LANCASTER, Pa. — Conservative Amish groups have larger families than other Amish and their children are far less likely to leave the church, a trend expected to bring dramatic changes for them in the coming years, according to a book on the distinctive religious group published recently.
“The Amish,” a 500-page overview of the Christian followers known for traditional dress and the use of horse-and-buggy transportation, identified 40 distinct groups and a variety of permitted practices.
“They may all look alike on the outside from an external perspective, but the fact of the matter is there are over 2,000 different ways of expressing Amishness in terms of daily practice,” said co-author Don Kraybill, senior fellow at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
Researchers found more traditional Amish have families of nine or 10 children, while comparatively progressive families are just over half that size, suggesting some are using birth control.
“Couples in more liberal communities, shaped by the modern impulse to control the circumstances of one’s life, are more likely to practice family planning, whether by natural or artificial methods,” according to the book.
While many outsiders may view the Amish as monolithic, the study found sharp differences in such matters as civic engagement, farming practices and the use of modern technology.
At Lancaster Central Market, Amish woman Lydia King said she has seen differences even within her 30-family church group in New Providence, farmland about 12 miles from the busy county seat.
“I wouldn’t say one church is more traditional than another,” she said, tending a plant seedling stand last week. “It goes by the family.”
Amish are defined as using a horse and buggy, worshipping in their homes and speaking a German dialect. Local church groups of a few dozen families determine congregational lifestyle rules and there is no single authority that brings together the 2,056 churches in 30 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario.
When young people get to their late teens or early 20s, they must decide whether to remain in the church and adopt its austere rules. Researchers found more traditional Amish families experience defection rates of less than 6 percent, compared to half of the children of the most progressive Amish.
More conservative Amish tend to live in more secluded places, and their lifestyle restrictions can make the outside world seem distant and intimidating, Kraybill said. More progressive families lead lives not much different than Amish-type groups that permit cars, making it a shorter leap for their children to leave.
Reuben Lapp, working at a grass-fed beef stand in the Lancaster market, said his congregation is comparatively traditional, banning cellphones but allowing the use of landline phones. He said mass cultural depictions of Amish can be too simplistic.
“They take one thing and say, ‘That’s Amish,’” Lapp said. “Everybody’s different, even from one family to the next.”
Kraybill said he came to the same conclusion — some families follow rules strictly, while others tend to test the boundaries.
On traditional dairy farms, farmers might milk about a dozen cows head by head, while other Amish use mechanical means to maintain herds 10 times larger. The breakdown also is reflected in the use of outside drivers for transportation needs and whether the congregations prohibit telephone use or allow individuals to have cellphones.
Divisions also exist about the use of kerosene lamps on carriages as opposed to LED or flashing lights, indoor versus outdoor toilets, and whether children can access social media and other modern technology. Even their buggy designs can vary.
Researchers identified about 2,000 private Amish schools with total enrollment of roughly 55,000 children, the oldest in eighth grade. Data from two states, Indiana and Iowa, showed Amish students outperforming the state average in standardized tests.
The book and updated figures on Amish population were released ahead of a major international conference on the Amish and technology at Elizabethtown College, about 20 miles southeast of Harrisburg in Lancaster County, the traditional heartland of Amish farming in the United States.