What does “being Plain” mean for an Amish person?

Lately I’ve noticed a recurring theme across Amish America correspondence. Amish are known as “Plain People”, but given the many different Amish groups, what does “being Plain” actually mean?  Is there a litmus test for Plainness?

For example:

Is it based on width of hat brim, or style of prayer covering?

Should your lawn be full of weeds, or is having a flower garden okay?

Is it working in a certain trade?  Are farming Amish more “Plain” than carpenters traveling daily to upper-middle-class Cleveland suburbs?

Does having some nice furniture or things on your wall disqualify you?

Being Plain AmishIs it determined by how much you interact with English?  A reader mentioned Amish who “would never consider allowing a non Amish person to eat a meal in their house.”

Is it a special way of speaking?  I hear some Amish people use words like “cool” or “awesome”.  Or, sometimes swear words.  Does awkward English grammar prove you’ve had little worldly contact and thus make you Plainer?

Is it based on whether you use or produce alcohol or tobacco?

Are you disqualified if you pose for a photo?

What about if you’ve been to Pinecraft?

Is it okay to own a cell phone if you also use an outhouse?

You could probably add a lot to this list.  What does “being Plain” really mean?

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    1. I think and I could be wrong,but the term “Plain” when it comes to the Amish,Mennonite or any group that gets lumped together in that genre is the way they go about their life and dress and faith.. Simple, not flashy, not being puffed up in Pride and parading as such. They adhere (or try to) live their life and faith just as Christ did when he was sent here. Humble not arrogant like the Pharisees who paraded around with much Pride and noses in the air.

      Now thats not to say that sometimes living a plain life has not given way to a PRIDE of being PLAIN.. I am sure that has happened. They just desire not to be seen caught up in the worldliness of things.. I mean seriously how often have we gotton caught up in trying to keep up with the “Jones” in our lifetime… For what? Did that make us any happier, did we give more?

      All I know is that recently I did some serious housecleaning and decided that my life is not about staging what I have or dont have,but living a simple(hard working yes)life and faith…Besides never seen a hurst towing a u haul behind it now have we?

      1. I agree with Jeannie. Well said! That last sentense is especially true. As far as the Amish and Old Order Mennonite are concerned, I believe it also means that they choose to live without modern conveniences. That’s why I sometimes chuckle when Hutterites are called ‘plain’ – our ‘buggies’ are not horse drawn and the farm equipment is the best on the market and of course we embrase technology. But maybe the way we dress is considered plain.

        1. Linda do Hutterites use that sort of language to describe themselves? Would they agree with “we are a Plain people”?

          I feel like outsiders would still put you in that category even though you accept a lot more technology than say the Amish.

          1. Erik, I seldom hear Hutterites describe themselves as plain. But I understand why we’re seen as such, because we do dress ‘plain’ or maybe modestly would be a better word. I’m totally fine with people seeing me as plain, because I’m comfortable with who I am and what I stand for.

    2. Michelle R.

      ...but what does "plain" really mean?

      The Amish version of being plain, I believe, mostly refers to man-made items, like their personal clothing, structures and transportation… anything others can readily see that they might take credit for, is plain, so they aren’t “seen” as better than anyone else; a humility not often practiced in the world today. But the Amish community is far from plain! Have you not seen the beautiful colors in their yards and farms? Or the beautiful, colorful scemes of an Amish made quilt that has no name to give credit to the author? Can you not appreciate the beauty of a colorful, young calf playing in the field? Or a goose waddling along a pond surrounded by wild flowers? They embrace God’s creations and the beauty He has bestowed, not what they can make themselves to look like. Their clothing, homes and buggies are meant to do a job, and nothing else. It covers and is the same as everyone else so as not to be “better than others.” They seek to be holy, for your body is the temple of the Lord. Women are to be careful not to entice men to lust after them, and vice versa (squash lust)! They don’t seek after “looking” better than they are, or looking like who they are not (squash vanity). Its admirable to be humble enough not to make your home ornate to stand out and out-do the neighbors, especially in today’s society (squash pride). Is their lust, vanity and pride, of course! They’re human after all! But their goals take a somewhat different direction. If God blesses more or less than someone else, they’re thankful. We would all do well to embrace these same attributes. Wouldn’t their be such a greater human kinship, and so much less prideful jealousy if society embraced the ideal, “I’m no better than the next guy?”

