A people of humility still living in 19th century

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The Independent US

With their humble clothes and picturesque farms, the Amish of Lancaster County have become accustomed to being one of the most popular tourist curiosities of the eastern United States. But through all the peering of outsiders from passing cars, they try to remain separate from the outside world.

They attract attention because they seem stuck in time as if they never left the 19th century. Drive the gravel by-ways of Lancaster County through hamlets with names like Bird in Hand and Paradise and you enter into a living museum of a bygone age. But this is not, as it at first may seem, a countryside Disneyland with actors playing the parts of generations-ago Americans.

Most famously, they spurn not only cars, going about all their daily business in their horse-drawn buggies, but also telephones and anything that runs on electricity. Homes are not wired, because wires are newfangled and superfluous to their simple needs.

If the Amish ever give any ground to modernity ­ their horse-drawn buggies have indicator lights nowadays ­ it's only when they are obliged to. Forced a few years ago to find a means to cool their milk to meet hygiene standards, the Amish decided that diesel generators to power fridges were acceptable.

A 1972 ruling by the Supreme Court exempted certain religious groups from laws requiring all children to attend the public school system or certified private schools. The Amish were allowed to send their offspring to traditional one-room schools.

Their insulation from society extends to a shared sense that theirs is a world shielded from the ills of contemporary America, especially its violent crime. Headlines were spawned across America nearly 10 years ago when reports surfaced of drug abuse among young Amish. The extent of it turned out to be minimal, but the surprise was enough to draw wide coverage.

The largest community of so-called Old Order Amish is in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and numbers about 20,000 people. There are, however, significant Amish outposts in 20 other US states and in Ontario, Canada.

Many are still trilingual, speaking a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch in their homes, high German in their religious services, and English in their dealings with the outside world. While most of the Amish have ancestry from Germany, some also trace their roots to the British Isles, Switzerland and France.

Among the Lancaster County Amish, about 40 per cent of the families remain engaged solely in agriculture. In recent years, however, they have set aside some of their squeamishness about the outside world and opened successful craft and food shops in urban centres on the East Coast, including Philadelphia and New York.

Their community traces its roots to the Reformation in Europe and the Anabaptist movement, which gave birth first to the Mennonite church, founded by a Dutch Catholic priest called Menno Simons in 1536. In 1693, a Swiss bishop called Jacob Amman created a splinter group that became known as the Amish. Mennonites and Amish share many religious tenets, but the former take austerity further.

Both the Amish and Mennonites began settling in Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s, where they found fertile land and a non-judgmental religious and political environment. Amish teaching stresses humility, family, community and separation from the outside world. The Amish believe insulation helps them bind the ties of family.

Their sober dress code that gives no ground to fashion is an expression of their faith. Women cover flesh with long skirts and long sleeves. Men and boys are expected to wear hats, dark suits with braces. No zippers are allowed and men can only grow beards once they are married.

For the families ripped apart by yesterday's events there will be no consolation. For the Amish community at large, however, at least they have the knowledge that this was not violence born from within their own.

The gunman, police reported, was neither Amish nor did he apparently have many ties with the Amish community, aside from living close by and driving a local milk lorry.