Part One: Amish History & Culture

Though a trio of articles about the Amish will attempt to delineate different parts of the Amish life-history, culture, religion, education, family, and brotherhood–none of these aspects stand alone, and can’t be truly separated, any more than in the non-Amish world.

Pulling into the farmyard near Mora, no automobiles or tractors or haying equipment are visible. Not surprising, as this is an Amish farm, with a team of horses pulling a wagon. Everything else is normal, a colorful flower garden with a huge sunflower, and a normal house. As Menno Lambright said, “We’re people like everyone else. We have nothing to hide and are glad to be able to share why we do things the way we do. We invite anyone to visit our church.”

He apologized to this writer and his wife for a downed branch of a heavily bearing apple tree. “The branch of the apple tree has come down onto our sidewalk, so we will have to walk around it.” That’s so they can pick the apples when ripe, a perfect reflection of the Amish way of life, using all of God’s natural gifts to their benefit.

The family seemed happy for a visit from outsiders, not only to discuss the Amish way of life and disseminate it to the general public, but also because of pie for dessert, though it is not an unusual thing and not served just for visitors.

Apple, raspberry, and oatmeal Rice Krispies pies were baked by the matriarch of the family, Christine, in their wood stove, and were waiting for guests when the interview for this story was held. Photo by Bill Vossler

Actually three pies, apple, raspberry, and oatmeal Rice Krispies, baked by the matriarch of the family, Christine, in their wood stove.

Menno and Christine‘s 20-year-old son, Matthew, added, “I don’t think sugar is good for you. I don’t feel good after eating it.”

Those words reflected the honest tenor of a far-ranging discussion for the next three hours about life in two different cultures, the Amish, and the non-Amish world.

But first came sitting up at the long table, the offering of a silent prayer, and after “Amen,” a hearty meal, a layered salad of lettuce, peas and cheese, a home-canned beef and summer squash casserole, and green beans. And of course, the pies. Not surprising, almost everything was from the Lambright garden.

Menno said the Amish have become more aware that food preservatives aren’t good for people. “There is more awareness that it often breaks down our health, and the concern that we treat our bodies healthily as a Christian duty. But you can’t really make a straight line between right and wrong for what you eat or not.”

Christine agreed. Her grandmother would add what a recipe called for. “Today, I added just half as much sugar for today’s pies. Sometimes I’ll put a little bit of sugar on the strawberries when I’m canning so they keep longer or keep tartness away.”

Christine added that they rarely buy ready-made items from stores, unless “in a really high pinch.”

“Mainly,” Matthew said, “flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder, so we can make our food. Now and then when we go to town we buy ice cream,” he said, as the three other youngsters laughed.

Christine added, “Sometimes we make our own, because we like homemade ice cream better.”

Matthew disagreed. “Some people do, but I’m not sure I do.”

“At one time I liked the boughten better,” Christine said, “But now I like the homemade better.”

At rare times the Amish might eat out, as on a trip. “Then we might buy a meal. Sometimes we pack our own food to take along.”

“If we don’t have enough food on a trip,” Christine said, “we might buy some sandwiches or something.”

The Amish plant a wide variety of items in their gardens. Here is part of their harvest. Photo by Gaylen Bicking

The group raise their own fruit, but at times, the community will order peaches and other fruits cheaper by the pallets.

Christine said, “We can our meat, pigs and cows and hens. What we had for our meal today was a beef that we butchered, canned hamburger from the basement. So what we buy meets our baking needs, and that’s about it. And we always buy paper towels and toilet paper. Otherwise, everything comes out of our garden. We can our own vegetables and fruits, or sometimes we get fresh fruit, like bananas or apples or blueberries, at Mike’s Discount.”

Does their way of life affect their lifespan? Menno said they don’t dwell on that. “We don’t think about whether it makes us live longer or not, but view it as our Christian duty to do what we can. It’s God’s choice how long we live.”

Worldlifeexpectancy.com says that the life expectancy for Amish and non-Amish in America is roughly the same nowadays, though it says “…the life expectancy of the Amish has been 72 or greater for almost 300 years, even when ours was 40.”

A Little History

The Lambrights originally hailed from Indiana, where Menno and Christine were born and married. As the settlement got too large, they moved to Wisconsin for 18 years, where Menno had their 12-foot dining room table made of birch from his own forest, then Missouri for four years, and six years ago, to rural Mora.

Each time they chose an area of small farms so they wouldn’t have to compete with large agricultural farms for land. “This area lends itself to the small family farm,” he said. “Like everyone who buys property, some of us might have enough money saved up, and others get their financing done through a bank. This community now has a financial plan with the goal being to avoid having to go get loans. Interest rates add up.”

Several families moved to Mora. “We planned it together,” Menno said, “Two of my brothers, and one of (Christine’s) sisters, with some of their married children, and a family from Canada. So a lot of relatives or family are here,” remindful of what many Americans consider the “good old days” when generations of families lived within a few miles of each other.

Menno added, speaking of the roughly 50 or 60 members who have been baptized into the church, and with all the children, there are probably around 125 people in this Amish community, “but not all the people here are related, which makes for a nice variety.”

This vibrant sunflower was grown in the Amish garden. Photo by Bill Vossler

Community size often pushes people to move, Menno said, so a few families often start a new community, “Not far away from the home church and the ministry, although some go far away, like Montana communities from Indiana. Some have their own leadership. Some have more fellowship with other communities than the one they came from, with probably similar applications that they had in the old community, until they are organized, and are on their own with their own ordained minister. It varies quite a bit.” He added that the Wisconsin community they left has about 200 families now, which led to several different branch-outs.