      1. Michelle nicely said about the vibrancy of Amish life. In that sense plain doesn’t quite fit. Plain may be as much an attitude as an appearance?

        I have found it interesting how some Amish may exhibit some characteristics from the list of questions I gave above, but not others. Are they all even relevant when it comes to defining what is Plain? Are certain of them more important for being considered Plain?

    3. Michelle R.

      It really depends on what church they are in. Some bishops are more relaxed than others.

      On matters of their clothing. Some are not permitted to wear more than black or dark red color, while other bishops may allow black, dark red, dark blue and dark green. Some may allow shoes or no shoes in Summer, others conform to the old order black knit knee highs and black sneakers!

      Even on small matters that wouldn’t seem like any matter to an English person, the bishop decides what is acceptable. I have even been told by an Amish friend that their tractor wheels are even decided for them. Some ordinances may allow rubber tires, while others must use metal wheels on their tractor. However, some ordinances are not allowed a tractor at all, and must use halflingers hooked to their eqiupment, such as a hay wagon, etc. The “plainess” is such a way of life, it isn’t deemed “plain” to them, just the way life IS.

    4. stephanie

      The Beachy (AmishMennonite) church considers itself a “plain church”. We do have cars. We dress plain (no patterns, black socks, cape dresses) we wear a Kapp style covering with strings. Our homes must “be of modest and usefull secoration”(taken from our standard). Most Amish and Mennonite people would say churches with those standards would be a “plain church”. We also sit seperate (men from women) in church and sing without music. I have found the Beachy church to be sort of an enigma. Many people call us “New order with cars” we are one of the strictest Mennonite churches (or some say Amish,but we have CARS!), still speak dutch, follow the same worship pattern as the New Order church, appoint out clergy the same and have much the same standards. So although we are not quite Mennonitey we arent quite Amishy either! But I believe we are plain. I would believe the Hutterites are.

    5. Michelle R.

      Here are a few of my own personal observations on a few of the above questions…

      Q:Is it determined by how much you interact with English? A reader mentioned Amish who “would never consider allowing a non Amish person to eat a meal in their house.”
      A: I’ve heard that, however, I’ve also heard many Amish don’t agree bc it seems to show unkindness. Again, different in each church, according to what the bishop deems as acceptable worldly fellowship. I personally see it as a witnessing tool. The more time you spend with someone, the more you take on some of their ways, good or bad company!

      Q:Is it based on whether you use or produce alcohol or tobacco?
      A: I know of some friends that grow their own for personal tobacco use, and I know of some that are only allowed certain types, like tobacco you must roll yourself… again, according to ordinance.

      Q:Are you disqualified if you pose for a photo?
      A: These days it seems there are many Amish that don’t seem to mind photograghs; however, some while they don’t mind the picture, don’t show their face. Others don’t even have one picture of themselves, even to pass down to children, or baby pictures of their children. Are you “disqualified,” meaning shunned indefinately from the Amish community? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one case of someone being shunned indefinately over a photogragh, but maybe sorely frowned upon, even shunned for a period of time as “punishment,” depending on the picture, of course.

      Q:Is it okay to own a cell phone if you also use an outhouse?
      A:There are Amish businesses that use phones (landlines and cell phones), but are permitted to do so for the purposes of business transactions only… as far as everyone knows! lol

    6. stephanie

      We have eaten with our Old order and Swartzentruber(sure I spelled that wrong) many, many times and I am sure everyone thinks they are plain. When our friends (old order) moved out of state the bishop in our area invited us to their going awayy dinner at their house. I do not know of any Amish who would not invite others to dinner. We are from a pretty plain church but to them we are considered “high” so I dont think that had any part in their decision about having us over

    7. Naomi Wilson

      I think there are many people, including those outside of the Anabaptist tradition, even outside of Christianity, who might call themselves plain because they have made a deliberate decision to be content with less. Less being relative to what most people in your culture have. Anabaptists and other Christians who use the word plain would also be mindful to observe some degree of scriptural separate-ness from the world. I think any plain person is very deliberate about all manner of things, or else allows a church leader to make those deliberations on their behalf. This would separate a plain person from someone who simply lives a certain way due to physical or economic circumstances.

