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Amish population shrinks in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, June 5, 2013, 11:35 p.m.
Lancaster is a major center of Amish population in Pennsylvania, where the horse and buggy is a common sight. The Amish population is shrinking in Pennsylvania., however, though it is growing rapidly in other parts of the country.
Lancaster is a major center of Amish population in Pennsylvania, where the horse and buggy is a common sight. The Amish population is shrinking in Pennsylvania., however, though it is growing rapidly in other parts of the country.

The Amish population is shrinking in Pennsylvania.

Yet the community known for favoring a simple lifestyle over most modern conveniences is hardly in trouble, according to academics who study the Amish.

“Pennsylvania's losses don't suggest the demise of the Amish, by any means,” said Steven Nolt, a professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana. “In fact, nationally, they're growing rapidly.”

Nolt is among several hundred people gathering Thursday for a three-day “Amish America: Plain Technology in a Cyber World” conference organized by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.

Attendees will focus on trends affecting the Amish, including technology.

Mainstream Americans often romanticize the Amish for their simple but seemingly happy lives, said Jeff Bach, director of the Young Center.

“People are intrigued by a group that seems to put more limits on their use of technology than the rest of us do,” he said. “There's a curiosity about people who on the surface resist technology, and that curiosity comes from questions about how much technology in our own lives is appropriate.”

The extent to which Amish use technology varies greatly from one settlement to the next, said Donald Kraybill, a professor and senior fellow at the Young Center. More conservative members reject indoor plumbing, telephones or even LED lights on horse-drawn buggies. Others use cellphones and computers for business purposes.

“There are 2,056 individual church congregations, and the final decision about rules and regulations on issues like technology are made by the local church,” Kraybill said. “So there are more than 2,000 different ways of being Amish.”

The conference will consider migration patterns — including the misleading numbers out of Pennsylvania.

From 2008 to 2012, Pennsylvania lost a net total of 355 Amish households, or about 2,000 individuals. The second-largest loss (125 households) was in Wisconsin, followed by Ohio (52 households), officials said.

Nationwide, however, the Amish population continues to boom. In 1992, the church had 128,000 members; today, more than double that, with an estimated population of 282,000.

The Pennsylvania numbers fell, particularly in Lancaster County, home to the country's second-largest Amish settlement, largely because the community outgrew the region, Kraybill and Nolt said.

“There's cheaper land in New York, cheaper land in Wisconsin, in Kentucky, in Missouri,” Kraybill said. “So they can sell a farm here and maybe buy two farms in another state.”

Those who leave might still identify themselves as Lancaster County Amish, Nolt said.

“There's been something of a coordinated movement of establishing daughter communities, often in the Midwest, in which a settlement maintains their connections across state lines,” Nolt said. “The bishops come back here for church meetings, they are a geographically dispersed group, but they still have a strong Lancaster identity.”

Amish growth is fueled by families with 10 or more kids and low defection rates. They accept few converts.

Recent media attention cast some Amish in an unflattering light, an issue conference attendees will discuss.

The Discovery Channel's “Amish Mafia” show purports to reveal “a side of Amish society that exists under the radar,” according to the show summary. It follows a group of Amish men who violently keep the peace by operating above the law.

Several members of an ultraconservative renegade Amish clan in Bergholz, Ohio, received prison sentences in February for attacking rival Amish and cutting off their hair and beards. Community leader Samuel Mullet Sr. got 15 years for orchestrating the attacks.

Neither group represents real Amish, said Karen Johnson-Weiner, a professor of anthropology at State University of New York-Potsdam, who co-wrote the book “The Amish” with Nolt and Kraybill.

“I hope people learn that they're very diverse and not at all like ‘Amish Mafia,' ” Johnson-Weiner said. “These people have deeply held values. Just dressing the dress doesn't make you Amish. Certainly the (Mullet) case demonstrates that.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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