8 Misconceptions About the Amish

Let’s debunk the myths pop culture has been telling you about this fascinating and complex group, including misconceptions about the Amish and technology.
An Amish family gathers for a meal around their kitchen table.
An Amish family gathers for a meal around their kitchen table. / David Turnley/GettyImages

In movies like Witness and TV shows like Vanilla Ice Goes Amish, the Amish are depicted as folks who avoid technology and effectively live in the 19th century. In the list below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube, we’ll debunk the myths Harrison Ford and ‘90s rappers have been telling you about this fascinating and complex group—including that things like drugs and smart phones can still find their way into this society.

1. Misconception: The Amish are untouched by modern society.

The idea that the Amish are absolutely free of the perils of modern civilization isn’t really accurate. For example, in 1998, a strange thing happened in the tiny village of Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Two Amish men were arrested for drug dealing. A federal indictment alleged both had been sourcing cocaine from members of the notorious Pagans motorcycle gang and then distributing it to their Amish brethren. The men, both named Abner, were accused of selling the drugs during Amish hoedowns.

This seems very out of character for the Amish, but they must still cope with intrusions from the world around them. Like anyone of any religious affiliation, there are certain nuances to their beliefs. For the most part, the Amish are far more complicated than the image popularly portrayed.

2. Misconception: Amish and Mennonite are synonyms.

What do we mean when we talk about the Amish? For most people, and our purposes, it means Old Order Amish. Generally speaking, the Amish in North America can be traced back to the Anabaptist movement in Europe in the 16th century, which promoted beliefs contrary to more widely accepted Christian practices. For example, only Anabaptist adults were baptized, with the idea being that accepting God had to be a conscious choice.

A few years after the Anabaptist movement came on the scene, Menno Simons joined and became so important that many Anabaptists started being called Mennonites. Over a century later in Switzerland, Jakob Ammann took things a step further and pushed for a more hardcore life, with views on everything from communion to shunning to how to wear beards. In 1693, his group broke off into a new branch, Amish, derived from Amman’s last name.

To avoid persecution for their beliefs in Europe, in the 18th century many Anabaptists started migrating to Pennsylvania, including the Amish who were able to continue to live plainly—at least until the Industrial Revolution, which introduced challenges to their way of life. Starting in 1862, Amish communities across the country started to have a yearly gathering to discuss how to navigate this world. Conservative elements felt marginalized at these meetings, so they started breaking off and declaring their preference for the Old Order while the more liberal groups eventually merged with the Mennonites. The invention of the telephone in 1876 sparked debate among the community. Pretty soon, cars and electricity were something the Amish had to grapple with.

3. Misconception: The Amish shun all technology.

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Some Amish people use modified technology like battery-powered tools for construction projects. / Scott Olson/GettyImages

The Amish are wary of electricity owing to their religious beliefs, but the reason why is often misunderstood. While individual communities differ heavily on this, the decision was ultimately made that members should remain off the electric grid. But it wasn’t because they thought electricity was evil per se. It was that having easy access to electricity signaled that you were ready and eager for the latest technological doodad. But if you need to buy a refrigerator and then figure out how on Earth you’re going to power it without being able to just plug it into the wall, suddenly you’re a lot more considerate of your buying.

While the Amish are prohibited from hooking up to a power grid, they’re generally permitted to use power from 12-volt batteries, diesel generators, propane, solar panels, or hydraulics. This comes primarily in the form of power tools, which help the Amish with carpentry duties, though you might also see it in the form of battery-powered headlights and windshield wipers for their horse-drawn buggies.

Which bits of technology the Amish adopt depends on their specific community. There’s no one Amish group, but a group of smaller sects. Each one makes a determination on whether something like a battery-powered drill or gas-powered refrigerator will be beneficial for them. According to Donald Kraybill, an Amish expert and co-author of the book The Amish, “[The Amish are] more cautious—more suspicious—wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?”

Each Amish community is governed by the Ordnung, the German word for “order.” It’s a policy guideline dependent in some part on the Amish sect. In Pennsylvania alone, there are hundreds of Amish districts, which means there’s no one single rulebook that applies.

