Amish Country News Buggy

Amish Country News

Your Guide to Pennsylvania's Amish Country

Celebrating 21 Years!



Over the years, we invited readers to send in questions. With the help of some of our Amish friends, we tried to briefly answer them. Here are a few of our favorites, which we last revised in the year 2000.

Q#1: How Many Amish Are There And Where Do They Live?

A: It is not easy to say exactly how many Amish there are. There is no census taken by the Amish of their members. In addition, since the Amish believe in adult baptism, should we count only the baptized members, or all persons living in the household?

One way to guess at the population is to look at Raberís Almanac every year. It is published in both German and English. Inside we find a list, by state, of all the Amish church districts. The list also includes the names of ministers, bishops and deacons. Even though not all the information may be up-to-date, and certainly changes occur over the course of the year, it gives us a good idea of how the Amish population is growing.

According to the 2000 edition of Raberís Almanac, there are Amish living in 21 states in the USA. The largest populations, about 70% of the total, are in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, in that order. Holmes County, Ohio, is the largest settlement. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania settlement is second. The other states are: Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Iowa, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Montana, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida.

Although the number of members and non-members in a church district varies, current research uses about 168 persons as an average per district. We can multiply this times the number of church districts listed for each state in Raberís Almanac, and get a rough estimated population. For 2000, we would have about 55,000 Amish in Ohio, 47,000 in Pennsylvania, and 37,000 in Indiana. In all of the USA, the estimate would be about 198,000. There are also about 3,000 thousand Amish in Ontario, using the "Raber" method. (NOTE: These figures are probably high, as church districts vary in size, but the growth in church districts shows the general growth in the Amish population.)

Lancaster County, the oldest of all Amish settlements, comprises about half of all the Amish living in the state of Pennsylvania. Lancaster has about 130 church districts, making an estimated population of 21-22,000 Old Order Amish. To get an idea of how fast our population is growing, I went back to the 1973 Raberís Almanac. Back then, there were only 51 church districts listed for Lancaster County!


Q#2: What Does "Pennsylvania Dutch" Really Mean?

A: "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a phrase commonly seen and heard throughout the Amish Country. It refers to a people, a language and a culture, but it has nothing to do with Holland, as many people think.

The problem word here is "Dutch." It should actually be "Deutsche" or "Deitsch," referring to German. For a better explanation, letís journey to Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that various religious groups first arrived from Europe in the early 1700s. Most were escaping persecution and were responding to William Pennís promise of religious freedom in the New World. They included Lutherans, Amish, Mennonites, Reformed Quakers, French Huguenots and others. These immigrants, many of whom had once lived in countries bordering the Rhine River, now found themselves settling in southeastern Pennsylvania between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers.

Germans were some of the first to arrive in "Pennís Woods." Many German visitors tell us even today that the Lancaster County landscape reminds them of parts of Germany. Perhaps that is why Lancaster was one of the first places they settled. Some people say the word "Deitsch" (for German) was difficult for the non-German populace to pronounce, and so in time it became "Dutch." Whatever the case, Pennsylvania Dutch refers to people of German background, descendants of German, Swiss and Alsatian immigrants and also to the German dialect spoken here, and their art, foods and culture.

The language is still spoken by the Amish, as well as many non-Amish residents, particularly in the Lancaster, Lebanon and Berks County areas. The dialect is close to Palatine German folk speech. (A publication in the dialect is currently published in Germany.) Interestingly, the language was primarily spoken and not written. (The Amish, for example, write to each other in English.) But in recent years, more people have begun to both read and write the language in an effort to preserve it. Now there are even classes offered locally in the Pennsylvania German language, and a dictionary has even been published.

This German influence is also seen in many local foods. Few people escape Amish Country without sampling such Pennsylvania Dutch specialties as shoofly pie, chow chow and chicken pot pie. This is hearty eating, and we love our desserts, sometimes having as many as four or five at a time!

Finally, most people have seen the folk art of the Pennsylvania Dutch, whether it be in hex signs, quilts, furniture or fraktur. Pennsylvania German art is found in many of the worldís museums. Its distinctive birds, tulips, hearts and other images reflect the regionís religious faith, love of color, and closeness to the land.


Q#3: Where Do The Words "Amish" and "Mennonite" Come From?

A: Many visitors to Lancaster County mispronounce the word "Amish," pronouncing it as "aim-ish." The key to understanding how to pronounce this word is to look back briefly at the beginnings of the Amish and Mennonite faiths.

The year was 1525; the place was Zurich, Switzerland. The Swiss Brethren, radicals who disagreed with reformers like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, formed their own "church." Among other things, these "reformers of the Reformers" believed in separation of Church and State, non-resistance and adult baptism (which gave them the nickname of re-baptizers or Anabaptists). These ideas were considered radical and threatening to those in power. After fines, banishment and imprisonment failed to stop the movement, thousands of the Anabaptists were hunted down and killed.

