Covering diverse Amish lives

amishMeg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a thorough article recently on Amish beliefs and customs and their collision with local Wisconsin municipalities and state laws and regulations. I would cite the article as a good example of a reporter reaching out to learn about the beliefs and faith-based traditions of a group of people who are often not understood very well by the general public.

Jones also did a solid job explaining that this conflict comes down to religious freedom and whether state and local governments have the constitutional authority to override those freedoms. She also clearly spent a great deal of time with this story and includes many recent examples of local governments colliding with the Amish lifestyle.

It was the latest in a growing number of clashes between the Amish and governments in Wisconsin:

*An Amish man in Jackson County was fined $10,000 in March for failing to get a building permit. He was part of a small group of Amish farmers who did not get building permits because they say conforming to the state’s uniform dwelling code is against their beliefs.

*An Amish couple in Clark County was ordered last month to shut down their candy and jam business because they were running an unlicensed food processing establishment.

*A refusal by some Amish farmers to comply with the state’s livestock premises registration law — designed to quickly locate livestock herds in a disease outbreak — could lead to a showdown in court. Some Amish fear that if they register their farms, it could lead to the state requiring them to register their animals individually. They say that would be akin to “the number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation.

The culture collision might be due to the growth of Amish in places where municipalities are not accustomed to the group’s simple lifestyle that shuns electricity, phones and motor vehicles.

I doubt these types of incidents are unique to the state of Wisconsin. Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio are all known to have significant Amish populations.

A Google News search for the term “Amish” Thursday afternoon revealed a surprising number of articles about the Amish and their involvement in the American legal system.

In Kentucky, the American Civil Liberties Union has agreed to defend some Amish men who are charged with failing to display “slow-moving vehicle emblems on their horse-drawn buggies.” In Blair County, Pennsylvania, neighbors of an Amish family are asking a county judge to “reconsider his ruling over noise levels generated by the family’s sawmill and furniture shop.” In Long Prairie, Minnesota, an Amish man was hurt in an accident while he was driving his buggy.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently had to agonize over the decision of whether or not to run a photo of Amish related to a story of a tragic accident involving Amish traveling in automobiles to a funeral. As a result the photo editor took some time to learn more about the Amish community and their culture and wants readers to know about “the thought and research that is behind the decisions” made daily at the newspaper.

In covering these types incidents and the Amish in general, reporters should do some research their beliefs. They are hardly a unified group in terms of what they believe is right or wrong in their interactions with modern society. Amish may be hard for outsiders to distinguish from the Old Order Mennonites, Hutterites and Old German Baptist Brethren, but they are each distinct groups within the Anabaptist movement.

Within Amish communities there have also been many divisions. Groups are known to break-up over arguments on hat-brim width or a buggy’s color. The most resistant to change has been the Old Order Amish. As these cases head to court and as legislatures struggle with how to accommodate the religious beliefs of these groups, it will be interesting to see if officials highlight Amish who are not as resistant to change and are less committed to the traditional way of life that in many ways defines Amish.

Photo is of a traditional Amish buggy, Lancaster County, Pa., used under a license from Wikimedia Commons. This photo of a covered Amish buggy is instructive for understanding some of the divisions within the Amish communities. A buggy with a cover would not be as accepted by the some of the most traditional Old Order Amish.

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  • David Wayne

    Daniel, have you seen the articles on the blog of Tim Ferris called “Escaping the Amish?” Here’s part 1 and part 2. The lady tells a sad and sordid tale – I’m surprised I haven’t seen any reactions to this.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks for sharing that David. I’m not sure whether it’s representative of all Amish or of the various Anabaptist movements though. The Amish and Old German Baptist I’ve known have been good people. I lived with an Old German Baptist family for a month and was impressed with their lifestyle. Different from typical American consumerism that defines so much of our society.

  • pastordan

    Talk about case-in-point: buggies with grey tops belong to Amish families, while black buggies are as a rule from traditional Mennonite communities. And it just gets more complicated: covered wagons, like beards, are privileges of the married, and there are all manner of gradations and battles over safety equipment allowed by each individual community.

