Rebecca Fisher’s take on a beauty tutorial is simple. She’s standing in front of a cabinet mirror while a woman (clearly trying to remain out of frame) holds a phone to film her. A tea towel embroidered with the message “Do small things with great love” takes up the bottom half of the frame. Fisher parts her hair in the center, takes a comb, and twists her hair pulled back in a slick bun, not dissimilar from the style that Bella Hadid loves to wear on the red carpet. In other videos, Fisher’s hair is partially covered by a white bonnet. The caption on the video says, “How we do our hier (sic) #Amish.” The video has 6,282 likes.
What I knew about the Amish before watching Fisher’s video — mostly gleaned from listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic — was pretty much limited to their plain dress, and the fact that most don’t use technology. Many of the videos tagged “Amish” on TikTok show horse and buggies — a hallmark of the culture to lay people — and are filmed by non-Amish passersby on their road trips through rural Pennsylvania. But then there are some Amish teens, bonnets and all, who are considered a hot commodity simply for existing on the platform. Social media offers them the same opportunity everyone has — to tell their stories on their own terms to people they don’t know. And yes, depending on their church and their age, it’s probably totally kosher for them to be on social media, if unusual.
People tend to regard the Amish church with curiosity — an anomalous community where modern mores don’t go. There probably are Amish teens and adults on Instagram and Twitter, but their enthusiasm about TikTok feels even more out of place. If Facebook is one degree removed from Amish life, TikTok is 20 degrees removed. It is a wild west even compared to other apps, where young women convince men that they eat their tampons, teens organize strikes, and everyone is singing songs from 1926. Most videos are embedded in about 20 layers of deeply online context. People post on TikTok to be noticed and to go viral. But Amish society is communalist, one that prioritizes the group over the individual. Which is why the Amish TikTok users seem so much like an oxymoron, and also why they’re popular. One surefire way to be noticed is to be Amish.
To be clear, there aren’t tons of Amish teens on TikTok — this isn’t on the same level as, say, Mormon mommy bloggers. But there are certainly more than you’d expect in a community that encourages community and condemns vanity. There’s Fisher, a teen from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who goes by @AmishBek (and whose first viral TikTok declared the proper pronunciation of her hometown is LANG-kiss-ter not Lang-KAS-ter). And Ann Mast a 20-year-old who mostly posts lip-syncs of country songs, and @leelangford, whose profile description reads, “amish boy rumspringa” and who tags almost all his videos #Amishforreal. In one video, he plays basketball with a woman who is wearing an ankle-length blue dress, bonnet, and black basketball shoes. An out-of-commission buggy is in the background.
Zoom out to include Mennonites (who are a different religion, but are descended from Anabaptists like the Amish and in some cases also dress plainly) and the pool gets even bigger. One of my favorite videos is from an account called @sherluvzpink, where four Mennonite women in plain dress answer questions about their faith scored to the song “Choices (Yup)” by E-40 (answering questions to the song is a popular meme). The video has 261,600 likes and 2,600 comments. The top comment is “Okay, but my husband grew up Mennonite and TikTok is most definitely forbidden. They can’t even have radios in their cars. How??”
So many of the TikTok comments are questioning the young people’s faith, or offering armchair theological advice on whether the people in the videos are Mennonite or Amish. The grossest comments insinuate that they’re faking their religious beliefs for more likes on the app. Fisher, made a video in July explaining that she is “absolutely not Mormon.” In one of Mast’s videos, she says “I know you don’t understand our life, but unless you have been amish do not diss the life and do not tell me I am fake. That doesn’t mean we’re not amish. I got a question on one of my videos like, Do you wear shoes? Of course we wear fucking shoes.” She’s wearing a bonnet in the video. Frustratingly, one of the first comments is “I would say your [sic] Mennonite, not Amish.”
