Visiting the Amish community in Pennsylvania can be a rewarding and unsettling experience for outsiders who venture there. It is a place frozen in another time. Green rolling hills are dotted with Holstein cattle and weather beaten barns, people live without electricity or cars and draw horses and mules plough the fields.
Churches dot the landscape and transport is in the form of small buggies carrying men and children in plain clothes and hats. In all things the aesthetic value is plainness. It is land out of time worked by a people who follow their own interpretation of the Bible closely.
h4. William Penn
The Amish emigrated to Pennsylvania around the 1730s to benefit from the Quaker William Penn’s offer of protection for persecuted religions. Two key concepts for understanding Amish practices are their rejection of ‘hochmut’ (pride, arrogance) and the high value they place on ‘demut’ or humility and ‘gelassenheit’ (German, meaning: calmness, composure, placidity).
The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labour-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on the community.
Electricity for example, might start competition for goods, or photographs might cultivate individual or family vanity.
h4. Rejecting education
It is also the cause for rejecting education beyond the age of 14, especially studies that “have little practical use for farm life but may awaken personal and materialistic ambitions” and private healthcare which might start competition for status. The impact in all areas is huge, especially in healthcare.
At best, it can be described as an unusual situation in a country where the healthcare system could be viewed as an example of capitalism at its rawest. Amish do not buy private health insurance.
The Amish in Pennsylvania do, however, have their own informal insurance called church aid. About two-thirds of the community subscribe. In addition, a handful of American hospitals in the mid-1990s created special outreach programmes to assist the Amish.
The first of such programmes was instituted at the Susquehanna Health System in central Pennsylvania by James Huebert. The programme earned national media attention in the US and has since spread to several surrounding hospitals.
h4. Maple syrup disease
Genetic disorders abound within the community which is hardly surprising given that almost all of the current Amish descend primarily from about 200 founders. Most commonly encountered are Ellis-van Creveld syndrome (dwarfism) and various metabolic disorders such as maple syrup disease.
Incidence is not helped by the fact that the majority of the Amish accept these as ‘Gott’s wille’ (God’s will) and reject any use of genetic tests prior to marriage to check for these disorders. This is unlike the similarly closely bred Askanazi Jews who are often paired by specialist organisations, based on detailed DNA studies: a true Darwinian and Einsteinian melange.
h4. Unusual blood-types
The community is also distinguished by the highest incidence of twinning in a known human population and an unusual distribution of blood-types. What many people do not realise is that the Amish do not represent a single closed community, but rather a collection of different ‘demes’ or genetically closed communities and these days there is an increasing consciousness among the Amish of the advantages of exogamy/outbreeding.
A common bloodline in one community will often be absent in another, and genetic disorders can be avoided by choosing spouses from unrelated communities. For example, the founding families of the Lancaster County Amish are unrelated to the founders of the Perth County Amish community in Canada.
The general feeling among the Amish is that the pressures of the modern world are ever present. They explain for example how child labour laws are threatening their long-established ways of life. Amish children are taught at an early age to work hard.
Amish parents will supervise the children in new tasks to ensure that they learn to do them effectively and safely.
But child labour laws conflict with allowing the Amish parents to decide whether or not their children are competent in hazardous tasks.
h4. Bone of contention
This is a major bone of contention within the community. While the US government has made many concessions towards the Amish, where children are concerned they have been less accommodating.
Several high-profile cases have brought attention to sexual abuse of children among the Amish. It has been described as “almost a plague in some communities”. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it is bishops and preachers who settle conflicts and mete out punishment for sins (generally in the form of shunning), so that these crimes are less likely to be reported. Those who are mistreated are often shunned for seeking outside help.
The well-publicised case of Mary Byler, raped over 100 times between the ages of eight and 14 by her brothers, shed some light on the scale of the problem. She was subsequently excommunicated and shunned for reporting her abusers.
In an interview with ABC news she commented: “(Amish Society) is just like any other society. You have great families, very well-balanced, but you also have dysfunctional ones. Take the Amish off the pedestal. They’re just like everybody else.”
David Yoder, who grew up in a conservative Swartzentruber Amish family, recalls one man who committed incest with his daughter and was punished with 90 days of shunning. In a community where drinking until you get sick is considered as bad a crime as child sexual abuse and receives the same punishment, it seems at times futile to seek help.
These reports echo those of other self-determining communities such as the 60 Aboriginal communities in Australia’s Northern Territory. Despite vastly differing cultural backgrounds and lifestyles the plight of the Aborigines as a closed self-governing community draws many parallels with that of the Amish.
h4. Agrarian society
What the future holds for these self-apartheid people will be interesting to watch. Peter Seibert, president of the Heritage Centre of Lancaster County and a non-Amish said: “It is easy to get it wrong about the Amish. They are not about putting up walls to block out the modern world. What they are about is adapting their community to modernity in order to preserve its essential being as a simple agrarian society.
“They will pick and choose what they want from our world.”
But it is clear that for some of the most vulnerable, living in a community that prizes so much its privacy, also has a huge price.
Following a horrific report on child physical and sexual abuse, as of the 21 June this year the Australian government has taken control of the 60 Northern Territory Aborigine communities, imposed a total ban on alcohol and pornography and ordered a compulsory health check on children under 16. The government has also been recommended that welfare payments be stopped to parents whose children fail to attend school.