Amish 101 ~ An Introduction to Amish Fiction from Cindy Woodsmall

The other day, I saw someone on Twitter say, “Wait, Amish fiction is a real thing?” And it occurred to me that there are still a lot of people who haven’t read this genre.

Many of you reading this are quite familiar with stories about the Amish—it’s been one of the most popular genres of Inspirational Fiction for over fifteen years. Sometimes people ask me why. Why write it? Why do readers enjoy it?

I believe there are relatable universal truths that Amish fiction often explores in ways other genres struggle. Let’s talk about some core Amish beliefs and how they translate into good stories.

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free… ~Simple Gifts, a Shaker song from 1848

For centuries it’s been a core belief of the Amish that living simple is vitally important, and simple is also known as living Plain. What does it mean to live Plain? The Plain People have their roots in the Protestant Reformation that swept through Europe in the 1500s. Now, members of the Protestant group known as Amish are particularly prevalent in the United States.

Today, there are many sects of Amish, just as there are many denominations among the Protestants. There are also Plain Mennonite, Dunkers, and Quakers that fall under living Plain. Those who are considered Plain wear simple, plain clothing that we can easily recognize as “Amish or Mennonite,” but that’s often where the similarities end.

Amish life and the sacrifices people make to live that lifestyle is a great backdrop for exploring the push and pull, the love-hate relationship we have with modern-day life. That fascinating backdrop and my friendships with Plain folk starting from childhood are my inspirations for writing novels about the Amish.

Since we can’t cover all the sects of Amish in this article, we’ll focus on the ways of Old Order Amish. That’s where most of my research, personal connections, and novels are centered—Old Order Amish.

Old Ways and the Ordnung: The Old Order Amish aim to uphold the Old Ways. The Old Ways are rooted in how life and faith was lived long before the modern age. The Ordnung is mostly a verbal set of rules the Amish live by. The Ordnung is passed down from one generation to the next. In order to join the Amish faith, each person must agree to keep the Ordnung and agree to yield to the ministers’ judgement calls on all matters as they arise before being baptized.

Ministers: There are usually three ministers for each district, although all three may not be at each service. Each district has a bishop, deacon, and at least one preacher. The positions are untrained and unpaid ones, and the positions are only open to men. The congregation, men and women, has a say in who is worthy of that spot. Two or three men will be chosen, and the next step is handled through a type of “lot.” An established minister, usually a bishop from another district, will write a Scripture verse on a piece of paper and hide it in a hymnbook. The candidates will choose a hymnbook and whoever picked up the book with the Bible verse in it, that person will fill the position. The positions are burdensome, and few men welcome it, but they honor the Old Ways and accept the position. One of the ministers takes time to teach Instruction to the Amish young adults who are interested in joining the Amish.

Instruction: Young adults, usually between 18 and 24, join the Amish. Joining means numerous things, including a profession of faith and being baptized into the faith. But equally important in the journey of becoming Amish, one must go through Instruction. There are eighteen “lessons,” usually covered during nine classes taught by a minister. The minister will teach young people about the Old Ways, the Ordnung, and the faith of the ancestors. Young people must agree to keep those ways. Once a young person goes through Instruction, their period of rumschpringe ends, and they are to be a settled, faithful member of the Amish church.

Rumschpringe: The word means running around. The true purpose of the rumschpringe is threefold: give freedom for an Amish young person to find an Amish mate, to give extra freedoms during the young adult years so each person can decide whether to join the faith, and to provide a bridge between childhood and adulthood. A weekly gathering for those in their rumschpringe is singings.  

Singings: Each week has planned singings for single Amish only, although there are always chaperones present. These singings usually take place on either a Saturday or Sunday evening. The singing may take place in a home or barn or even outside when weather permits. Wherever the singing takes place, the young men sit on one side and the young women on the other side. After the singing, during refreshment time, or around a bonfire or on a hayride, or just gathering in groups to talk, they are free to mingle. The chaperones are aiming to have a watchful eye while also giving space to the young people. But if a young man and woman want time alone, they’ll need to go for a buggy ride. This is often an endearing practice to us and to Amish parents, where, before the singing, Amish young man grooms the horse and cleans up a buggy to drive to the gathering, with the hope of impressing his crush. There is usually an open invitation for Amish youth from other districts to come to any singing.  

