Eddie Swartzentruber is not just ex-Amish.
Since this past spring, Swartzentruber has turned the camera on himself every few days to answer questions he receives on TikTok about growing up in an Amish community south of Rochester.
Because his short, straightforward videos give a window into a life few Americans know about, he has quickly built a following of curious commenters.
He tackles questions like: Do the Amish go to the dentist? (He didn't — but he used to brush a few times a month with baking soda. He credits a diet with limited sugar for his nice teeth.)
Why don't conservative Amish men wear underwear? (He isn't sure why, but confirms that it's true, at least in his former community.)
Are Amish babies born in the hospital? (Home births only.)
What do Amish people fight about? (In his experience, everything from using power drills to wearing plastic sunglasses.)
No matter how serious the topic, he ends each video in the same way — with a flash of his winning smile.
"People keep asking questions, and I just enjoy answering," he said this week. "I do get joy from it, but I'm careful not to, you know, get too wrapped up in it."
Swartzentruber didn't turn to TikTok to get revenge against the leaders of a controlling church or unload pent-up anger. He's just eager, he said, to share what life is like in his former community. And he seems to find no topic off limits. He answers questions about dating, sexuality, schooling and his own decision to leave.
He clearly welcomes the attention he's received on the platform as well as from local media, although he does admit some of his siblings have "mixed feelings on it."
Life among the 'English'
In the eight years since he fled his traditionalist Christian community in Harmony, Minn. — on foot and in the middle of a cold night — Swartzentruber, 25, has built a new life and a new look.
He trimmed his beard, styled his blond hair, got an education, started a roofing company and got married. (#simplytheswartzentrubers was the hashtag for their downtown Faribault shindig.) He still lives near Rochester, but is now "English," as the Amish call those outside their church.
In his most popular video, he breaks down Amish rules for things like: hats, which must be worn every day, must have a 3.5-inch brim and not be turned up on the sides like a cowboy hat ("Way too worldly!"); buttons, which only men can use and only on certain garments; and sleeves, which must be a certain length. "Oh no, that is way too much skin!" That video been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
Swartzentruber tries to emphasize that he isn't speaking for all Amish, or even all ex-Amish. In one recent wry TikTok take, he shares how his family's settlement, which is part of the ultraconservative Swartzentruber Amish, differs from those that follow more modern interpretations of the religion.
"Swartzentruber Amish — yeah, we're only taking a bath once a week. The New Order Amish — yeah, they're taking the baths multiple times a week," he shrugs.
"Swartzentruber Amish — We don't have short sleeve shirts. New Order Amish — yeah, they have short sleeve shirts. They're just out there with their arms out in the wide open in the summertime."
"Swartzentruber Amish. We don't do underwear. New Order Amish — yeah, they're wearing underwear."
A whole world
The settlement where he grew up in southeastern Minnesota is part of a growing Amish presence in the state, rising from just eight settlements and an estimated population of 1,420 in 2000 to 22 settlements and an estimated population of 4,740 in 2020, according to an analysis by Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.
The Amish are a religious group that formed centuries ago in Switzerland and Germany as part of the Anabaptist movement. They first emigrated to the East Coast and came to Minnesota in the 1970s. Its adherents often wear simple, modest clothing and reject most technology,
Swartzentruber remembers freezing in a horse-drawn buggy during the winter, looking longingly at other kids passing by, snug in their warm cars. He struggled to make sense of it. As he grew, he came to question the reasons behind the many rules that restricted his life. He looked for answers in the Bible, but couldn't find them, he said.
When he first left, running to the home of a friend who agreed to help, he still felt a pull toward his old home, and feared that he'd be punished in the afterlife for leaving. For years, he didn't talk about growing up Amish. Now he's able to take a mostly lighthearted approach to the community he left, but he does get angry when he answers questions about abuse or repression.
"I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for the Amish, because that's where I come from," he said. "I don't get fired up about any of the rules. Stuff that really pulls me the wrong way is some of the more dark stuff that happens. I know stories of kids that their life is just damaged forever."
His community does not follow the tradition of "rumspringa," or allowing teens a year of freedom, so he ran away not knowing much about life outside his tightly knit community.
The youngest of 10, he's now in touch with some but not all of his family, and some siblings have also left the community. His education stopped at eighth grade, but he later earned a GED.
Until he was 17, he rarely left his rural settlement. Now, he's traveled much of the country, visiting states he learned about only by putting together a puzzle map of the United States. He still has a thick accent. English is his third language, after Pennsylvania Dutch and German.
"I wasn't really aware that there's a whole world, like across the ocean," he said. "I knew English, but I didn't know it well."
Some things — like Sundays, with no work and plenty of play with his brothers and sisters — he will always miss, he said.
He tells a story about how he and his brothers somehow got hold of a radio (not allowed in his community) and they'd sneak off to listen to baseball games, imagining the field, the players, the plays.
"The first time I went to a Twins game, I went with a friend and I was like, looking away from it. Because I was almost crying. It was so surreal. The field was so much bigger than I thought it would be," he said.
"I don't feel like I take a lot of that stuff for granted."