Amish do not own or operate automobiles
Outside observers find Amish use of the horse-and-buggy puzzling. Amish refusal to drive or own cars can seem particularly unusual in an automobile-obsessed culture. Yet what may seem archaic to the rest of us is a conscious decision by the Amish, based on a few important principles. They include:
- slowing the speed of life-the carriage acts as a brake on the pace of life
- preserving family and community-easy auto travel can fragment modern families
- maintaining distance from the world-choosing the horse-and-buggy means consciously choosing transportation not “of” the world
- symbolic value-the carriage, like Plain clothing and the Pennsylvania German language, is a marker of “Amishness”
The Amish Buggy as transportation
Opting for such a slow form of transportation means forgoing the speed and convenience of the automobile. Yet the Amish don not choose the buggy as a manner of self-punishment. This approach to transportation, as with other technologies, is based in the idea that accepting every technology can be harmful to a family, community, and church.
Amish base their interpretation of Christianity in living out Christ’s beliefs in close community. They see ownership of automobiles-which allow travel at a moment’s notice, and provide easy access to cities, typically considered by Amish to be places of sin and temptation-as hazardous to that vision.
The automobile represents freedom and mobility. Yet the Amish see the open road as more threatening than liberating. Relying on the horse-and-buggy, with its range of about 20 miles, physically limits Amish mobility, helping to keep families and communities close.
Do Amish think cars are immoral?
Some observers misinterpret the Amish stance on automobiles, supposing the Amish see them, like other modern technologies, as evil. Some find it hypocritical that Amish accept rides or hire “Amish taxis” to take them places while refusing to own or drive cars themselves.
Yet Amish do not consider car ownership or usage to be immoral in and of itself. In fact, they see practical value in the automobile, which is why they use them selectively. They simply are concerned about what unrestricted access to automobiles can do to a community and family.
Therefore, Amish do not ban car use outright, because they see it as a necessity in certain cases. Some Amish business owners, such as carpenters, depend on the automobile transportation that an English employee might provide.
Selective use in this manner is often inconvenient (often requiring planning a day or more ahead) and expensive (numerous individuals in Amish communities make a full-time living from driving the Amish), thus discouraging overuse.
Some Amish groups interpret the use of cars more strictly, however. Swartzentruber Amish, for example, only accept rides in emergencies, which compels them to use public transportation when visiting other communities. This also limits the businesses they can engage in, restricting carpentry crews, for example, to working within horse-and-buggy range.
Symbolic role of the Horse-and-Buggy
The carriage also plays an important symbolic role. Amish realize the importance of the buggy—like plain clothing and the Pennsylvania German language—as a marker of identity. Replacing the buggy with the car would not only mean forging closer ties with the world, it would mean discarding a symbol partially responsible for the strong sense of Amish identity.
Without visible symbols marking them as separate, the danger of drift would be greater. Amish feel that true Christians should not follow the ways of the world, and holding fast to the buggy is one way that they distinguish themselves in a world obsessed with newness and fads.
Amish buggies may vary in their color and design, but share the common characteristic of being simple, unadorned, and horse-drawn. Widely recognized, the Amish buggy embodies Amishness in a way that a national flag denotes one’s patriotic alliance, or a sports uniform declares allegiance to a particular team.
The buggy is not only a literal brake on the pace of life, but a symbolic reminder of the Amish charter to be “in the world, but not of the world”. This easily-seen visual marker denotes the Amish as different, for all the world, Amish, and non-Amish alike, to see.
For further information, see:
Plain Buggies: Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren Horse-Drawn Transportation, Stephen Scott
On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, Donald B. Kraybill and Carl Desportes Bowman
Looking for more good reading on the Amish? Check out our list of best Amish books.