Do Amish use telephones?

Amish depend on phones to communicate and do business, but restrict their use

amish telephoneAmish are known to reject telephones in the home.  Yet in recent years, the image of an Amishman speaking on a cellphone is an increasingly common sight.  In reality, the Amish approach to telephones is a complicated one, taking in a variety of practices.

Why do Amish reject telephones in the home?

The historical rejection of telephones goes back to the early 1900s.   As this new technology proliferated through the American rural countryside, Amish initially installed phones just like other Americans.  Shortly thereafter, Lancaster Amish decided to ban it, and this ban has remained a part of the Amish Ordnung since 1910 (Riddle, Kraybill, pp190-191).

amish home phone
The home is the center of Amish life

Reasons for the ban likely included the fact that telephones represented a direct line to the world, offered too much convenience, and promoted gossip.  Diane Zimmerman Umble has also noted that phone conversation decontextualizes the Amish institution of “visiting”, weakening this common practice crucial to maintaining codes and standards of Amish life (Holding the Line, Zimmerman Umble, p.107).

Phones in the home continue to be rejected today, due in part to the symbolic connection to the world but also to preserve the institution of the home.  Too much phone usage, as any parents of teenagers may be able to attest to, can compromise family life and time spent with family in general.

Phone compromises

At the same time, Amish recognize the usefulness—and in some cases, indispensability—of telephones.  While installation of phones in homes was banned, usage of phones never has been.

Amish need phones to communicate with relatives and other Amish in distant settlements, to conduct business, and to arrange rides through Amish taxi services.  Practially speaking, Amish depend on phones in many areas, even more so today as many Amish are involved in businesses that engage the non-Amish world.

Though Amish in some communities may rely on non-Amish neighbor’s phones, particularly in emergency situations, most Amish have developed ways to use phones while still keeping the potentially threatening technology at arm’s length.

amish phone shanty
An Amish phone shanty in Ohio. Inside is a notebook for recording calls

In most Amish church districts, the use of phone shanties is permitted.  Phone shanties are located at the end of a lane or by the rural road, where they are often shared by a number of Amish families.

Typically a small wooden structure resembling a ticket-taker’s booth, the phone shanty typically contains a telephone, phone book, pen and paper, and call log.   Amish record calls made and settle up the bill at the end of the month.  Nearly all Amish will have a voice-mail answering service, and will periodically check messages on the phone.

Having the telephone shanty away from the home maintains a degree of separation but allows the technology to be used when needed.  Its distance from the home also discourages unnecessary calls.

Other Amish may have a phone in a barn or located outside a business, or even inside a shop or office.  Amish typically have allowed higher degrees of technology in the workplace than they have in the home.

By allowing phones in a barn or business, the barrier between home and phone is maintained, though in many cases this means the phone has crept a bit closer to the Amish dwelling place.  Allowances for the telephone varies among Amish churches.

The Amish and cell phones

Amish usage of mobile phones has increased over the past decade.  In some communities cell phones have proliferated to the point where high numbers of Amish youth have them, along with adults.  The cell phone, some Amish feel, is dangerous in that it is easily concealed and always with you.  Others see advantages with it over a stationary line, noting that the owner can always control who uses it and when.

Some Amish parents exhibit concern over what internet-equipped mobile devices may be used for.  Since the cell phone is so small and portable, it has in many cases crept in “under the radar” in some Amish settlements.  Some Amish, both youth and adults, have internet access as a result.

Wide usage has led to acceptance by default in some cases, as once a majority of church members are using a particular technology, it becomes more difficult for church leadership to speak out against it.  The cell phone remains a controversial but increasingly accepted means of communication in some Amish communities.

The telephone as necessary evil

amish business telephone
Some Amish business advertisements feature telephone numbers

Regardless of how an individual Amish church district may choose to handle telephones via its Ordnung, many Amish agree that phones are a necessary tool.  Whether maintaining ties with a distant sibling, keeping in contact with customers or suppliers, or checking weather reports, Amish find the telephone indispensable in both business and social realms.

