Not to be Confused: Quakers, Amish, and Pennsylvania Dutch

Travel Tips, What's New — By abbygordon on August 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm

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: If you stop by a Quaker meetinghouse (like the Arch Street Friends Meeting House), for example, and ask why nobody is wearing black hats or bonnets, you will be thoroughly laughed at.  If you walk up to an Amish vendor in the Reading Terminal Market (where many of them sell farm-fresh food) and inquire about shaking in the presence of God, you’ll get some very confused looks.  And if you ask a descendant of the Pennsylvania Dutch why he or she is not in a horse and buggy, you’ll probably be summarily dismissed.  So who are all these people, and what are the differences between them?

by diluvi

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.


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  • Peggy Gordon says:

    This essay is extremely informative and well written. As a lifelong Philadelphian, I look forward to reading more pieces like this one.

  • Bill Rushby says:

    I sat next to a member of the Beachy Amish Mennonite church at a church fellowship meal today. He told about having attended a Beachy wedding at the large Conservative Friends’ yearly meetinghouse near Barnesville OH. The nearby Beachy fellowship uses the Stillwater meetinghouse for various purposes because of its plainness, wonderful acoustics and large seating capacity.

    Your assertion that Friends have nothing to do with the various Anabaptist groups needs to be guarded. Especially for the more traditional Conservative Friends, there have been historical relationships and are to this day significant linkages with Amish, Mennonite and German Baptist faith communities.

    Reality is almost always more complex than our perceptions of it!

  • Mackenzie says:

    I blame the Quaker Oats Man for us being confused with the Old Order Amish. Quaker Oats, by the way, wasn’t even started by a Quaker. The founder just thought using the name of a religion strongly associated with honesty in all things (including business) would be good for business.

    There are more similarities than just historical dress though. Quakers do still have a simplicity testimony, so while the clothing may not be old-fashioned, ignoring fashion trends and designer names is still a common thing. Amish & Quakers both refuse to swear oaths (James 5:12 & Matthew 5:34-37) and also refuse to be involved in the fighting of wars. Quakers relate these to the integrity testimony and the peace testimony. According to the Amish don’t use titles of respect, instead using first names if familiar and full names if unfamiliar. This is the same among Quakers.

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  • Nicole says:

    Pennsylvania Dutch may also be Quakers. This is so in Markham, Ontario, Canada, where the Quakers, most often affiliated witht he surname Raymer, practice and live by Quakerism, yet are direct descendents of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and often go by the term: “Pennsylvania Quaker Dutch.” Just thought you should know, otherwise this article was very informative and well-done!

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  • Pamela says:

    I found this article extremely informative and very interesting.

  • Debbie says:

    I was browsing, looking for info on the difference between the Amish and the Dutch. Found your site and once I read the first paragraph, I was hooked. Thank you for this. I found it very informative and will pass this along to a friend who asked the same question.

  • Milz says:

    Thank you for the clarity. I. am now an unconfused Philadelphian. Well written & explained.


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