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Excerpt of chapter 6 of New Media 1740-1915 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree


Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country

Diane Zimmerman Umble

The coming of the telephone to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, captured popular attention and prompted local journalists to marvel at the power of this new medium. The county was home to enthusiastic promoters who founded and developed fourteen Bell affiliated and independent telephone companies from 1898 to 1912. Those boosting telephone service appealed to farmers particularly: "The telephone is one of the most profitable business agencies that a farmer can employ," wrote one journalist in a small town newspaper In addition to keeping farmers "in constant communication with the markets," telephony "provides a sitting room for the community where families can assemble and discuss the events of the day without the inconvenience of travel or loss of time, and in sickness and emergencies, it renders a divine service."

This metaphor of divine service likely troubled Old Order Mennonite and Amish residents of the county. As farmers, they appreciated the potential benefits of telephone access, but they took measure of the telephone from a unique perspective. An anti-telephone tract that circulated throughout the region urged that while "the telephone seems to be handy in many ways for people to know everything quickly," such knowledge was a worldly thing, making the telephone "a sinful network." Despite the promises trumpeted by telephone promoters, Old Order Mennonite and Amish people had grave misgivings about the impact of telephony. One Mennonite man recalls an elderly father scolding, "There goes the devil's wires."1

Divine service or sinful network? The contrasting characterizations of the telephone suggest that the meaning of telephony was disputed in the early years of the twentieth century within the particular contexts of Lancaster County. Accounts of new media often fail to acknowledge fully such disputed meanings. As Carolyn Marvin argues, the study of new media should approach media not as fixed objects with homogeneous effects, but as "constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication." The different responses of particular social groups help to reveal "issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has authority and may be believed."2 Marvin's vocabulary of inside and outside, of authority and belief holds particular resonance-when considering religious communities. This chapter describes the "telephone troubles" among the Old Order Mennonites and Amish. These painful, divisive debates about "who may speak [on the phone and] who may not" rumbled through the communities and severed some members from their churches. The "telephone troubles" provide a window into the dynamic interactions between new media and culture amid social and technological change. In particular, Old Order resistance to telephony, which emerged in the course of the troubles, demonstrates the role of new media in the ongoing formation of identities. On one level, telephonic communication put the religious community in jeopardy by remaking the practices of its separation from the larger world of which it was part. Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish certainly saw it that way when they decried a sinful network. On another level, however, the question regarding telephones formed only one part of an ongoing interrogation of the character and role of communication generally in the life of the religious community. The telephone helped mark but did not itself alone foment questions regarding the privileging of domestic, local, and oral communications, the habits of correspondence among far flung groups of believers and their elders or leaders, or the much debated practice of excommunication as a form of social control.

If telephony in rural American was uniquely shaped by "the socioeconomic geography of agriculture, the strong cooperative tradition in many regions, the long-standing customs of visiting and sharing labor," and "the gendered division of labor on the farm," in Lancaster County these forces were themselves shaped by religious contexts.3 Mennonite and Amish people, whether they used, adapted, or fully resisted the new medium, acted in keeping with the identity of their community as a sort of switchboard, a crossing point, for identities that were at once deeply religious; necessarily local, and self-consciously rural and agrarian.

The Old Order Repertoire

By the 1880s, the Mennonites and Amish were distinguished by their German dialect; plain dress, and nonconformist practices and were respected as skillful and hard working farmers. During the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Amish across the United States gradually divided into two groups, the Amish Mennonites or "Church" Amish (progressives who built meeting houses for worship) and the Old Order Amish or "House Amish" (traditionalists). Lancaster County's Amish settlement, the oldest in North America, was a stronghold of traditionalism. The Amish maintained their use of the German language, social exclusion of excommunicated members (shunning), use of horse and buggy for transportation, and worship in homes.4

The Mennonites also differed across a traditional and progressive continuum. In 1893, Bishop Jonas Martin led traditionalists out of the main body of the Mennonite church to form the Old Order Mennonites. To an outsider in 1880, Amish and Mennonite plain garb made them appear indistinguishable.5 But Mennonite adoption of Sunday schools and participation in mission activity, along with the adoption of the English language, reflected a fundamental shift in worldview to those who claimed a hold on tradition. My focus here is on two German-speaking, horse and buggy, Old Order groups who suffered divisions over the telephone and who thrive today: the Old Order Amish and the Old Order (Groffdale Conference) Mennonites.

