Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quakers, Amish, and Pennsylvania Dutch Are Often Confused

As a child, I lived in a small farming community, and all my life, I was told our family was Quaker and Pennsylvania Dutch, so I decided to do some research on this subject.  I have totally confused myself because it doesn't match up with what I've been told.  I do remember attending a Friends church in this area and the women wore little white hats tied on their head with long skirts or dresses.

My great-great-grandparents on my grandfather's side were from England and were Amish, and on my grandmother's side they were Quaker, and she referred to herself as Pennsylvania Dutch because her family migrated from Germany near the Dutch border.  Of course, I'm still confused.  lol

Let’s get one thing straight: Quakers are not Amish, Amish are not Quaker, Amish are usually Pennsylvania Dutch, and Pennsylvania Dutch are sometimes Amish.  Got it?  Nothing irritates a member of one of these groups more than when the three terms are used interchangeably.  So who are all these people, and what are the differences between them?
Amish not Quaker

The term Pennsylvania Dutch refers to descendants of German settlers of Pennsylvania (the German word for German is Deutsche, which is probably why others picked up the word Dutch).  The Pennsylvania Dutch do have their own language — a derivation of German — but that language is virtually extinct at this point, and modern Pennsylvania Dutch are indistinguishable from other modern Americans.  Pennsylvania Dutch are a variety of religions, including Lutheran, Mennonite, Baptist, Amish (yes, that’s a religion — more on that in a minute).  The Pennsylvania Dutch are similar to any other ethnic group whose relatives came in the 18th century…They may have some lasting cultural traditions (certain foods, for instance), but they are in other ways much like any other Americans.
The Amish (at least the Old Order ones, which is who most people think of when they think of the Amish) do very much stand out from other ethnic and religious groups in the U.S.  Amish is a Protestant religion (a particular denomination of Mennonite, actually), and most Amish are actually Pennsylvania Dutch — meaning (as you now know) they are descended from Pennsylvania Germans and spoke that particular dialect of German.  What makes the Amish stand out is that the rules of their church prohibit many modern conveniences, including electricity and more modern technologies.  They still drive horses and buggies (they will get in a car if necessary, but only if somebody else is driving); they wear old-fashioned dresses and overalls with bonnets and black hats; they value farm labor and de-emphasize education.  They are very much an insular community, as marriage outside of the church is forbidden.  Your child’s college roommate will most likely not be Amish, though there’s a chance he or she will be Pennsylvania Dutch — or Quaker, for that matter.  Oh, and the Amish don’t like to have their pictures taken, so please don’t run up to them, mouth agape, snapping photos.
Quakers have nothing to do with either of these two other groups.  Well, okay, Quakerism is a religion, and Quakers came to North America in the 18th century (and earlier), but that’s where the similarities end.  Quakers are Protestant; they are one of the many religious sects that emigrated from England searching for religious freedom.  Quakers are unusual among Christians in that they worship without any form of priest or pastor.  They believe that anyone can communicate with God or be in touch with “that of God within himself,” hence Meeting for Worship consists of sitting in silence together, with individuals speaking when they feel moved to.  Quakers are pacifists and believe in simplicity and humility, so their places of worship are quite plain.  While Quakers did once dress in simple, old-fashioned clothing, they long ago abandoned those outfits.   In short, much like the Pennsylvania Dutch, Quakers are indistinguishable (on the outside) from other Americans.  You might be sitting next to one right now.
How did these three different terms come to be confused?  You’ve got me.  It’s probably because they all live in eastern Pennsylvania.  Lancaster has enclaves of Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch stretch across much of eastern and central Pennsylvania.  Quakers were Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers (William Penn converted to Quakerism, much to his father’s dismay), and Quaker schools offer some of the best educations in Philadelphia.  But beyond their geographical proximity, these three groups are quite different, and one of the best ways to seem like a real Philadelphian is to not get them confused.
1. Amish is a belief based on simplicity and strict living, unlike the Quakers who typically are liberals.
2. The Amish religion has priests, while Quakers believe that as everyone has a connection with God they don’t need a priest to preside over any ceremony.
3. The Amish believe in maintaining the ways of the past and don’t consider using modern amenities.
4. Though their beliefs lead to different lifestyles, both believe in God and in peace.
What do Quakers believe?
They believe that every person is loved and guided by God.  Broadly speaking, we affirm that "there is that of God in everyone." Everyone is known by God and can know God in a direct relationship.  They are called to attend to this relationship and to be guided by it. Quakers use many words to describe the Divine.  Some of them include: God, the Light Within, Christ, Spirit, Seed, and Inward Teacher.
Are Quakers Christian?
The Quaker way has deep Christian roots that form our understanding of God, our faith, and our practices. Many Quakers consider themselves Christian, and some do not.  Many Quakers today draw spiritual nourishment from our Christian roots and strive to follow the example of Jesus.  Many other Quakers draw spiritual sustenance from various religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the nature religions.
It sounds like Quakers can believe anything they like―is that so?
Quakers invite the word of God to be written in our hearts, rather than as words on paper—they have no creed.  But they also believe that if they are sincerely open to the Divine Will, they will be guided by a Wisdom that is more compelling than our own more superficial thoughts and feelings.  This can mean that they will find themselves led in directions or receiving understandings that they may not have chosen just from personal preference. Following such guidance is not always easy.  This is why community is important to Quakers, why they turn to each other for worshipful help in making important choices, and why they read the reflections of other Quakers who have lived faithful lives.
Can I attend Quaker meeting?
Yes!  You are welcome to attend Quaker worship.  There are Quakers of all ages, religious backgrounds, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and classes.  All are welcome. You can find meetings in your area at
Below are sources you can go to learn more about these religions.
Okay, people, I hope I have shed some light on this topic and not confused you as much as I am.  lol 
Sandra K. Marshall, Author


Melissa Keir said...

