How the Amish Work

By: Stephen Wise

The Amish maintain an 18th century lifestyle in the modern world.
The Amish maintain an 18th century lifestyle in the modern world.

There is a large group of people in this country, as many as 100,000, who will never see the HowStuffWorks Web site because they don't have computers, don't have the electricity to run computers, and don't want the electricity to run computers. These folks get around in horse-drawn buggies and use lanterns for light. The people to whom I refer are collectively known as "the Amish." That the Amish have been able to maintain an 18th century lifestyle in a 21st century world is amazing!

In this article, we will explore how and why the Amish live as they do.


You may have heard of the Amish from the film "Witness" starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. This is a work of entertainment and not a documentary of Amish life. You may also have heard that the Amish are "stuck in time," but this is not true, either, as you will see. If you have actually visited "Amish Country," then you may know a little more about these people. The Amish are not easy to get acquainted with because their religious beliefs require separation from the non-Amish world.

An Amish Farm
An Amish Farm

Where Did the Amish Come From?

The Amish originated with a group of Protestant Christians commonly referred to as the Anabaptists, or "re-baptizers." Baptism is the Christian rite whereby the initiate is symbolically cleansed of sin and is "re-born" into the faith. Infant baptism has become widespread in part because infant mortality has historically been high. The Anabaptists believe that infant baptism is invalid because an infant is incapable of understanding the meaning of the rite. The Anabaptists do not perform baptism until the candidate is old enough to make an informed decision and to accept personal responsibility.

The Amish came into being in 1693 when a group of Swiss Mennonites led by Jacob Amman broke from the main body of Mennonites over differences related to the celebration of Communion (a remembrance of Christ's last earthly meal) -- Amman wished to celebrate Communion twice per year, while the Mennonites celebrated it once per year; the Biblical command to remain separate from non-believers -- Amman wished to adhere to this separatism, while the Mennonites intermingled with non-believers; and the washing of feet (a display of humility) -- Amman wished to practice this ritual, while the Mennonites did not include it in their ceremonies.

Facing persecution from both Catholic and Protestant Christians, Amish in large numbers eagerly took up William Penn's offer of religious freedom in the American colony of Pennsylvania. Immigration to Pennsylvania began in 1727 and continued in earnest through 1770, settlement being concentrated in the Lancaster County area.

The Amish do not have church buildings. Perhaps because of early persecution, the tradition arose of worshiping in the homes. The home that will hold services is selected on a rotating basis, so all homes are equipped for conducting worship services. You can identify these homes today by the large number of buggies present on a Sunday morning.

The Amish settled into farming because this rural lifestyle made it easier for them to keep their distance from non-believers, referred to simply as "The English." Cities and towns have more of a tendency to become melting pots. As their numbers grew, Amish settlements were established in Ohio, Indiana and many other states, as well as in Canada. The establishment of new communities is ongoing.

The Amish speak a Low German, similar to Pennsylvania Dutch, among themselves. High German is used for church services, and English is spoken with outsiders.

The Ordnung

The buggy has become one of the identifying marks of the Amish.
The buggy has become one of the identifying marks of the Amish.

Amish faith and life is governed by a (largely unwritten) set of rules known as the Ordnung (order). Since the Amish lack the central governing authority present in the many other Christian sects, all governance is local, as is the Ordnung.

The Amish believe in literal interpretation of the Bible. The Ordnung is designed to ensure that all members of the church live life according to the scriptures. A member of the Amish Church must live a simple life devoted to God, family and community, in accordance with God's laws. Electricity, automobiles, television, clothing fashions and the like are considered to be distractions that promote pride, envy, vanity, sloth, dishonesty and other undesirable traits.


The mode of dress, the buggy and the lantern have become the identifying marks of the Amish and are not likely to change. The mode of dress emphasizes that the Amish person is separate from the non-Amish world, but also part of a community of equals. The buggy likewise promotes equality and limits travel, keeping communities together. The lantern, a non-electric light, does not require connections outside of the community.

