Diane Zimmerman Umble, “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meaning of the Telephone in Amish Country”

New advances in media are often considered an improvement for the larger society, allowing for better communication through the use of superior technology that usually replaces an old inadequate form. A collection of essays entitled New Media, 1740 – 1915 examine what is now perceived as “old” media and the implications they had on society upon their introduction. While most new media is venerated and expected amongst contemporary society, some produced a negative effect. One specific instance is analyzed in “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” where the debut of the telephone at the beginning of the twentieth century caused intense debates within two traditionalist Amish communities, Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish. This chapter highlights the disputes that erupted when new media emerged, a case that the author Dianne Umble argues is often overlooked.

The introduction of the telephone in rural America was lauded by farmers and businessmen because it allowed for easier communication with the markets, especially if one had to travel far distances in order to conduct business. The telephone’s arrival into people’s homes gave them the assurance of knowing information quickly and demonstrated its usefulness in cases of emergencies, some even dubbing it “a divine service.” (Umble, 139) However, this was not the case for the rural Amish communities, whose religious adherence sparked disputes about whether the telephone went against Gelassenheit (submission to God) and Ordung (code of conduct), more exactly, their way of life. The breaking of these religious mandates could result in excommunication and shunning, demonstrating “how culture shapes the meaning of new technology within the dynamic of cultural self-definition.” (Umble, 153)

Why did the Amish oppose this new media? While they did realize the benefits that the telephone could bring to their lives, it was their faith that insisted their community to be “small, rooted in the land, mindful of its traditions, nonconformist, and separate from the world.” (Umble, 141). The Amish communicated in a face-to-face manner, centered on the home, a place they considered sacred. Allowing the telephone to enter the home broke many of their religious principles, especially allowing the outside world into their sacred space.

It was hard to ignore the spread of telephone usage, especially with the rapid development that was occurring throughout rural communities. Advertisements for telephone companies were distributed everywhere while illustrating the improvements it could bring to one’s life. The ads appealed to both men and women, highlighting profit, comfort, and pleasure, modern ideas that juxtaposed Amish ideologies. What especially worried them was the ads proclamation to put your trust in the machine in case of an emergency, which the Amish felt contradicted their “recognition that faith in God alone was sufficient.” (Umble, 147) The two religious communities both looked to their faith to reconcile with the new telephone and the issues it created.

The Old Order Mennonites’ arguments centered on the influence of the telephone and the consequences that came with its usage. While leading bishops in the community felt telephones challenged their beliefs, they were torn between “peace and purity.” (Umble, 148) To prevent a schism within the religious community, they decided to form a compromise based on the idea of “exercising love, rather than separation.” (Umble, 148) This resolution allowed ordinary members to use telephones, but the leaders in the community were barred from the new device. The leaders ultimately believed that they could gradually preach away the new media temptation.

The Old Order Amish decided on a stricter approach presiding to retain the way of life of their forefathers, meaning no telephones in the home. Those who opposed this mandate would be excommunicated and shunned. This ruling ultimately split the community, but the Old Order Amish maintained that the “telephone did not conform to the time honored principles of nonconformity and separation from the world.” (Umble, 151) They firmly believed the split was caused by allowing a worldly spirit (the telephone) into their home.

The introduction of the telephone created a rift within the Amish community. The Amish lived by firm beliefs, that if broken could destroy their basis of survival. Umble maintains that the Amish experience with technology “has been one of selective adoption.” (Umble, 152) Certain new developments, such as the grain binder (farming tool), were enthusiastically accepted into the community. The basis of adoption ultimately fell upon the new technology’s effects on the religious community, whether it will preserve or destroy their faith. The telephone was a threat because it was “both a symbolic and physical connection to the outside world, and it opened the home to outside influence and intrusion.” (Umble, 152) The debates from both communities demonstrate the effects of new media on a religious space and culture. Unlike the other farmers and businessmen who quickly consumed the telephone, the Amish apprehension reveals how new media is not always applauded within society. Contemporary Amish communities still selectively adopt new media, requiring lengthy deliberation about the coexistence of new media and their religion.

Grain Binder

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