Scholars analyzing the development of Old Order movements within the Amish and Mennonite communities at the dawn of the twentieth century argue that the notion of Gelassenheit captures the essence of Old Order social repertoire.6 Gelassenheit is a term used by early Anabaptists to communicate the ideal of yielding completely and unselfishly to the will of God. It means submission—yielding to higher authority—to God, the church community, elders, ministers, parents, and the tradition. In practice, Gelassenheit demands obedienee, humility, submission, thrift, and simplicity. One "gives up" or "gives in" in deference to another for the sake of community. Gelassenheit is the standard for social relationships both within and beyond the group.

Faith, in the spirit of Gelassenheit, is not expressed in words. The church is not a set of doctrines. Rather, in the Old Order view, faith is expressed in the "way of life." The community is the expression of faith in the world; and eternal life is attained through the maintenance of the redemptive community-small, rooted in the land, mindful of its traditions, nonconformist, and separate from the world. Membership in the church entails submission to the Ordnung, or code of conduct. Prior to joining the church, new members are instructed in the content of the Confession of Faith and the Ordnung. When they join, they promise to submit to the congregation and its Ordnung for the rest of their lives. They are reminded of the cost of breaking their vow: They can be excommunicated and shunned. The Ordnung functions as a means of regulating change while maintaining essential community values. When the congregation faces new issues, the leaders and members discuss it. As consensus develops, the position is "grafted into the Ordnung."7

At the turn of the twentieth century as well as today, communication among the Older Order Amish and Mennonites was infused with a spirit of Gelassenheit and practiced through community rituals of worship, silence, work, and visiting that were anchored in the home.8 Patterns of communication built and maintained strong, primary relationships within the circle of church life. Even when Old Order people interacted with their "English" neighbors, their dress, dialect, and church membership reminded them where they belonged. With the arrival of telephones, new ways of communicating threatened to change the face-to-face character of communication and orient communication away from the home toward the outside world.

Telephone Service in Lancaster County

Although Bell Telephone service was established in Lancaster in 1879, it was not until the expiration of key Bell patents in 1893 that competing companies were founded in Lancaster and the surrounding rural areas. By 1898, the Independent Telephone Company competed head to head for city subscribers and wooed rural subscribers who were already clamoring for service, but were underserved by Bell.

Rural areas were also served by a variety of smaller organizations both formal and informal. Farmers in some areas organized their own private lines, stringing wire from fence post to fence post, linking four to six neighbors on a single party line. In 1898, a village newspaper reported: "In many parts of the country farmers have established among themselves a telephone system covering eight or ten miles of wire, the wire used being barbed wire fences. The middle wire of the fence is used, and the farmers are able to converse with each other without difficulty, thus relieving a part of the lonesomeness which forms a chief objection to farm life."9 Hundreds of farmers' lines were organized throughout the countryside in the early years. In some cases; groups of local farmers and businesses organized to build a local line and later petitioned for connection with a larger company. In other cases, local parties formally organized and chartered a company to provide local and long distance service.

By 1899, New Holland and the surrounding communities had access to Independent lines as well as Bell lines. During 1899, the Independent Company ran lines from Lancaster to Ephrata, Intercourse, Gap, Hinkletown, Blue Ball, East Earl, and Weaverland-towns in the heart of the Old Order Mennonite settlement. By 1900, Independent lines also extended into the Amish settlement in the southern part of the county.10 In response to vigorous independent competition in rural markets, Bell liberalized its interconnection policies. By 1910, more independent telephone companies were interconnected with Bell than remained outside the system.11 By 1912, ten different telephone companies provided service to Lancaster County. Competition for local subscribers was intense as companies vied for loyal customers through coverage and advertisements in the pages of local newspapers.

