July 2008 Boyer

Understanding the Amish in Twentieth-First Century America

Abstract: This essay examines Amish negotiations with modernity and society’s view of the Amish. Far from categorically rejecting the modern order, the Amish successfully participate in the larger economy and evaluate new technologies on the basis of their impact on core Amish values. Historically, the Shakers and other religious groups similarly preserved a distinct identity while thriving in the broader economy. As for outsiders? view of the Amish, since the 1950s the media have promulgated idealized images that reflect the larger society’s concerns and anxieties. While Indians, African-Americans, and Quakers have been similarly romanticized in the past, these groups no longer play this role. Yet the Amish survive as an idealized model of simplicity, harmony and virtue. Such idealization risks distortion, over-simplification, and political exploitation, and can co-exist with local hostility and tensions. Yet it also plays a useful cultural role as Americans grapple with issues of ethics, community and the impact of technology.


As many have observed, Amish responses to modernity have been highly complex, varying from era to era and affiliation to affiliation, and involving subtle processes of adaptation quite different from their popular image as Luddites stubbornly resisting all modern technology. From telephones to computers, the Amish, in Donald Kraybill’s words, have negotiated ?a reasonable compromise with modernity . . . that respects tradition . . . protects ethnic identity, and permits just enough technology for economic growth . . . , harness[ing] the power of progress in creative and positive ways for the welfare of the community.?[1]

The Amish have shown a great capacity not only to survive but also to thrive within the larger economy, while preserving their way of life. When John Hostetler’s landmark work Amish Society appeared in 1963, one reviewer wrote skeptically, ?If the Amish people progress, they will cease to be Amish. If they do not, what will become of the children whom they refuse to educate beyond elementary grades? How long will they be happy living with a two-centuries-old living standard’?[2] More than forty years later, Amish society is hardly free from stress, but the predictions of its inevitable demise proved premature. From about 5,000 adult members in 1900, the Amish in 2000 had some 80,000 adult members in more than 1,500 districts (congregations) in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, twenty-three other states, and Ontario.[3] And the 1963 reviewer’s stark polarity between either wholly embracing or wholly rejecting modernity obviously excluded the middle ground which the Amish actually occupy.

While still in Europe, the Amish were known as progressive farmers, adopting new modes of crop cultivation and enhancing soil productivity. They brought these skills to America, and as farming partially gave way to shops and factories, the Amish evolved as well, as is evidenced by the many Amish businesses, from contracting and furniture-making to auction companies, machine shops, greenhouses, nurseries, and bakeries. In the 2004 update of their book Amish Enterprise, Donald Kraybill and Steven Nolt found some 1,600 Amish businesses in Lancaster County alone, and calculated that 20 percent of adult Amish in the county were business owners.[4]

Lancaster County’s Amish-related businesses are highly diverse. Wal-Mart sells An Amish Nativity, a craft project by Jan Mast and Ruth Ann Gingrich issued by Good Books, a publisher of Amish- and Mennonite-themed books based in Intercourse, Pennsylvania. (Mary and Joseph wear Amish garb, and Baby Jesus is swaddled in a traditional Amish quilt.) Home Depot markets gazebos manufactured at Samuel Stoltzfus’s Country Lane Woodworking, which is located in an Amish industrial park in New Holland. The harnesses and harness bells on the carriage horses in New York’s Central Park and on the Clydesdale teams used to promote Budweiser beer come from Moses Smucker’s harness shop in Churchtown. Enterprising Amish women sell quilts, cookbooks, and other goods at shops such as Katie Stoltzfus’s Country Lane Quilts in Leola. (Katie is Samuel Stoltzfus’s mother: being entrepreneurs clearly runs in the family.)[5] Many Amish who are not themselves business owners work in Amish or non-Amish factories or other enterprises. Most Amish today do not earn their primary livelihood from farming.

Even Amish farmers are often part of a larger economic nexus. The DCI Cheese Company of Richfield, Wisconsin, for example, sells two Amish-themed product lines, ?Amish Traditions? and ?Salemville Amish Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola,? supplied by a cooperative of Ohio Amish. DCI, a corporation that markets artisanal cheeses to supermarket chains and restaurants nationwide, is, in turn, a subsidiary of the Fairmount Food Group, a Texas-based conglomerate.[6] These Ohio Amish farmers, in short, are part of a complex corporate structure.