Districts: Wherever the Amish live, they divide their congregations into districts. Each district has three ministers: a bishop, a deacon, and a preacher. A bishop is usually over two or more districts. A good size for a district is twenty-five to thirty families. When a district has forty families, they begin the process of establishing a new district. The reason for this is practicality. Too many families in a district puts a burden on the local Amish school and the home church meetings.

Church: Old Order Amish have no dedicated church building the way many other Christian churches do. They hold their meetings every other Sunday in one of the member’s homes, occasionally in a barn or large workshop. The service lasts up to three hours and includes preaching, scripture reading, and acapella hymn singing. After each church gathering, they share a simple, family-style meal.

Typically, before each new year begins or soon after, the members in the district establish a rotation of where the church meetings will be held. This gives the host plenty of time to prepare for the event. Because there are usually 25 families per district and church is held every other Sunday, each family hosts the gathering only once per year. Weeks and days beforehand, women clean and prepare food.

The Saturday beforehand, men move furniture and set up benches. The benches are set up similar to our Englisch church settings with an aisle separating two sides of the room. Men will sit on one side and women on the other.

There’s a horse-drawn bench wagon that carries Amish-made benches to the home that will have the meeting. Oftentimes, men must move furniture out of the home in order to make room for that many adults and their children. The design of the Amish-made benches is brilliant, and some of those benches will be turned into tables for the meal once the service is over. One aspect that seems to make church days and other gatherings easier is the comfort of everyone wearing the same styles of clothes.

Clothes: Women sew most of the clothes worn by Old Order Amish. An exception to this is often winter coats and sweaters. Both men and women dress Plain. Their clothing is so distinct, we know when we’re looking at someone who is Plain, although we may be unsure which sect of Plain they’re a part of. The rules of Plain dress have changed a bit over many years. It’s a slow process that takes a lot of deliberation before church leaders agree on any new rules. Most often, the changes are for practical purposes, such as making nursing easier for mothers or an agreement to allow larger buttons on their black coats.

For everyday wear, Old Order Amish women wear a modest cape dress made of solid-colored fabric. A black apron covers the dress. A bib black apron is for everyday life, but an apron worn from the waist down is for something a little more special, like going to the local Amish school to visit. The black apron is practical. A woman’s day is filled with work—from tending to children, cooking, gardening, canning, and much more. When the apron gets dirty, she can put on a fresh one without having to change her dress. They sew the aprons with a hidden pocket for convenience of carrying items without the “flashiness” of a pocket.

Old Order Amish generally don’t use visible buttons. Still, many women use a very small white or black button at the back of the dress’s neck. Others use a hook and eye or snap for this. Amish women also use straight and safety pins to secure their clothing.

Men wear dark colored pants—blues, gray, or black with suspenders. The pants usually have pockets for practical reasons. They wear solid-colored, button-up shirts, with or without collars. Their dress coats are straight cut with no lapels. Men wear a black felt hat in cool weather and a straw wide-brimmed hat in warm weather.

The head-coverings are as distinct as the hairstyles.

Hairstyles: Women typically don’t cut their hair. If they do cut it, it’s done to remove some of the weight. They part their hair down the center and pull it back in a bun.

They wear a prayer Kapp over their head, often made of white organdy, and they fasten it by using a straight pin woven through the prayer Kapp and their hair. If they aren’t wearing a white prayer Kapp, you’ll see them in a black head-covering.

Men’s hair is usually a bowl cut that is kept above or to the middle of their ears. The Amish don’t wear jewelry of any kind. Instead of wearing a wedding band, Amish men grow a beard once married, but shave the mustache. The reason for no mustache is mustaches were associated with the military. As peacemakers and non-violent people, they had no desire to appear similar to military men. Single Amish men keep their face shaven until they wed. Once married, even if they’re later widowed, an Amish man keeps his beard.

Travel: Old Order Amish don’t drive trucks or cars. They drive a horse and carriage (buggy), but they can hire a driver, and they did this long before Uber existed.

Education: School-age children usually attend a one-room schoolhouse with an Amish schoolteacher. We use the word “usually” because a newly established district may need to homeschool their children or allow them to attend public school for a year or two until they can build a school and hire an Amish teacher. Amish children graduate at the end of eighth grade.

Electricity: There are strict rule concerning the world’s grid of wires for electricity and telephone not connecting to the home. Old Order Amish often use propane powered refrigerators and stoves. They use candles, kerosene lanterns, and propane tanks for lighting.

