AMISH 101: Kevin Williams on Amish Photography, Rumspringa, and More

RUMSPRINGA, CHURCH STRUCTURE, CARS, AND MORE!

By Kevin Williams

Don’t know much about the Amish? Welcome to “Amish 101” where you can learn the basics.  These are lessons compiled from two decades spent among the Amish, these are compiled by Amish Cook editor, Kevin Williams (yours truly).  I am NOT an academic, so use this is as a general guide. I am an expert on my own experiences and that is what this material conveys.

 

 

 

One of the first things you should know about the Amish is that for almost every rule or custom listed below, you’ll find an exception somewhere. Which brings us to the first “Amish Lesson”:

LESSON 1 – CHURCH STRUCTURE: Like snowflakes, no two Amish churches are alike. The Amish church lacks a central administrative structure like other churches have. The centralized structure of most churches whether it be the Mormons and their headquarters in Salt Lake City or Roman Catholics taking their direction from the Vatican, the highest authority in the Amish church is he LOCAL bishop. There is no “Amish Pope”. So while most Amish churches share similarities in theology and tradition, one can also see wide variations. Some Amish churches permit indoor plumbing, while others do not. Most Amish prefer not to be photographed, but in some church districts the rules are more liberal and photography is permitted.

 

LESSON 2 – PHOTOGRAPHY

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

 

The above verse from Exodus is the Biblical basis that most Amish use for rejecting photography.  Over 20 years ago when I first start studying and spending time with the Amish there was one main rule outsiders had to embrace: whatever you do, do NOT photograph them.  I even heard stories about some Amish who had angrily grabbed the cameras of outsiders and run over them with their buggy.  Sheesh, that made me think twice about taking out my point-and-shoot camera that I got free with my Time Magazine subscription.  You know, the kind of camera that actually took old film that used to be sold in rolls?  Remember Time Magazine?

 

I’m not sure if any cameras were ever actually run over by buggies, it could have been a “rural legend.”  But clearly most Amish were very opposed to photography.  Today, it’s more complicated.  Not all Amish interpret Exodus as constituting a prohibition on photographs.  To be sure many Old Order Amish and Mennonites still very much object to being photographed.  Others, however, say “well, if you catch us in a documentary type photograph….it’s okay, just as long as we aren’t posing.”  If they are out baling hay, for instance, or putting up a barn.  The posing is viewed as vain or frivolous and perhaps a more blatant violation of Exodus.  And still other Amish have no qualms about being photographed, they just don’t want to be photographed for fear of being ostracized by others who don’t feel the same way.  So where does this leave the visitor to Amish country?

 

My advice remains: don’t photograph them and that is based more on common courtesy than theology. Would you want someone photographing you out hanging wash? Or your children playing? The answer is probably – if you are like me – no. Now, I do think it is perfectly permissible to ask if it’s okay to get a photo if you already have a rapport with an Amish friend.  I just think sometimes even asking puts pressure on an Amish person. So follow the “golden rule” and use your own judgment and I think you’ll be fine. Personally, I think photographing a buggy from behind is probably okay.

 

LESSON 3 – AUTOMOBILES VS. BUGGIES

One of the ways the Old Order Amish stay tethered to their simpler, slower pace is by refusing to own automobiles.  Notice the word is refuse to own, not use. There is a distinct difference in the two terms.  The Amish fear that owning automobiles would tear apart the fabric of family life in much the same way it has non-Amish America.  Suburbs now spread out like thin pancake batter on a hot griddle far from the city.  People are disconnected, neighbors don’t know one another like they used to.  By refusing to own cars (besides saving a ton on gas and insurance!), the Amish are making a statement about community and connection.   Churches stay close-knit geographically because everyone needs to live close to one another when buggy is your main mode of transport.  Like with many technologies, however, the Amish have made compromises to adapt to the changing world around them.

 

The reality is that to attend a wedding or funeral far away, horse-and-buggy is impractical.  So the Amish will hire non-Amish drivers to take them.  This can get pretty expensive and actually can offset the savings of not having car payments and insurance, depending on how many times an Amish person needs to hire a driver throughout the course of the year.  In some smaller generally more conservative Amish settlements hiring a driver is still a relative rarity.  In larger Amish areas it can be a weekly occurrence. In these communities the Amish often maintain a list of “Amish taxis”, non-Amish drivers who make their living driving Amish people around. While outsiders may roll their eyes or whisper “hypocrisy” at this practice, it still – in the eyes of the Amish – beats owning a car.  By hiring a driver an Amish person can at least exercise a measure of control over how much the outside world encroaches on their existence.

 

Other modes of long-distance travel that are acceptable to the Amish include trains and buses.  Airplane travel is generally not permitted, but some Old Order Amish, however, will fly to their destinations if the needs are urgent and faraway.  In the far-flung Amish settlements of St. Ignatius and Rexford, Montana, air travel is relied on from time to time to visit family out east.  So a theme you’ll read in many of these posts is also prevalent with this issue:  since it’s impractical to totally shut-out certain technologies, the Amish will do what is in their minds the “next best thing” and that’s keep it at arm’s length.

