Philadelphia Feature


The Pennsylvania Dutch

The country's largest and oldest settlement of Plain people—more than 85,000 people in more than 41 Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren sects—makes Lancaster County their home. Collectively, the sects are known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Despite their name, they aren't Dutch at all, but descendants of German and Swiss immigrants who came to the Lancaster area to escape religious persecution. Because of a misunderstanding of the word Deutsch, meaning "German," they became known as the "Dutch."

The Mennonite movement, named after its leader, Dutch Catholic priest Menno Simons, began in Switzerland in the early 16th century, the time of the Reformation. This radical religious group advocated nonviolence, separation of church and state, adult baptism, and individual freedom in choosing a religion. In 1710 eight families led by Mennonite bishop Hans Herr accepted William Penn's invitation to settle in Lancaster County. In 1693 Swiss Mennonite bishop Jacob Amman, whose stricter interpretation of church tenets had attracted a following, broke off from the movement and formed his own group, the Amish. Like the Mennonites, the Amish came to live in Lancaster County.

Lancaster County has the second-largest Amish community in the country, with an estimated 22,000 Old Order Amish. That the number of Amish has doubled in the past two decades suggests that theirs is still a viable lifestyle. The eight Amish, 24 Mennonite, and nine Brethren groups differ in their interpretations of the Bible, their use of technology, the value they place on education, their use of English, and their degrees of interaction with outsiders. Brethren and Mennonite groups use modern conveniences more than Old Order Mennonites and Amish sects do, particularly the Old Order Amish, who shun technology.

The Amish religion and way of life stress separation from the world, caring for others of the faith, and self-sufficiency. The Amish, who reject compulsory school attendance and military registration, do pay taxes but they don't pay social security nor do they accept social-security benefits or purchase life or property insurance. Old Order Amish send their children to one-room schoolhouses with eight grades to a room. They avoid public schools to prevent the exposure of their children to the influence of "outsiders." Though Amish students study many of the traditional subjects, they learn less about science and technology. The Supreme Court has ruled that Amish children need not attend school beyond the eighth grade, after which students learn agriculture, building trades, and domestic skills at home.

Dress and grooming symbolize each person's role in Amish society. Men must begin to grow a beard upon marriage, and they wear several different styles of hats to distinguish their age, status, and their religious district. Amish women wear full-length dresses, capes, and aprons. Those who are baptized wear white organdy caps and don't cut their hair.

It's impossible to miss the Amish if you're traveling in Lancaster County. They, and their horses and buggies, are everywhere, even on the major routes. The Amish often sell quilts and other crafts from their homes. Any Lancaster County visitor center will be able to give you a map that marks the locations of some of the larger of these retail operations.

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