the window toward the road as she worked, seemingly hopeful that someone might come up the long lonely lane.

Finding marriage partners among the Old Amish is not always easy. Their numbers are limited, first cousins may not marry, no converts are sought, and

every year a few young people are excommunicated for choosing mates from the progressive Church Amish-Mennonites on neighboring farms. But courtship is greatly encouraged, hopeful young visits are exchanged between the American and Ontario Old Orders, and the sect is increasing through the natural growth of large families.

I called back at the farm of Chris and Lyddie several months after my first visit there. A young Amish hired girl was outside cleaning windows. A new baby lay sleeping in a spooled wooden cradle near

the stove in the kitchen. “He played a trick on me.” Lyddie leaned over him fondly. “He came already before Chris could hitch up the horse and go for the doctor to drive me to town to the hospital.”

Lyddie had welcomed me happily. "But you'll have to excuse me if my place ain't fit for company. 1 washed my curtains this morning and I still got to iron them. We’re getting ready for the preaching here on Sunday and everything's got to be cleaned.”

“Then I shouldn’t bother you,” I said.

“You’re no bother. It’s not like e. ready for a wedding or a funeral; we just give them bread and butter and jam and apple butter and cheese.”

“How many will come?”

“Ach now, l don't know,” Chris said from the rocking chair where he held little Magdalena on his knee. “We don't keep church records, but I think we've got anyway eighty, don't you Lyddie? I hen there's all the small children and those that aren't baptized yet. It makes quite a bunch: we set up the benches all through the house.”

“Isn’t it hard keeping all the little ones quiet during the long service?”

“Oh no,” Lyddie said. “Those women that have children sit in the kitchen where they can get easy ‘out hack’ and sometimes in the second sermon we give kids a cookie or a hard candy. But they have to learn to behave just like we do. That’s good for them.”

‘‘Our children got to learn early to do what they’re told,” Chris said as he fondled the little girl who had fallen asleep in his arms. “As soon as they're old enough they each get their chores to do round the barn and the hen-house and Magdalena will help her mother in here. We believe the best way to keep out of trouble and happy is to keep always busy.’’

"That’s one reason for us not getting tractors to do the work for us—besides

that the Lord wouldn't want it,” Lyddie explained.

“One of our four Old Order Amish congregations got tractors,” Chris told me. “About five years ago they decided that if God made men smart enough to make tractors He must have wanted them to use them. Now we don’t have so much to do with that bunch no more—though we’re all related—except maybe we see them at funerals and sales."

"Don’t you sometimes envy the people who have all the things you’re denied?”

The young couple looked at each other. Chris spoke. "We got the Lord's blessing and our home and our children and our farm nearly paid for, and we got all our friends and relations near us and nothing to worry about. If we get sick they visit us, if we get poor they take care of us. We’re contented just like we are.” ★