Donald Kraybill joined LNP | LancasterOnline on Tuesday for a discussion about the Amish community in Lancaster County.
He answered numerous questions submitted through We the People, a reader-powered journalism project, as well as questions submitted live by people on LNP’s Facebook livestream.
Kraybill is a distinguished professor and senior fellow emeritus at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center, which studies the Amish and other Anabaptist and Pietist groups.
He recently released "Simply Amish," a thin, easily digestible overview of the history, lifestyle and religion of the Amish people.
Here are several takeaways from the interview. Check back for more soon, or simply watch the video below.
The first Amish settlement in Pennsylvania wasn’t in Lancaster County.
Kraybill says the “first folks with Amish names” came to Pennsylvania by ship in 1727, followed by a larger group 10 years later. They settled in Berks County, he says, in the Wyomissing area near Reading.
There are references to an early settlement in Upper Leacock and Manheim townships, he says, but that settlement “fizzled out” and left behind very few historical references, beyond a few vague references in some Amish writings.
The first major, lasting Amish settlements here were in 1760, when the Amish settled around Churchtown in eastern Lancaster County, and 1770, when they settled the Intercourse area.
The Amish came from Europe but haven’t existed there for nearly a century.
“No, not Amish communities,” Kraybill says. “The last one fizzled out in 1936.”
There are still Mennonite communities, however, in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
In the United States, Kraybill says, there are 40 different Amish tribes in 31 states. Lancaster’s Amish community is the largest North American tribe.
The Lancaster County Amish are quite progressive, comparatively speaking.
For instance, Amish homes here have state-of-the-art plumbing and indoor bathrooms, Kraybill says. Many other communities still use outhouses and don’t have running water in the house.
Many local Amish dairy farmers use automatic milkers, while other communities still milk by hand. Although the local Amish community doesn’t drive, they hire drivers and take taxis and Uber rides, while many Amish communities won’t use cars at all.
The Amish celebrate two Christmases and two Easters.
But it’s not specifically an Amish custom, Kraybill says. It’s a more generic European tradition that was typical in various societies.
The Amish celebrate Christmas Day as a holy day, and the next day is a more social holiday to interact with friends and neighbors. The same is true, Kraybill says, with Easter Sunday and Easter Monday.
An Amish Christmas, he notes, lacks the electric lights and fancy decorations many of us associate with the holiday. They decorate with evergreens, he says, and they do exchange gifts.
Amish customs are evolving.
The notion that the Amish are frozen in time, like a living museum, is “a complete myth,” Kraybill says. “The Amish are a dynamic group, they’re changing all the time.”
That ranges from attitudes toward cars and cellphones to the ways they wash and dry their clothes.
The Amish community still shuns driving cars, although they can be driven by others. However, some do use computers and smart phones.
“The fear of the car was that it would separate families,” Kraybill explains. “The horse and buggy kept the community linked together.”
The cellphone issue is still being “sorted out” by individual congregations, he says. Kraybill notes there are more than 220 separate congregations in Lancaster County, and the rules on cellphone use vary among them.
Also, he says, fewer Amish people today get their primary income from farming. Many work in construction and manufacturing trades or operate markets, for instance.
“Amish Mafia” is a lie.
The depiction of Amish society on the TV series “Amish Mafia” was terrible, Kraybill says.
Kraybill says anyone who claims the Amish mafia is real “is lying.” The most egregious part of it, he adds, is the way it bounced off the mass shooting at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, where five young girls were killed and five more wounded.
“It’s a whole story about forgiveness,” Kraybill says. “’Amish Mafia’ is about retaliation and revenge. It’s an egregious exploitation of the Amish.”
Here are some more interesting facts about the Amish.
— The Amish hold weddings on Tuesdays and Thursdays because Sundays are reserved for religious services and Saturdays are often spent preparing to host those services in their homes. Several weddings might be held on the same day and, although they don’t have typical wedding receptions, they do host dinners for the new couple.
“Weddings are really big deals,” Kraybill says. They’re typically held in late October through December.
— Amish buggies in Lancaster County are gray, and married Amish men wear beards. Old Order Mennonite buggies are black, and married men in the faith are clean-shaven.
— The best time to visit Amish Country is April through October, when many Amish are working in the fields.
They’re still not fond of having their photos taken, at least not close-up, Kraybill says. It’s fine to take distant shots of people or photograph their farms, animals or buildings. Even children are OK, he says, because they’re not yet members of the Amish church.
If you’re looking for hex signs, they’re not really an Amish thing.