The Amish are not really "stuck in time." Although home and social life has remained essentially unchanged, new technologies that have passed a rigorous examination have been accepted. The Ordnung is applied to any proposed use of new technology. A technology may be accepted for business or practical reasons, but never for indulgence, desire or entertainment. A technology is more likely to be accepted if it is a natural extension of an existing technology and will have a minimal social impact. Using a nylon rope in place of a hemp rope would be an example of a natural extension. A technology is likely to be rejected if it is radically different or could have social implications. Listening to a portable stereo while doing chores would be considered a needless distraction. Any technology that is seen as degrading family or spiritual life is rejected out of hand. Television is definitely out as it brings questionable values into the home.

Now, how would the Ordnung affect the purchase of something like a stove? If an Amish buyer wished to burn wood, he could buy any wood stove. It is not necessary that the stove be an antique or even a reproduction. A modern, efficient, airtight stove would not only be acceptable, but the improved economy would make a modern stove a thrifty choice.

An Amish Home

So what would you find in an Amish home? The home is one place that really hasn't changed much since the 18th century, but then it is, after all, a refuge from the world. There are not a lot "things" sitting around. Furnishing and decoration would fall under the classification of "primitives," that is, functional and simply styled. Some of the appliances, such as a stove, may be a little newer, but there is no electricity to operate modern appliances. All lighting is by candle or oil and gas lamp. Bottle-gas appliances are acceptable, although bottle gas can be expensive. If you think about it, little more is needed in a place where you will eat, sleep, read, study the Bible and socialize with the family.

If you were to visit the Amish at home, what would you expect to find in the dairy barn? Surprise -- a thoroughly modern, automated milking system complete with refrigerated tanks! The Amish are not totally self-sufficient. They must trade what they have for what they need just like the rest of us. When you choose to sell dairy products, you encounter organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and the three-legged stool and metal pail will not do. The Amish do not expect special treatment in these matters. Electricity is required to operate a modern dairy barn, so gas or diesel generators are employed. Generators are more expensive than the power company product, but generators have the virtues both of avoiding the intrusion of electric lines and of running on petrol fuel, a product that can be purchased and transported as needed.

The Amish require that all equipment use horses for locomotion.
The Amish require that all equipment use horses for locomotion.

"Real horsepower" is used whenever possible. Included would be the moving of buggies, wagons and farm equipment. It is permissible to use small gas engines on farm equipment, but all equipment must use horses for locomotion.

Amish horses are draft horses. Draft horses have thick legs and muscular shoulders and haunches. They have been bred to pull things. The Amish do not ride draft horses -- they ride in wagons or buggies. Draft horses are not fast, but they can pull a buggy uphill and downhill without breaking stride.

Wind, water and solar energy are also allowed as power sources because they promote separateness. Wind power has a long history in farming.

It is permissible for an Amish person to use modern transportation provided that he does not personally own or operate the equipment. Some travel has become a necessity as growing communities have had to move westward in order to acquire additional farmland for young couples. Some of the newest communities are in Utah.

Fashion, Finance and Commerce

Perhaps more than any other creation, "clothes make the man." This fact is why the Amish dress simply. It is how they acquired the nickname "The Plain People."

Men wear black suits without lapels or buttons, shirts in white or blue mostly, black suspenders, black shoes or boots and broad-brimmed hats in black felt or natural straw. Women wear a frock type dress of mid-calf to ankle length with black stockings, an apron, black shoes or boots, black cape, and either a white "prayer cap" (if baptized) or a black hood. Solid colors only are worn, never prints, and darker colors are favored. One cannot give hard and fast rules on dress since there are numerous subtle variations from one community to the next. The idea is that the limited wardrobe eliminates the pride and envy that come with fashion one-upmanship, as well as wasted time (What will I wear today?) and wasted money (My clothes are so out of style!). Men wear cropped hair, and beards (if married), but no mustaches, as they associate mustaches with military officers. Women do not cut their hair, but keep it wound on the head and always covered once baptized.