Like every other social media platform, TikTok is perhaps not the right medium to learn about complex theological concepts. Steven Nolt, senior scholar and professor of history and Anabaptist studies at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, is, as his title might suggest, an expert in Amish and Mennonite religions. (He is not on TikTok.) He told me that, contrary to popular belief, the Amish don’t have the same structure as say, Protestant or Catholic Christianity, and there are no universal tenants being handed out by a Pope-like figure. So, there’s not a central commandment that thou shalt not have cell phones, although many local church districts do have a “no cell phone” rule. But the Amish community that formed in America in the mid-1800s decided to hold on to the “old order of life.” According to Nolt, at that time this decision didn’t have much to do with technology, because horse and buggies were the technology at the time. But as the years passed, the skepticism toward newer technologies deepened.
It’s still uncommon for Amish people to have social media accounts, but there are more progressive settlements where some people do — especially young people during Rumspringa, the period between roughly ages 16 to 20 where your behavior isn’t being dictated by either your parents or the church. In the Amish church, formal education ends in eighth grade, and you’re baptized in your late teens or early 20s. In the interim, you have Rumspringa. For those in conservative Amish settlements, Rumspringa can mean you can go on a date unsupervised. For those in progressive settlements, it can mean having a job and a cell phone. In even more progressive settlements, like in Lancaster where Fisher, a.k.a. @AmishBek, is from, having cell phones and social media is becoming more common, according to Nolt.
Still, there’s an outsider element to many of the Anabaptist teens on TikTok. Both Fisher and Mast aren’t totally Amish, though they use the label because it’s easy for the scrolling masses to understand. In one video, Fisher says she is “absolutely Amish …. Well, not exactly.” Fisher explains that her parents left the church when she was 3 years old, but they still consider themselves Amish and dress and live according to Amish values.
Mast, likewise, was adopted into an Amish family as a baby, but was baptized in another church before she was adopted (This may not sound like a big deal, but it lends her an element of otherness). As her handle @AmishRebel would suggest, she has a defiant streak. In her most viewed video, she says, “My parents don’t know about the phone, but I’m 20 years of age. I’m able to make my own decisions where that’s concerned.” But that changed by the time I reached her on the phone. She was living on her own in Ohio for the first time, having left her community after one of the local ministers had ratted her out to her father, telling him about her cell phone and some other behavior that violated the rules. In a video from September, she explained: “The church has decided that Dad has to tell me to get out now, or I have to give all my things to him, like my cell phone. So, I made the decision that I’m not giving them my things. I will be leaving.”
Mast’s move away from her parents and community in Illinois has been, “difficult, but it’s a learning experience.” The phone was one part of the decision to leave, not the whole reason. She’s still Amish: she lives with an Amish family who is “quite liberal,” and attends an Amish church. However, she wears “normal clothes” when she leaves the house and has her learner’s permit. Her non-Amish friends and the people she lives with now have given her “really positive feedback” about her videos. “For the first 17 years of my life, I knew nothing but the Amish world,” she said. “I think people are fascinated by our lifestyle, because it’s a simpler way of having a successful life.” The comments also prove that people aren’t only fascinated, they often treat the devout as though they are one-dimensional and forget they’re people who can cuss and joke around.
For the Amish, the technologies that are more commonly eschewed are those that encourage individual autonomy. Like a car — many progressive Amish people have been in cars, but don’t have licenses themselves. “Having some kind of practical limits on transportation makes you more cooperative and consultative,” Nolt said. Social media, on the other hand, is all about an individual’s personal brand. But the fascination with Amish people on TikTok is about the group — by and large — rather than the individual creator. And religion is often fetishized when it intersects with social media. What god could exist on a platform as blatantly self-centered as Instagram, or TikTok? How could piety coexist with a desire to “like and subscribe?”
Mast says she thinks being Amish and being on TikTok are compatible, even though “most Amish don’t agree with photos much less videos. They believe it is a sign of vanity or pride.” She just had to find a more liberal Amish community. She joined TikTok for some comic relief, and ended up with a following — something that surprises her and has “done a lot for her confidence.” Her favorite videos to make are ones that educate people about being Amish. In a post from October 11, she made her own version of a common influencer trope: an apology video. “Things have been going great … I’m going to try to get more videos posted on here. I apologize for not being more active,” she says. The video is tagged #stillamishtho.