    8. Lattice

      To me, “plain” simply means not subject to worldly fashions, fads, or technological advances, as well as a general adherence to some old ways (typically sewing clothing, eating at home, horse and buggy transportation, etc.). I use the words “subject to” because that doesn’t mean that changes don’t eventually infiltrate. It means that there is a conscious choice to not be immediately affected.

      But that doesn’t mean that the “plain” are not frequently affected by advances, they just avoid “worldly” ones. Spend enough time around the Amish and you will see that all sorts of new ways of doing things infiltrate the communities, within stated guidelines. The Amish love to know the latest sewing techniques, herbal remedies, recipes, seed varieties, horse training techniques, etc., etc.

      1. Kevin L.

        Well said Lattice. I would agree with your definition of plain not being subject to worldy ways. Many of us, amish or not, can follow that definition. Although the amish and other plain groups may not be opposed to technology, they do want to have some idea of what impact it will have them in the long run before they accept it. The old ways are tried and tested.

    9. In several of these responses I see, “the bishop decides” or some similar statement. Again, this seems quite cult-like to me.

      1. The Amish bishop's power

        I think “the bishop decides” is a misconception in a lot of cases. Possibly through the strong influence of some Amish fiction storylines the bishop is popularly perceived as the ultimate arbiter and decider on the course of the church and its members’ activities.

        I am sure people can comment on situations when a bishop was overbearing, and there are certainly bad leaders among Amish just as in other churches. Also when a church follows a strict Ordnung, and someone is in violation of it and is subsequently excommunicated, it is easy to look at the bishop as the bad guy, especially when the excommunicated person is the only one doing any talking about it (and especially when the violation seems unimportant to outside observers). However he is upholding his duty, and excommunication like other things is ratified on the vote of the church.

        Again, I know there have been unhealthy situations when bishops in fact did overstep their bounds. Those exceptions are more captivating in the public mind so those are the ones that carry more weight in what people talk about and expect the bishop’s role to be.

        In its best sense and I would guess in more Amish churches than not the bishop is a leader who both guides but in some sense reflects the community he leads. The bishop has a strong influence and commands the respect of his congregation, but he doesn’t, at least shouldn’t, make arbitrary decisions based on how he feels that morning. For that matter change in Amish churches tends to be incremental and generally occurring slowly.

        There is a will of the church that he also needs to respect and acknowledge, and that is expressed in various ways. Sometimes the majority of a church is minded in one direction, and the bishop in another, and then there can be issues. But the will of the congregation is expressed through church voting on changes to the Ordnung for instance. And unanimity or rather congregational harmony is needed in order to proceed with Communion twice yearly.


        1. Dirk

          perfectly put Erik.

        2. The Amish bishop doesn't rule everything

          On the power-of-the-bishop discussion above, I just happened across these lines while reading a new piece by Valerie Weaver-Zercher on Amish fiction. The “Yoder” here is Doretta Yoder of The Connection magazine:

          Yoder, too, is disturbed by Amish novels that contain a lot of devotional content. “Once it gets into religion, that’s the part I don’t like them to write about,” she says. “It’s like we can’t just pray [in the novels] but we have to go through the bishop. They like to write about the bishop ruling everything, which isn’t how it is.”

          Highly recommend the article it’s taken from. Interesting to read about both the apparent popularity and dislike among Amish (mainly women) for Amish fiction novels:


    10. stephanie

      Carol, that may be a bit harsh. The Bible gives a hierarchy and we follow that. The bishop of our church leads us. Just about everything gets voted on by the church. Our friend is an Old order deacon and he said they do it the same way. We all vote on the standard (our “rules” if you will) and the bishop will admonish anyone who is consistantly going against the standard THEY voted for. Not a cult by any means. We are all free to go. We choose to be baptized but when we do we are expected to obey. If we are Christians arent we all called to obedience?