The Amish make their own clothes, but they normally purchase fabric and thread from a dry goods store. Items such as hats, shoes and suspenders can be purchased ready-made.


The Amish, particularly those of Lancaster County, are often perceived to be wealthy. If this perception is true, it is not because of income, for income in hard cash is low. Most of a family's net worth is in real estate, and a lot of that wealth has been created by rising real estate values. If you also consider that an Amish family does not spend as much on food, clothing, entertainment, transportation and gadgets, a small income goes a long way. The Amish do not borrow, and therefore pay no interest. They also farm with less equipment. Cash and barter are used as much as possible.

How does an Amish family buy a farm, handle loss or cover unexpected expenses? Family and community are the bank and the insurance company. All community members are expected to contribute a share of their income to the "community pot." Likewise, it is the duty of all to lend assistance to those in need. A young couple is not expected to be able to buy a farm. It will be purchased for them with assistance from family and community.

A growing population and escalating real estate prices have put a strain on Amish finances, yet they have managed to cope and continue to prosper.


Although the Amish wish to be cut off from the non-Amish world, they do have a need to trade. In commerce, they prefer to deal with a few trusted individuals. "Mom and pop" shops are more to their liking than big chain stores. Mennonites are ideally suited to this role since they share many of the same values, but do not share the need for separation. It makes a lot of sense. A modern supermarket or department store is a mighty marketing machine -- just what the Amish wish to avoid.

"Mom and pop" or general stores with buggies out front are natural magnets for tourists. Sometimes, these stores end up catering more to tourists than to the Amish. A small business person who wishes to do business with the Amish does well to set up on a back road and to depend on a small, hand-lettered sign or word-of-mouth. Tourists will not usually stop at these places, but the Amish will find them.

If a member of the Amish community has something to sell, he can always sell to a middleman for cash. The middleman can then sell the items from his shop. A more recent Amish product is the utility shed. A shed dealer will have some model sheds on his lot; a customer picks one out and places an order. The dealer contacts his Amish builders, and when the sheds are ready, he comes by in the truck, pays the builder, picks up the sheds and delivers them to the customers. How do the Amish get the materials? They place an order with a lumber yard, which delivers the materials and accepts payment.

A few Amish sell directly to tourists. They can make more profit selling this way, but they are not trained salespeople and do not take credit cards, so most Amish go the middleman route.

Courtship and Marriage

The Amish are a close-knit community, so members of a group know each other from childhood. There is school, church, barn raisings, singings and other events. The Amish do not like to depend on outsiders, so neighbors are always helping each other.

Singings are the usual mixed recreation and are the primary courtship activity. These events are only open to young singles and are the equivalent of a teen dance. The Amish do not dance or play musical instruments, but they share the Pennsylvania German love of singing. The songs are not all religious. Folk and country songs are also sung.


Unmarried Amish choose their own husbands/wives, and the woman is very much involved in the process. Courtship often begins with a young man transporting a young woman to and from one of the many singings or Sunday worship. The couple will be allowed to spend time together in private, but to spend this time alone behind closed doors would be scandalous. But as with courtship everywhere, couples like to be together out of sight and earshot of others, and the Amish, too, will contrive ways to accomplish this goal. Porches are appropriate, and you will often see them traveling in open buggies. It is wise to have a chaperone present somewhere for appearances, but a good chaperone does not spy or eavesdrop.

The step of marriage is a major one in Amish society, so the preparation and the execution is quite involved. A quick trip to the Justice of the Peace with a couple of witnesses will not suffice. The sequence of events will be covered only briefly here. The links at the end of the article provide additional detail.

Weddings take place after the fall harvest. November is the favored month because the winter weather has not yet begun. Sixteen is the age when courtship begins, but couples will likely be 20 or older when they marry. Both parties must be church members.

