Do Amish live in Australia? One family is being described as such in a major profile in the Sydney Morning Herald. The McCallums live in the countryside of the Australian island of Tasmania. Gregory and Bethany, ages 41 and 42 respectively, have eight children, and live in a way that resembles the Amish – dressing plainly, using horse-drawn vehicles, and forgoing public electricity and much technology.
Until about ten years ago they lived an otherwise “modern” life, running a movable poultry structure business. At first description their conversion seems to have been driven first and foremost by tech aversion (others have done similarly – see Eric Brende’s book Better Off for an example of one person’s adoption of a plain lifestyle driven by concern over technology).
Gregory had something of an ephiphany while reading Henry and the Great Society, a tome published in the late 60s described as popular among Amish and Mennonites, which tells the story of American farmer whose simple peaceful life is gradually upended after public electricity and its accompanying technologies come to the farm. This led them in a plain “Amish” direction.
But there also is religious conviction in this family’s story, which gives them more of a claim to an “Amish” life than those who simply wish to live deliberately through limiting use of technology:
Her parents were Baptist Pentecostal and she was home-schooled with American conservative religious texts in Newcastle, NSW, and on a farm in the South Australian town of Laura, 222 kilometres north of Adelaide. Bethany became more devout than her parents, believing – to her mother’s consternation – that the Bible instructs women to cover their hair.
Gregory, meanwhile, grew up 30 minutes north of Laura on a farm at Booleroo Centre, lost his dad to cancer at 16, fell into hard partying and became a fervent Christian at 21. When the couple married a year later, an acquaintance told them about the Kauffmans, an evangelical Amish-Mennonite family from Alabama who had moved to Brisbane.
They were the first Christian family the McCallums had met in which the women wore a scarf on their head (otherwise they were pretty liberal: they drove cars and used the internet). In 2004, the McCallums joined the Kauffmans’ new church, eventually settling in Gympie. Eight years later, they went it alone in Scottsdale.
The McCallums have apparently had several families who attempted to join them, but no one has been able to stick. But can you be Amish living as a solitary family?
“To be truly Amish, you really need to be part of a community,” says the Reverend Mark Hurst, a pastoral worker for the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand. “In the US, an Amish district would have at least 10 to 15 families.” In Australia, he says, we’ve only had a few “lone wolf” Amish families, mostly American or Canadian immigrants.
Amish life happens in church community, and to have regular church services, ministry is needed. In the past, when fledgling communities have been started in remote places in the US, Amish from other settlements would visit them so they would be able to have at least semi-regular church services. Without that support and that religious element, it’s hard to live a fully Amish life as Hurst notes.
The McCallums live a frugal lifestyle, spending about $60 per weekly shopping trip, and operate a roadside stand selling produce, canned items and baked goods, described as their main source of income.
How does this family use technology? In a lot of ways, its sounds not at all unlike how many Old Order Amish families would approach tech:
Gregory burrows into his pocket for a navy handkerchief and wipes his glasses. He’s a thinker, a questioner: part-farmer, part-philosopher. And he needs to be. He’s not against technology but, like the Amish, assesses everything on its merits: is it good for his faith and family? He allows some of the fruits of progress: a petrol-powered lawnmower, a petrol motor on the clothes washer (“A little motor for my wife is just a good thing to have,” he says). There’s an infrequently used diesel generator for the welder, grinder and drill, and a big diesel pump for vegetable irrigation. But, of course, there’s no TV, because its depictions of violence, adultery and parental disrespect represents “the breakdown of our moral fibre”. There are no mobile phones, which Gregory happily discarded, but there’s a landline in the shed. The internet is also not allowed because of the risk of children seeing its “ungodly filth” (pornography). But Gregory and Bethany go online at the local library, often to order what they need.
They in fact may even be considered more austere technologically, as it’s later noted they have neither a fridge nor freezer. Their car, which they held onto for some time, was sold in 2016.
Driven by religious conviction?
As for their reasons for living as they do, the piece seems to first emphasize more worldly reasons, such as self-reliance, family life, a healthy lifestyle, and a drive to anti-consumerism.
But the family also seems driven by genuine religious conviction – there are multiple mentions of hymn-singing and a description of the nightly Bible reading. In one passage Bethany discusses her desire to live a “godly life” and have a very traditional submissive female role…in turn the writer describes her words as “jarring” and feeling like “my poor inner feminist is having a seizure of some sort.”
They’ve also been trying to get recognition and spiritual support from Amish:
Gregory says he’s working towards getting spiritual guidance and accountability from an Amish group, probably in the US; and how they’d like to build a community of like-minded families. Earlier in the day, he’d taken a phone call he’d been waiting a month for. It was from an American man who, like him, turned Amish mid-life. Gregory wanted to see how he was going. “The fellowship of stubbed toes [in dark houses],” Bethany calls it. Through Anabaptist networks, Gregory has found several men like him, but communication is difficult. He writes letters (“It takes 23 days for a letter to get to Kentucky!”), then the men often have to drive to a community phone to call him. This is the genius of Facebook groups, I think. If they accepted the internet, newly Amish people could share tips on where to get the best butter-churners with a finger-swipe.
Sadly, the McCallums’ efforts to build an Amish community have so far failed. One family – the ones who joyously destroyed their phone on the ferry – tried for a year, near Launceston. But going carless was a stretch, and they returned to Victoria. Another family planning to move asked, last-minute, if the horse and buggy was a must. Yes, said Gregory. They didn’t come. Another family moved up the road from the McCallums. But, despite promising to go without the car, after a year they just couldn’t. Gregory, pained, doesn’t want to seem exclusionary, but he’s been clear. He wants a horse-and-buggy church. “It’s led to a strained relationship between us,” he says. The families no longer drop into each other’s places for tea or fellowship (worship) on Sundays. “We see them on the roads,” he says. “We wave at each other.”
They do fellowship with a plain-dressing conservative Mennonite church of around a dozen families, founded by Canadians outside the city of Launceston in 2010.
Amish or not (…yet)?
So are the McCallums Amish? It’s probably more accurate to describe them as a plain Anabaptist or Anabaptist-ish group at this point, for reasons including their dress (see Gregory’s mustache and the female family members’ dress styles), lack of a local church community and lack of fellowship relationships with other Old Order Amish.
Perhaps at some point they will be able to achieve that–but will probably need to increase their numbers, add at least a couple more families to their community, and have ministers ordained by another group of Amish so they can have regular church services, given their vast distance from any other Old Order Amish church.
That question aside, this is a pretty remarkable look at a family living a plain lifestyle in a culture with relatively few plain people, on a sparsely-populated island on the other side of the world. Worth reading in full.