There was no single leader. Rather people of like thinking appeared in various parts of Europe. But of the many leaders, the most well known was Menno Simons. He was a Dutch Catholic priest who converted in 1536. His extensive writings worked to spread the faith until his death in 1561. Since it was common then to name new movements after their leaders, the nickname "Mennists," "Mennonists" or "Mennonites" was used referring to the Anabaptists throughout Europe.

Many years later, in 1693, a "Mennonite" bishop named Jacob Amman disagreed with some of the interpretations and changes occurring in the church. In the end, a division took place, with Amman and his followers taking the more conservative path. In time, they became known as the "Amish Mennonites," or simply "Amish," apparently from the Swiss diminutive "ami." Thus, we pronounce the word "Ah-mish."

Although there were attempts to reconcile their differences, emigration to America started a few years later, and it was in America where the Amish faith grew. In early America, the group was sometimes referred to as "Aymennist" or "Omish." While further divisions occurred in America, we today refer to the conservative group as the "Old Order Amish."

Today there are liberal Amish groups that use electricity and cars, as well as conservative Mennonites who do not. But the differences between the many groups tend to be more in the area of practice and lifestyle than of doctrine. All of them trace their beginnings to the Swiss Brethren and Anabaptist movements in Europe.


Q#4: How are Amish Carriages Made?

A: Thatís a good question. I talked to one of my Amish friends who makes carriages, and here is what he told me...

Until about 150 years ago, all carriage bodies were made of wood, but as population and demand increased, the years involved in seasoning and drying the pine and poplar became a problem. Plus, kiln-dried wood didnít last. After 3 to 4 years there was often rotting. So, the switch to fiberglass was made. Fiberglass is molded and sold to the wooden body shops, which connect it to the upper wooden portion of the carriage.

Different Amish work on different phases of carriage construction. Wheels of hickory, axles of tempered steel and springs are mostly made locally, some by Mennonite neighbors. My friend assembles the parts and then does the painting, upholstery, lights, brakes and optional. I donít know anyone who makes an entire carriage from start to finish.

From the time an Amishman places his order until the finished product is ready takes about 130-150 man hours, but my friend says he is usually working on 2 or 3 carriages at a time. He usually can do one new carriage and one paint job a month in addition to a lot of repair work.

Prices for enclosed carriages range from $4,500 to $5,000 (up from $2,800 to $3,600 in 1992), depending on the options, plus tax. My friend noted that although Amish carriage makers donít formally agree on prices, they do try to keep prices comparable. A carriage seats four people comfortably, but maybe six with kids.

The State requires head and taillights plus continuous flash. Turn signals are not required, but almost always included. Lights are operated off a car battery. Carpet is pretty much standard inside.

As when you buy a car, we also have a selection of "options" to choose from. These include additional lights inside, stained switch box, sealed thermapane windows, and handholds. Rubber in the springs makes the bumps milder, but fiberglass is replacing the steel springs. Some get a speedometer that goes on the brake drum to measure speed, distance and time on the road. Usually the seat material is also used for the inside lining. Most popular are velvet-like fabrics in blue, burgundy, or tan.

The biggest changes over the years have been hydraulic brakes and interior decorating. The material for the outer gray covering of the carriage is now vinyl, instead of the former cloth with its coat of paint.

Although fiberglass and plastic sliding doors appeared in the early 1990ís, the standard now is wooden doors with plastic lamination on both sides. Also pretty much standard now is the fiberglass unit that includes the entire front and posts, again eliminating rotting due to exposure to the elements. One of the newest options is fiberglass wheels, which cost about $300 more per set of four.

My friend guessed that there are about 10 carriage shops in Lancaster County within a 15-20 mile radius, each employing about 2-8 employees. In addition, there are perhaps six body shops, manufacturers of hydraulic brakes and other suppliers. Locally made carriages are sometimes sold to areas outside of Lancaster as well, including other parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, southern states and even the Mid-West. They may be crated for shipping or delivered by truck. Some people even send "packages" out to be assembled on arrival. A reunion for Amish carriage makers is held every two years.


Q#5: How do you become a minister in the Amish church?

A: As you may know, the Amish divide their settlements into church districts and have church services in member homes. Each church district usually has two or three ministers, one bishop (often shared between two districts) and one deacon. The Lancaster County settlement currently has about 130 church districts.

The Amish do not believe in going to college or a seminary to become a minister in the church. Nor does a man aspire to be a minister. Rather, ministers are chosen by lot from among those in the church district congregation. No one is "brought in" or feels they are "called" to serve as a preacher. They normally serve for life and receive no salary.

Becoming a minister is not viewed as an honor, but rather a heavy and serious responsibility. The idea of choosing a minister by lot comes from Acts 1:23-26, in which lots were cast to decide who would replace Judas as one of the 12 of Christís apostles.

