This one is so obvious, I can’t believe that it hasn’t already been written for SurvivalBlog. All that I know about the Old Order Amish is gained from association with individual families in a couple of Amish settlements in southeastern Minnesota. These folks are reputed to be among the most conservative of the Old Order Amish, having not yet adopted many of the modern conveniences other Amish groups have seen fit to adopt. For instance, SE Minnesota Amish still use steel rims on their buggies and farm implements, they cook and heat with wood, and they use kerosene lamps and lanterns for artificial light sources. The cultural differences between Amish groups seem to be directly proportional to the distance between their settlements.
Amish history goes back for over 300 years (1693), to the heart of the Protestant Reformation. If you count the Mennonite connection, from which they separated, you could say it dates back almost 500 years. The first thing to understand about the Amish is that they are first and foremost Protestant Christians, and they are devout. A friend of mine pointed out that most of us Christians really have only two commandments left, but the Amish still obey all 10. With regard to religion, they differ from modern day Protestants primarily in that they are Anabaptist (adult baptism) and they are absolutely pacifist.
The Amish secular culture is what makes them good prepper role models. When they first immigrated to the New World from Europe in the early 18th century, they were essentially mainstream peasant farmers. Almost everybody lived on small subsistence farms in those days, and the family consumed almost all of what these small farms were able to produce. If only 10 percent of the population lived in villages, towns, and cities, it computes that the average surplus to be sold to these urbanites by the farmers was 10 percent or less of their food and fiber production. The Industrial Revolution was about to change all of that.
I doubt that they called it “The Industrial Revolution” as it was happening, but the populace certainly noticed major changes in the way people lived. Industrialization, enabled by coal, was creating jobs in the new foundries, and factories located in the cities, and innovation in manufacturing and mass production made farm implements more affordable and more productive. The inevitable result was that more and more of the subsistence farmers were either moving to town to take jobs for wages or were becoming commercial farmers with the use of modern machinery. By 1860, some of the Amish had seen enough of this progress, and they asked themselves, “Are we risking our mortal souls by changing the way we’ve always lived, and moving off the land and into cities?” By one estimate, about 200 Amish of 1860 decided that progress was a real risk and opted instead to reject any further modernization. These 200 are the ancestors of those we now call the Old Order Amish. These are the ones we can learn the most from.
The first lesson preppers can take from the Amish is to find strength in a community. The Old Order Amish organize themselves into worship districts (what we would call a congregation) of about 120 people. This is because they worship in each other’s homes, taking turns, and 120 people are about all that can be accommodated within a single family Amish home. Some number of worship districts, from 1 to nearly 200, is situated in an area known as a settlement, usually named for the local post office. Within these worship districts and to a lesser extent within a settlement, there is a high degree of conformity, decided and enforced by each individual worship district. The intent is to develop and preserve cohesion within the community by discouraging envy and pride. The point is, preppers will need some kind of cohesive incentive for their own community. Like-mindedness will work for some communities, to some degree. Strong leadership will also work for some communities, to some degree. It is true that no community will work for some individuals, and that no community will work for all individuals. (This happens to the Amish, too.) There must be good chemistry to be strong enough to bind individuals into highly functional communities. Be aware of the dangers of falling apart, be a good neighbor whenever you can, and have some mechanism to communicate to community members when they are not living up to community standards.
The second lesson is to prepare to live without electricity. The Amish live off-grid for reason of economy and to minimize recurring periodic financial obligations. They do use battery-powered lights, especially in barns and stables, where a fire hazard exists with the use of kerosene lamps/lanterns. They also might use small gasoline-powered generators for power tools when working for non-Amish (“English“) customers but only in order to be competitive with English carpenters and roofers. Other petroleum-fueled engines are used to replace the steam engines that were commonplace in 1860. They use small, gasoline engines to power their water well lift pumps and washing machines, and also use large, diesel engines as stationary power units for saw mills, farming applications, and workshop power. If it ever comes to a time when we can’t get gasoline or diesel fuel, the Amish, along with the rest of us, will need to make some reverse technologic adaptations. However, because the Amish already heat and cook with wood and have some kerosene on hand for light, they might not even know that the electrical grid is down until an English neighbor tells them about it. As a prepper, you should have a transition plan to a non-electrical lifestyle within a few weeks of losing grid electricity. The transition plan might include a generator ready for immediate use to ease you to the next step back.