The plastic containers for these Amish cheeses bear the familiar horse-and-buggy logo. In today’s marketing environment, the word ?Amish? or Amish images on a product, from furniture to cheese, are valuable assets, evoking quality, integrity and authenticity.

The rise of business enterprises and nonfarm labor has added a new dimension to the ongoing Amish negotiation with larger society. So far, that negotiation has mediated with reasonable success the inherent tension between tradition and community on one hand, and modernity on the other. As Kraybill and Nolt observe, the Amish ?economic involvement in the surrounding society? powerfully underscores ?the resilient . . . character of Amish culture in the face of alien pressure. . . . Willing to adapt to changing times, they are also keenly committed to drawing lines of distinction and making choices based on cultural criteria, not simply on cost analysis.?[7]

While popular interest focuses on the Amish response to specific technologies, the considerations that shape these responses, and the process by which decisions are reached, are less familiar. The process is never simply a knee-jerk rejection of a new technology, but rather a measured and thoughtful examination of its impact: will it reinforce community bonds or undermine them? The response to the telephone, as Diane Zimmerman Umble has shown, illustrates the point. When the Amish reflected on whether the telephone would bring them together or draw them apart, the answer was complex. In some ways, the telephone, offering access to the outside world, threatened communal ties. But in other respects, its value for conducting everyday life within the community was obvious. The compromise that eventually emerged reflected a balance of these considerations: land-line phones in individual homes were banned, but shared phones in convenient outdoor structures, equipped with answering machines, have become a common feature of Amish communities.[8]

The decision-making process is revealing as well. Each new technology becomes a matter of group discussion, as communities observe its social impact and weigh its probable effects. As in any social group, some members push the boundaries, while others hold back. Eventually the local bishop, sensing a developing consensus, proposes a guideline that is ratified by the congregation. Given the decentralized structure of Amish polity, with each bishop exerting authority only in his district, a range of responses to new technologies is possible. Cell phones offer a case in point. Some conservative districts ban cell phones altogether; others prohibit them for personal use but permit them for business.

This decentralized structure, in fact, is another distinctive feature of Amish life: their ability to retain group cohesion without a strong central authority. While much of American society’including the larger Mennonite bodies’has become increasingly bureaucratized, the Amish remain remarkably decentralized, free of elaborate administrative hierarchies. For that alone, many non-Amish, especially those in academia, have reason to look on them with longing and even envy.

Of course, the model of Amish decision-making described above’the bishop and the laity collectively setting policy for their district after weighing the issue in terms of Amish values and gauging the community’s thinking’does not always work so smoothly in practice. Bishops can be arbitrary, creating community tension. Nor do the Amish always follow their bishop’s rulings. In the case of cell phones, the fine line between business and personal use can easily blur, and cell phones are easier to keep out of sight than automobiles. Journalists report surreptitious cell phone use even in districts that ban them and note the popularity among Amish youth of cell phones with distinctive rings, instant messaging, Internet access, video imaging’all the bells and whistles.[9] Will they willingly give all that up when the time comes to decide about lifelong membership in the community? Some Amish defenders of cell phones argue that they promote community cohesion. Indeed, at the time of the horrendous shootings at the Nickel Mines Amish school in October 2006, cell phones not only conveyed vital information but also provided emotional support to the community. On the other hand, an Amishman who rejects cell phones comments, ?A cell phone would come in handy, but I don’t need it. You get your wants and your needs mixed up sometimes.?[10] And so the centuries-old conversation continues.

As for Amish business enterprise, some historical perspective may be helpful. The Amish ability to maintain a distinct identity while functioning within the larger economy is hardly unique. In the nineteenth century, Shaker communities scattered through New England, New York, and elsewhere showed great resourcefulness in marketing products to the larger society while preserving their separate communal existence. These included flower and vegetable seeds sold commercially in printed paper packets under the trusted brand name ?Shaker’s Garden Seeds.? The Shakers of Enfield, Connecticut, sold more than 100 varieties of packaged seeds throughout the United States. The Shakers also invented such practical products as the flat broom and circular saw.[11]

