Diane Umble, in her article “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” skillfully balances several parallels to illustrate the various reactions to the introduction of the telephone in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, telephone lines rapidly spread throughout Lancaster County. Farmers set up personal lines using barbed wire fences and eventually linked up with larger telephone lines. Companies advertised the telephone as a device that was able to allow you to “visit” friends and family without the hassle of travel. Farmers were able to keep up with the market and it widened the world by providing connections to “centers of power, information, and culture.” The telephone became linked to the idea of divine service through its association with “profit, comfort, and pleasure.”
On the other end of the line, Umble parallels the proponents of this “divine service” with the Mennonites and Amish. Antitelephone tracts circulated, characterizing the telephone as a “sinful network.” The telephone was seen, and in some cases is still seen as a “temptation” and a challenge to faith in God. Using the telephone in emergencies would place the trust in a machine rather than in God. The telephone also opened up Amish and Mennonite homes to the outside world. The Amish and Mennonites placed a strong emphasis on communication within the circle of church life. Communication and church life were anchored to the home and the home was seen as a spiritual place. The telephone threatened the face-to-face communication by opening up lines to the outside world. Owning a telephone allowed the outside world into your home and thus into your spiritual life.
After pointing out the differences in thoughts on the telephone between the outside world
to the Amish and Mennonites, Umble delves deeper into the Amish and Mennonites. Umble argues that the telephone was so controversial that groups of people left the church to join others or start their own church. Arguments about the telephone centered on allowing telephones into homes. Even today, owning a telephone in an Amish home is a hotly debated topic. The Amish were not against utilizing new technology, but their approach to technology had been one of “selective adoption.” Technology was judged on whether the innovation would preserve or threaten community life. Umble is keen to point out that the use of the telephone was not banned. However, the private ownership of a telephone in the home was not allowed. Private Ownership of the telephone threatened to open up the Amish and Mennonite communities and homes to the wider world and influence their religious beliefs.
Umble’s article highlights how new media takes on different meanings depending on beliefs, habits, and “cultural codes of communication.” Even within the orders of the Mennonites and Amish, there were disagreements over the ownership of telephones. The “old” way of communicating relied on face-to-face interaction in homes. Umble shows how many residents of Lancaster County embraced the new media, while the Amish and Mennonites struggled amongst themselves to agree on how or if the telephone should be allowed into their homes. The telephone was advertised as a new technological advance that would open up the home to the wider world by making communication easier. However, as Umble illustrates in her article, there are many aspects to how we understand and utilize new media. The article also demonstrates the power and influence of new media as the Amish and Mennonite communities struggled to come to terms with telephones in their homes.
Diane Zimmerman Umble, “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” pg. 139-156, in New Media, 1740-1915 (MIT Press, 2004).