Lancaster County in Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest communities of people of the Amish and Mennonite faiths. Their population has now reached some 30,000 people, with 10,000 having already left the area to spread their faiths. Now they have communities in 29 of the 50 US states.
Lisa and I spent yesterday in Amish country and tried to gain some understanding of their faiths and lives. We rode in a typical horse-drawn buggy, we visited a working Amish dairy farm during milking time, we chatted with Amish children and we were fortunate enough to meet Levi, a Mennonite.
Both faiths are similar yet different.
The Amish and Mennonites in Lancaster County share many of the same Christian beliefs. This is not surprising as both groups grew out of the Anabaptist movement which arose in 1525 in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Protestant Reformation movement brought on by Martin Luther. They left for the New World to escape religious persecution in Europe.
Levi explained that Mennonite and Amish beliefs are based upon the same simplicity of faith and practice as lived by the early Christian church; the difference between the two groups is how the beliefs are practiced and lived.
Mennonites tend to be more tolerant of technology and the outside world than are the Amish who generally forbid higher education, dress in plain clothes, refrain from the use of electricity and mechanical transport, instead riding in horse-drawn buggies.
It was fascinating to learn that the Amish church began with a split in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish. Mennonites are named after Menno Simons.
At the Amish farm, we saw cows being milked by suction equipment powered by a vacuum created by diesel power. The milking parlour was lit by one simple lantern and the process involved all the family’s children. Even the youngest, just four the previous day, knew his job. It was a real team effort.
The children noticed my accent and were keen to find out where I came from. The UK, Britain and England all helped them understand but their knowledge of world geography was not so good as they could not tell Levi where various European countries are situated. Amish children are educated to the age of 15 but not any older. “No high school or college,” Levi said.
To ride in a traditional Amish buggy hauled by Kate, a 12-year-old horse, was a great experience while to learn a few facts about their faiths and lifestyles was a real privilege. Whatever you feel about those, we must all admire the strength of their ancestors in relocating to gain religious freedom and the strength they still show in their commitment to the old ways they have been taught and they, in turn, teach to their children.
Pictures: Top, Kate pulls our traditional Amish buggy, driven by Mennonite Levi, across a covered bridge. Inset, on the Amish dairy farm, the farmer works hard to milk his cows. Note the single lantern for light.