Very interesting post. One side of my family came from Switzerland. They had many similar beliefs as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Ohio has a large Amish community and we see them frequently in their buggies.

Thank you for shedding some light and sharing your information!

Kari Rogers Miller said...

Good post Sandy..

I always felt there was a difference between Quakers and Amish...not sure how I distinguished the two, but years ago, I had a Mennonite Friend and she was a lot like the Amish. She explained the difference to me at that time.

I looked up the difference...(what would we do without Google?)and found this:

"The Mennonites and the Amish do share a common Anabaptist lineage, but today they are actually two distinct Christian groups. The Amish still cultivate a very intentional counter-cultural lifestyle: still relying on alternative forms of transportation, very tied to rural areas and agriculture, and dressing in cape dresses and plain clothes. Mennonites do share some beliefs with the Amish: a commitment to nonviolence and a desire to live simply (although this gets expressed in very different ways), but today, Mennonite Church USA might have more in common with Quakers, Brethren or other historic peace churches."

And just for the record...I really liked the old movie "Friendly Persuasion" about a pacifist Quaker Family! Great! Great Movie!


Sue Palmer Fineman said...

My grandmother was Mennonite. I remember her mother visiting when she was in her 90's. She still wore the long black dress and little white cap with the strings hanging down.

Sandy said...

Thank you, Melissa. Frankly, I was shocked by some of what I learned. I have to admit I'm still a bit confused since my grandmother always said we were Pennsylvania Dutch, and we couldn't have been if she was a Quaker.

Sandy said...

Thank you for the added information, Kari. I tried to get my information from the actual sites. The information on Quakers came from their site. The one on the Amish was a site in Pennsylvania. I didn't look up the Mennonites, but did come across some information. I'll look at the URL you provided.

Sandy said...

Sue, it sounds like you have an interesting family history. Thank you!

Amelia said...

I knew the difference between Quakers and Amish, but the Pennslvania Dutch part was never really clear to me. Nice post... also covered some things about Quakers (like not all being Christian) that I'd missed or forgotten along the way.

Sandy said...

Thank you for visiting my Amelia. Who's the cutie in your photo?

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Sandy, I am sorry to be so late getting here. You gave such a wonderfully clear explanation of these 3 groups. Even though my family is from central Pennsylvania and I am very familiar with these groups, your blog explained some things I didn't know.
I truly enjoyed reading your blog and wish you every success.

Sandy said...

Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your comment.

These groups seem to be so intermingled that I was surprised at how different they are. All my life, my grandmother said we were Quakers and Pennsylvania Dutch, and that can't be. We're one or the other.

Anonymous said...

Of course you can be both Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker. The Pennsylvania Dutch haven't lived cheek-by-jowl with Quakers since the 1680s without producing some Convinced Friends every now and then from among their number.(On the other hand, Amish from England sounds highly unlikely to me. There has to be quite a story there if your family history is accurate.)

A couple of other small matters:

- Amish are not a kind of Mennonite as such. They separated from the Mennonites historically (over the issue of shunning). Both are Anabaptists. There is at least one group, however, that describes itself with both terms, namely the Beachy Amish Mennonites.

- Amish don't have priests. Their clergy consists of deacons, preachers (also called ministers), and bishops. At all three levels, clergy are chosen by lot from among a number of nominated men.

- I think your photo of a buggy may actually be Old Order Mennonite rather than Amish. In Lancaster county, Amish buggies have grey tops rather than black, while the Mennonite buggies are black. This differs elsewhere. (Since each Amish church district is autonomous, it is at least as difficult to generalize categorically about Amish as it is about Quakers.) Also, the man's hat looks Mennonite to me. Of course the majority of Mennonites nowadays do not use buggies or wear plain dress (though, like Quakers, they may tend to avoid particularly ostentatious clothing depending on individual convictions).

- The most important thing Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers have in common is their Peace Testimony, otherwise known as non-resistance: i.e., in secular language, they are all committed pacifists.

- Finally, the "Dutch" in "Pennsylvania Dutch" doesn't exactly come from the German word "deutsch" -- though they are related. Rather, the English words "Dutch" and "Dutchman" back in the 17th century referred to both German and Dutch speakers in what is now Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, northern Belgium, and parts of France. When it was necessary to make a distincition Netherlanders and northern Germans (who spoke similar dialects) were "Low Dutch" and the Germans further south (which also means higher up in altitude from the inhabitants of the northern coastal plains and the below-sealevel reclaimed lands in Holland) were "High Dutch". This old meaning of "Dutch" disappeared as the term came later on to be used exclusively for the Netherlanders--with one exception: it has stayed on in the term "Pennsylvania Dutch". ("Pennsylvania German" is sometimes used instead to avoid confusion, particularly in some, but by no means not all, academic writing.)

Recommended resources:

- Donald Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, rev. ed. 2001

- , Simon J. Bronner and Joshua R. Brown, eds. Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (2017)

- Amish America web site (which is substantially more reliable than some of the tourist-oriented websites out there)

- Don Yoder, " 'Pennsylvania Dutch... or 'Pennsylvania German'?" (a classic essay, originally from
The Pennsylvania Dutchman newspaper, 1950.