5 Insights From Swartzentruber Amishman Sam Shetler

I didn’t plan on this becoming a series, but we’ve had a nice run of articles lately with Amish people sharing their lives and beliefs (see posts on Indiana Amishman John Gingerich and Illinois Amishman Reuben Mast).

I’ve enjoyed them, and hopefully you have too. It would be good to get a female Amish perspective soon, but men tend to do more of the talking to reporters. I found this latest one particularly interesting, as Sam Shetler belongs to a Swartzentruber Amish church.

Sam gave a talk at a library in Moniteau County, Missouri (reported in the local California Democrat paper). Giving a public talk is not what you’d expect from a member of this very plain segment of Amish society, so that alone makes it noteworthy.

Photo by Liz Morales/California Democrat

Factually, there are some errors in the article/talk, like the description of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, and the migration history details.

That aside, I found it most interesting from two perspectives – as an overall look at Amish beliefs and values, and also shedding light on how things are done in Sam’s Swartzentruber community. Here are five insights gleaned from Sam’s talk.

1. Rules vs. Principles

Amish churches are at times criticized for supposedly being too focused on man-made rules. The very slowly-changing Swartzentruber churches are arguably the best example within Amish society of adherence to strict rules.

Sam addresses the idea of rules versus principles, and distinguishes between the two. He explains that principles are not to be bent, and likens them to a universal law of physics:

“It’s like the law of gravity,” he said. “You don’t walk outside your house one day and start floating. Gravity never stops and will never stop. The same goes for principles.”

Rules on the other hand, are more malleable:

Rules, however, can be followed as long as they are for the common good. This understanding means if the anabaptists needed to follow a governmental rule, they would as long as it glorified Christ and helped outsiders.

I would take principles here to mean Christ’s teachings and the Commandments, for example.

By rules, Sam appears to mean regulations and standards that the church has agreed will help preserve community, identity and help its members live more Christ-like lives – things like modest dress, and restrictions on potentially threatening technology. Or – rules imposed from outside which do not conflict with their Christian beliefs, as Sam notes.

2. Thankful for government

It seems in the news we see Amish clash a lot with authorities, often over regulations and ordinances which conflict with the ways some Amish live. Follow enough of these stories and you might assume Amish have a naturally antagonistic standpoint towards government.

While that may be accurate of certain individuals and communities, Sam reveals his – perhaps surprisingly – positive attitude towards the state:

“We are all very thankful for the government we have today,” he said. “I think we can all agree that there’s some corruption, I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. We know there’s some bad people in the government, but we also believe there are some really, really good people in there. So we thank God for the government we have and the country we live in and for our freedom of religion.”

There are two kingdoms, and Amish see themselves as citizens of God’s kingdom. They feel they should pray for worldly leaders, but generally keep politics at arm’s length. I’d say Sam’s take on those who wield power in the worldly kingdom is both humble and generous.

3. 75/25 Insurance Plan

When disaster strikes, how do Amish provide for families who have suffered great material losses? This is how Sam describes the insurance program as it works in his community:

If a barn is burned down, the minister of the church and two other members are selected to assess the damage and property. Once a dollar amount is set, the church pays 75 percent of the cost to repair the loss while the family in question pays out the rest.

He also notes that there is a “pool of money” marked for retirement.

This was not elaborated on, as to whether it’s community funds, or more family-level resources (though “pool” suggests it is contributed to and shared by the community).

4. Appreciation of higher education

While Amish traditionally cease formal education after eight grades, Sam has a healthy appreciation for the fruits of formal learning and those who pursue it:

“There’s a time and place for college, but I think most of us would realize it gets overdone,” he said. “That isn’t to say we are against it. I wouldn’t want to go to the hospital for a heart attack and have some 18-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing practice on me. College is sometimes necessary.”

Image: Don Burke

Sam describes their version of higher learning as “puppy work”, a term I had never heard before. Just what is “puppy work”?

“We do hands-on experience,” he said. “A younger would work with an elder by getting experience and as the leader figures out they’re getting better, they go up the ladder that way.”

5. Phones are getting used more in his church

Phones in his community, as is typical in Swartzentruber churches, have customarily been intended for emergency use.

Sam gives an example of what counts as an emergency – “if we cut our hand off” (of course I had to wonder – and only half-jokingly – if just a finger or two would count…).

Ten years ago, Sam explains, phones were for calling doctors and veterinarians. He describes how the stricture has loosened in recent times: “Today, phones get used a little more. We can use a neighbor’s phone, or some of us have a little booth at the edge of our property.”

That doesn’t give detail on what exactly an acceptable call might be now (to family living in another state, perhaps?).

But we see that even Sam’s Swartzentruber church has loosened their rules (note: there are several different Swartzentruber groups with somewhat differing Ordnung standards).

Sam hails from one of the plainest of all Amish communities. But the mere fact of him giving this public talk, not to mention the ideas he expresses, suggests that one word popularly used to describe Swartzentruber Amish – “insular” – feels like a poor fit here. I would have enjoyed attending this talk.

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    1. Dan Bogdan

      Thank You

      Great Info. I really appreciate it. May God Continue to bless you with everything people cannot …

    2. Alice Mary


      I was happily surprised at Sam Shetler’s beliefs as a member of a Schwartzentruber Amish community. Common sense regarding what rules can and can’t be broken seems like a positive thing, especially since living side by side with the “English” is a given in today’s world. Phone use is also an example of using more common sense.

      Yes, I am looking forward to female Amish beliefs, etc.

      Alice Mary

      1. I also hope we see an article soon from a female perspective, or maybe I’ll need to try to make one happen if not.

    3. Geo


      Sam’s explanation of rules versus principles is profound. What’s unsaid is when rules conflict with principles, as they will at times, a principled person has no choice but to defy rules.