But what about the big two technologies of modern life—computers and smartphones? Some Amish believe having computer processing power is integral to their business, and so they seek out PC builds that are as basic as possible. Some companies have even filled this niche market by advertising computers that have no internet access, graphics, or sound. Even the case can be made out of wood.

This Amish-ization can also extend to other things. A power tool, for example, may have the motor taken out and replaced with something air-powered.

Nor have the Amish been able to disassociate completely from smartphones. When telephones became widespread in the early 20th century, the Amish began installing them—until prohibitions were placed on them, citing concerns that Amish might resort to a phone call instead of a personal visit, or engage in gossip.

Sometimes, communities will rely on a phone shanty (basically a phone booth) to make communal use of a phone. But some adults also carry phones for the same reason they have computers—to engage with employees and customers. And some younger members of the Amish community are sometimes tempted by the ease of social contact. 

4. Misconception: The Amish are poor.

Conjure an image of the Amish and you might think of plain-living people with meager financial resources. True, you won’t see many displays of ostentatious wealth from the Amish community. No flashy jewelry, no rims on their buggies—but make no mistake about it, the Amish are not obligated to remain poor.

According to a 2017 New York Times piece on the evolution of the Amish community, the wide-open spaces of areas like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, can start to become a little crowded, leaving Amish business owners to think beyond the country. Some open businesses in town, like bakeries or other food shops, and then commute back to a more easygoing life at home.

These businesses and entrepreneurs can often be very successful. The Times reported that as many as 2000 Amish-owned businesses are in and around Lancaster, some of which are multimillion-dollar success stories. Amish craftspeople can develop reputations for expertly made woodworking or food preparation. That, in turn, creates a lot of consumer loyalty.

It’s hard to know exactly why the Amish are so successful—maybe it’s a lack of distraction or a devotion to quality work—but according to Donald Kraybill, just 10 percent of Amish start-ups fail. That’s compared to the 50 percent failure rate of non-Amish small businesses. And don’t forget land ownership, which can also add to their wealth portfolio.

Some Amish businesses, naturally, may only turn a modest profit. And broadly speaking, Amish communities do tend to have higher rates of cash-poor members. But the idea that they’re all indigent isn’t right, either. Because of their consumption habits and ability to support one another, relatively few Amish people rely on public assistance—hardly any receive food stamps, for example.

Amish communities often pool money to assist members in need, as in the case of a medical emergency. But that’s really about the extent of their reliance on financial assistance. They frown upon debt. They also save a nice chunk of money by growing their own food, making their own repairs, and not running out to buy the latest iPhone.

5. Misconception: The Amish don’t drive.

OK, this one is partially true. Most Amish communities were practicing social distancing long before it was recommended—not from each other, but from the world at large. One way that’s accomplished is by passing up easy transportation. In Amish-heavy areas, you might even see parking spaces for a horse and buggy at places like Walmart or Costco. For the Amish, a horse-drawn cab helps them keep life at a slow pace and also works to symbolize their faith. After all, a horse can only go so far, which means the Amish can’t stray far from their community ties. But that doesn’t mean they never climb inside a car.

Some Amish take advantage of a kind of loophole in their religious doctrine that permits them to be a passenger in a motor vehicle. They can pay for what’s known informally as an Amish taxi, which is a car service that provides transportation for the Amish. Providing the Amish person in question doesn’t own the car or operate it, riding is generally agreeable to community leaders. And obviously, the driver they hire can’t be Amish.

Where do they go? In addition to work, Amish may want to travel to go shopping, see family out of town, or run errands. They might also use public transportation, like a bus. Planes, however, are usually out of the question.

If you manage to spot an Amish person driving a car, you may have encountered an Amish-Mennonite, a kind of hybrid faith that blends some of the conservative beliefs of the Amish with some more liberal ideas. Alongside Beachy Amish, who are sometimes treated as the same, these groups also speak English, not Pennsylvania Dutch, and may also have more latitude when it comes to contemporary-looking clothing. But again, when most people—even most experts—say “Amish,” they mean Old Order.

There is one other motor vehicle exception. Some Amish teenagers may learn to drive or even purchase a vehicle for themselves. And while parents may disapprove, not all Amish communities will prohibit it. It’s part of the Amish tradition of letting younger members get a taste of the outside world, a tradition called Rumspringa.