The fact that the Amish choose to regulate how the phone is used shows continuing concern over potential ill effects, were it to be fully accepted.  At the same time the Amish take a practical approach in using the telephone in limited ways, as they do with most forms of technology.

For further information, see:

Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life, Diane Zimmerman Umble

The Riddle of Amish Culture, Donald B. Kraybill

Amish Online Encyclopedia: Do the Amish use computers and the Internet? and Do Amish use technology?

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    1. Linda Oliver

      Why Is It?

      Why is it the Amish won’t OWN phones, cars, power tools, etc., but will borrow from or pay for their use to the English? If it’s because they are of the world…the Amish are still using them, so what’s the point of going without?

      1. Using vs. Owning technology

        Linda it’s a good question, but it’s actually more about drawing a line between ownership and usage, with the belief that owning something allows you to use it whenever you want, and it’s easy to become to comfortable and dependent on a technology. Amish see overuse and overdependence on certain technologies as potentially damaging to their family life and society. They look at examples from English culture as cautionary.

        Of course in many cases this also means they have to depend on others (English) to own the technology, for them to be able to use it (ie hiring a driver or borrowing a neighbor’s phone).

    2. J

      Very interesting. Well if Amish people are happy having a separation between phone and family life, that makes sense. It may seem extreme to mainstream society, but I think a lot of cell phone use has become extreme on the other end of the spectrum. On any given day you can be having a conversation with someone, and they take out their phone to start texting someone else, or checking their Facebook status. After awhile it starts to feel like face to face human interaction just is not that important anymore, so at least that is one thing the Amish seem to get. I might not want to take their eschewing of technology to the extreme they do, but it is nice to know there is a world where people are not constantly on their cell phones 24/7.

    3. Kirby Matter

      Amish Charging Cell Phone Batteries

      Considering that the Amish are not wired for electricity to their homes, how do they keep their cell phones charged? Are they allowed to have portable generators? Must cell phones be maintained elsewhere? Or what?

      By way of background, I once lived in LaGrange County, in northern Indiana which has a large Amish community. I first noticed the cell phone phenomenon among the Amish a decade ago when I returned to Shipshewana for a high school reunion.

      1. How do Amish charge cell phones?

        Amish do a lot of their charging of battery-operated devices using diesel generators. This is considered an acceptable source of power because it is a limited source which is not connected to the grid. It’s not as convenient, also symbolically speaking there is no direct physical link to the world. Increasingly, solar charges some batteries as well. They may be kept in an outbuilding or even in the basement. Last time I needed to charge my camera at an Amish friend’s home I just plugged in to the same source they used for their cell phones. In terms of using cell phones some Amish may have church or personal rules that you just use them in the work truck, only between certain hours, or that they don’t come in the house.

        1. Kay Schwartz

          Amish and cell phones

          I searched for amish and cell phones because I saw a phone shanty near Goshen, Indiana with solar panels instead of wires. I wondered if it was a place to charge and keep cell phones. Makes sense.

    4. outsider

      how can an outsider experience the amish life? are outsiders allowed to rent an apt inside the amish community?

    5. usage of telephone

      It is quite interesting to observe that Amish consider the usage of telephones with a considerable precaution. However further dialogue with the community and better understanding of how the technology works may bring about a much deeper understanding of the community. We should help our Amish brothers and sisters to stay strong in their beliefs but still offer them a way through which they can adopt modern day conveniences for their own usage and to their own liking. I believe that any belief system deserves its individuality and distinction from the others, however with time I hope the Amish community reflects on the use of technology simply as a tool and not label it as an evil.

    6. Accepting more similar content?

      Hey Erik – I’d love to write more on this topic. Are you currently accepting new contributors? I noticed on your “contact” page, you mentioned that leaving a comment is more likely to catch your attention than an email 🙂 thought I’d give it a try. Would love to work with Amish America. Let me know – thanks!