      1. I really appreciated how he explained that. Good analogy/comparison to gravity.

    4. Carl Weidt

      Lebensmittel und Essen

      Mit Bezug auf Lebensmittel,usw, was ist verboten? Zum Beispiel: Schweinefleisch. Danke im voraus.

      1. Carl, pork is not forbidden – Amish people eat lots of it! For the Amish there are no dietary laws as you might find in some other religions.


        Carl, Schweinefleisch ist nicht verboten – Amish essen viel davon! Für die Amish gibt es keine Ernährungsgesetze, wie man sie in einigen anderen Religionen findet. (Google translate takes the credit for any errors here :))

    5. John J. Keim

      A Swartzentruber woman's perspective

      I grew up in the Swartzentruber Amish, back in the 50’s and 60’s, and I can honestly say back then the women didn’t make any decisions regarding the church. Now I seriously doubt that philosophy has changed any. My mother had thirteen children. When it came to decisions regarding the farm and all that entailed, that was 100% my father’s decision. As far as my perspective on the role of women in the Swartzentruber community, the women were to serve their man and he makes all the decisions. The Swartzentruber Amish are the strictest of all the Amish communities. The women in other Amish communities such as Holmes county Amish, have more say so in decision making. That was my experience anyways.

      1. Wouldn’t a Swartzentruber Amish woman have more sway, for example, over things that relate to the domain of homemaking for lack of a better word?

        1. John J. Keim

          A Swartzentruber woman's perspective

          Yes you’re right, my mother was in charge of the house. Anything outside of that, it’s a man’s domain.

    6. CJ

      Good article that I pray will make others more understanding of Amish Communities. Their community spirit & support for others is a truly from the Bible (Matthew 22.39)

      Mr. Shelter said it right, although there are some bad people in government I am still thankful we have freedom of worship.

    7. Mike

      Good article! Very interesting.

    8. Randy

      Erik, I wish to join in the chorus of appreciation. With articles of this caliber consistently appearing month by month (and indeed ongoing over the years), you have a real talent for producing a topnotch website. I think it’s doing a lot of good for many constituencies. Incidentally, although you may well be more acquainted with the series of articles than I am, I recently started reading a relatively new regional magazine (commenced publishing maybe a couple of years ago, I think) that includes monthly installment articles authored by an Amish family. The magazine is titled “Our Wisconsin” and is one of a number of publications issued by Reiman Publishing. The articles I mentioned are essentially similar to diary entries describing the daily activities – and ups and downs, and outlooks – of the authorial family (three generations) during a recent week. Perhaps the majority of the daily entries are written by the family patriarch, but a goodly number are contributed by the matriarch and sometimes by one of their children (or spouses of their children). Each article has been interesting and well-written. Perhaps one or more of these women would be willing to provide some insights that you might wish to consider publishing. I apologize for having a senior moment now that is preventing me from definitively providing you with the authors’ names, but I think the couple’s games are Owen and Lovinia Yoder. (Probably I’ll remember the instant after I submit this comment.) They farm near Suamico, WI. I hope this may be a useful lead, albeit a scanty one.

      1. Thank you, Randy. I can say I had a good primary source of material to work with in the talk/article. I do enjoy reading through things like that and trying to pull out the most interesting or insightful parts, and add what I can. That’s the extra value I try to bring to pieces like this, hopefully it works more often than not:) Again was glad to see a public talk from a member of a Swartzentruber church, not sure I have ever seen one before. Generally I try to bring a mix of news stories/worthwhile articles like this one, guest posts from solid authors, as well as original pieces from my own visits/interaction/knowledge on the Amish. Sometimes we have more of one than another for awhile, depending on what’s happening out there. Thank you for reading and glad you have enjoyed it.

        And thanks for mentioning the Our Wisconsin magazine and Amish contributors. I hadn’t heard of that one, but it sounds like something similar to what is found in say The Connection magazine or in some of the national-reach columns like The Amish Cook or My Amish Home. From time to time I will share those columns here, though usually when the column addresses a specific topic (eg, Amish celebration of Easter, approach to adoption) rather than just the daily goings-on, though I realize those can be interesting too for some readers.

    9. Walter Boomsma

      Me too!

      Count me as another who appreciates this report… it is wonderful to learn about the Amish from the Amish. I see a growing need and opportunity for more events like this.

      The more I learn about the Amish (particularly from the Amish), the more I appreciate and respect them and their beliefs and practice. I say it often, but there truly is much we can learn from them.

      1. Walter have you ever come across the book The Amish in their Own Words? It occurred to me you might enjoy that one. Brad Igou culled Amish writings from 25 years of the Family Life magazine, organized by topic (church, work, Amish beliefs, many topics). It was originally published in 1999 based on the issues from 1968-1992, so you’re not going to get commentary on what the Amish feel about smartphones, for instance, but for the most part it should still be most relevant for today.

        1. Walter Boomsma

          Thank, Erik...

          Found on Amazon and ordered! Using the “Look inside” feature quickly convinced me!

    10. Factual

      It’s so refreshing to read factual info on the Amish and not info that the particular author “thinks” is correct. I have Amish All The Way on my phone and some of the questions are unbelievable. it looks like some people think Amish appeared from outer space. Thanks for your web site.

      1. Thanks Anita! I’m not aware of Amish All The Way, is that an app?

        1. Hershey Sensenig

          Amish All The way

          Hi Erik, I just stumbled across your question to Anita. Amish All The Way is a Facebook group of almost 60,000 members that I founded over 6 years ago. I live in Lancaster County, Pa. and admire and respect the Amish culture! We often share articles and videos from Amish America. Thank you for your work!