6. Misconception: Rumspringa is “Amish gone wild.”

Amish teens at a sporting event. / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

Rumspringa is a period of time in an Amish person’s life—typically in their mid to late teens—when it’s permissible to experience more of the outside world. But if you believe the media, Rumspringa is also a time when kids are encouraged to drink, have premarital sex, and generally live out a John Hughes movie, all with the full consent of their parents.

Not quite. Rumspringa, which begins at the age of 16, does allow young Amish the freedom to step outside the boundaries of their Amish household and see new places or make new friends. But at no point do parents encourage their kids to binge-drink or act irresponsibly. While kids can use Rumspringa to get slightly wild, they’re still held accountable to their parents. And not all communities are as freewheeling as others. Some may simply allow kids to meet their peers in social settings. Others might just go swimming in a pool or listen to music or do other kid things. Most Amish teens who venture into this rite of passage don’t wind up drunk or experimenting with drugs. The most indulgent thing they do could be walking into a bowling alley.

Nor is Rumspringa—which means “running around” in Pennsylvania German—a way to get young Amish to decide whether they want to officially become a member of the Amish church. While some kids may make that decision on their own, it’s not an ultimatum being offered to them. Rumspringa is, in many ways, a method to satisfy their curiosity about the outside world so it doesn’t come creeping up later in adulthood, when their absence would be more damaging to their culture. It also plays a role in finding a spouse. The expectation is that young people will come back, get baptized, get married, and settle into Amish life. That’s what roughly four out of five Amish teens wind up doing.

And if they do decide to leave the church, they’re not excommunicated or shunned—they can’t be, because they were never a formal member to begin with. That doesn’t happen until they’re baptized. And there’s another reason you can’t really be shunned from an actual Amish church.

7. Misconception: The Amish have churches.

Have you ever seen a big, impressive Amish church full of congregants? No? That’s because there aren’t any.

While the Old Order are deeply religious and subscribe to a strict set of values, they don’t attend a formal church built for the express purpose of worship. Instead, the Amish typically congregate in their homes or in nearby buildings like a barn or workshop. That’s because the Amish generally believe faith is in an interior experience that doesn’t require dedicated buildings. It also means they don’t have to spend time or money on the upkeep of a building meant strictly for religious services.

Because each congregation is made up of 25 or 30 families, they have to live close enough to get to each other’s houses for worship. Having smaller groups also helps the Amish form tight bonds with others in their community.

They don’t necessarily attend every week, either. Biweekly church services are the norm, with other devotional activities held during the off weeks at a person’s home. Because of this schedule, no one Amish family needs to worry about hosting the others at their house too often. The math comes out to about once a year.

So—where does everyone sit? The Amish have a plan for that. Wagons devoted to transporting benches are used so church members can be comfortable for the services, which can last as long as three hours.

8. Misconception: Outsiders can’t join the Amish church.

There’s no question that Amish communities prefer to keep their distance from outsiders, not wanting to risk any mainstream culture polluting their simple lifestyles. But does that mean they would refuse a former suburbanite? Nope.

The Amish, especially the aforementioned Amish-Mennonites, do sometimes welcome what’s referred to as a seeker—a person raised in another religion who wants to pursue the peace and relative solitude of an Amish community. These seekers approach the Amish with a desire to learn more about their culture and a willingness to adopt their beliefs, work ethic, manner of dress, and language. They’re looking to leave behind the conveniences of the modern world. If the Amish community believes that person is sincere, and that person remains convinced they want to join the Amish after experiencing their life, then it’s possible they could be welcomed in.

But this is a rare occurrence. Of the 300,000 or so Amish living in the United States, no more than 200 are converts. Most of the people who wish to be Amish simply adopt some of their customs, like avoiding technology, but remain in their own communities. For most, it’s simply too difficult to give up the modern world. Imagine spending 18 or 25 years of your life enjoying air conditioning, cars, and pop music, only to have it disappear. You don’t need to be Amish in order to try and slow down and enjoy life more.

Much of what the Amish practice isn’t about finding anything evil or corrupt with modern society. They just want to focus on what matters most—family, civility, and happiness. If you think about it, you probably have more in common with the Amish culture than you think.