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The Amish vs. Tobacco

Many visitors to Lancaster are surprised, even shocked, to learn the Amish grow tobacco. They thought the Amish would not be producing, or using, this product. Indeed, the whole issue of smoking and tobacco has been called a "burning issue" in Amish communities in the United States. Some people felt we should not even try to deal with it in our publication because it was too "controversial." The purpose here is not to argue for or against tobacco and smoking, but rather to look at Amish opinions on the subject.

Tobacco, a labor intensive crop ideal for large families, has always been part of the agricultural scene in Lancaster. While prices vary from year to year, it tends to be an excellent cash crop. Nevertheless, smoking is forbidden in many other Amish settlements in America.

Tobacco is labor intensive, and ideal for the large Amish family. In March and April, Amish farmers use steam to sterilize the tobacco bed, and then sow the tiny seeds. (Visitors to Lancaster often notice the particularly large tobacco bed planted about a mile east of Intercourse.) By late May the plants are large enough to begin transplanting into the field. A unique device, pulled by horses or mules, is used. Making a furrow as it goes along, the device has a large water tank, and a place for two people to sit and drop plants into the ground. It should be noted that the planting is staggered, so that all the tobacco does not mature at once. This allows for harvesting the plants when they are at their prime. The Amish family is commonly seen hoeing their tobacco during the month of July. The cutting of tobacco takes place in August and September, to be stripped later on in the winter months of December and January, when there is not much farm work to be done.

According to John Hostetler, author of Amish Society, "The Amish in Lancaster County started raising tobacco soon after the tobacco industry was established there, probably about 1838. They, along with a group in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, are the only Amish in the nation who grow tobacco." He goes on to say that…

"In those districts where it is permitted, there is no effort to conceal smoking, except in the case of cigarettes, which are viewed are ‘worldly.’ Where forbidden, it is often done secretly. Older men appear to have more ‘right’ to chew or smoke than young men. Pipe and cigar smoking is the accepted practice. Modern lighters are used by some. It was formerly common for older women to smoke a pipe."

Some of the arguments FOR tobacco include the fact that the Amish forefathers used it, God created it, it is not mentioned in the Scriptures, and non-smoking is often indicative of more liberal churches. But the Amish have become more and more vocal in criticizing those who smoke.

Back in 1969, Family Life Amish author Joseph Stoll wrote an article titled "Tobacco: A Burning Issue." In it he states the reasons for his opposition to raising and smoking tobacco. He notes that long ago some people used tobacco because they believed it had a medicinal value. But he quotes from a church discipline that states, "No one shall use tobacco, because it is a bad habit whereby one wastes time and money." This was written by Anabaptist forefathers of the Amish and Mennonites in 1639!

Over the years, as more information regarding the effects of smoking were made known, some of the Amish became unusually vocal in their feelings on the matter. In the February 1976 issue of the Amish magazine Family Life, a reader wrote, "It’s time to face the facts and realize that using tobacco is a lust of the flesh, a harm to your health, and a waster of your money. Why don’t we work together to get this evil out of our churches."

Earlier, in 1969, Amish author Joseph Stoll wrote an article titled, "Tobacco: A Burning Issue," in which he stated some of the reasons he felt the Amish should not smoke. One of these was the expense involved. He wonders whether some people spend more money on smoking than they do on charity. The matter of possible addiction was also raised.

In Lancaster, cigars and pipes are the norm, with cigarettes deemed too "worldly." This explains why they are popular among some unbaptized Amish youth. Concerning this distinction, he writes, "If cigarettes are more worldly than cigars, pipes and chewing, wouldn’t these by comparison be more worldly than not using tobacco at all? If so, not being worldly at all would be a nobler goal than merely to not be ‘too worldly.’"

The author notes that smoking is now forbidden in some Amish communities, and that sometimes people "may have been overly zealous or were not as respectful as they should have been toward those who disagreed with them. This is regretful, for men are seldom persuaded by heated words."

To make his point, he tells the story of an Amish man who accepted a ride by car into town. The driver was smoking and offered the Amishman a cigarette. The Amishman refused saying, "I figure God didn’t intend for man to smoke. If he had, he would have built him a chimney."

The driver stopped the car and said, "You can get out here. I suppose if God had intended that man should ride, he would have put him on wheels."

Stoll says that "there is a deep principle here—we must be careful to base our faith on the Word of God and not on human reasoning."

One local Amish farmer, apparently moved by the arguments raised against tobacco in Family Life, wrote in to say, "We live on a small farm in Lancaster County, and I’m sure you know the price of land here. We have no dairy nor the money to put one in… To use it is not only a bad habit, but it is bread and shoes. Even with the tobacco check, we only broke even in our first year of farming. What can we do?"

In a later issue came this reply from a fellow Pennsylvania farmer, "Instead of farming tobacco, I planted one-half acre of strawberries in the spring. One year later that patch yielded about $1,600 worth of berries. This was better than average, but, even so, strawberries do pay well, and we can ask the blessing of the Lord upon it."

Indeed the number of Amish who raise tobacco has decreased. John Hostetler, in his book Amish Society, writes that "in 1929, 85% of the Amish farmers in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, grew tobacco. It is estimated that about one-third of the Amish farmers raise tobacco today. A good crop will yield 2000 pounds per acre. When a new silo is built, it frequently signifies a change from tobacco to milk production."

And so even though some Amish farmers have switched to milk or tomatoes to replace tobacco, it is still common to see Amish families working with the planting, cultivating and harvesting of tobacco in the area’s farmlands. And tobacco sheds, their side slats open to reveal the drying leaves, remain familiar structures dotting our local Lancaster County farms. It seems that, just as the issue of smoking in public places became a dispute in the 1980’s for the modern American public, among the Amish this controversy, like the tobacco shed, is not likely to go away any time soon.

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou, (1992)

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