Transcript of a video presentation by Paul Connor
Hello, I’m Paul Connor, reference specialist in the Local
History & Genealogy Reading Room at the Library of Congress.
I’m the Library’s expert in Amish Studies. The Library
documents many aspects of the American experience. Policy-makers
rely on the Library to provide background on our culturally diverse
people. If you have an interest in learning about Amish roots and
customs, the Library of Congress can help. The Library has collected
over 758 books, 117 dissertations, and thousands of articles on
various aspects of Amish community life—everything from farming
and health issues to buggies and beards.
The Amish and the Mennonites trace their heritage back to a group
known as the Swiss Brethren. Founded around 1523 in Zurich, Switzerland,
the Swiss Brethren were dissenters from the Reformed Church. The
Brethren were Anabaptists. About 170 years after the Swiss Brethren
were founded, a member of the church, Jacob Ammann, felt the Brethren
were getting too lax and getting too accommodated to the regular
society. So, he started a movement to have plainer dress, to have
foot-washing twice a year, and to be more distant from the world
Under Ammann’s leadership, the first Amish group formed
in 1693 in Switzerland. The Amish, like the Anabaptists, advocate
the tenet that baptism and church membership is for adults only.
They teach nonresistance. And they believe in the separation of
church and state.
From the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth
century, the doctrine that only adult believers should be baptized
was attacked as heresy. Adult baptism was punishable by death in
Bavaria, southern Germany, and Switzerland. In 1637, the Swiss
city of Zurich banished Anabaptists. In 1690, children of Anabaptist
marriages in Bern were denied their inheritance. In 1720, Bern
began branding Anabaptists. And in1806, Napoleon refused to recognize
the Anabaptists’ principle of nonresistance that prevented
them from undertaking military service.
Oppressed by king and countrymen, the Amish migrated from Switzerland,
Alsace, and southern Germany to North America. In 1730, they scouted
for land along the frontier in the forests of Berks County, Pennsylvania.
They settled there, and for the next twenty years the settlement
grew to one hundred Amish families.
In 1754, Indians attacked the settlement. They killed several
members of the Jacob Hostetler family, and took Jacob and one of
his sons captive. They were held for several years before they
made their way back to the Amish settlement. This was one of the
first instances of an Amish man telling his sons, “don’t
shoot at the Indians. Leave them alone, even though they are burning
our house and killing us.” It was nonresistance. So after
this attack, the Amish moved south into Lancaster County.
By 1776, they were farming in Lancaster County and Lebanon County.
They migrated west to Somerset County and to Mifflin County, and
then to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Over the course of ten generations,
the Amish have moved into twenty-five states and Ontario, Canada.
Early land grants have been published that tell the names of the
early Berks County settlers. These same names are still found today
in Lancaster. Most Amish can trace their ancestry back twelve generations
to the original settlers.
The Amish dress in distinctively plain clothes. The fabric is
usually dark in color and free of patterns. Within one community,
the style of the clothing is uniform for adults and children. Amish
folks will come to Lancaster from all over the United States to
attend meetings. You can tell right off a stranger is from Ohio:
his hat will be less formal; it won’t be as round and flat
as the straw hats are in Lancaster. It might have a crease in the
front, or a crease around the top. The suspenders won’t be
as broad, and they might have their latches, instead of being connected
directly to the trousers. He might have more buttons on his shirt,
and it might have a collar.
The conservative Old Order Amish distinguish themselves through
their physical appearance and dress. Men wear full beards and no
mustaches. They don’t wear mustaches because in the 1600s
soldiers would grow giant handlebar mustaches as a way of intimidating
their enemies. They wear full hats, no jewelry, no wristwatches,
and do not use belts. Amish women wear long dresses, capes around
their shoulders, and always wear aprons and a prayer cap. When
they go out in public, they put a bonnet over their prayer cap.
