The most conservative Amish group
Swartzentruber Amish are a subgroup within Old Order Amish society. Swartzentruber Amish use more limited technology, dress more plainly, and typically have a lower standard of living than more progressive Amish.
Swartzentruber Amish are arguably the most traditional significant Amish subgroup. They’re apt to see themselves as holding to tradition more steadfastly than other Amish. The Swartzentruber faction originated out of conflict over the issue of social shunning (more on that below).
Like other Amish, the Swartzentrubers have also flourished in the 21st century. Today they can be found in many states across the country. Several aspects of Swartzentruber life make them stand out when compared with other Amish:
Swartzentruber Amish characteristics:
- Technology allowed – Swartzentruber Amish are much more restrictive in technologies used
- Style of dress – Swartzentruber clothing tends to be heavier and plainer, especially in the case of women
- Use of motor vehicles – riding in cars is prohibited, except in emergencies
- Length of church service – Swartzentruber services tend to be longer, even up to four hours
- Social distance from non-Amish – Swartzentruber Amish are less likely to have close relationships with non-Amish people
- Education -Swartzentruber schooling is more basic than the typical level of Amish education
Origins of the Swartzentruber group
The Swartzentruber division happened over the years 1913-1917 in the Holmes County community in Ohio. Similar to the original Amish split from the Mennonites in 1693, the issue that precipitated the conflict concerned shunning. A conservative faction felt that Amish who were excommunicated and subsequently joined another church, not in fellowship with the original one, should continue to be shunned.
A majority of Amish in the community felt that a more lenient approach should be taken, with the Bann removed by the original church if the individual were accepted by a new church. Despite some concessions on issues of dress made to the conservative side in hopes of alleviating conflict, the groups split in 1917, with the conservative faction under the leadership of bishop Sam Yoder. The division meant that families and neighbors were split from one another, and in some cases could not longer interact formally in church services or marry one another.
A number of other conflicts resulted in later years, with the Sam Yoder group maintaining a conservative Ordnung. After Yoder’s death, the two conservative districts were both led by bishops with the last name Swartzentruber, leading to the entire group taking the Swartzentruber name (see An Amish Paradox, Charles Hurst and David McConnell, and New York Amish, Karen Johnson-Weiner, for more on Swartzentruber origins). Today the Swartzentruber Amish are found in locations well beyond Ohio (see below).
Restrictions on technology
Swartzentruber Amish emphasize tradition and resist change more than the majority of Amish groups. As a result, they are among the most restrictive when it comes to use of technology. Swartzentruber Amish do not permit automobile travel except in emergencies.
Swartzentrubers do not have in-home plumbing or hot water. Outhouses are used, and bathing occurs less regularly. Swartzentruber homes typically have a rough appearance, with peeling paint, dirt driveways, and lacking flowerbeds and manicured lawns common to higher-order Amish.
Perhaps the easiest way to tell a Swartzentruber church member is by their carriages. Swartzentruber buggies do not carry the SMV triangle, reflecting Swartzentruber beliefs against wordly symbols and emphasis on reliance on God. Swartzentruber buggies also use limited reflective tape and lamp lighting, in contrast to the often very highly illuminated Old Order Amish buggies. Some higher-order Amish criticize the Swartzentrubers for their resistance to adopting safety symbols. Swartzentruber buggies also lack windshields, mirrors, or electric lighting.
Swartzentruber restrictions on technology also affect the ways they can make a living and the level of income they can earn. Swartzentruber businesses are limited to the technology they can use. Builders are forbidden from using cars, which limits their range.
Swartzentruber shops do not use pneumatic or hydraulic power, and are limited to line shafts powered by a diesel engine. Businesses are generally less marketing-oriented and less likely to advertise. While advertisting for other Amish may consist of high quality color catalogs and newspaper ads, for the Swartzentrubers advertising is tyipcally simple hand-stenciled signs at the end of a lane or a hand-written business card.
Swartzentruber farmers typically do not use cooling tanks, and provide milk in metal containers. This restricts their milk to grade “B” quality, making it suitable for cheese-making but not as drinking milk, and subsequently fetching a lower price.
Where do Swartzentruber Amish live?
The Swartzentruber Amish live in over a dozen states today, as well as Ontario. The highest population is found in the Holmes/Wayne county community in Ohio. Other significant Swartzentruber populations are found at Lodi/Homerville in Ashland and Medina Counties in Ohio, as well as at Ethridge, Tennessee (both communities founded over 40 years ago, and numbering over 10 or more church districts). Swartzentruber settlements can also be found in states such as New York, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Maine.
