The Gentle People

Courts have permitted the Amish to live outside the law. But in some places, Amish women are sexually assaulted with no recourse

Yet in a shed one door down from the Kempfs' house sits a white phone. It's registered in an English neighbor's name but is used by the Amish. Sally didn't call the police because she'd been taught to defer to the men in her household, even if they were her sons, and because she belongs to a community that believes the greater threat comes from without, not within.

Kathryn, for her part, has borne her husband six children. Four older sons and daughters have left home-the oldest girl got married and the middle girl lives with her-but their mother works hard to take care of Raymond and the young son and daughter who still live with them. Even if the church allowed divorce, Kathryn wouldn't want one. She'd like Raymond to take medication to help calm his temper. He won't, though, so she takes pills to ease her own sadness. "We're supposed to forgive, but that's hard to do," Kathryn said. "The only way I can ever truly forgive him is when he dies. Those were our children, and look what he did."

The Amish church traces its roots to the 16th century, when a group of Swiss dissidents decided the Protestant Reformation was moving too slowly. They embraced baptism of adults rather than children, a practice that was seen as a threat to the civic order and punished by execution. The Amish faced persecution and torture, which they relive in their prayers and hymns every other Sunday, when they worship in each other's homes.


Today, most of the church's 200,000 members live in the United States, and about half of them are in Pennsylvania and Ohio, concentrated in rural counties that are the heart of Amish country. There is a sameness to much of the region, with its white shingled homes, dark buggies, and repeating surnames.

As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio's Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren't taught that the earth was round. "A lot of Amish will tell you they don't want their kids to be educated," she said. "The more they know, the more apt they are to leave."

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Nadya Labi
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