Phones: Although wires can’t connect to the home, the Amish build phone shanties and telephone wires can be attached to and within that small building. A phone shanty is similar to a wooden phone booth, usually a little bitter so they can have a chair while on the phone. The phone shanty often sits near the barn or a shed. In some communities, one phone is shared by numerous families. Amish businessmen (and women) are sometimes allowed to have cell phones, depending on their district’s rules, but the phones are supposed to be turned off before they enter their home. The leaders want their people to be successful in their businesses, and often modern businesses require (wireless) phones, but the leaders also want to protect family time.

The Arts: In the past, Amish once believed that most depictions of God’s creation were idol worship. Drawing nature, like birds or cows, was forbidden. Drawing the faces of people was forbidden. Dolls were allowed because it nurtured maternal feelings in girls, but until the last few decades, even dolls had to be faceless so that playtime didn’t cross over into idol worship. The edict against depicting faces, whether in woodwork, sketching, painting, or dolls lasted until the early 1990’s.

Today, Amish aren’t supposed to show their faces in photographs, though many districts are more lenient in other areas. However, the Amish-made faceless doll is still a very popular item for girls and tourists.

Amish Businesses: Common professions for Amish men are farming, carpentry (like cabinetry, furniture building), construction (like building cabins, which is what Jesse does Yesterday’s Gone). Although homes do not allow grid wiring for electricity or phones, Amish businesses make certain allowances when necessary. But Amish most often rely on other forms of power when possible: generators, rechargeable batteries, solar power.

There was a time when Amish men made a living in one of the vocations listed above, but life in the US has changed a lot over the decades, and it’s affected farming, construction, and carpentry for the men. More Amish men are holding “Englisch” jobs, like Eliza’s father in Yesterday’s Gone works in a local feed mill.

Before a woman is married, she is free to work in a store, restaurant, bakery, or be an Amish schoolteacher. She can clean Englisch homes, sew quilts, or work with textiles (weaving on a loom and such). There are other vocations Amish women enjoy too, but before her wedding day, she’s expected to quit any full-time or part-time jobs and put taking care of her husband and home first. The rules for women working outside the home are easing some, but careers are frowned on until the children are older. Still, women are allowed to have something on the side—like babysitting in their home, an occasional cleaning of an Englisch home, and road-side stands selling produce from their garden are a few ways they can bring in money without having a set job.

Dating and Marriage as Old Order Amish: In many books, there’s a focus on courting or dating. When Amish are fifteen or sixteen, they join a youth group. The parents of the youth put a lot of effort into providing many community events for their young people, such as singings and planned gatherings at various homes that include having bonfires and playing outdoor or indoor games. These functions encourage visitors from other districts, and during these gathering Amish young people socialize and meet potential dates.

Divorce: The Old Ways, Ordnung, and social norms do not allow for divorce. The Amish have successful, set ways to help couples who are struggling. Still, an occasional divorce will take place. If one spouse leaves another, the one who stays Amish is expected to remain single until their ex-spouse dies.

Birth control: The church encourages and honors having a large family. But many Amish couples are wise to the natural patterns of fertility and can use that to help plan accordingly. Even so, most Amish families have six or more children.

Holidays: The Amish celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter, just not in the “fancy” ways that we often do as Englischers. For Christmas, they don’t put up trees, but they make a lot of pretty foods and some still honor the long tradition of making cards for each other. Many enjoy making simple but festive center pieces using nature and candles. They exchange gifts, often homemade ones. Children get toys, just not ones that embrace super heroes and fast cars.

Misconceptions: One misconception is that Amish women make everything from scratch. They certainly have the ability to do so, but to make time to do so is separate issues. In order to make life and motherhood easier, Amish women are allowed to use modern mixes and food conveniences. If you live near the Amish, you’ll see them in the grocery store despite also having big gardens with lots of produce and canning a lot of foods.

Why write Amish novels? There are so many reasons, but one that stands out is the connection we share. All of us experience a tug of war in our inner man as we try to navigate modern times while being faithful in all that matters and also carving out time to become our unique selves. We practice trying to live free while thriving within healthy boundaries. The Amish aim to navigate modern times while holding on to the Old Ways, but they can’t always make their inner man fit inside the box their community holds dear. They want to. Sometimes they don’t want to. Those places are where stories get interesting, because we can see ourselves in that same but totally different tug of war.

All of us must make sacrifices of what we will and won’t allow in our lives, and those decisions can benefit us or cost us dearly. Amish life is an endearing and heartrending reminder of all we hold dear.

Yesterday’s Gone releases August 30, 2022.