Amish dress distinguishes not only their geographical location,
but their conservative practices as well. The women from the Midwest
have very stiff hats. Their prayer caps are made of stiff gauze
and look like they were formed on a mold. The prayer caps from
Lancaster tend to be softer. On the young girls, they look like
big hearts made out of white material. The bonnets the women wear
in Lancaster tend to have long sides and cover the face. The more
conservative person covers more of their face. As people get more
liberal, their bonnets recede back towards their ears. In the Midwest
the bonnets are closer to the ears, and they are sewn differently
in the back.
Before young men get married they remain clean-shaven, but after
marriage they grow beards. In reading the wedding announcements
in the newspaper, you can often tell who are Amish from the names.
Like Mary King and Benuel Stoltzfus is probably not an Episcopalian
marriage: it’s probably an Amish couple. Marriage is highly
regarded in Amish society. When one spouse dies, it is common for
the other to remarry. Even people in their sixties and seventies
remarry. Usually, they marry in their early twenties. Most of the
time, they marry in the fall, when the crops are in: November and
December are the big marrying months. A wedding ceremony is usually
midweek, on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, because it’s
a lot of work to put on a wedding, and they don’t want to
work on the Sabbath, so they need time to set up and pull everything
apart afterwards. The wedding meal might consist of one hundred
chickens, several sides of beef, numerous hams, mashed potatoes,
and gravy. They have celery in jars, and forty pies, and five or
six kinds of cakes, but there’s no special wedding cake.
The woman often makes her own dress, usually blue, with a white
apron and scarf. The man usually buys a new black suit. They have
four young men, attendants to the groom, and four bridesmaids.
They don’t wear any special dress: just their ordinary Sunday
The typical Amish farmyard has a house, a barn, and the outbuildings,
all built around a little square. Things are very handy to the
family. The barns are quite large, because the Sunday meetings
are held in the family’s barn. You need a lot of room to
have all the people in the district get together to attend the
Within the family, and with their Amish neighbors, the Amish speak “Pennsilfaanisch
Deitsch.” Pennsylvania Dutch is a German dialect, not Dutch.
Most adult Amish can read German and English. English is the language
of business, spoken to the “Englischers,” as the non-Amish
people are called.
The Amish used to attend public schools, but in 1972, the U.S.
Supreme Court, in Yoder v. Wisconsin, affirmed the right
of Amish parents to educate their offspring in their own rural
tradition, so they were able to start their own parochial schools.
Today, most Amish children in the United States attend Amish schools
in their neighborhood. They go through the eighth grade. Amish
schools are set up to teach cooperation, learning the basics, and
preparing to be a competent farmer, carpenter, or homemaker.
The Amish go to church every other Sunday. Church usually starts
at nine o’clock in the morning and lasts till 12:30 or 1.
The bishop and ministers will confer about who’s going to
give what sermon. The congregation will start singing the “Lob
Lied,” a hymn of praise. That’s usually the first hymn.
They’ll sing from the Ausbund, which is the oldest
Protestant hymnal, from the 1500s.
For travel, the Amish use a horse and buggy, or walk. Their buggies
are different colors, based on their geographic location. In Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, the Amish have gray buggies, and the Mennonites have
black ones. In Big Valley, Pennsylvania, they have white and yellow
buggies. If the Amish must travel a considerable distance, they
hire a taxi, or ride a bus.
The Amish settlements are divided up into districts, which might
correspond to a parish in a regular church. The Amish districts
are about a mile in each direction, depending on the density of
the settlement. Settlements contain about thirty families. Each
family has seven children or so; that’s just about enough
people to fit into a barn for a church service during the summer.
Every other week, the services are held at a different house. Once
a year, relatives and friends come over and fix up the house and
barn, because they’re going to have a lot of people meeting
in that house. Sometimes the father and his grown sons will live
across the street, or down the lane from each other. They try to
settle near their kinfolks so that they can help out in planting
The Amish life of simplicity and independence are part of the
unique and diverse fabric of American society. The Amish provide
example of good work ethic and strong family ties. Their peace-loving
attitude and traditional ways remind us to respect diversity as
an integral part of our freedom. Come to the Library of Congress
to discover more about this fascinating group of Americans.