One of my Amish cousins passed through here on her way home today (my favorite cousin), and she stopped by to visit for a couple hours. I noticed she was driving a car, and since there were several Cramers in the room a certain amount of good-natured ribbing naturally ensued.
The conversation evolved into a sort of free-for-all discussion of Amish customs, and the distinctions between one church and another. The first thing I would mention, for those of you not familiar with Amish rules, is the car.
I’d always understood it to be this way but I never heard anybody put it quite as bluntly as my cousin did when she said, “If you own a car you’re not Amish.” Even something that sounds so clear cut on the surface is subject to hair-splitting. For instance, you can be Amish and own a business that owns a car, and you can ride in the company car but you can’t drive it. You can also have electricity at your place of business, and sometimes computers. I know Amish who keep a deep freezer at their place of business, though they don’t have electricity in their homes. I know of an Amish man who would leave his non-electric Old Order house every morning, drive his buggy two miles to his place of business, stable the horse, go into his office, turn on the lights and crank up his computer. Then he’d have his driver take him to the airport in his company car, fly to another state to do business, fly back in the afternoon and hitch up his buggy to go home. All legal, more or less.
But my cousin owns a car and drives it, so she’s not Amish anymore. She’s still wearing a covering of sorts but her kapp and dress are Mennonite. The Mennonites are just across the line from the more liberal Amish. The dividing line is the car.
An interesting side-bar to our conversation was the observation that when somebody leaves a fairly liberal Amish church, as a rule they’ll go Mennonite because it’s a small step and they’re not likely to be banned for it. It’s a way of tip-toeing out. The dress code isn’t that different, although even the more conservative Mennonites will usually allow print dresses, slightly higher hemlines and truncated prayer kapps— they don’t even have to have strings on them. But when somebody leaves a hardcore Old Order church they generally don’t bother with half measures, they just go flat-out English— car, TV and i-Mac with wireless router. They don’t tiptoe.
Lest you think the hair-splitting ends with the Mennonites, consider the car. Conservative Mennonites vary, but some of the more common rules are: it has to be all black inside and out including the roof, it can’t be a sports car or a convertible, and in some churches it can’t be a two-door. Most Mennonites allow electricity but not television. They allow cell phones, as do all but the most conservative Amish these days, but they also allow land lines. Some liberal Amish allow land lines now, but you have to hide the phone in a cabinet. Amish cell phones are charged via a solar charger in the barn, which has given rise to low-voltage lighting in the barn powered by batteries on solar chargers. The houses are still lit with gas, although the old kerosene pump lantern is out and decorative central gas lighting is in.
Plumbing has long been a favorite subject of the Amish. For instance, while only the staunchest Old Order districts still refuse to allow indoor plumbing, most of them have given in. Even Old Order homes now have sinks in the kitchen and indoor toilets. They have bathtubs, too, but they disagree on on whether or not water can be heated, and how it can be heated— gas water heater or wood-burning coil system. I know of a church where you can have indoor plumbing, but the hot and cold water cannot come from the same spigot and the sink cannot be divided. One big unibody sink, two spigots. The same church says your kitchen counters can’t be more than eight feet long— in fact they have a long list of rules just about kitchen cabinets. Oddly enough, the same church allows smoking, but whatever you smoke has to be brown like a cigar. No white cigarettes.
Seriously— I’m not making this up. A lot of people say the fascination with the Amish is the simple lifestyle, but sometimes I wonder— what’s so simple about it?
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