US religious sect that rejects modern life is spreading from its traditional heartlands, but scandals are damaging its benign image
Whatever they think of modern-day conveniences such as electricity and power steering (hard with a horse and buggy) the American Amish might want to consider the services of a public relations firm. Someone needs to counter the awful stories appearing in recent weeks that have featured rape, incest and the gassing of dogs, lots of them.
The landslide of bad news - "A Crisis in Amish Country" was a New York Times headline this month - coincides with something else unexpected about members of a sect descended from Anabaptists who fled Europe to the US, mostly to Pennsylvania, in the early 18th century. In population terms, at least, the Amish are booming. And as their numbers swell - growing at a rate of 5 per cent a year - they are also beginning to migrate westwards.
According to a new study, the Amish, many of whom still eschew English and speak Pennsylvania Dutch (actually a German dialect), are quickly moving beyond their traditional rural bases in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. The survey, completed by researchers at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, says they are now settled in significant numbers in 28 US states. There are now just over 250,000 American Amish altogether and, at current growth rates, the population may double by 2024 if not before.
As they grow - one main reason is the tradition of having five or more children per couple - the Amish may struggle more than ever to manage relations with the outside world, which regards them with a mixture of condescending curiousness - Amish farmers' markets are a big draw even in Manhattan - and outright suspicion. The Amish have their special exemptions: they don't pay some federal taxes and they educate their children in their own schools.
That they can skirt the rules does not sit well with everyone. Last week's news …