Lancaster County experienced rapid and vigorous telephone development in the years between 1900 and 1912. These local telephone companies were organized, not by outsiders, but by the leading farmers and businessmen in local towns and villages, including Amish Mennonites, Mennonites, and at least one Old Order Mennonite. In 1902, a majority of the organizers of the Conestoga Telephone and Telegraph Company to the east of New Holland were members of the Conestoga Amish Mennonite congregation. The Enterprise Telephone and Telegraph Company, also organized in 1902, included several Mennonites and one Old Order Mennonite on its board. The Intercourse Telephone and Telegraphy Company, founded in 1909 to compete with Enterprise, also included Mennonites on its board.12 When the telephone debates came to a head within the Old Order Mennonite community between 1905 and 1907 and within the Old Order Amish community in 1909 and 1910, Old Order people had access to both Bell and Independent services for local and long distance service.

Divine Service

To proponents in Lancaster County at the turn of the century, telephone ownership served as a mark of the progressive farmer or the efficient rural businessman, doctor, or lawyer. The pages of one weekly village newspaper, the New Holland Clarion, hailed the telephone for providing efficient access to current information: market reports, weather reports, and transportation schedules. The telephone facilitated doing business by preventing unnecessary trips to town and handling emergencies quickly. Editors promoted telephone service for its potential contributions to the growth, profits, and efficiency of local businesses.

Telephone company advertising in the village weekly newspapers amplified these themes by emphasizing the value of the telephone in times of emergency: accidents, fires, illness, stolen horses, mad dogs, robbers, and threatening weather. One Enterprise Telephone Company advertisement provided nine reasons that readers, both men and women, need a telephone. "Some of the Reasons You Need a Telephone" begins with "So your wife can use it daily, to order her meat and groceries. You can get at once into communication with your home when you are away. . . . If every clock in the house stops, you can get correct time from central." The list includes summoning help in cases of illness, fires, or accidents, facilitating social arrangements, and obtaining market prices. The copy also claims, "You can increase your circle of desirable acquaintances as a telephone in the home gives you a social distinction in the country."13 Indeed, one writer claimed that the telephone could actually lengthen life: "By use of the telephone, more work can be crowded into one day, . . . increasing the length of one's life, as after all, what really counts is what we actually accomplish."14

Bell Telephone Co. ad from 1912 with text: "I called up to ask you over this evening."
Figure 6.1 "I called up to Ask You over This Evening." Reprinted from the New Holland Clarion 3 (August 1912): 2. From the collection of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

As telephone promoters realized that women were an important market, illustrated advertisements began showing women enjoying the "wonderful comfort and pleasure" of rural connections. "I just called up to ask you over this evening," the copy reads. Not only did the telephone help this farm family save money, it also makes it possible to be in contact with friends "only ten seconds away" (figure 6.1). Another advertisement models visiting by telephone. The copy reads, "How pleasant it is to make a telephone visit to relatives or friends. The distance only adds enchantment to your chat."15 Not all telephone socializing, however, was deemed appropriate. During the summer of 1906, a series of articles and letters in the Clarion vented the frustration many felt about those who listened in on party lines, participated in spooning on the line, or used abusive, profane, or obscene language. To curb bad behavior, local directories often printed rules and instructions for the proper use of the telephone.16

For its proponents, the telephone was associated with profit, comfort, and pleasure. It widened the world for rural people, providing potential connections to centers of power, information, and culture. The telephone was an instrument of pleasure and progress, a mark of success, and even, on occasion, a medium of divine service. One telephone advertisement sums up its meaning: "The old order of things has passed. To be modern is to have a Bell Telephone. To have a telephone is to live" (figure 6.2).

Denver & Ephrata Telephone Co. ad from 1912 with text: "getting over the old stile."
Figure 6.2 "Getting over the old stile." Reprinted from the New Holland Clarion, 26 May 1912, 6. From the collection of the Lancaster Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Old Order people were not blind to the practical benefits of the telephone, but they were deeply suspicious of its social and spiritual implications. What really counted for them was not defined in terms of the modern world or personal accomplishment. And to characterize the telephone as divine was unthinkable.



