Look who’s talking now

Amish phone booth by Bruce Stambaugh
A phone booth on an Amish property is often placed away from the home to avoid the temptation of overusing the phone.

By Bruce Stambaugh

On a dark, chilly November night several years ago, an emergency medical technician arrived on the scene of a car verses buggy accident at a rural intersection. Unlike the car’s passengers, the older Amish man driving the lantern-lit buggy was uninjured.

As the scene cleared, the first responder asked the Amish man how far he had to go to call for help. With a toothless grin, the Amish man reached into his denim jacket and flopped opened a cell phone.

In the early days of cell phones, when even the EMT didn’t have one, that scenario might have been rare in Amish country. It isn’t any longer. As contradictory as is it may sound, Amish have and use telephones. They use them to converse, to fax, for GPS, to text, and on rare occasions, to access the Internet.

Of course, like many of other Amish lifestyle “rules,” there are many variables in the Amish – phone connection. Church leadership metes out phone use guidelines for Amish. Those rules and their application vary greatly. It all depends on which church and which order of Amish as to what the rules may allow. The rules about phone use, like other lifestyle guidelines, even differ from church to church within the same order of Amish.

Amish place by Bruce Stambaugh
The home of a young Amish family in Holmes County, Ohio.

The orders of Amish, if placed on a continuum, would range from New Order on the left to the Swartzentruber’s on the right. In other words, from the most progressive to the most conservative, with those terms being used in the religious sense, not politically. In between are the most numerous, the Old Order Amish that people describe when they refer to the sect.

The extremes of phone use by Amish would range from members of one church group permitted to have landline phones in their residence to others that are permitted no phones at all. Again, their individual church leaders determine how and where Amish use phones. This may seem strange or even unfair to those unfamiliar with the Amish, and sometimes to those who even live among them. But simply put, that’s just the way it is.

Driving down any highway in Amish country will reveal which families and businesses are not permitted to have landline phones in their buildings. Near the edge of the road, travelers will see small buildings about the size and shape of the old-fashioned phone booths with a door and usually a window for light.

They look like phone booths because that is exactly what they are. Enclosing the phone in a small structure protects the person using the phone from any inclement weather and provides privacy. The homemade phone booths are usually locked to prevent any vandalism or misuse.

Amish farmstead with phone booth by Bruce Stambaugh
Find the phone booth among all the other buildings on this farmstead near Walnut Creek, Ohio.

Such phone booths could be used by a single family or business, or by multiple families. Each family or business would have its own voicemail extension. The phones are not answered live.

Some churches require that phone booths be so many feet from the home or business. Some even require the phone to be across the road, so as not to be too convenient, thus reducing the possibility of casual use. Some Amish, especially the New Order sect, would allow a landline in their home.

In many churches, phones for calling out and faxing are permitted in the business, but not in the home. Incoming calls go directly to voice mail. This rule is economically weighted. The successes of cottage industries, which have boomed among the Amish in the last two decades, are critical to the welfare of the Amish community. Only about 10 percent of the Amish population farms today. The rest either have their own businesses or work at other local businesses.

Of course, any discussion about Amish and the use of phones would be incomplete without mentioning the ubiquitous cell phones. Cell phones are actually more widely accepted among the Amish leaders than landlines, simply because they are not literally tied to the public utility grid.

Cell phones have proven to be an efficient tool when it comes to doing business, regardless of the trade or product produce. Generally speaking, a common rule for cell phones is that they are turned off in the residence. Another rule stipulates that the phones cannot access the Internet or e-mail.

Because they are not yet church members, none of the rules apply to Amish youth, unless of course their parents say they cannot use them. Just like their non-Amish peers everywhere, texting and using cell phones to take pictures are typical for today’s Amish teenagers regardless of which church order their parents may belong.

In the 21st century, phones are one technology the Amish have embraced. Clearly though, the difference between them using the phone compared to the rest of society is in the details. For those instructions, the Amish look to their respective church leadership.

Author: Bruce Stambaugh

Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.

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