In most Amish settlements, a young man cannot be baptized into the faith unless he is willing to become a minister should the lot fall on him someday.

Usually an announcement that a minister will be chosen is made at least two weeks prior to the communion service, so everyone may pray and meditate. It is normally taken for granted that this will be a married man. In the Lancaster County settlement, it is preferred that candidates for bishop have children who are church members in good standing. There are not to be discussions among people as to who they plan to "nominate," not even between man and wife, nor does anyone indicate his desire to be a minister.

After the long communion service, the selection takes place. Chapter 3 of I Timothy is read to those gathered. This chapter in the New Testament describes in detail the qualifications and character men should have to hold this position. Then the bishop and other ordained men go to a private room. Each member, beginning with the men and boys, then women and girls, goes to the door of the room and whispers the name of the man who they feel is best suited to be the new minister.

The men who have received three or more votes become the candidates of whom there may be around six to eight. When voting is completed, the ministers return and announce the name of each man who was selected to be in the lot. As each manís name is called, he rises and goes to sit at a table on which an equal number of songbooks have been placed. Each hymnal has a rubberband around it, and hidden inside one book is a slip of paper. In the Lancaster County settlement, on the slip of paper in German is written, "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord," (Proverbs 16:33) This reminds all that the final choice is made by God.

Each man selects a book. Usually the oldest chooses first down through the youngest, and he who picks the book with the paper within becomes the new minister, and will be one until his death. Because of the solemn procedure and great responsibility, when the chosen manís name is announced, he and many of the congregation burst into tears. The bishops and ministers greet the man with the holy kiss and shake his hand. The impact of this event remains with a man for years.

The minister receives no formal training in his new position. Everyone is encouraged to pray for the new minister who has been selected from among them. The Amish feel that Godís hand is involved in this process. Indeed, there are even some stories of men who tried to pick a certain book, but felt they were being "held back."

Deacons are chosen by lot as well. The bishop is chosen from the ministers in the district.


Q#6: We hear the Amish worship at home and that your services are very long. Can you give us an "insiderís look" at what happens at a church service?

A: Maybe the best way to answer your question is to simply describe a church service I attended, from the time we left home until we returned.

Church in our district last Sunday was held at the John Stoltzfus farm. We had to get up a little earlier than usual to get the milking done. Afterwards we had breakfast at 6:30 AM and were on our way in the horse and buggy by 7:00. It took us about 30 minutes to get there. When we arrived, we took our horse to the barn, and I joined the other men to talk before the service began. When it was time, we left our hats, entered the house and shook hands with the preachers, deacon and bishop who sat in the front. Sliding doors had been removed, and the men sat in two rooms, the women in the other two.

The service started about 8:00 AM with a hymn sung in German from the Ausbund. The second hymn is always the same, the Loblied. One man leads, singing the first notes as everyone joins in. The singing lasted about 30 minutes. Of course we all sung in unison, with no musical instruments. It was slow, yet beautiful and, with over 150 voices, quite moving.

The first sermon began about 8:30 AM and lasted about half an hour. Then there was a silent prayer, a Scripture reading (Matthew 13) and the main sermon. Both preachers cried at times during their sermons and were quite emotional. It is amazing to realize that the preachers have little idea who will preach until the service beings. They usually read a Scripture and say what comes to mind, without any notes.

To keep the children quiet, some mothers produced books, Cheerios in a coin purse, plastic animals wrapped in a hankie or candy. The oldest lady in the district, in her upper 80ís, sat in a more comfortable chair, rather than on the hard benches we all had. The main sermon lasted about one hour. Then there were testimonies, additional remarks made by the other preachers attending. After a prayer, Scripture and hymn, the service concluded around 11:00 AM.

After church, we men prepared the rooms for lunch, converting some of the benches into tables. There were about 35 people at the table in the room where the men ate, each place with a knife, cup and saucer and glass of water. We had coffee, bread, buns, peanut butter spread, red beets, pickles and cheese. Of course, we gave a silent prayer before and after we ate. We ate quickly since others were still waiting. (I remember how, when I was a boy, we waited outside for our turn to eat, since the older people eat first. When our time came, we took out little pocket mirrors to comb our hair, left our hats on the porch again and went inside.)

Afterwards the men sat and chatted in one area and the women in another. Families left as they were ready. When we got home, we rested and did some reading until it was time to eat at 4:00 PM, and then milked and fed the cows once again. Next Sunday is the "off Sunday," and weíll be visiting friends in another district. Before long it will be our turn to have church at our place.


Return to the Amish Series page.

Return to Amish Country News Home


All contents of this Amish Country News Web site are Copyright © 2006 by Roncki, Inc. All brand names and trademarks are acknowledged as belonging to their respective owners.        This page last updated: February 21, 2010