 

LESSON 4 – RUMSPRINGA 

Rumspringa is a German/Pennsylvania Dutch term roughly translated as “running around.”  And if you believed mainstream media you’d think every Amish teenager goes through rumspringa.  Not so.  Rumspringa is largely a media manufactured confection. ABC News described rumspringa in a news article:

 “Rumspringa” is a period of time when Amish teenagers are allowed to leave the community and live in the modern world before deciding whether they want to join the Amish church for good. Rumspringa literally means “running around” in Pennsylvania Dutch. During Rumspringa, teenagers will experiment with televisions, cars, cell phones, music and movies before making their decisions.

The above definition is very typical of how various media describe rumspringa.  But the definition is a gross oversimplification.  Having spent over 20 years visiting Amish settlements all over the USA I’ve never even heard an Amish person use the word “rumspringa.”   The vast majority of Amish teens plan to stay in their faith and never really experiment with leaving the church.  Yes, some do, but they are the minority. Before rumspringa became a media obsession the word was used primarily to describe “rebellious behavior” typical of ANY teenager (Amish or non).  This rebellious behavior might be as harmless as egging a passing buggy or toilet-papering someone’s yard. This would be considered rumspringa behavior.

 

Again, some Amish teenagers do leave and they experiment with cars, computers, and jobs, but this is the minority.  Typical Amish rumspringa behavior might involve drinking, getting an Ipod or MP3 player and perhaps dressing a bit more rebelliously.  Typical teenage behavior.  That’s what rumspringa is!

 

Now, one last component that the media latches on to:  the parents will often give their teens wide latitude in experimenting with behaviors.  Since baptism into the church doesn’t come until later anyway, they aren’t officially breaking any church rules at such a young age.  And cracking down on bad behaviors can often just push the teen away even more.  Best let them experiment and see for themselves the limitations of the outside world.  This strategy obviously is effective because over 90 percent of Amish teens ultimately stay within the faith.

LESSON 5 – DO THE AMISH PAY TAXES?

 DO THE AMISH PAY TAXES?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Somehow the notion that the Amish don’t pay taxes got started and just hasn’t let go in some quarters of the public.   Come April 15 the Amish are heading to H & R block like everyone else.  Now, it is true that the Amish often “avoid” (but not intentionally) gas taxes which go to road improvements because they aren’t pumping gas to fill up their horses. But in many places there is a “work-around” in place.  In Indiana buggies are required to have license plates and the fees from those go into road improvement.  In other areas the Amish voluntarily pay into local road improvement funds to help maintain the roads which the horses hooves and steel buggy wheels can be difficult on.

Social security contributions are one area that gets maybe a bit murkier.  If the Amish work for themselves they can be exempted from paying into social security.  If they work for a non-Amish employer they have to pay into it like everyone else.

The Amish – as a general rule – don’t take government subsidies like unemployment (a totally different topic than taxes, but the two get lumped together often).  During the administration of George W. Bush when most Americans received government stimulus checks an Old Order Mennonite bishop told me that he knew people in his church who either tore them up or sent them back to Washington.  Even the Amish that do pay into Social Security via taxes rarely collect. So they are doing more than their fair share!

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25 Comments

  1. Roger Lamborne

    I hope yopur next column on photography and the Amish will be out soon…We like to travel and have hesitated taking photos to be sensitive to Amish customs…but there are many opportunities for great photos that we would like to take advantage of…..how we can we photograph in the Amish countryside and still be sensitive to their wishes. Is it possible to find an Amish family who would allow me to take a series of photos of their farm and family. Thank you for responding and for your advice.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      I will be posting about that in the next few days, so stay tuned! Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  2. Joanne

    Where is the photo of the Breakfast Haystack and the ingredients?

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Joanne,
      Thanks for stopping by! You can check it out here http://www.oasisnewsfeatures.com/2012/01/06/breakfast-haystack/

      Reply
  3. Magdalena

    The vanity prohibition is much more important than the graven images one – most Amish families will have photographic portraits done and have for a hundred years. No one, though, like to be a zoo exhibit. I get photographed often; I sometimes see the phone cameras come up to shoulder height in the grocery store! I am not Amish, but I hold to their standard of refusing to pose for photos, for their sake. Frequent posing does make one vain about it. I would suggest that photographs at a distance, inobtrusively taken, that do not show people’s faces, would be all right. And as adorable as Plain-dressed children are, please don’t go photographing them without asking parents’ permission.

    Reply
  4. Sharon

    I just found your site as I have been reading the Amish cook in the paper for a long time and just never thought to see if there was a web. site glad to have found it. I have been so curious about the Amish for a long time , I love the simple life they live . I will be back for more about there life style.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Sharon, welcome, so glad you found us! What newspaper do you read The Amish Cook in? – Kevin

      Reply
  5. Rita Noe

    I know different orders have different dress codes and styles I would like to see pictures of the different styles Maybe just clothing on hangers or laying on a table as a display

    Reply
  6. sharon

    The one question I have is how do they iron cloths if they can’t use electricity? I enjoy your reading about the Amish and hace great respect for them.