    The Lancaster Sunday News did an extensive series on Amish tangles with the law, by the way. It’s well worth reading if they haven’t hidden it in the paid archives.

  • Julia

    Speaking of Baptists and Anabaptists and newspapers:

    The Belleville News Democrat has had a series of letters to the editor on the subject beginning with a man’s claim that the current Baptist denomination in the US is not and never was part of Protestantism. This was in response to a pull-out section the paper did on the history of the different local churches, synogogues, and mosque and their respective faith or denomination’s first appearance in the area. The man objected to the Baptists being classified with the Protestants in the project. He claimed that Baptists derived from Anabaptists who were ancient and first appeared soon after Christ alongside the Catholics and Orthodox.

    A Baptist answered him in another letter by saying that Baptists are so Protestants and offshoots of Protestantism in England. Then all kinds of folks, and the original letter writer, started writing letters claiming all sorts of things about Baptists.

    What a perfect set-up for a local reporter to do an in-depth story. But to date the status and beginnings of Baptist Christianity is just being fought over in the letters section. It’s just like a blog. The unruly commenters have taken over the story.

  • Jennie Niles

    Researching the Amish and their entaglements with the law are quite complex.

    I am director of the upcoming documentary entitled First Amendment: Inside the Amish Swartzentruber sect.

    Our site is dedicated to this issue.

  • Stephen A.

    David beat me to the punch. The Tim Ferris blog piece (in two parts) on the Amish girl who left home and left her religion is quite moving but also raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. She’s actively blogging and responding to those who are questioning aspects of her account.

    From her blog posts, and from the examples we have here on this page, it’s clear that there’s simply no way to say “THE Amish.” There are many different branches and sects and they all have differing beliefs about how much they should interact with the outside world. For example, the girl’s father in the Ferris blog had electricity and a telephone in the barn and a gas-powered refrigerator in the house because they were part of a “liberal” branch that allowed such things.

    It’s a potential mine field for reporters seeking to accurately portray this or that branch of the Amish, and really does take time to get to know local Amish groups. Unfortunately, cuts in newsroom staffing won’t help that happen.

  • emily

    buggies with grey tops belong to Amish families, while black buggies are as a rule from traditional Mennonite communities.

    Maybe in your area, but not in mine. Here, the Amish buggies have black tops too (and slow-moving vehicles triangular reflectors). The distinguishing feature between the Amish and traditional Mennonite communities in this area is the color(s) of their clothing…

    Which really just goes to prove Daniel’s point that there is a lot of variation among the Amish. Media coverage of the Amish can be very, very tricky. I’ve seen stories that label traditional Mennonites as Amish and vice versa (oops), or that paint all Amish as believing the same things. But I think it’s worth the time for a reporter to take the time to fully investigate each local group’s beliefs and practices.

  • Michael

    I also wonder whether there needs to be a bit more skepticism by the press regarding the Amish and their legal issues. The Amish tend to be treated with gushing praise or naive wonderment. Ask people who live near the Amish and they often have much more skeptical and critical views of their neighbors.

  • dpulliam

    Yes, neighbors tend to be less tolerant of those who live next to them than reporters who don’t have to live next to them. Can you give some examples of gushing praise or naive wonderment?

  • Mollie

    It’s a bit old, but back in 2006, I analyzed this article about the Amish and sex abuse that appeared in Legal Affairs. Great piece of journalism.

  • Peggy

    When I began reading your post (dpulliam) I was planning to mention the recent fatal accident in STL which claimed 2 Amish lives, now, I believe. A number of Amish traditions were described in the STL PD to explain why the Amish, who are known to ride in buggies, were in a van on an interstate. [They hire out non-Amish van drivers for these long hauls. The group were en route to a funeral, sadly.] So far, the cause of the accident–a trucker slammed into stopped vehicles–has yet to be explained.

    Julia: I sort of followed the BND letters on Baptists as well. I was surprised that some one thought Baptists were not protestant. From our RC perspective, all Western non-Catholic Christians=Protestant. Happy reading.