Amish Rules

Posted by Dale Cramer on March 15, 2011

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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16 Comment(s)

  1. Well, thanks for straightening that all out. I think. :-) We have Amish here in southeastern Ohio, too, and though I don’t know any of them personally, I know they are still generally considered excellent craftsmen. I have seen them (or were they Mennonites?) at the flea market, young children walking barefoot. The horses and buggies are interesting, but I have heard stories of various modern amenities, and it’s almost like the rest of us want them to stay “Old Order.”


    Julia Parissi

    Mar 15, 2011 | Reply
  2. You’re right that it’s not very simple. I don’t see the point of the cabinet specs. I can see, somewhat, the simple lifestyle mandating some of the ideas. However, this hairsplitting reminds me of the Jews and their ways around not doing work on the Sabbath, such as moving the “home” so that they can travel further.


    Cindy Schade

    Mar 23, 2011 | Reply
  3. Dale, I have decided that I’ll need to put a copy of Paradise Valley in our school library. I’m thankful for the way you described what the “right one” ought to be like, and I’m thinking the teenagers here could learn a valuable lesson from Jake and Rachel. :-)


    Julia Parissi

    Apr 5, 2011 | Reply
  4. I just got and finished your Paradise Valley book , I am so glad there is others about these girls you are writing as I was hooked on the book. And my co-worker read completely thru it in 2 days.
    Can’t wait to get the next book.
    Lavina , who is also from Georgia originally and how did a georgian gal meet a Amish man? You need to write that story also.


    Lavina Lindsey

    Apr 20, 2011 | Reply
  5. @Lavina Lindsey:
    Actually, Lavina, I did write that book. Levi’s Will.

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    Dale Cramer

    Apr 21, 2011 | Reply
  6. There are New Order Amish in Allen County, Indiana, and they have cell phones. The best thing about being Mennonite is the car, and I can say that, although I enjoy visiting Amish friends, I am glad that I didn’t marry and stayed Mennonite. Maybe I am thinking that because I am in sales and have to do a route everyday, but Sunday.


    Sicily Yoder

    May 12, 2011 | Reply
  7. Not wanting to identify my former community, but we had a radio rigged up in the barn, and we would listen to country gospel music. The sisters that make my jams are allowed to listen to cassettes, as are the ladies from the neighboring town; however, my community is not allowed to listen to cassettes. My adopted uncle is the minister, and he says that Christians don’t need music. And that we can praise God while driving, and I have to agree with him on the later. I don’t have television, but I do have internet set up at my stepfather and mom’s house to enter my reports on, promote my business on Facebook, etc. And my hot flashes are extremely bad, so, when doing resets, I wear Englisch clothes. My car has no A/C and the driver’s window doesn’t roll down…and it’s 90 degrees here in Ky today!


    Sicily Yoder

    May 12, 2011 | Reply
  8. Dear Dale,
    I too am completely wrapped up with The Daughters of Caleb Bender and all of the other characters in the “Paradise Valley” novel and am looking forward to the next edition.
    I was surprised to learn from your blog all the differences between one order from another re the use of cars, computers, electricity, telephone, cell phone, etc. It sounds as though, if you own your own business then it is okay to live in both worlds…Englisher and then Amish. To me that seems hypocritical.
    Again, enjoy your writing. Sincerely, Martha Staton


    Martha Staton

    May 16, 2011 | Reply
  9. Isn’t funny how some Amish are more up to date, with cell phones, computer knowledge etc, then some of us English. Nothing they do anymore shocks me. :) Really enjoyed your books on cd, Levi’s will and Summer of Light. I was surprised to hear Apple Creek mentioned. That is where I grew up and presently residing. Thanks for writing those books.


    Gaylen Yoder

    May 29, 2011 | Reply
  10. The Amish are indeed complicated! I have read just about every book that has been published concerning the Amish in the last ten years. My husband and I visited Lancaster County severy years ago and stayed at an Amish bed and breakfast we found on the internet! I have a dear friend who grew up Mennonite and explained the simularities and differences. It appears the women pay the price for maintaining the culture. I have read three of your books. I am assuming there are more to come with the setting in Mexico; I look forward to reading the future of the Bender family. Since I live in Texas, I am very aware of the culture in Mexico. Doesn’t appear much has changed over the last century.


    Karen Coffey

    Jun 10, 2011 | Reply
  11. Never heard of you until last week. Brought Levi’s Will and Paradise Valley home from the library, read them both in short order. Now I want to buy all your books and add them to my library. About the Amish rules, I am worn out just READING all those rules. Just like remembering (much less performing) the 613 (or is it 631?) Jewish rules, there’s no way the Faithful have time to get into trouble. If everyone lived this way, we wouldn’t need a “criminal justice” system. But we would need bigger houses to accommodate unlimited numbers of children!


    Patricia Deneen

    Jul 3, 2011 | Reply
  12. Thoroughly enjoyed Paradise Valley. It was a great read. Can’t wait til the next book comes out. I must get Levi’s Will. All the characters in Paradise Valley brought out the best in all of them. I was glad to see that they had a sense of humor, commitment to each other, and all the members of the community. That is something that is lacking in America today. Keep up the good work.


    Jean Liben

    Jul 22, 2011 | Reply
  13. Dale,

    I just read Paradise Valley. I am looking forward to its sequel. A few years back, we lived in a community where we had Old Order Amish and plenty of “black Bumper Mennonites” (As they were called because their cars were all black, even the bumpers.) We became good friends with most of the Amish families. Their children had attended a Mennonite school but were asked to have their own. So they built a building and had no teacher.

    They came to me, an English lady, and asked me to teach. I am a born again Christian and had helped out at the Christian school where my children attended, for years. So I jumped and said Yes, to their question. Every thing was great for a long time. The children loved me but I got in so much hot water with them. You see, I felt it important that they start the day with devotions and Bible memory. I soon got a knock on my door that that was not allowed.

    The little first grader I had, his mom was over due to have a baby. I would say, “Shall we pray for Henry’s mom, that she have a healthy baby.” I got the strangest looks from the children. I got another knock on my door telling me I was not to discuss such things in front of the children. Oh, I could write my own book about them!

    Needless to say, I only taught one year. By my choice, not theirs. I am so glad Christ set me free and I don’t have to be bound by their laws. It will not get them into Heaven, that’s for sure! I am reminded of the words of Christ who said, “Not everyone that calls me Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven!” Matthew 7:21


    Jude Eckert

    Sep 22, 2011 | Reply
  14. @Jude Eckert:
    Jude, I can only imagine they were afraid to let an Englisher have free rein to teach Bible to their children. But a great many Amish do understand Grace. There are those who don’t, but then there are those in every denomination who don’t. There’s a veneer of legalism among the Amish, but they are people, individuals, with hearts and minds of their own. I for one don’t want to be too quick to judge, especially where it concerns a people so utterly devoted to what they believe. They are a complex people, and some of the things we think of as eccentric help to preserve a range of deep values that we English have somehow lost. The more liberal orders have come to understand that their buggy won’t get them into heaven, yet they maintain the lifestyle because it’s a good way to live. There’s an innocence about them, an absence of cynicism that in our modern world I can only admire.

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    Dale Cramer

    Sep 23, 2011 | Reply
  15. You are an amazing person, I’ve read all your books and love to hear you speak!!! Please come to Dallas so I can hear you in person!!


    Renee Romand

    Apr 16, 2014 | Reply
  16. @Renee Romand:
    Renee, that’s very kind of you. I have in fact been to Dallas to speak and enjoyed the trip, but I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to do it again.

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    Dale Cramer

    Apr 16, 2014 | Reply

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