The Amish as a group might be described as dedicated to God, the Bible, Jesus, family and brotherhood. But not all Amish groups are alike, Menno said.

“There are different Amish communities in different places, and not every community’s application is identical. It can vary a little bit, but their application, how to apply our outward walk of life with the dress standard and how much materialism you actually have, must remain stable and nonconforming” to the non-Amish world.

Matthew added, “Different Amish families grew up in different places, and every community that they moved from is a little bit different in how they did things. So when they move together to another community, they decide on a certain way that they’re going to do things.” He added that keeping Amish community ideals is difficult in a larger community.

Matthew added that size isn’t the only motivator for forming new communities. “Sometimes they move because there are financial reasons, or if their living area doesn’t fit what they want to do to make a living. Also personal and family issues arise so they feel they might blend in better in a different community.”

“For a broad picture of the Amish,” Menno said, “the communities may get so large and congested that the only option is for building a home and being a day laborer in town,” which is antithetic to Amish standards.

“And then, because of daily contact with the non-Amish culture,” Menno said, “We can start losing family values, and our non-conformity can break down. The longer you intermingle, the more that culture subconsciously becomes a part of you.”

He Said, She Said…

The family spoke of how the Amish world is misunderstood. Some people think the Amish are not Christian.

Menno said, “People often think we depend on our way of life for salvation,” that is, how they dress, shun the larger society, don’t use modern machinery, and the like. “That’s not true. We depend on the blood of Jesus Christ for our salvation,” just like other Christians.

Matthew said people often view the Amish all in the same light. “Actually, there are big differences between different groups of Amish people. You can’t tell a community’s spiritual life by comparing it to another community. Some are more tradition focused, others are more Bible focused.”

Many differences filter down from the past, Menno said, from their backgrounds. “Some Amish communities speak in a German dialect so different from ours that we can’t understand each other, but most of them can.”

German is the Amish’s’ first language, and when the writer ventured that his parents spoke German so the children wouldn’t understand. “We do that too,” Menno said. “Only we speak English so they won’t understand.”

Cultural Differences

The Amish live the way they do, Matthew said, to stay dependent on each other.

That dependency isn’t negative, Menno said. “We have repeatedly heard from people in the outside world, and from those who have been there and come back, and we have observed that more independence creates less family time together. Less family time means less family values. So that dependence is one application we use to maintain strong community and strong family ties. That’s the positive side of it. Independent living isn’t wrong, but it always brings a subconscious influence that people hardly realize.”

Chickens, among other animals, are raised for food on the Amish farm. Photo by Gaylen Bicking

As an example, Menno said his wife’s Amish cousin in Indiana “Decided when he was young that ‘This is not what I want.’ So he bought a car. Later he decided he didn’t really want that independent lifestyle. He didn’t want to be in a lifestyle where a flier in the mail advertising new shirts gives him the notion to buy one in a big shopping center down the road. He decided that wasn’t really good for him and went back to the way he was raised.”

“That independent life without strong community ties,” Matthew said, “can be lonely, with everybody looking out for himself. Relationships might not be as good and as strong.”

Government and the Amish

Though the Amish believe in politics, they don’t believe in taking civil power, and they don’t vote.

“Here’s the church and here’s the government,” Menno said. “In the Old Testament they were combined, but in the New they were divided, which we believe. So we pray for the government. We wouldn’t go to war. We couldn’t kill someone. It just doesn’t seem like God’s will. It also does go directly against Jesus’ commandments to not kill.” So, they don’t vote.

Nor do they pay in or collect Social Security. Decades ago Amish elders went to Washington, D.C.

“We were very much impressed with them and the results when they tried to come to agreements on some of these things,” said Menno.

He said the Amish elders were asked very difficult and challenging questions about Social Security. “It made the elders wonder if they would have to give in. But afterwards the same challenger very much encouraged our elders and thanked them for not giving in. He said, ‘Please keep what you’ve got. Please pray for our government. I still consider you the salt of the earth. Stay the way you are.’ They didn’t want us to change. We were moved at the heart level by that response.”

Also, few Amish occupations would require paying in to Social Security. They fill out IRS Form 4029 one time during their life to fulfill that obligation.

Picture That!

Transportation for the Amish is by horse and buggy, although they will hire taxis if the distance is more than 10 miles, in deference to their animals. Photo by Gaylen Bicking

Another cultural difference regards photos. “‘Love not the world,’” Menno recited from the Bible, “‘nor the things that are in the world’ There should be less of the eye and less of the flesh and pride of life,” he said. “If we give the camera free rein to take pictures of ourselves, is that going to help us get rid of lusts of our self, pride of self and passion? Is it going to help the world move in that direction, or is it going to work in the other direction? We have come to the conclusion that human nature exalts the self, and the outward appearance and things like that. Our view is that we should focus more on the inner person.” That said, he said taking photos is not a straight line of right or wrong, as some Amish get photos taken for passports.

Menno said for people who are attracted to the Amish, they will find that the change from the push-button lifestyle to that of the Amish is very hard. “What helps is if people don’t come just for the lifestyle. The lifestyle has a valuable purpose, but we’d want to see that the Holy Spirit is leading the person, giving that person the strength to take one step at a time to leave the outer world, and give him the strength to hold up through making those difficult changes.”

People who want to see more of the Amish culture are allowed to visit the Amish church.

This is part one of a three-part series by Bill Vossler on an Amish community and their lifestyle. Part two will cover “Religion and Education” and will be published in the January 2019 edition. Part three will cover “Family & Brotherhood” and will appear in March 2019.