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Amish Resources at the Library of Congress

Transcript of a video presentation by Paul Connor

Hello, I’m Paul Connor, reference specialist in the Local History & Genealogy Reading Room at the Library of Congress. I’m the Library’s expert in Amish Studies. The Library documents many aspects of the American experience. Policy-makers rely on the Library to provide background on our culturally diverse people. If you have an interest in learning about Amish roots and customs, the Library of Congress can help. The Library has collected over 758 books, 117 dissertations, and thousands of articles on various aspects of Amish community life—everything from farming and health issues to buggies and beards.

The Amish and the Mennonites trace their heritage back to a group known as the Swiss Brethren. Founded around 1523 in Zurich, Switzerland, the Swiss Brethren were dissenters from the Reformed Church. The Brethren were Anabaptists. About 170 years after the Swiss Brethren were founded, a member of the church, Jacob Ammann, felt the Brethren were getting too lax and getting too accommodated to the regular society. So, he started a movement to have plainer dress, to have foot-washing twice a year, and to be more distant from the world at large.

Under Ammann’s leadership, the first Amish group formed in 1693 in Switzerland. The Amish, like the Anabaptists, advocate the tenet that baptism and church membership is for adults only. They teach nonresistance. And they believe in the separation of church and state.

From the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century, the doctrine that only adult believers should be baptized was attacked as heresy. Adult baptism was punishable by death in Bavaria, southern Germany, and Switzerland. In 1637, the Swiss city of Zurich banished Anabaptists. In 1690, children of Anabaptist marriages in Bern were denied their inheritance. In 1720, Bern began branding Anabaptists. And in1806, Napoleon refused to recognize the Anabaptists’ principle of nonresistance that prevented them from undertaking military service.

Oppressed by king and countrymen, the Amish migrated from Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany to North America. In 1730, they scouted for land along the frontier in the forests of Berks County, Pennsylvania. They settled there, and for the next twenty years the settlement grew to one hundred Amish families.

In 1754, Indians attacked the settlement. They killed several members of the Jacob Hostetler family, and took Jacob and one of his sons captive. They were held for several years before they made their way back to the Amish settlement. This was one of the first instances of an Amish man telling his sons, “don’t shoot at the Indians. Leave them alone, even though they are burning our house and killing us.” It was nonresistance. So after this attack, the Amish moved south into Lancaster County.

By 1776, they were farming in Lancaster County and Lebanon County. They migrated west to Somerset County and to Mifflin County, and then to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Over the course of ten generations, the Amish have moved into twenty-five states and Ontario, Canada. Early land grants have been published that tell the names of the early Berks County settlers. These same names are still found today in Lancaster. Most Amish can trace their ancestry back twelve generations to the original settlers.

The Amish dress in distinctively plain clothes. The fabric is usually dark in color and free of patterns. Within one community, the style of the clothing is uniform for adults and children. Amish folks will come to Lancaster from all over the United States to attend meetings. You can tell right off a stranger is from Ohio: his hat will be less formal; it won’t be as round and flat as the straw hats are in Lancaster. It might have a crease in the front, or a crease around the top. The suspenders won’t be as broad, and they might have their latches, instead of being connected directly to the trousers. He might have more buttons on his shirt, and it might have a collar.

The conservative Old Order Amish distinguish themselves through their physical appearance and dress. Men wear full beards and no mustaches. They don’t wear mustaches because in the 1600s soldiers would grow giant handlebar mustaches as a way of intimidating their enemies. They wear full hats, no jewelry, no wristwatches, and do not use belts. Amish women wear long dresses, capes around their shoulders, and always wear aprons and a prayer cap. When they go out in public, they put a bonnet over their prayer cap. Amish dress distinguishes not only their geographical location, but their conservative practices as well. The women from the Midwest have very stiff hats. Their prayer caps are made of stiff gauze and look like they were formed on a mold. The prayer caps from Lancaster tend to be softer. On the young girls, they look like big hearts made out of white material. The bonnets the women wear in Lancaster tend to have long sides and cover the face. The more conservative person covers more of their face. As people get more liberal, their bonnets recede back towards their ears. In the Midwest the bonnets are closer to the ears, and they are sewn differently in the back.

Before young men get married they remain clean-shaven, but after marriage they grow beards. In reading the wedding announcements in the newspaper, you can often tell who are Amish from the names. Like Mary King and Benuel Stoltzfus is probably not an Episcopalian marriage: it’s probably an Amish couple. Marriage is highly regarded in Amish society. When one spouse dies, it is common for the other to remarry. Even people in their sixties and seventies remarry. Usually, they marry in their early twenties. Most of the time, they marry in the fall, when the crops are in: November and December are the big marrying months. A wedding ceremony is usually midweek, on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, because it’s a lot of work to put on a wedding, and they don’t want to work on the Sabbath, so they need time to set up and pull everything apart afterwards. The wedding meal might consist of one hundred chickens, several sides of beef, numerous hams, mashed potatoes, and gravy. They have celery in jars, and forty pies, and five or six kinds of cakes, but there’s no special wedding cake. The woman often makes her own dress, usually blue, with a white apron and scarf. The man usually buys a new black suit. They have four young men, attendants to the groom, and four bridesmaids. They don’t wear any special dress: just their ordinary Sunday garb.

The typical Amish farmyard has a house, a barn, and the outbuildings, all built around a little square. Things are very handy to the family. The barns are quite large, because the Sunday meetings are held in the family’s barn. You need a lot of room to have all the people in the district get together to attend the church service.

Within the family, and with their Amish neighbors, the Amish speak “Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch.” Pennsylvania Dutch is a German dialect, not Dutch. Most adult Amish can read German and English. English is the language of business, spoken to the “Englischers,” as the non-Amish people are called.

The Amish used to attend public schools, but in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Yoder v. Wisconsin, affirmed the right of Amish parents to educate their offspring in their own rural tradition, so they were able to start their own parochial schools. Today, most Amish children in the United States attend Amish schools in their neighborhood. They go through the eighth grade. Amish schools are set up to teach cooperation, learning the basics, and preparing to be a competent farmer, carpenter, or homemaker.

The Amish go to church every other Sunday. Church usually starts at nine o’clock in the morning and lasts till 12:30 or 1. The bishop and ministers will confer about who’s going to give what sermon. The congregation will start singing the “Lob Lied,” a hymn of praise. That’s usually the first hymn. They’ll sing from the Ausbund, which is the oldest Protestant hymnal, from the 1500s.

For travel, the Amish use a horse and buggy, or walk. Their buggies are different colors, based on their geographic location. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Amish have gray buggies, and the Mennonites have black ones. In Big Valley, Pennsylvania, they have white and yellow buggies. If the Amish must travel a considerable distance, they hire a taxi, or ride a bus.

The Amish settlements are divided up into districts, which might correspond to a parish in a regular church. The Amish districts are about a mile in each direction, depending on the density of the settlement. Settlements contain about thirty families. Each family has seven children or so; that’s just about enough people to fit into a barn for a church service during the summer. Every other week, the services are held at a different house. Once a year, relatives and friends come over and fix up the house and barn, because they’re going to have a lot of people meeting in that house. Sometimes the father and his grown sons will live across the street, or down the lane from each other. They try to settle near their kinfolks so that they can help out in planting or harvesting.

The Amish life of simplicity and independence are part of the unique and diverse fabric of American society. The Amish provide example of good work ethic and strong family ties. Their peace-loving attitude and traditional ways remind us to respect diversity as an integral part of our freedom. Come to the Library of Congress to discover more about this fascinating group of Americans.

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  July 20, 2010
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