The utopian community of Oneida, New York, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, gained attention not only for its distinctive religious doctrines and sexual practices but also for its business enterprises, including animal traps, silk products, and tableware. When the community broke up in 1879, the business ventures were valued at $600,000?about $12 million in contemporary buying power. Today’s Oneida Company, a leading manufacturer of tableware, is a direct descendent of these ventures.[12]

The Amana community of Iowa, established by German pietists in 1854, operated a woolen mill, a flour mill and a calico print works. When a joint-stock company replaced the communal economic structure in 1932, one community member took over a former woolen mill and started the Amana Refrigeration Company, which became a leading manufacturer of refrigerators, freezers and other products.[13]

While these religious sects that prospered economically anticipate the Amish in some ways, they also differed in crucial respects. All were communal, and, indeed, economic conflicts contributed to the collapse of the Oneida and Amana communities. (The Shakers did not break apart, but as a celibate sect they lacked a natural means of increase and eventually faded away.) The Amish, neither celibate nor communal, have so far demonstrated a tenacious capacity not only to survive but also to thrive as a distinct religious and cultural group while participating, on their own terms, in the larger economy. But past success is no necessary guide to the future, and the long-term prospects of the Amish in a changing economic environment remain a matter of concern for both the Amish and their non-Amish well-wishers.


How the outside world views the Amish, is, if anything, even more complicated than how the Amish view the outside world. The more obvious and superficial responses are, of course, familiar: the tour buses, the Amish kitsch, the crassly commercial ventures such as the ersatz ?Amish Acres? in Indiana. And the humor! How would David Letterman survive without the Amish? A recent Google search for ?Amish jokes? yielded 3,620 hits.

Beyond the ephemera, however, the Amish have played a complex and significant role in American culture. As David Weaver-Zercher has shown, early outsider views typically treated the Amish as exotic throwbacks to earlier times, with the courtship ritual of bundling adding erotic titillation to the mix.[14] Some Mennonites, including the Amish-raised John A. Hostetler, tried to combat this exoticism by offering a more authentic account of Amish life. More recently, Menno-Hof in Shipshewana, Indiana, focusing on Mennonite and Amish history and life, has offered tourists an educational alternative to the ?Amish Acres? approach.

Since the 1950s, an idealized version of Amish life and values has shaped the cultural discourse, as part of an ongoing debate over worrisome trends in the larger society. As Weaver-Zercher points out, the 1955 Broadway musical Plain and Fancy, in which a sophisticated New York couple confront the supposedly simpler life of Lancaster County, explicitly contrasted Amish values with those of Cold War America. In one scene, an Amish leader declaims, ?Look in your world. Poor people you have plenty, and worried people and afraid. Here we are not afraid. We do not have all your books, and your learning, but we know what is right. We do not destroy, we build only.? Bursting into song, he goes on, ?Strangers look on us and call us strange. But cheat we don’t and steal we don’t. And wars we don’t arrange.?[15]

Postwar magazines, from Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post to Time and the Saturday Review, portrayed the Amish as the embodiment of values sadly absent from the larger society: simplicity, social harmony, sense of community, closeness to the soil, and freedom from the competitiveness, rootlessness and uncertainties of postwar America. ?Perhaps the modern hurried, worried, and fearful world could learn something from the Amish,? insisted John A. Hostetler in 1952; ?Their mission to America is to bring healing to a human society and to witness to a higher way of life.?[16] Many ?hurried, worried, and fearful? citizens appeared to agree.

This postwar idealization of Amish life tells us much about the social concerns of the era. Americans had long been coping with new technologies, a new corporate order and a faster pace of life. But it was in the 1950s that the accumulating stresses of modernity became a particular focus of social commentary in such books as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man and Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Juvenile delinquency attracted worried attention in books and movies like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. Cold War alarms and nuclear fears deepened the sense of foreboding so evident in Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and the apocalyptic sermons of Billy Graham. It is little wonder that the Amish, seemingly untouched by all this, attracted such admiring attention.

By the later 1960s, urban riots and campus turmoil preoccupied the nation, and again the Amish offered a model of a more harmonious social order. As unrest gripped the cities, magazines highlighted the tranquility of life in Amish country. Popular Photography and Travel and Camera both featured the Amish in their July 1969 issues, within months of the riots and assassinations that made 1968 one of the bleakest years in U.S. history.

