The Simple Life and Freedom to Choose?

I have “minimalists” friends. They live and decorate their home sparingly. Don’t subscribe to the newspaper – read it at our public library. 

I respect those who try to live simply or resist over-scheduling, over-technology, and over-abundance. Those who live off the land are my favorite. My grandpa retired from a factory to try his hand at farming. I've been a preschool teacher, hospital chaplain, parent educator, magazine columnist, and now an author, blogger, and speaker. We have the freedom to live by our convictions, right?

Not so the Amish - especially those of the Swartzentruber Order.

My husband and I are “English parents” to two sons from the Amish - Mosie and Monroe - and our son-in-law Harvey was raised in and left the uber strict Swartzentruber Order. I’ve opened my heart and home to help others - who ran away at night - assimilate into the “forbidden” English world. 

I've learned their life was anything but simple. Labor from dawn to dusk without sunscreen, sunglasses, electric or indoor plumbing. And what they left is an incredibly complex, rule-laden culture.

Yes, there are many different orders. From Black Car Amish, Beachy, White Buggy, New Order, Weaver, to Old, and Swartzentruber. Each has different rules, bishops, beliefs, and behaviors.

What's my point? The Amish have some admirable qualities
  • A terrific work ethic. 
  • They're self-sufficient. 
  • Productive. 
  • Don't live off the government. 
  • Teach their kids to do chores. 
But their "simple life" also restricts members from the freedom to choose, to question, or to pursue dreams.

Swartzentrubers – the most insular and cryptic – have myriad oral rules called the Ordnung enforced by the bishop, deacon, and preachers. This order bans safety features on their black buggies, prohibits birth control, bicycles, bras, coat hangers, clothing choices, childhood immunizations, reading the Bible in English, and independent Bible study. All church services are conducted in High German. Singing. Scriptures. Rote Sermons. No laughter allowed!

Those who wear correction lenses must wear only round frames. No contacts. A choice in eye glass frames is verboten. If they smoke, they may use a pipe – if it is plain. Cigarettes? Only the brands in the Ordnung. Solidarity is sacrosanct. Cryptic rules are cardinal. Obedience obvious. 

Freedom of thought, creativity, and inquisitiveness are suppressed. When our son-in-law Harvey would query his dad – the bishop – the reason for a rule, his dad’s retort was, “It’s our way!”

In the desired "close knit community," Amish are living in a fishbowl sans privacy. Everyone in the settlement is watching each other's behavior. And when one breaks a rule, others tattle to the church. They condemn. They gossip. They glare at each other.

Neighbors, friends, and church people often ask me, “Why’d they leave?” Sometimes the question is genuine curiosity and compassion. Sometimes it’s veiled disapproval and disbelief of leaving an imagined utopia.

I don’t get people who spotlight the Amish as the hallmark of simple living and generalize the culture as always humble, happy, and conflict free. Former Amish, from various orders, have told me that isn't reality. 

Joseph Miller, who left his Beachy Amish settlement, says it better than I do. He shares his unique perspective on seeking to emulate the "simple life" Amish image, and his courage to choose something different.

There is a VAST difference between choosing a lifestyle as an informed adult, and being born into that same lifestyle. The very guidelines that give you such comfort and a sense of freedom might feel very differently had they been imposed upon you involuntarily from birth.

You have carefully looked, and chosen a group that conforms to your beliefs. We weren't given that opportunity. We were forced to conform to what was already believed.

Your convictions were formed from prayer and study. Ours were preformed and prepackaged by others and impressed upon us from birth.

It's easy to view the Amish as a people who choose to deny themselves the comforts of the world in order to better serve God. For people weary of the rat race and politics of their current church or business, the plain life seems like a wonderful change.

But it is naive in the extreme to imagine that beards and aprons preclude political maneuvering in church, or buggies and farms, chasing a dollar. Realize those of us who left the "wondrous simplicity" of the plain life, very likely did so for the same reasons you came.

We followed our convictions.

Question: How have you followed your convictions despite resistance? Enjoyed freedom of choice? Regretted a choice? Leave your comments below.

(c)Copyright, 2014. Brenda Nixon. Duplication strictly prohibited.


  1. Well said....I weary of trying to explain the deeper reasons of why I left without sounding as of I just wanted more "things" that weren't allowed in the Amish Mennonite church. The spiritual darkness is usually not seen to a "romanticizing" outsider....

    1. Thanks Mommacee. When I hear from former Amish who feel I've adequately been their "voice" it's tremendously affirming to me.

  2. Having been Amish, this really resonates with me. Couldn't have said it better than Joseph (whom I know personally) did. I often yearn for the years between about age 10 and age 22 back... even if I may then have made some mistakes I didn't make otherwise, at least they would have been MY mistakes. As it was, my every act and decision was influenced or extracted by the over-ruling, over-powering "spiritual" leaders who were anything but protectors of justice and peace.

  3. My eyes were truly opened to some very troubling secrets about the Amish when I became friends with many ex-Amish. My perception of what I saw and what was reality was as different as day and night. My friend, Brenda Nixon, also shared with me some of the vast differences that each Amish group is to live by. The majority of my time has been spent in Holmes County where I hVe met and made friends with so many ex Amish and some that are still bible reading, teaching, studying, blood bought, wonderful children of God, Amish.

    1. Thanks for being a willing learner about this culture. It's wonderful that you're becoming friends with ex-Amish & making your "classroom" in Holmes County, Ohio. I'm happy to pass along what I've learned.

  4. Staying as far way from the gov can be a very healthy thing!


  5. *Smile* yes Richard not depending on the government is good for one's dignity and self-reliance. Many Amish live off the grid, and - contrary to popular belief - many pay taxes.

  6. Joseph Miller said it very well.