1. I reviewed the Ephrata Review (ER) from 1900 to 1914 and the New Holland Clarion (NHC) from 1883 to 1914 for coverage about the telephone. The quite is from ER 6 (November 1914): 9. The antitelephone tract was published along with other papers and letters of Old Order Mennonite bishop, Jonas Martin (1839-1925), by Amos B. Hoover, ed., The Jonas Martin Era (Denver, Penn.: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 1982), 811-812. Warren Weiler recounted the story about the "devil's wires" in a personal interview. Weiler's ancestors founded the Enterprise Telephone and Telegraphy Company in 1902. Old Order informants are not identified at their requests.

2. Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late NIeteenth Century (New York: Oxford Press, 1988), 8, 4. In contrast to those who approach communicatinoi as transmission, I take a cultural approach, defining communication as a process through which humans symbolically construct meaningful worlds to live in. James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essay on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989) advocates a cultural apprpach to communication "directed not at the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society and time, not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs" (p. 18). Claude S. Fischer's America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) is a comprehensive sociological analysis of the coming of the telephone and automobile, and includes an extenisive bibliogrgpashy of telephone research. See Lana Rakow, Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992) for analysis of gender and the telephone.

3. Ronald R. Kline, Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 40-41. See especially chapter 4 "(Re)inventing the Telephone." Kline mentions resistance to the telephone ("relatively short lived and passive" [40]).

4. Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introductorion to Mennonite History, 2d ed. (Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1981) provides historical background on the Anabapist movement. Calvin Redekop, Mennonite Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univesity Press, 1989) writes on Mennonite Society, past and present. The classic anthropological study of the Amish is John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univesity Press, 1993) and includes recent scholarship on Anabaptist origins. Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univesity Press, 1989) provides sociological analysis of the Amish. Steven N. Holt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, Penn.: Good Books, 1992) provides an historical account of North American Amish. The Old Order Mennonites and the Amish share the same Anabaptist origins. For an account of the Old Order movements, see Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1988), 201-229.

5. Donald B. Kraybill, "At the Crossroads of Modernity: Amish, Mennonites and Brethern in Lanbcaster County in 1880," Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, 10 (January 1987): 2-12.

6. Sandra Cronk, "Gelassenheit: The Rites of the Redemptive Process in Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities," Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1981): 5-44. Kraybill (1989) and James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War—Mennonite Identity and Organization in America 1890-1930 (Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1989) achnowledge Cronk's influence on their analyses. Kraybill reports that Amish themselves find her analysis valid (268). Cronk paints the North American context out of which the Old Order Division grew. She argues that that three North American phenomena introduced an alternative "redemptive process": 1) growing technological and industrial development, 2) the political ideology of democracy, and 3) pietism and Evangelical Protestantism. Cronk's work shapes my analysis as well. Steven D. Reschly, "Alternative Dreams and Visions: The Amish Repertoire of Community on the Iowa Prairie, 1840-1910," ph.D.diss., University of Iowa, 1994, 7, coins the phrase "repertoire of community" consisting of "channels of consciousness and habits" that guide and limit possible ranges of attitudes and actions available to members of a community. He argues that a community fashions itself in dynamic relationship with conceptions of the "world" beyond the communiuty.

7. Kraybill, The Riddle, 96.

8. For a more complete description of how rituals of worship, silence, work, and visiting order community life, see Diane Zimmerman Umble, Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), chapter 3.

9. NHC 11 April 1898, 3.

10. The development of telephone service and the growth of independents in Lancaster County parallels nationwide telephone trends. Nationally, as in Lancaster County, Bell gave primary attention to urban development until foced to confrront strenuous independent competition in rural markets. Lancaster County data was collectd from A.T.&T. Exchange Statistics 1880-1907 (Warren, N.J.: A.T.&T. Archives): Box 7 and "Reports of Telegraph and Telephone Companiesto the Auditor general and the Department of INternal Affairs 1881-1916" (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives), RG.1.

11. Robert Garnet, The Telephone Enterprise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 131.

12. Brief histories of the companies founded in Old Order regions, inlcuding the Conestoga Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Enterprise Telephone and Telephone Company and the Intercourse Telephone and Telegraph Company, are covered in chapters 5 and 6 in Umble.

13. NHC 19 August 1911, 5.

14. ER 23 August 1912, 4.

15. NHC 11 May 1912, 5.

16. Umble, Holding the Line, 83-84.

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