These two words together must strike most
readers as quite odd. Surely, the Amish as a group shun modern conveniences and
technology, living as they did 100 years ago? Not true. An Amish friend and I
once tried to make a list of things that have not changed in the Amish world in
the last 100 years. We couldn't come up with too much. Clothing styles have
actually changed. Even kerosene lamps are relatively "new." As one Amishman
succinctly put it, "If we got to the place where we didn't change, we'd be a
dead society." Or as another has been quoted, "We don't want to stop progress,
we just want to slow it down."
Stephen Scott, an excellent interpreter of Amish
culture, has written that "the Amish faith is not bound to dead traditions.
Instead it is a living faith that meets the challenges of contemporary society
and is equipped with the godly traditions of their forebears to stabilize and
guide them. They do not blindly accept the old ways. Rather, they scrutinize
'the way we always did it'..."
The carriage, or buggy as we non-Amish call it,
may not have changed a great deal in design, but now the body of the carriage is
mostly made of fiberglass rather than wood. I was at an auction a few years ago
because I wanted to buy a buggy for display. I looked at several that were to be
sold, a total of around 100. I was inspecting one when an Amishman came along,
pulled up the carpet on the buggy floor, grunted the word "wood," and went on to
look at the next one. I marked this one down as a buggy to bid on. As I
expected, when that carriage came up for sale, I was able to get it cheaply,
since few boys or men today want a buggy made entirely of wood!
In fact, the Amish have for many years been
adopting, or perhaps better put, adapting new technologies. For me at least, it
seems the Amish have more of a problem with the impact of the media than with
the technology itself. Visitors would be surprised to find some of the "modern
conveniences" that are used on the farm, in the home, and at Amish businesses.
As many writers have noted, the Amish are "selective" in what they accept.
The Amish use fairly modern farm equipment, as
long as horses pull it. Tractors were not accepted for fieldwork, just for
stationary power, such as operating the ensilage cutter. But hay balers and
other gasoline-powered equipment can be pulled through the fields by horses.
Likewise, while the Amish can ride in cars and
buses, they cannot own them. Cars break down the family and community through
their mobility, and are seen as a negative influence to be limited and
One major change came when the Lancaster Amish
needed to cool their milk in bulk tanks rather than milk cans. Bargaining
between the Amish and the milk companies resulted in a resolution in 1969. As
described by Donald Kraybill, "The bishops would accept bulk tanks if their
refrigeration units were powered by diesel engines. They also agreed to
automatic agitators run by a 12-volt battery, recharged by small
Appliances at home are operated by various
means. Gas engines power old wringer washing machines. Modern stoves and
refrigerators use propane gas, hence the large bottled gas tanks outside most
homes. Smaller propane gas containers are used for the Coleman lamp. You'll see
some pretty nice barbecue grills, too. Propane gas also provides hot water for
the kitchen and bathroom. (A visitor once asked me how the Amish flush their
toilet, since they have no electricity. I told her to go home and see where her
toilet was plugged into the wall! Some of us have very little knowledge of the
mechanics of how things work. Many Amish do.)
Almost any electrical appliance can be adapted
to work off of alternate power, such as compressed air. Some Amish women have
been using compressed air to power blenders in the kitchen for years. In one
house, compressed air powers a water pump, sewing and washing machines, and
drills and saws in the shop. Some Amish businesses have as their specialty
adapting such appliances so they can be powered by compressed air.
Probably the most dramatic changes came with the
rise of Amish cottage industries, especially woodworking and furniture making,
where modern machinery is operated by sometimes ingenious combinations of diesel
engines used to power hydraulic and air pumps that replace the electric motor.
Now often dubbed "Amish electricity," it serves the Amish well.
In one Amish grocery store, four car batteries
power the electronic scale and digital cash register. The new machines were
first used because the hand-operated ones broke, were old, and could not be
replaced since they were no longer made. There are various ways to re-charge
such batteries, and some Amish use solar panels, which can recharge a 12-V
battery in about seven days.
An Amishman who does accounting operates his
computer with car batteries. An inverter changes the 12-volt direct current to
110-volt alternating current for computer. A typewriter business adapts
electronic typewriters to operate off car batteries in this way. An Amish
library once did the same thing to power their microfilm reader.
