Read an Excerpt
Chapter1 -- Why Not Electricity?
Most North Americans today would think it impossible to do without electricity. Indeed, for people throughout the industrialized world, the most basic of life's activities rely upon through-the-wires power. Lighting, cooking, heating, grooming, and entertainment -- all require volts and watts.
But electricity is actually a very recent development. While electrical power was available to many city dwellers in the early 1900s, the majority of rural North Americans had no access to current until the 1930s or 40s. Many people who were alive during the first third of this century will be able to identify with the accounts of Amish life in this book. Of course, to millions of people in the non-industrial nations, even the ways of the Amish may seem modern and luxurious.
A Connection With the World
What makes the Old Order Amish unique is not that they get along without electricity, but that they choose to do without it when it would be readily available. Most Amish see a link with electric wires as a connection with the world -- the world that the Bible tells them they are to be "strangers and pilgrims" in.
Unlike many North Americans, the Amish value simplicity and self-denial over comfort, convenience, and leisure. So they try to discern the long-range effects of an innovation before deciding whether to adopt it.
Early in this century, the large majority of Amish leaders agreed that connecting to power lines would not be in the best interest of their communities. They did not make this decision because they thought electricity was evil in itself, but because easy access to it could lead to many temptations and the deterioration of church and family life. For similar reasons, the Amish refuse to own cars.
Forbidding electricity has prevented the need to make decisions on individual electrical devises, especially those used for entertainment. Radio and television promote values that are directly opposed to those of the Amish. These influences cannot easily come into the home if the usual door of entrance is not present.
Batteries and Generators
While rejecting TV and through-the-wires power, however, most Amish communities have accepted some use of battery-powered devices. All but the most conservative groups permit battery-operated clocks, watches, and flashlights. Calculators, electric shavers, and buggy lights that are powered by batteries are in wide use among the Amish, as are battery-operated electric fences which keep livestock from straying. In some areas, Amish dairy farmers have complied with milk company demands that they use battery-powered agitators in bulk milk tanks. Some Amish use solar generators to recharge these batteries.
In certain cases, electric generators may be used to operate equipment. Carpenters in some communities use portable generators to run their power tools, and many shops are equipped with welders operated by generators. Gasoline-powered generators are often used to charge 12-volt batteries. Occasionally, these batteries are connected to electric inverters to produce 100-volt current. Some Amish church districts allow businesses to run cash registers and typewriters in this way.
Most Amish believe that the number of devices that can be operated by a battery or generator is limited, and that careful use of such items poses minimal risk to community values. Moreover, these devices do not require a link to the outside world. Nevertheless, some Amish have tried to avoid even battery-powered items.
At the other end of the spectrum, a small minority of Amish have hooked into electrical power lines. These progressive Amish may still be considered Old Order because they use horse-drawn vehicles and have preserved traditional forms of worship and dress. Even these groups, however, restrict electrical use. The Amish community at Guthrie, Kentucky, for example, allows electricity but does not permit air conditioners or dishwashers. None of these groups allows members to have radios or TVs.
Do the Amish change?
It one expects the Amish to be a living museum -- a kind of religious Williamsburg, Virginia -- then many Amish practices will seem inconsistent. Those who accuse the Amish of hypocrisy, however, fail to understand the goals of the community.
Contrary to many popular accounts, the Amish do not oppose change. Members realize that they live differently from their 17th century ancestors who founded the group, or even from their parents or grandparents. The Amish do not regard anachronism as a virtue in itself.
At the same time, the Amish tend to be suspicious about inventions, trends, and fads from the outside world. They do not believe that hard work is to be avoided, but regard physical labor as healthy for body and soul. Just because an innovation makes life easier does not mean, from the Amish point of view, that the new way is desirable. Instead, the crucial issue is whether a particular invention or method will help to build community.
By restricting their use of technology, the Amish have been able to maintain a closeness of family and group life that the larger society has lost. The Amish believe that people need one another more than they need machines, and that many modern conveniences separate people rather than draw them together. A machine that allows one person to do a job that used to require several people may save time, but it prevents a sense of community from developing. The Amish also see folly in a lifestyle that avoids physical labor, then created exercise in the form of jogging or aerobics.