The Amish NPR coverage of The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Hardcover, 500 pages, Johns Hopkins Univ Pr, List Price: $29.95 |


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The Amish
Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, et al

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Book Summary

Draws on 25 years worth of research, archival material, oral histories, and direct observations to provide an account of Amish life that explores the diversity within the community and its transformation and geographic expansion.

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One Amish family in Lancaster County, Pa., has three horse-pulled buggies they store in a barn. They all have electric lights powered by rechargeable batteries. One of the buggies even has battery-powered windshield wipers. Jeff Brady/NPR hide caption

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

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No Love for the Car

During the nineteenth century, the Amish used many forms of public transportation — ships, trolleys, and trains — and these generated no controversy in the twentieth century. With the exception of airplane travel, which all Amish except some New Order districts reject, public transportation has been uncontroversial. Not so the individual mobility promised by the automobile, however.

During the twentieth century, most Americans fell in love with the car — with its
power, speed, convenience, and control — and they found it exhilarating to drive. But not the Amish. For Amish leaders trying to keep their congregations intact and sequestered from urban influence, the car was a threat. They feared its speed and easy mobility would decimate their close-knit church-communities whose social ties traditionally drew strength from face-to-face visiting and physical proximity.

Spurning the car, the icon of modernity, illustrates the fortitude of Amish resistance. Although Amish people have made accommodations, such as riding in motor vehicles, horse-drawn transportation remains a cogent protest against the creeping influence of all things modern and, as we have argued, it's the defining feature of Amish identity. "When people leave the Amish," said one member, "the first thing they do is buy a car."

One Amish leader explains the harm that cars would cause, arguing that (1) they are luxury and status symbols designed for style, speed, comfort, and convenience; (2) they ruin tightly woven communities where members live, work, worship, and care for each other; (3) they make it too easy to travel to cities; (4) they bring moral decay as people work and live away from their families; and (5) they are dangerous because of their speed. Moral temptations, he proposes, increase in direct relation to speed. Finally, he argues that members must consider the overall harm that cars would have on the church, not just their harm to one individual.

An Amish publication contends that "the free use of it [the car] will lead us to where we don't want to go" and then reiterates how the car pulls families apart, increases the temptation to travel into cities, and detaches families from their local churches. It concludes, "Cities are designed for cars, time is marked by them, and men are known and judged by the automobiles they drive."

All affiliations forbid baptized members from owning or operating a motor vehicle and from obtaining a driver's license for personal use. In more progressive communities, unbaptized young men may own a car during Rumspringa, but they must sell it upon joining the church. A handful of settlements at one time permitted baptized members to obtain licenses if they had to drive trucks for their English employers, but such cases are very rare.

With a few exceptions such as forklifts in shops, self-propelled power implements (harvesters, combines, riding mowers, and garden tractors) are also taboo for fear they might eventually justify car driving or car ownership. Nevertheless, in another example of the distinction between use and ownership, many affiliations permit members to ride in hired vehicles owned and operated by non-Amish people. Some business owners hire English drivers with vehicles on a regular basis or employ them on work crews, to provide labor as well as daily transportation for the business. Long-distance travel by bus, train, or hired vans is part of the life of most Amish communities. Although the most conservative groups permit traveling by public bus or train, their members may ride in private cars only if no public transportation is available.

Shunning the car has helped to preserve the social fabric of local congregations, which is crucial to the success of Amish society. Horse-drawn transportation tethers Amish people to rural areas and grounds their social interaction in their church-community, which in turn reinforces their home-centered way of life.


One Amish authority declares that electricity and the car are the two technologies that wreaked the greatest havoc on rural life in the twentieth century. The writer explains that "the unlimited use of electric current puts a world of power and convenience at our fingertips that is not good for us. This is especially true of household appliances." He then argues that "push button electric lighting and central heat disperse family throughout the house in evenings instead of encouraging togetherness and communication."

