In the heart of south-central Pennsylvania, there's a religious community that many in the United States are familiar with...but few understand. The Amish were in the spotlight in the mid-1980s, when a popular film called Witness, staring Harrison Ford, was released. That film is about a Philadelphia police officer who's forced to take refuge among the Amish...and to adopt their anti-modern lifestyle. But nearly 20 years later, most Americans still don't know why this Christian denomination is so opposed to the modern conveniences that few in the United States would ever choose to live without. Amish people really don't care if anyone understands them…or their lifestyle.
Intercourse, Pennsylvania is a small, but surprisingly busy town. The Old King's Highway runs east to west through Intercourse, and for many years, was the only way to travel between Pennsylvania's two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The road is still used by many residents of rural Lancaster County, who travel to Intercourse every day to buy supplies for their homes and farms.
Of course, not everyone who comes to Intercourse travels by car. Lancaster County is home to world's second-largest community of Old Order Amish. The largest is in nearby Ohio. These Protestant Christians are a novelty in twenty-first century America. They travel by horse and buggy, and refuse to operate any equipment that's motorized or requires electricity. They don't have phones or computers or even lightbulbs in their homes. Their clothing is plain…consisting only of dark, solid colors. And they won't even use zippers or buttons, because these accessories are considered to be vain. It's a lifestyle that fascinates many Americans, and every year, hundreds of people like Julie Lee travel to Lancaster County to learn about the Amish. "I really didn't know a lot about them," she said. "And in fact, we were talking about not so much who they are, but why they are. You know, why they are…how they're able to continue to live the way they do. And I've always found them, not strange necessarily, but different from me. And I was curious about them."
But while there are plenty of places in Lancaster County where visitors can go to learn about this religious denomination, these places aren't actually operated by members of the Amish order. That's because the Amish try to keep themselves removed from mainstream American society. They're in America, but they aren't of it. They pay taxes, because they're required to by law. But they don't vote or send their children to public school, and they also don't collect retirement benefits from the government, or participate in federal programs that provide medical care to older Americans.
Robert Allen is a Mennonite who works at the Amish Cultural Center in Intercourse. Mennonite theology is similar to that of the Amish, in that both groups are known as "Anabaptists" and insist that only adults can be baptized. Some Mennonites have also embraced the so-called "plain" lifestyle. Mr. Allen says these people live the way they do, because they feel modern American society distracts individuals from what's truly important. "There's no feeling among Anabaptist groups that technology, per se, is evil," he said. "However, sometimes it's not conducive to living a Christian lifestyle. For example, the Old Order Amish avoid electricity.
One of the earliest reasons given was that electric lighting disperses the family throughout the house, rather than have them congregating in the evenings into common rooms. Also, once you have electricity, you have the temptation for having radios and televisions and videos and other things that can bring unwanted things into your home."
99 percent of the 200,000 Amish in the world live in the United States. The other 1 percent live just across the border in Ontario, Canada. The Anabaptist movement began in Europe in the 16 century, but decades of persecution drove many Amish to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. That British colony guaranteed religious freedom to everyone. When they arrived, the Amish were farmers, much like everyone else at the time. And even as America became more industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Amish continued to earn their living from the land.
There are countless references to farming in the Bible, and the Amish believe that is the life God wants them to live. Robert Allen says that's why, as Pennsylvania has become increasingly urbanized, many Amish have had to move away. "The Amish population doubles every 20 years or so, and so there's always a need for more land, more farm land," said Robert Allen. "Farmland in this area is incredibly expensive, so there are a lot of new Amish colonies in areas where there weren't Amish before. 90 percent of all Amish settlements have been founded since the end of the Second World War."
And in the 21 different states where those new settlements are located, the Amish are, for the most part, accepted and admired. This hasn't always been the case. Pacifism is a primary component of Anabaptist theology, and during the Second World War, the Amish were scorned by many Americans for their refusal to fight. Even up until the early 1980s, their pacifism and anti-modern lifestyle were seen by many as intolerable.
But over the course of the last twenty years or so, technology has made life in America so fast-paced and complicated, that many are now drawn to the simplicity of the Amish way of life. They don't necessarily want to adopt it themselves, but they do want to understand, even if the Amish don't go out of their way to explain.