The legal record of the landmark 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder, dealing with the issue of Amish children and public education, is full of admiring references to the Amish. In his argument before the Supreme Court, defense attorney William Ball told the court, ?The Amish do not want their children’and they do not want themselves’to be exposed to the spirit of luxury, of ostentation, of strife, consumerism, competition, speed, violence, and other such elements as are commonly found in American life.? Even the prosecuting attorney agreed, praising the tranquility of Amish communities in contrast to ?the remorseless crunch of daily living? in the larger world.[17]

This idealization of Amish ways as clearly preferable to the anxious, hectic life of the dominant society runs deep in contemporary culture. As historian David Shi has written, a quest for ?the simple life? is ?a perennial dream? for many Americans, and for those gripped by that impulse, ?the pietistic rural simplicity? of ?Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite communities? exerts a powerful appeal.[18] As early as 1849, in An Essay on Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau conceded the impossibility of achieving a wholly virtuous society but nevertheless insisted that it was vital for the moral health of any society ?that there . . . be some absolute goodness somewhere.?[19] For many contemporary Americans, the embodiment of that ?absolute goodness? has been the Amish.

Again, some historical context may prove illuminating. The Amish are not the first group to have been idealized by critics of the dominant society’s values. As long ago as 1516, Thomas More described an imaginary South American island he called ?Utopia,? whose inhabitants lived in harmony, uncorrupted by the lust for gold. In early nineteenth-century America, writers and artists idealized the ?noble savage’?the Indian wholly attuned with nature, far removed from the larger society’s cities, railroads, and factories. The romanticized Indians of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha offer a classic example. In the cultural discourse of the era, as historian Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. has noted, the ?noble savage? trope was invoked ?to criticize existing social institutions and to propose reforms.?[20] The ?noble savage? morphed into a bloodthirsty foe in later dime novels and Hollywood Westerns, but the idealized image was revived in the 1960s as a vehicle of cultural criticism. Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), for example, offered the insights of an Indian shaman whom Castaneda allegedly met while doing anthropological field work in Mexico’insights that were remarkably similar to Castaneda’s own benign worldview.

African-Americans were also idealized in earlier eras as people of exceptional nobility, attuned to the rhythms of nature, and immune to the stresses of urban life. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1857 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the aged slave Tom exhibits admirable Christian forbearance despite the sadistic cruelty of his master, Simon Legree. In the early twentieth century, the Fisk Jubilee Singers popularized Negro Spirituals on their concert tours, reinforcing the image of blacks as a people of uncomplicated religious faith, untainted by the acids of modernity. The black poet Langston Hughes has written perceptively about this process of idealization. Hughes’s poems of the 1920s, including some evoking his African roots, won the admiration of a wealthy New York society matron who became his patron. For her, Hughes’s verses offered a refreshing antidote to her jaded world. As he wrote: ?Concerning Negroes, she felt that they had something very precious to give to the Western World. . . . She felt that we had a deep well of the spirit within us, and that we should keep it pure and deep.?[21]

To be sure, the same writers and artists who idealized the Indians often assumed that they would soon vanish as white settlement advanced. Indeed, the Romantic vogue of the ?noble savage? coincided with the expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia. Others reacted to the idealization by going to the opposite extreme, portraying Indians as utterly contemptible. In The Oregon Trail (1847), for example, historian Francis Parkman described Indians in extremely hostile terms.[22] In the same way, the sentimental view of African-Americans as more spiritual and closer to nature was often embedded within deeply racist and patronizing assumptions.

In our day, Indian casinos and the flow of casino dollars into political lobbying has undermined notions of Indians as morally superior beings immune to the temptations of modernity. Indians themselves have rejected the idealized image. The 1988 film Smoke Signals, by an Indian filmmaker, offered a picture of contemporary Indian life that deliberately poked fun at the romantic stereotypes.

Similarly, the idealized view of African-Americans crumbled before the realities of actual black life in modern America. Again Langston Hughes’s experience is revealing. In the 1930s, when Hughes’s poems began to deal with the grim realities of the Great Depression, his white patron reacted angrily and abruptly terminated her support. Hughes later reflected, ?She wanted me to be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. But unfortunately I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me. . . . I was only an American Negro. . . . I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I was not what she wanted me to be.?[23]

Even more directly relevant to idealized images of the Amish is the way Quakers were once viewed. In the colonial era, Quakers, like today’s Amish, were a distinct people, set apart by their plain garb, archaic speech and silent worship. Voltaire and Rousseau, who probably never met an actual Quaker, praised them extravagantly. When the worldly Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin came to Paris in 1776 as the U.S. ambassador, he encouraged the Parisians? mistaken idea that he was a Quaker, dressing simply and letting his hair grow long.