Swartzentruber Amish life and customs
Swartzentruber Amish lead a plainer and more restricted lifestyle than other Amish. Swartzentruber Amish may be less likely to make use of medical services. As Hurst and McConnell explain in An Amish Paradox, member of this group may rely more on traditional remedies. Due to generally lower income and larger families, they may rely on cheaper food products and have a less healthy diet compared to other Amish.
Swartzentruber people generally do not hire cars except in emergencies. When traveling to visit other communities, this means they would travel by train or bus, rather than hiring a passenger van like other Amish would.
Swartzentruber Amish also tend to be among the “slowest” of Amish in numerous ways, not just in use of technology. Swartzentruber church services include slower singing and are typically longer, lasting up to four hours.
During the after-church meal, Swartzentruber Amish eat bean soup from a common bowl. Members of this group are less likely to find sports or other worldly amusements acceptable. Karen Johnson-Weiner also notes that Swartzentruber Amish are more restrictive about reading materials allowed in the home than are other Amish, and follow a more basic school curriculum as well. (New York Amish, Johnson-Weiner).
Despite, or perhaps because of their stricter lifestyle, Swartzentruber youth have a reputation for wildness. Swartzentruber youth have been involved in accidents. Higher-order Amish in particular who live among Swartzentruber Amish sometimes criticize their youth parties and wild behavior.
Relations with other Amish groups
Swartzentruber Amish are also seen as different by other higher order Amish groups, and vice-versa. In the Holmes County community, for example, David Luthy notes that Old Order Amish make fun of the long hair and beards of the plain faction, calling them gnudle Woola, referring to the kinks in sheep’s wool (New York Amish, Johnson-Weiner).
In An Amish Paradox, Hurst and McConnell make the surprising observation that “many Old Order Amish comment that the social distance between Old Order Amish and non-Amish is far less than that between Old Order and Swartzentruber Amish.” Other Amish may look down on Swartzentrubers for what they perceive as stubbornness in matters of technology or road safety, while some respect them for their tradition-anchored stances.
Swartzentruber Amish, on the other hand, may see Old Order Amish as somehow “less Amish”. Karen Johnson-Weiner notes the comments of one Swartzentruber woman who said that “I think we’re more in the Amish side [in comparison to the more progressive Amish groups]. They [those other Amish] are strange or different.” A second Swartzentruber woman classed her friends among Old Order Amish as sotleit, a word meaning “others”.
She commented that “they’re still Amish because they don’t drive cars. Those that drive cars are Mennonites” (New York Amish, Johnson-Weiner). One Swartzentruber person said that the more progressive Amish are “not a group that we’d want to live up to” (emulate) (An Amish Paradox, Hurst/McConnell).
At the same time, some Amish will work with Swartzentruber people in various ways. This may come in the form of providing them employment or in acting as a go-between on certain issues such as safety matters, in which Swartzentruber Amish may be more wary of dealing directly with non-Amish.
Divisions within the Swartzentruber Amish
Amish society has been rent by church divisions over time. The Swartzentruber Amish are not a unified group either. A few divisions have occurred since the original break from the Old Order Amish. One internal Swartzentruber division occurred in 1993 in an incident sparked by youth provoking a minister by playing loud music and which resulted in excommunication, national mediation, and eventual division. Later disagreements over parochial school and drip irrigation resulted in a further division around the turn of the 21st century. The result is that there are now three distinct non-fellowshipping Swartzentruber groups in Holmes County.
Are Swartzentruber Amish the “true” Amish?
The Swartzentruber Amish, along with a few other highly conservative groups such as the Nebraska Amish, probably most closely fit the stereotype of the Amish as “stuck in time”, though the label is misleading even for Swartzentrubers. The amount of change the Swartzentruber Amish have accepted in the form of new technology, however, is minimal.
While Swartzentruber Amish may be criticized by more progressive Amish groups, they themselves would most likely say that they are holding to the true Amish ways, while regarding the openness to technology and adoption of “faster” ways of other Amish as suspect. For what it’s worth, outsiders have also commented that the Swartzentruber Amish are the “true” Amish, likely reflecting the idea that this Amish group most closely fits people’s preconceptions of the Amish in general.
Regardless of how they interact with other factions of Amish, the Swartzentruber Amish are an example of the diversity in Amish society, occupying a firm position on the conservative end of the Amish world.
For further information, see:
An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community, Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell
New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State, Karen Johnson-Weiner
Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, Karen Johnson-Weiner
“Plotting Social Change Across Four Affiliations”, Donald B. Kraybill, The Amish Struggle with Modernity, eds. Donald B. Kraybill, Marc Alan Olshan
Amish America blog: Interview with Karen-Johnson Weiner on Swartzentruber Amish
Updated July 2021