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!