As James Emmett Ryan has shown, much nineteenth-century fiction mythologized Quakers as exemplars of a social ideal unattainable by most people ?but somehow necessary in small doses in order to create a virtuous citizenry.?[24] In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Eliza escapes across the Ohio River to freedom she finds refuge in a simple and pious Quaker home. In Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 protest novel Life in the Iron Mills, it is a Quaker lady of exceptional virtue who befriends the mill workers. Her peaceful rural home and the Friends meetinghouse stand in marked contrast to the factory workers? degraded hovels and impoverished existence. Overall, Ryan concludes, Quakers in the nineteenth century functioned as ?a preternaturally gifted subset of humanity . . . playing a social role for which ?ordinary? Americans were not equipped.?[25]

The idealization of Quakers continued into the 1940s. In Thee Hannah, Marguerite De Angeli’s 1940 children’s story, a Philadelphia Quaker girl learns the value of simplicity. In Jessamyn West’s 1945 historical novel Friendly Persuasion, based on family stories absorbed during her Quaker girlhood in Indiana, the hero, Jess Birdwell, applies his Quaker principles to the moral crisis of the Civil War. (West was a first cousin of Richard Nixon, whose Quaker ancestors provided the models for her story.) In Theodore Dreiser’s 1946 novel The Bulwark, the Quaker protagonist is a moral paragon’the antithesis of the selfish egoists who populate Dreiser’s earlier fiction. In the 1952 film High Noon, a frontier sheriff played by Gary Cooper, facing a shootout with a gang bent on revenge, must deal with the objections of his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) who tries to dissuade him from violence.

As in the nineteenth-century fiction, however, the Quaker ideal in these works is beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. As a character in Dreiser’s The Bulwark says, ?Now, I haven’t a thing against Quakers. I love them dearly. If I could live as they do, and keep my place in society, I’d do it. But . . . I can’t do it. No one can.?[26] Indeed, the Quaker ideal is often beyond the reach of Quakers themselves. In High Noon, Grace Kelly’s pacifist principles fail her, and in a crucial scene she herself shoots one of the menacing gang members. In the 1956 movie version of Friendly Persuasion, Jess Birdwell’s son, played by Tony Perkins, rejects Quaker pacifism and goes off to war. Even Jess (Gary Cooper again), takes up a rifle to save his son’s life, and’in a nice Hollywood touch’his wife attacks a Confederate soldier with a broom when he tries to steal the family’s goose.

Significantly, these mid-twentieth-century representations of Quakers were mostly set in earlier times, not in the present. By this time, most Quakers had lost all distinctive markers of dress or speech. Further, their pacifism was now politicized, with the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation lobbying against the nuclear arms race, U.S. militarism, and, soon, the Vietnam War. Ironically, the Quakers? activism in the public sphere had diminished their utility as an idealized group that could be invoked to criticize mainstream American culture. Similarly, Indians and blacks, caught up in the complexities of the modern age, have gradually lost their spiritual aura.

But the Amish remain, still available as an imagined community to be invoked by social observers and cultural critics. Just as other groups were idealized in the past for their superior values and their supposed ability to avoid the pitfalls of modernity, so the Amish are today. The 1985 Hollywood film Witness, for example, contrasted the menace, corruption and hectic pace of modern-day Philadelphia with the tranquility, harmony, and moral innocence of Amish society. Howard Rheingold, writing in Wired magazine in 1999, cited the Amish as a model for how to assess new technologies. ?What drew me in,? he concluded,

was their long conversation with their tools. We technologically-enmeshed ?English? don’t have much of this sort of discussion. And yet . . . [i]t’s time we start talking about the most important influence on our lives today. I came away from my journey [to the Amish] with a question to contribute to these conversations: If we decided that community came first, how would we use our tools differently’[27]

The process of turning to the Amish for moral as well as social guidance became powerfully evident after the Nickel Mines tragedy, as many commentators noted with awe the spirit of forgiveness displayed by the Amish community. Here, for example, is Anne Taylor Fleming’s commentary on PBS’s Jim Lehrer News Hour a few days after the event:
We have spent our week as heartbroken voyeurs of a way of life foreign to almost all of us, the simple life of the Amish: no cars, no cell phones, no electricity. A life so unfathomably simple to so many of us, quaint, kids in hats, women in bonnets, horse-drawn buggies.