The Amish have, of course, used telephones for
years. Before they were common in the home, they used ones in town. Later, as
they became more common, a phone booth or phone "shanty" was often built
outside, and shared by several neighbors. The idea was to keep those disruptive
phones out of the house. "It's not the use, but the abuse, of the phone we worry
about." Many Amish businesses rely on answering machines or services, or
instruct their patrons to call at a certain hour when they will be at the
Cell phones have become fairly common,
especially among Amish businessmen, and may yet prove to be controversial.
Howard Rheingold wrote an article on the use of the cell phone by the Amish in
WIRED magazine in January, 1999. He noted that the Amish are actually quite
sophisticated "because they have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the
tools they use." Modern Americans, and much of the world at large, will unleash
a new technology and then see what happens, for good or bad. "Amish are very
adaptive techno-selectives who devise technologies to fit their self-imposed
He posed the question of whether we "moderns"
make technology and machines our servants, or if it is the other way around? I
find it interesting that many science fiction books and movies, from 2001: A
SPACE ODYSSEY to the TERMINATOR series, will focus on the threat of
machines taking over our lives, and possibly destroying humanity. Certainly in
the area of warfare, we have possessed that ability for decades.
Rheingold notes that the Amish "mold technology
in the service of community. If we decided that community comes first, how would
we use our tools differently?" Or, as an Amishman has said concerning whether a
new technology will be acceptable, does it "bring people together or draw them
apart?" Answers to such questions often determine the "ordnung," the rules of
the Amish church community, often unwritten, about what is and is not
But the Amish concern is not just over how
technology might change the community, but also the individual. One man noted
that it's not just what or how you use a technology, but "what kind of person
you become when you use it." When I asked an Amishman why an electric
refrigerator was not acceptable, but a propane gas one was, he simply said,
"You've never seen a bottled gas television set, have you?" The implication here
was not that electricity was bad. The concern was what would come with it ---
TV, radio, computers, the internet, and all the influences of the modern world
and media. "Electricity is a hotline to the modern world."
Some modern writers have suggested that many of
us are "neo-Amish" or "techno-selectives." Like the Amish, we "draw the line" on
technologies we will use, or try to put limits on them. But, rather than the
community deciding on these things, as the Amish would, we each decide on our
own what technologies we will and will not use, and how.
The internet is a good example of a technology
that was unleashed without too much thought of the consequences. For all the
good things about the worldwide web, there are also many worrisome ones. Some
critics say that the internet now needs some "ordnung," a set of rules that we
can all agree upon. But for now, anything goes. Already, we are almost
overwhelmed by "spam," x-rated websites exist by the hundreds, and there is no
way to tell whether what one sees or reads on the internet is true. I sometimes
joke that "www" actually stands for the "wild wild web," a cyber American West
where the "law" may eventually have to be imposed to establish order.
Gene Logsdon has written that our challenge is
"to develop a humane and ecological technology where people and nature need not
be sacrificed to speed and greed." We need to negotiate between humans and
hardware. Some people head to the mountains or some isolated spot in the world
to get away from modern life and its hectic pace, but they take their computers
and modern equipment with them to stay in touch with the world they are leaving
It all has to do with values. Kraybill, who has
explained the "riddles of Amish culture" better than anyone, perhaps sums it all
up when he says, "The Amish would remind us that their choice of an alternative
lifestyle is not so much a matter of conforming to tradition --- for that is
inherent in the human experience --- but a matter of deciding which traditions
are most worthy of embrace." This is the "neo-Amish" idea, deciding what
technology is appropriate for your "traditions" and your beliefs. But we tend to
make these decisions as individuals, while the Amish look at them in the
broader, and perhaps more significant, context of the community as a whole.
Sometimes our American individualism gets in the way of seeing the "big
So, are there things we can learn from the
Amish, without actually becoming Amish? Surely. Here is one of my favorite Amish
quotations, taken from the Small Farm Journal, Summer, 1993...
If you admire our faith --- strengthen yours.
If you admire our sense of commitment --- deepen
If you admire our community spirit --- build
If you admire the simple life --- cut back.
If you admire deep character and enduring values
--- live them yourself.
For those who wish to read more on these topics,
may we suggest the following books:
AMISH ENTERPRISE: FROM PLOWS TO PROFITS, Donald
Kraybill and Steven Nolt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995
THE AMISH IN THEIR OWN WORDS, various Amish
writers compiled by Brad Igou, Herald Press, 1999.
LIVING WITHOUT ELECTRICITY, Stephen Scott and
Kenneth Pellman, Good Books, 1990
THE RIDDLE OF AMISH CULTURE, revised edition,
Donald Kraybill, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001
Amish Country News
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