As electrification reached into rural areas in the 1920s and 1930s, Amish communities independently and gradually decided not to tap into the public grid. Like the telephone, the grid was a direct connection to the outside world. Moreover, the early uses of electricity were more applicable to homes than to farming operations, so church leaders considered electricity unnecessary and were leery that conveniences and appliances would eventually follow. The advent of radio in the 1920s was an early warning of how electricity could bring worldly ideas directly into the home, and the rapid introduction of television into American living rooms in the 1950s underscored for the Amish the wisdom of the taboo on electricity. Putting the grid off-limits effectively buffered them from the avalanche of gadgets that spilled into American life in the twentieth century: radios, televisions, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, electric lights, dishwashers, and much more.

No Amish communities, however, ban electricity entirely. The Amish had been tapping 12-volt direct current from batteries before 120-volt alternating current became available from public utility wires. The distinction between battery and grid current gelled in the course of the last century and continues to shape Amish choices and patterns of innovation. Even the most traditional churches use battery-powered flashlights, and many affiliations permit battery power for small lights, fans, shavers, and toys in their homes, for lights on their buggies, and for other applications. The long-standing preference for batteries took a surprising twist in the late twentieth century when American manufacturers produced a flood of battery-powered tools for home and shop. Progressive Amish groups welcomed these new tools because they fit within traditional guidelines and boosted manufacturing productivity.

Some people in more lenient communities also invert 12-volt electricity from batteries into 120-volt current in order to operate cash registers, copy machines, word processors, light bulbs, coffeemakers, and fans. Nevertheless, the multitude of electrical gadgets and entertainment devices in mainstream society are simply absent from Amish homes.

The emergence of Amish manufacturing shops in the 1970s and 1980s presented a new challenge: Could large equipment be powered without electricity? With the traditional method — the only one permitted by conservative groups — saws, sanders, and drills are powered by a belt spun by an engine. In higher groups, however, Amish mechanics have created alternative energy sources by using diesel engines to operate
pumps and compress air (pneumatic) and oil (hydraulic) for power. Nowadays, Amish technicians remove the electric motors from tools such as saws, sanders, and metal cutters and replace them with either air or oil motors. The compressed air and pressurized oil are distributed by hoses or pipes to a wide array of equipment. Compressed air is used in some communities to pump water, power sewing machines, and operate old-style wringer washers and high-speed spinners to wash and dry clothing. This so-called "Amish electricity" has boosted productivity in shops and added convenience to some homes. Amish technicians have also created circuit boards, with air and 12-volt electric switches, to control repetitive movements (that mimic computers) in machines.

A curious thing happened in the early years of the twenty-first century: many Amish people joined the environmental movement and began tapping into "God's Grid." They found that solar power, with its direct tie to nature and no wires to the outside world, fit perfectly with their values. Amish entrepreneurs started constructing, selling, and installing solar technology for Amish and non-Amish customers alike. The story actually began in the 1980s when some Amish farmers used solar chargers to electrify cattle fences. Later, the Amish began using solar panels on the rooftops of carriage sheds to charge the batteries that powered buggy lights. Solar power is now used in many communities to charge batteries for reading lamps, fans, copy machines, sewing machines, light bulbs, word processors, and water pumps. Solar-generated electricity is also used to power tiny drill presses, solder guns, and
other small electrical tools.

Amish solar installations are typically small-scale rather than full-size systems that power an entire home. Nevertheless, one solar shop owner who sells to English clients explained with great enthusiasm how a sizable solar panel can provide all the energy needed for the lights, small appliances, and even the refrigerator and washer in a home. The electricity from the solar panel flows into a battery pack, then to an inverter for conversion to 120 volt, and then to an electric wire distribution system throughout the house. On a cloudy day a small gasoline engine runs an electric generator for backup. Solar power offers, in short, the possibility of full electrification for an Amish house. For some Amish elders, that notion conjures up a frightening scenario leading to video games, big screen televisions, computers, and the Internet — all the things that they have sought to avoid. Yet Amish use of solar power will likely
continue to grow, and change-minded churches will need to strike a balance between acceptable uses and those that could link them directly to mass culture.

From The Amish, by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. Reprinted by permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.