But what is most unfathomable of all is something that became apparent this week as the Amish community struggled with the ghastly schoolhouse murder of five young girls by a deranged, distraught father who then took his own life.

The modern media world descended en masse into this rural enclave, as if dropped back through time, poking and prodding the grief of the families and the community as a whole. And what they found and what we heard from that community was not revenge or anger, but a gentle, heart-stricken insistence on forgiveness; forgiveness, that is, of the shooter himself. The widow of the shooter was actually invited to one of the funerals, and it was said she would be welcome to stay in the community.

In a world gone mad with revenge killings and sectarian violence, chunks of the globe self-immolating with hatred, this was something to behold, this insistence on forgiveness. It was so strange, so elemental, so otherworldly.

This, the Amish said, showing us the tender face of religion at a time and in a world where we are so often seeing the rageful face, this was Jesus’ way, and they had Jesus in them, not for a day, an hour, not just in good times, but even in the very worst. . . .

We have seldom seen this in action. So many tribes and sects in a froth of revenge, from Darfur to Baghdad. And, here in this country, so many victims and victims’ families crying out in our courthouses for revenge.

To this, the Amish have offered a stunning example of the freedom that comes with forgiveness, a reminder that religion need not turn lethal or combative. I, for one, as this week ends, stand in awe of their almost-unfathomable grace in grief.[28]

Like earlier idealizers of the Indians, African-Americans and Quakers, many non-Amish today see the Amish as exemplary’not only for their close-knit communities and skepticism toward new technologies but also for what Fleming calls their ?otherworldly? spiritual qualities. As interpreted by Fleming and many others, the loving response of the Amish to an act of horrendous brutality stands in silent rebuke to the very different patterns of behavior on display in the outside world.

This heuristic use of the Amish, while laudable in purpose, can inadvertently obscure complexities in the actual reality of Amish life and practice. Their life is hardly ?unfathomably simple,? cut off in their ?rural enclave? from the outside world. But beyond the obvious distortions, how does the Amish readiness to forgive the murderer of their children, so movingly on display in October 2006, comport with the doctrine of Meidung’the expulsion and shunning of members whose behavior deviates from accepted norms? While applied with differing degrees of rigor, Meidung has defined the Amish ever since their emergence as a distinct sect within the larger Anabaptist movement in the 1690s, and, while much else changes, it remains among the ?non-negotiable items? at the core of Amish identity.[29]

The admirable qualities on display among the Amish are real, but they are not simple or uncomplicated.[30] As with any social group, Amish life resists sweeping generalizations. As Marc Olshan has written, ?To see [the Amish] . . . as an uncorrupted remnant of the moral past is to ignore the constant struggle in which they are engaged.?[31] The controversy within the Amish and Mennonite communities stirred up by the novel Jonathan’published in 1973 by Herald Press, the Mennonite publishing house, and then suppressed by the publisher amid pained protests over its critical portrayal of Amish life’highlights some of these complicated issues.[32]

The idealized image of the Amish is also vulnerable to political manipulation. Largely apolitical, they are periodically dragged into politics. In the 1950s, when the Timkin Roller Bearing Company of Cleveland, Ohio organized an anti-union campaign under the ?Right to Work? slogan, it featured nonunionized Amish workers in its ads, converting the issue into one of religious freedom. And indeed, when Timkin and other corporations placed a ?Right to Work? referendum on the Ohio ballot in 1958, it won handily in Holmes County, a major center of Amish settlement, while losing resoundingly statewide.[33]

Similarly, the Amish rejection of Social Security has won allies on the political Right. In the early 1960s, the conservative U.S. News and World Report, deeply hostile to New Deal-type social programs, ran sympathetic stories on Amish facing prosecution for nonpayment of Social Security taxes, including one man whose horses were seized and sold at auction. The Amish, the magazine reported, ?are among the nation’s last rugged individualists.?[34] This comment illustrates the distortions that creep in when the Amish are used to advance the agendas of others. However one characterizes them, they are hardly ?rugged individualists’!