    11. Michelle R.

      Yes, Stephanie! Obedience is key, not cult, to peace and order. God is not the author of confusion. Disobedience to a standard of rules causes strife and chaos, and that goes for more than religion. Its not cult-like to obey set rules. What kind of confusion do you think it would cause if no one obtain license plates and a driver’s license? How about if no one obeyed the traffic signals? lol

    12. Bob Rosier (Bob the Quaker)

      I think Jeannie has it right (as did others). A plain and simple life. This simplicity showed through in a recent article in Family Life Magazines sent in by an Amish person. I was moved by it, so I thought I would share this with you.

      Why not see how many months you can find a dandelion.
      Remember the golden lawns in April when the dandelions are in full bloom? Then follow the charming, cottony seed balls on stems. Ah, the delight of a child – or a child at heart – blowing them off !
      Consider the fascination of the raindrops on the windowpane. Thank God for sight, for rain, for the windowpane.
      The wave of a passersby, known and unknown. Pray for the dear people and cherish the gift of friendship.
      The first flower on your plant – or the last. Life..….death..…but the seeds live on. Thank you, God !

      1. In how many months can you find a dandelion?

        Thanks for sharing this Bob. So this question made me wonder. Where I am I only seem to see dandelions in one month–May (maybe a bit in April). Or maybe I’m missing the stray dandelions that pop up after that early May burst of color. One of my favorite times of the year.

        1. Lattice

          Oh my, we fight them until September!!

        2. Sadie


          Here, dandelions bloom beginning in April-May, and the last ones to go are usually in Sept. or Oct., though a couple of years ago during a warm fall and winter, I actually saw a blooming dandelion in December lol.

    13. Sara

      I’m a non-Christian plain person. I have worn Plain dress for many years, I prefer doing things “the old fashioned way”, and I try to live a simpler-than-average life. Living outside a community of like-minded people makes it hard, but I just do my best and remind myself that “Plainer-than-thou”-can also become just the kind of race I am trying to avoid.
      To me, being Plain means first and foremost being separated from the “world”, from its fashions, fads, unhealthy values and rat race. Things like dress are (and IMHO should be) just an outward expression of what is in one’s heart. I am not a better person because I have chosen Plain dress, but rather choosing simplicity instead of “keeping up with the Joneses” helps me lead a better life- not just better for myself, but for Earth and my fellow human beings who do not need to work in slavery to produce me luxuries that I don’t even really need, or envy my possessions.
      I do not avoid company of others based on their beliefs, clothes etc. (being a Pagan, I have often faced prejudice for not lying about my beliefs so I know first hand how hurtful that is), but in practice I do not have many friends because almost all the people around me are “worldly” and I just do not have much in common with them. What does a quiet lady like me have to talk about with people whose main interests are tv programs, appearance, gossip and shopping? The friends I do have are dear and precious to me, and I’d love to gain more in time.

      1. Marian

        Sara how can you have the strong values you have and not know Him. Where do you get your strength from?

        1. Livvy

          Plain & Non Judeo-Christian

          Hi, I wanted to add on a bit, in response to Sara’s experience of being Plain, yet not of a Judeo-Christian leading.

          I actually know probably a dozen people who might be considered Plain, if the type of religion truly has nothing to do with Plainness. These people range from Hellenic Reconstructionists (those who follow a modern sort of version of the religion of Ancient Greece) to Plain Pagan Quakers!

          They worship rather differently than most Plain people, but to look at them, you’d likely confuse them with Plain Mennonites or even Amish people.

          It’s just interesting to me how many people (and mostly women, it seems) are led to Plain dress, even having been raised not dressing that way.

    14. I agree with what you said here sara, even if our belief system is different, I understand the sentiments exactly…We may have a tv but I dont watch the tv programming unless its PBS..lol. and I am not a shopper never have been so thats a good thing.. and yes we forget that someone is working in a sweat shop for those cheap thrills and “luxeries” and that is not kind..