Although it is obvious to all when a couple becomes serious, the intent to wed is kept secret until July or August. The man will give the woman a practical gift (no jewelry), and the woman will inform her family. Two weeks after fall communion, those couples who have provided the proper credentials are "published" -- that is, at the end of the Sunday service, the deacon reads the names of the women who intend to marry and the man to whom they will be married. The couples do not attend this service. They are at the home of the bride-to-be having a private meal together. It is now the end of October.

The wedding and "reception" take place in the woman's home. She and her family are now working at a frantic pace to make preparations (remember, on a farm there is never a holiday from the chores). The man is out extending personal invitations to the guests. The guest list extends into the hundreds.

Blue is the favored color for a wedding dress. The dress must be new, but it will be used on future formal occasions. The dress is without lace or a train. Bride and groom wear high-topped shoes, and the men may don bow ties.

The wedding service lasts for many hours, at the end of which the minister questions the bride and groom, and then extends his blessing. The feasting begins and continues well into darkness. The newlyweds spend the first night at the bride's parents' house.

The "honeymoon" consists of weekend overnight visits to various relatives, during which new acquaintances are made and wedding gifts are presented. The newlyweds live with the woman's parents until the spring, when they will establish a place of their own.

Quilts and Barn Raising

It is most interesting that the Amish would become famous for quilts, since quilts are not an Amish invention. If you are a descendant of a rural North American family, you may well own a quilt or two "made by my great grandmother." Quilting may well have been the premier rural woman's craft, and the Amish were quick to pick up on the virtues of this craft. Quilting occupies long winter nights. By tradition, quilts are thrifty, being made from sewing scraps. Quilting is an excellent creative outlet and it can be a great social activity. One can work on a quilt while alone, with family or with friends, or a group can collaborate on a single quilt.

At one time, Amish quilts could be had for a pittance. That was before the Amish understood the value that "The English" tend to attach to handmade products. Thus began a rapid rise in quilt prices that peaked during the late 1980's before settling down to a stable level. Today, the Amish quilt business is a steady one, with its center in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. An average quilt is now in the $1,000 dollar range, with larger and more intricate quilts selling for much more. Old quilts are available, too. The old quilts often cost less because they show signs of age.


Traditional Amish quilts feature a lot of diamond shapes, which in turn can be organized into larger diamonds, circles or starbursts, bounded by squares. The edicts of the Ordnung make these quilts rather dark, but quilts have emerged as one artistic expression that can stretch the rules to the limit. A lot of the quilts available today are much brighter and feature a wide variety of designs.

A common myth has developed that all Amish quilts contain a deliberate flaw because to make something perfect would be to challenge God. Some individuals may do such things, but it is certainly not a requirement. It would be unusual to find a large handmade item without a single imperfection.

A barn raising is simply the act of getting enough men together to do the heavy lifting required to erect a barn. Barn raisings are organized to build a barn for a newlywed couple or to replace a barn destroyed by wind or fire. At one time, all barns were erected this way, but nowadays, a crane is employed. Strictly speaking, the Ordnung allows a member of the Amish church to hire a crane and operator to lift beams for a barn, but the barn raising is a unifying community event. There is something of everyone in each barn. Although the barns are built in the traditional manner, materials can be ordered from a lumber yard. It is not necessary to make boards, nails, paint and shingles.

Many components of the barn, including the foundation, are prepared in advance so that all of the heavy lifting can be done with the full crew present. All able-bodied men pitch in. The older, experienced men direct the activities, and the boys act as "gofers." The women and girls prepare and serve food and drink, prodigious quantities of which will be consumed. They are also available for first aid.

Freedom of Choice

It would seem that growing up Amish would be very restrictive and would not allow for any choices. On the one hand, the Ordnung is quite involved and it takes a long time for a child to learn and understand the details. On the other hand, as with Anabaptists, personal choice is important.

