Lancaster County Amish: An “Incredible Demographic Exception”

The Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities will soon publish its sixth issue. From time to time, we’ll be sharing interesting findings from articles published in JPAC here at Amish America. This is the first featured post, written by one of its co-editors, Joe Donnermeyer, who was recently a Snowden Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pieties Studies at Elizabethtown College. ~Erik

When No Change is Significant

Some things change so slowly that either we do not notice them or we lack the patience to view the progress. We could watch the incremental changes of the sun setting from day to day, and trace its steady movement across the horizon, but most of us are much too busy to notice these tiny shifts through the cycle of an entire year. Likewise, some characteristics of every society can change quickly, within a single generation, while other changes require more than one lifetime.

In an upcoming article to be published in the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities, I’ve calculated the average number of live births of women 50 years and older from the Lancaster County settlement. Then, I compared it to the average number of live births in Lancaster County determined by Elmer Lewis Smith in a statistical report published in 1960 (“Studies in Amish Demography”) by the Research Council of what was then named Eastern Mennonite College. 

Smith’s data reaches all the way back to births by Amish women married in the final decade of the 19th century, that is, 1890-1899. Their average was 7.4 births, and for those married in the first decade of the 20th century, Smith calculated an average of 7.8 births. Using the 2015 directory for Lancaster County, I determined for women 50 years and older who were married during the decade of 1980-1989, an average of 7.2 live births. Hardly any change over nearly 100 years!

Demographers generally calculate “total fertility” as the number of live births for women over 50 years old because with few exceptions, these women are past child-bearing age. This allows them to trace changes in total fertility over time, or to compare differences in fertility from society to society. For example, a study by Simon Evans and Peter Peller of Hutterite women shows the number of births fell by more than half when comparing women married in 1950-1959 (10.4) and 1985-1995 (4.8). Their article can be found in a journal called the Great Plains Quarterly (Winter Issue, volume 35, 2015).

What makes the numbers from Lancaster County so significant is that there is a steady decline in the percent of men who farm there. For other societies anywhere in the world, a transition out of agriculture is accompanied by a significant decline in the size of a family. Simply, fertility in almost all societies goes down when there is a shift in their economies from agriculture to industry. Based on this study: it is not the case for the Lancaster Amish population, making them an incredible demographic exception to the rule.

My article (“A Demographic Profile of the Greater Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish”) will be published in the next issue of JPAC (volume 3, issue 1), to be released in late May/early June. 

-Joseph F. Donnermeyer, Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University

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    One Comment

    1. Joe Donnermeyer

      I can answer questions


      I can answer any questions about the research on the Lancaster County Amish until the article is published in the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities. The methods section of that article (released in late May/early June) will describe the data collection.

      Joe Donnermeyer