      BOB: I liked what you shared: After coming to the “North Country” of NY, I was a bit taken back of the lack of waving among passerbyes when driving, I guess coming from Oklahoma and its normal there(or at least where we was coming from)it seems sad how occupied people are to forget a simple smile or wave. But I aim to take the southern hospitality and show these “yankees” a bit or two of sunshine.. LOL.. Although the Amish in passing are kind enough to wave back.. its not a obnoxious wave just a simple Howdy.I must add it was a bit funny seeing people react to the waving when we got here, it was like whoa do I know you..lol…

      1. Amish waves

        Jeannie, as a native NC-er, I say work on those Yankees 🙂 Actually I haven’t spent enough time in the rural North to be able to comment on hospitality up there, though the folks I’ve encountered (including on this blog) seem nothing if not hospitable.

        I do wonder how much of the northern rudeness perception comes from the stereotype of the gruff NYC New Yawker being applied by Southerners to everybody from above the Mason Dixon line, and how much people that don’t live in NYC area are actually like that (and for that matter, how accurate that NYC stereotype actually is).

        As for waves, I like the Amish finger-pop. It’s just the one finger shot in the air as the buggy or car rolls by (I’m talking index, don’t get the wrong idea 😉 ). Efficient and to the point.

    15. Osiah Horst

      Plain People

      I like Stephanie’s answers – we also consider ourselves part of the Plain People even though we drive cars. We drive black cars, which today might not be plain, but it was intended that way. We have a particular pattern of clothes we wear – I buy my suit at the men’s wear stores but my wife converts the collar into a plain pattern. She also does this for the wedding suits for the young men of our community. The adult women wear a “kapp” head covering and a distinctive dress pattern including a “cape”. If the bishop decides something in our group, he is probably overstepping his authority. The ministerial body, bishops, ministers, and deacons make decisions based on scripture and the counsel of the church, not on a bishop’s whim. We have a neighbor who is a plain Aglican, she wears a head covering, does not cut her hair or wear pants (at least not in public). She obviously stands out when she attends the farmers’ market.

      1. Osiah Horst

        Plain People

        …and Plain may well be defined differently by an Old Order Amish person; I am not Amish so how would I know how they define “plain”. And yet I know that some of them do feel some kinship with us even though we drive cars.

    16. Dirk

      Plainess is not an action but an attitude that is revealed through action.

      In speech – do I name drop, call attention to myself, boast of my accomplishments, or is my speech humble and truthful?

      In dress – are my clothes immodest, eye catching bright, body hugging, or are they simple, unadorned, modest?

      In body – do I diet, gym, plastic surgery, suntan, fancy hairstyles, make-up, etc. to get that perfect body and look to win the approval and acceptance of others, or am I happy with what I’ve got?

      In action – do I do things to earn praise and appreciation, to show off my skills and talents or do I do the best I can without making a fuss and fancy?

      In purchases – do I buy to win the attention and approval of others with fancy name brands and flashy new items, or do I buy what is neccessary without frills and whistles?

      The secular world is a world of illusion where everyone is trying to be better, smarter and fancier than the next, and making darn sure that everyone knows it.

      The plain world attitude can never fit into the modern secular world of self-glorification and self-grangerization.

      Being plain is something that needs to be taught and learnt as it goes against our natural instincts and natural lusts. If it did not, everyone would be naturally plain.

      1. Don Curtis

        Mark's opinion

        Dirk, I read your posting to my son, Mark. He said that he thought that you along with some of the others had really “hit the nail on the head of plainness”. Mark explained it that to live a plain and humble life is just about anti-American. It is not self-vaunting. It is not status seeking. It is not seeking to impress. It is seeking to be humble. It is seeking to be obedient to the Church. It is seeking to living in harmony with the others in the Church. It is about being sympathetic and empathetic to others. When you put all of that into practice from the house that you live in; the clothes that you wear; the vehicle that you drive; the way that you live; then you are on the right road to becomingn “Plain.”