    Hae a great day
    Sharon

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Most Amish use a hot iron with a detachable handle. They’ll place the iron in the fire to warm it, stick the handle in, remove it from the fire and iron the clothes…not quite as simple as the electric method!:)

      Reply
      1. sharon

        Just like in our great grandmothers day or your great great grandmother. lol

        May god be with you always
        Sharon

  7. Lillian

    I have been reading the Amish Cook since 1991 when her mother wrote it. Her column is the first thing I look for when the paper comes on Wednesday morning. I have really enjoyed hearing about her and her family and the recipes too. Thank You Lovena and the girls.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Wow, Lillian, you must read the column from Quincy, Illinois if you have been read it that long? Well thank you so much for sticking with us and welcome to this website!

      Reply
  8. Lola V. Pataluch

    I read the Amish Cook weekly in the South Bend Tribune. Do Joe and Lovena let the oldest daughter practice Rumspringa. Seems like she has a lot of freedom with friend Tim.

    How can solar power work in the winter time with many days without sun?

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Lola…welcome! No, Elizabeth, does not participate…she’s a very responsible, well-behaved young woman who is dating Tim. Good question about the solar power…the solar power charges batteries which then last through the cloudy days…that is my understanding.

      Reply
  9. Lola A. Pataluch

    Thanks for replying to my questions. One more question. Since the Amish do not have electricity, how are they able to have both hot and cold running water in their houses? If it’s by LP Gas, they must use an enormous volume of LP.

    Are Lovena and her family from the Old Order Amish? They seem to be more modern than other groups.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Lola, you are correct, they do not have electricity but Lovina does have “city water” so she has hot and cold running water in her kitchen like anyone else. This actually is not as uncommon among the Amish as you might think. Even as long ago as the early 90s I was in some pretty conservative Amish homes that had indoor plumbing. Lovina is Old Order Amish but her sect – you are correct – is not ultra-conservative, but they aren’t as liberal as others…On a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being most conservative, 10 being least, I’d put her church at about a 6 or 7….Kevin

      Reply
      1. don krueger

        The question was: how is the water heated – what type of energy?

  10. Lola A. Pataluch

    Kevin

    Really missed Lovina’s column this week. Just curious…where in Michigan are they living? I remember they relocated from the Berne, IN area, which I remember seemed much stricter. I did not realize that there were Amish communities in Michigan. We certainly enjoy the large settlement near us in Shipshewana, Napannee.

    Thanks for your prompt replys

    Reply
  11. Laurie

    I’ve been reading your column for years in Cincinnati. We used to hear a lot about Lovina’s 2 unmarried sisters until they all moved to Michigan. What happened?

    Reply
  12. Maria-Catharina Mura

    Rumspringa… Thank you for the correct info. Could you make a link that can post to Face Book so people can be informed correctly? I’d like to let my friends know the facts, especially since Hollywood will make a farce of this on Sunday.
    Thanks,

    Reply
  13. russell

    someone asked about heating water, i have old order amish friends that i have been visiting for over 36 years. i stay at there land w/ my camper. they heat water w/ a coal stove in a small room away from the rest of the house. they wash clothes w/ a air powered motor washing machine. would never ask them if it was ok to take a pic. they do have a phone in the field away form the house but it is only used for a emergancy.

    Reply
  14. Cindy Linn

    Some of my closest friends are Old Order Amish and I spend quite a bit of time in their houses. As Kevin has frequently mentioned, it all depends on what is allowed within their church district and then what the husband will allow. In the case of my girlfriend and her family, they use gasoline to fuel the water pump and hot water heater. Their stove/oven is powered by either propane or gas. I don’t remember which at the moment. And their lamps are fueled by propane. As for their phone, they have a phone ‘shed’ that is not too far from the house. It is actually pretty nice inside. Her husband is a professional roofer and conducts some of his business on the phone, so I guess it’s the same as a mini-office for him.

    Right now I think he is saving up to purchase some solar panels so that he will be able to charge his batteries. Right now he relies on the English neighbor to help out with that. It is definitely a complex world, but no different than our complexities.

    At the other end of the settlement are at least a couple of families who have wired at least part of their house for electricity. It is run off of solar panels. I’m still not sure if they have permission or are doing it behind their bishop’s back. I thought it best not to ask.

    Hope that helps answer some questions from those not in Amish settlements.

    Reply
  15. kathie

    Hi Kevin,
    I have loved The Amish Cook for years and have been drawn to the Plain People since I was a teenager and read an account of the Amish in Country Magazine (complete with Yumasetta recipe).

    My question is, whenever I visit with the Amish in PA, I have noticed their kids are incredibly well behaved. Have the women ever shared child raising tips with you (especially now that you have a little blessing on the way)? Any advice you care to share? Or is this something I should write to Lovina or ask one of the women myself?

    Thank you for your dedication to the Amish. It is a blessing.

    Reply
    1. Kevin

      Kathie, Thanks for the kind words and your post. I have some thoughts on this, I’ll try to post about this topic soon!

      Reply

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