The Lancaster New Era reported last Friday the results of a series of interviews with Amish people around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about their use of cell phones. While some people were opposed to them, many now admit to owning and using them regularly.

The Amish bishops strongly disapprove. But they do not know who actually owns them, and the Amish are increasingly using them anyway. Opinions about them are divided. One Amish man whom the paper interviewed indicated that he uses his regularly—“cell phones are here to stay,” he thinks. Another, however, said that “a cell phone would come in handy, but I don’t need it…. You get your wants and your needs mixed up sometimes.”

A spokesman for some Amish bishops worried that the Amish people aren’t respecting church authority as much as they should regarding the use of cell phones. Telephones were forbidden by the Old Order Amish a century ago, in part because church leaders at the time saw them as potentially distracting to family togetherness. They felt that phones would represent an intrusion from the outside world into Amish homes.

The bishops subsequently authorized the use of community phones located in sheds outside Amish homes or businesses, where people could place and receive calls. But they still generally disapprove of telephones in the home, where the frivolity of much phone conversation can disrupt family peace. Some bishops have permitted Amish business people to install telephones in their work places.

Donald Kraybill, in his book The Riddle of Amish Culture, indicates that use of the telephone is not a moral issue for the Amish. Instead, they perceive it as an interruption to family harmony and a symbol of worldliness. A phone in the home would intrude on family life and spoil established rhythms. A phone would allow “unwanted visitors to intrude into the privacy of one’s home at any moment,” Kraybill suggests (p.150).

The Amish men interviewed by the New Era, all of whom requested anonymity, indicated that phone use has become ubiquitous in their society. Community phones are common, and many people have voice mail service on them. Increasingly, people are installing phone lines into heated sheds for their own, personal, use. One man estimates that 50 percent or more of the Amish in the county now have their own, personal, phones, and he believes that all have voice mail service.

Since cell phones are carried concealed in a pocket, and the batteries are easily recharged, their use is hard to detect, in contrast to wired phones, which are harder to conceal from visitors into the home. A harness maker uses his cell phone constantly, at work and at home. He no longer has a wired phone. “I don’t limit the cell phone to business transactions. That’s kind of hard to do. I use it at home all the time,” he says. But another man said he was tempted to buy a cell phone in a Costco when he saw one for sale for 99 cents. He resisted because he didn’t want to be bothered by calls day and night.

That man admitted that they were not supposed to own them, but, in an emergency, they would use them if they needed to. For instance, after the Nickel Mines shooting tragedy last October, the Amish phones in Lancaster County were heavily used as people established support networks, shared information, and provided emotional assistance to one another.

Amish young people all have cell phones, informants told the paper, many equipped with other functions such as cameras and computers. All of this technology deeply worries Amish leaders. They are concerned that the young people may not be able to give up the technological gizmos when and if they join the church.

But the spokesman for the bishops says that Amish young people have owned cars for years and they have been able to give them up when they join the church as young adults. So he expects them to do the same with their cell phones when the time comes. However, the number of Amish who apparently flaunt the established rules makes one wonder.