My first grade teacher– a displaced person from Germany following WWII– said that the three things necessary for survival are food, shelter, and clothing. Even though I was only in the first grade, I recognized her experience and conviction in matters of hard living and have not forgotten her lesson. She may be responsible for my early recognition of the need to be prepared (for anything.)
The third lesson is to learn to be self-sufficient for food. That includes water. Have a well pump that can be operated manually. Know where there is flowing water within an easy walk of your house, and learn how to filter and purify water of unknown purity. Learn how to grow food, lots of it, using open-pollinated seeds and non-commercial fertilizers. The Amish use canning of seasonal surplus as their primary food preservation method, and typically put up more than 100 quarts of fruits, vegetables, and meats for each member of the household annually. Pressure canning is the preferred method for non-acidic foods, such as meats and beans. Nowadays most Amish families have a kerosene stove or at least kerosene burners specifically for summertime canning. It will take some practice to learn to run a wood-burning cook stove at the even-enough temperature to keep your pressure canner gauge within the desired range to accomplish pressure canning. Practice, practice, practice. Every Amish home also has some form of root cellar. This might be a hole dug into the ground or a building set in a hillside. Most popular, though, is a room in a basement corner with the inside walls and ceiling heavily insulated. The objective is to keep this room as close to ground temperature as possible, which wobbles around 52 degrees Fahrenheit in southern Minnesota. That’s cool enough to keep root crops edible into the spring and winter squash and pumpkin at least into the new year. If you don’t become self sufficient, remember that it’s likely to take the surplus of ten others to satisfy your needs. Learn to preserve the food you grow and harvest. The Amish hunt and fish but for sport, not because they need to. They’ve been doing that for a few hundred years now.
The fourth lesson has to do with shelter. Maybe someone in your community can help with construction and maintenance of shelter but maybe not. At the very least, have a few hand tools for woodworking and learn how to use them. The Amish hold “a frolic” to build a house or barn. The young learn carpentry from their elders, during these group activities. Build a garden shed yourself or help a neighbor build his. Fix your own broken window. Construction is actually pretty easy. Think of the log cabins built by our pioneer forefathers with few tools and without any knowledge of trigonometry. Think of Jesus Christ, a carpenter without a lumber yard.
The fifth lesson is clothing independence. The Amish ladies make all of their family’s clothing, and they do it with an antique treadle sewing machines and needle and thread. That’s about all I can tell you about sewing, and, yes, I do have some reservations when I think of going into a second or third year without a department store.
The sixth lesson we can learn from the Amish is in regard to transportation. The Amish, of course, are dependent upon horses. I will never be. When my last bicycle is gone, I’ll be limited to walking wherever I need to go. I’m just too brittle at my age to learn to ride or even to handle horses. As an EMT, I’ve picked up several people my age– lifelong riders who were bucked off or otherwise injured by their horses. Three that I can think of had broken hips or pelvis, two had punctured lungs from broken ribs, and another had a concussion. Without the best of modern medicine, there’s a good chance they all would have died. I can’t take the chance, but I do encourage my grandchildren to get familiar with horses while they’re still young and flexible.
The last lesson we’ll consider is personal protection without rule of law. Because of their devout Christianity and their interpretation of the New Testament in particular, Amish are pacifist to the extent that they will not even sue for grievances against people who have wronged them in business or stolen property from them. Their response to violence has been to quickly and publicly forgive the perpetrators of the violence. They are forbidden by the Amish church to join the armed forces or even to employ self defense against aggressors. What can we learn from this? Well, I guess we can at least re-examine our own predisposition to respond to violence with greater violence, and we can pray for the Amish.