, Newburyport, MA

January 2, 2013

A trip back to the 1700s

As I See It
Robert Campbell

---- — A recent church-sponsored bus trip from Newburyport to Lancaster, Pa., was a return to a “scene” that had changed in some ways for me, but in another was a trip to a bygone era, never to change.

I graduated in 1953, 60 years ago, from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster and returned only for special occasions. Today’s visit by bus through Amish and Mennonite farm communities would not have happened 60 years ago. The two sects were very private and frowned on intruders whom they refer to as “the English.” They choose, in plain words, “to be in the world, but not of it.”

But the outside world wanted to know about the people who were without what many think of as the necessities of life: cars, electricity, microwave ovens, computers, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. This has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to see for themselves how these people differ from themselves, but please do not take pictures of the Amish. They do not believe in “graven images,” in effect becoming idols, which is anathema to their Christian beliefs.

For a proper background of both sects, we must go back in history 600 years. Mennonites are referred to as the Left Wing of the Protestant Revolution. They are descendants of Menno Simon (1496-1561), a Dutch priest who left the Roman Catholic Church and converted through a personal study of the Bible and Martin Luther’s writings.

He rejected infant baptism, holding that a person must make that decision as an adult; as a result, he and his followers became known as Anabaptists, but more commonly Mennonites. Their movement spread from Switzerland, Germany, Holland and France. Wherever they went, they were persecuted for their beliefs, in which they held that the Bible was the inspired word of God.

The Amish also had their beginnings in Switzerland. By 1693, a young Mennonite minister, Jacob Amman, felt that the church was departing from Biblical practice. A return to stricter applications was emphasized by him. Eventually, the church divided and the Amman followers became known as the Amish. They too believed in the Bible, but held to infant baptism.

Both groups welcomed William Penn’s invitation to come to Pennsylvania (Penns Woods) where they could live in peace and enjoy religious freedom. The Amish came to Lancaster County in the early 1760s, the Mennonites soon following and establishing such towns as: Mannheim, Lititz, Ephrata, New Holland, Rheem and Strasburg. This distinguishes them from our own Essex County with English names: Newbury, Georgetown, Rowley, Amesbury and Salisbury.

The Amish of Lancaster County can be identified by a number of observable features. They drive black horse-drawn carriages, use mules and horses to pull farm equipment in the fields, use gasoline or diesel to power farm equipment, but no electricity to light their homes, hold worship services in their homes, have only one-room schools to educate their children, but only to the eighth grade. Amish men wear suits of dark-colored fabric, wear black or straw-brimmed hats and let their beards grow. Amish women wear dresses of solid-colored fabric with caps and aprons and usually a shawl in cold weather.

The Amish help each other as the need arises. They do not depend on government subsidies or welfare and are exempt from Social Security. A family will lend support to their married offspring by building on an extra wing to their homes and will do the same for aged parents, as they have no retirement communities or assisted living quarters.

Lancaster County has approximately 30,000 Amish. Due to the scarcity of farm land, they are looking to other counties as well as states, such as Colorado. Ohio also has 30,000 and Indiana is third in Amish population with about the same number.

Mennonites have blended into society quietly and socially. They worship in their own, as well as outside, churches. Their children attend public schools and their own schools, including high schools and have established five colleges across the nation. In Lancaster County, there are approximately 26,000 Mennonites. Women wear a head covering, usually a linen cap, and conventional clothes; the men are clean-shaven and wear conventional clothes. Mennonites use electricity for heating and cooking, unlike the Amish.

We stopped at several Mennonite shops and found them bustling to provide homemade quilts, cheese, candy and baked goods, but sadly many of their “trinkets” sold in their shops are made in China.

The Amish farm community lives as they did in the 1700s, relying on their faith to carry them through life. The outside world has no place in their lives. One of our group had an opportunity to talk with a young Amish girl about their culture. He asked a number of questions about her life and future. They had a most amiable discussion that ended with her comment, “It’s all in His hands.”


Robert D. Campbell, an essayist who lives in Newburyport, believes that a sense of humor is essential.