Baptism marks entry into the Amish church. Joining the church is a decision that cannot be made before the age of 16. By this time, a candidate will have been thoroughly drilled in the faith and the Ordnung through school and church attendance. In accord with the philosophy of choice, 16 year olds may leave the community to experience life outside if they so choose (see below).


Any member is free to leave. A member who has left may even be allowed to return within a short time. A member who leaves permanently will, however, be shunned. Shunning means that the person will forever be considered an outsider -- a stranger -- and will not be allowed to participate in the community ever again. All family ties cease to exist. A member may also be shunned if he persistently defies the authority of the Ordnung. It is rare for a member of an Amish community to take this irreversible step.


People who join the church and then leave face the prospect of shunning, so the decision to join is not to be taken lightly. Once Amish teens turn 16 and before they become church members, they can venture out into the world. During this time -- termed Rumspringa, or "running around" -- the Amish teens live amongst "the English" and are free to behave as they choose, even if that means indulging in such non-Amish things as dancing, drugs and television.

If they choose to return and join the church, they do so with full knowledge of what they are giving up in order to be part of the community. If they do not return, family ties are still viable because they did not break an oath to the church.

The vast majority do return. To learn more about this aspect of Amish life, see "Amish Teens Tested in Devil's Playground" and "Amish Teens Usually Choose Life in the Slow Lane."

Living Simple in a Modern World

The greatest problem faced by the Amish throughout history has been, and still is, the constant intrusion of the outside world. Tourism has placed them in a spotlight that they would just as soon avoid. There are often strangers waiting to snap pictures of them as they go about their daily activities. On the other hand, tourism has made outsiders aware of the problems that the Amish face from government laws and mandates, giving them a voice in government even though they do not vote.

It should be pointed out that while the Amish have their own community laws, they accept outside government as necessary and willingly pay all taxes. They do not accept welfare, social security, Medicare, or other government assistance. Problems arise when a government law is in direct contradiction to the Ordnung. Disagreements over compulsory education have been largely resolved: The Amish operate their own schools, and education is not required beyond the eighth grade. The Amish feel that excessive book learning is undesirable, believing that everyone needs to learn a trade or vocation.


Ongoing issues today revolve around health and safety. As an example, the Amish accept that a dark colored buggy can be hard to see and that driving a buggy on the highway under low-visibility conditions has proven dangerous, so most buggies now sport orange hazard triangles, and flashers are used when it is dark. These devices are distinctly non-Amish, but they do protect families, which is good. The debate becomes one of how much and of what type of safety equipment is necessary. To learn more, see Amish Buggy Safety.

Modern medicine is not addressed by the Ordnung and is a matter of personal choice. Victims of accidents or medical emergencies on public or non-Amish property are routinely transported to modern hospitals by ambulances.

The Amish do not accept military service, as they believe that it is wrong to take a human life for any reason, even self defense. They believe that all people live or die as God wills. In times of an active draft, Amish men have accepted alternate service. These positions have been very difficult for them, as they have to live outside of the community for extended periods of time.

Changes in the economy have been a source of pressure on the Amish. The higher cost of everything, especially farmland, has caused the Amish to look for other sources of income that will allow them to maintain their separateness. Many have adapted by growing high-demand crops such as hot peppers, by breeding dogs, and through sales of crafts such as quilts, furniture and utility sheds. The Amish still do not deal directly with the world at large, preferring instead to deal with a limited number of trusted outsiders.

The fact that the Amish have endured as a distinct people for over 300 years is convincing evidence that they are here to stay. In fact, their numbers have grown prodigiously, tripling in the last 50 years alone. As we have seen, the Amish are not really stuck in time. They evaluate the potential negative effects of technology on their faith and family life and embrace only those technologies that maintain an acceptable quality of life. In spite of the fact that the Amish avoid conflict to the greatest possible extent, there will always be some friction with the outside world. Increasing environmental regulation of agriculture and pressure from developers will likely be sources of future conflict.

For more information on the Amish, check out the links on the next page.