    17. Ahh Erik, everyone here is pretty nice I think the hand waving just threw them off.. and I agree the stereotyping is typical even back home… When they first learned of our departure to NY the first words outta the mouths of them were OH I M SORRY, I hear they are pretty rude and dont like looking people in the face,lest the wanna kill ya. But I had to agree with what my Pastor said before we left.. They need Jesus just as much as we do and we have our own set of redneck rudeness if we aint careful.

      There are some stereotyping that I have had to put to rest when it comes to things southern, not everyone is named Bubba and is married to their cousin. I emphasize the NOT EVERYONE is married to their cousin and drinks sweet tea.. I myself drink untea(southern for non sweet tea). Yes I love my fried chicken, fried okra and Buttermilk pie.. just like the folks here love their Shoo Fly Pie

      Here in the North Country it is beautiful and people have been most kind, so in a way we felt right at home here despite the looks as we waved.. and you had me laughing bout the pointer finger vs the middle finger.. HA HA HA. Although I hear the peace symbol sign with both pointer and index is considered flipping someone off in another country..

    18. Alice Mary

      What interesting observations, conversation about “being Plain”. So many words to explain what one might think of as being so “simple”. I guess those of us who are “of the world” require more of everything (even words) to try to comprehend others’ (“Plain People”) choice to live a “non-worldly” life.

      It is fascinating to hear from those of you who are “plain” and from different backgrounds. Thank you all for your input, and you, Erik, for posing this question!

      Alice Mary

    19. Don Curtis

      Waving to Amish

      This kind of piqued my interest. I had to ask my son Mark if he waves to people as they pass him in his horse and buggy. He said that he usually nods to them if he sees them. He said that often it is hard to see folks driving by in their cars with those tinted windows. Also, he asked folks to remember that he is driving a horse and buggy and it takes two hands to handle the lines. An Amish person would have to shift the lines to one hand to wave and that is not always safe with some horses. Mark says he is more likely to nod or raise a finger in greeting.

    20. Sadie

      Plain - Quakers

      Among the group of other “plain” (but not “Plain”) Quakers (or Friends) I know, we generally use the word plain to describe our dress, and certain general ideals, like humility, or trying not to be materialistic. But Quakers in general, today, definitely aren’t Plain as you’d typically associate the word with groups like the Amish. Most Quaker meetings, you’re so much more likely to see nearly everyone in denim jeans than anyone with a head covering. And even among “plain Quakers,” the differences are huge. Some plain Quaker women dress very much like Old Order Amish women at all times, while other plain Quaker women may even occasionally wear blue jeans, but with prayer caps or head coverings, and simple, modest shirts and shoes (no logos, etc). Plain Quakers almost universally will be conservative Quakers versus liberal Quakers, as well. But this is all simply in my experience; others may have a totally different view on this!

    21. Jo Sweatt

      Plain is beautiful

      I have an old yoke and hames hanging on my wall framed in burlap matting and framed with old barnboard. I think of the Amish when I look at them. Plain means back to the basics to me. There is something very beautiful about simplicity and seeing how things work. In opposition we have these slick computers, cell phones and digital clocks with all their inner working covered up. Kind of boring when you think about it.

    22. Linda

      Maybe I’m painting with too broad a brushstroke, but in my mind a plain person is someone who is in a group where the women wear a head covering. I know there are many differences in the churches, but there are also similarities in the groups. If you look at plain Mennonites and Amish versus the fancy Mennonites and fancy Pennsylvania Dutch people, there would be a difference in separation from the world, cut hair, etc. It’s one way of looking at it.

      Pinecraft has been called the Plain People’s Paradise.

      How do you know if the word “plain” should be capitalized or not?

    23. Bob Rosier (Bob the Quaker)

      I guess I don’t dress plain enough to be able to pose for the Quaker Oats Box, but I do tend to dress plain. The Quakers use the term SPICE which stands for Simplicity-Peace-Integrity-Community-Equality.

      The Amish could use PLAIN as Plain-Love-Antibabtist-Integrity-Neighborly.