The Amish determination to keep their children out of public school, upheld in the 1972 Yoder decision, has appealed to those who advocate channeling tax dollars to church-sponsored schools. Indeed, the lead defense attorney in the Yoder case, William Ball, was a Catholic whose primary interest throughout his career was in promoting the interests of Catholic schools, including securing public funds for their support.[35]

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush promoted his antidrug campaign by conferring with Amish bishops. Bush’s public relations people even moved a hitching post so he could be photographed with a horse and buggy in the town of Lancaster! In the 2004 presidential election, with Pennsylvania a crucial swing state, President George W. Bush made several forays into Lancaster County, on one occasion holding an allegedly spontaneous meeting with several Amish farmers summoned from their fields, touting his conservative social values and downplaying the Iraq War.[36]

Just as the idealized images of other social groups were entangled with less positive attitudes, so America’s love affair with the Amish can mask undercurrents of hostility. In the late 1960s, for example, a nasty legal battle broke out in Iowa over Amish violations of the public-school laws. In a 1968 account of the dispute, Donald Erickson, a University of Chicago education professor, began with some observations that exposed these undercurrents, which contrast jarringly with Anne Taylor Fleming’s above-quoted fulsome tribute:

It should, of course, be admitted at the outset that the Amish are the object of a certain amount of resentment wherever they live. So ?strange? are their ways, and so intransigent is their nonconformity, that their very presence seems to constitute a kind of insult to the larger society. Because they generally prefer to have only limited contact with the [non-Amish], they are bound to strike the latter as cliquish and unfriendly. . . . [T]he fact that many of them were conscientious objectors during World War II means that disproportionate numbers of their neighbors were called up to serve. . . . [T]he Amish do not reinvest their earnings in the local economy . . . [but] they are not above borrowing their neighbors? cars or using their telephones on occasion.[37]

In short, just as the Amish response to ?the world? is complicated, so is ?the world’s? response to the Amish. Beneath the idealization lurk more complex and murkier attitudes. In Iowa, the conflict grew so bitter that the governor advised the non-Amish to moderate their hostility. ?[W]e must respect the right of others to live differently, . . .? he urged, ?if it is an honest and decent way of life.? Nevertheless, hostility and resentment continued to fuel the dispute. Erickson concluded his article, ?[N]o matter what the outcome, it is impossible not to conclude that . . . the action against the Amish was prompted not by that concern for the welfare of children one has a right to expect of school officials, but by a bitter antagonism toward the Plain People.?[38]

Early in the Yoder case, which unfolded about the same time in Green County, Wisconsin, defense attorney Ball requested a verdict by the judge rather than a jury trial. Despite the ritualized praise of the Amish by the defense and prosecution lawyers, the social reality in the immediate community was more complicated. As Ball later explained his strategy, ?Local press stories unfavorable to the Amish and Amish lack of association with the general population of Green County made me feel that my clients might do as well, or better, without a jury.?[39]

Such attitudes persist, particularly in areas experiencing a rapid in-migration of Amish. In 2007 Deborah Morse-Kahn, an advocate for Amish interests in Wisconsin, urged state officials to give more attention to Amish concerns, including prejudice directed against them: ?If the harsh and bitter statements made to me by unhappy Wisconsin citizens concerning their Plain neighbors is any indication, a major education effort must be implemented, and very soon, because we teach our children how to hate and pass on our bigotries to the next generation.?[40]

The sources of hostility are many’accusations of hypocrisy, clannishness, lack of patriotism, aloofness from the local economy, and the painful issue of unreported domestic violence and sexual abuse in Amish households.[41] Even such mundane matters as roadway damage by horses? hooves and the annoyance of manure in public places have given rise to tension.[42] Unfair or petty though such complaints may be, they, too, are part of the story of outsiders? mixed and often contradictory reactions to the Amish.


It is tempting to be skeptical of outsiders who idealize the Amish as moral paragons whose virtues the rest of us can admire from afar but never hope to match. After all, those who have professed to admire the Indians, the Quakers, and now the Amish have shown little inclination actually to join these groups. At the end of Witness, Harrison Ford, though obviously drawn to the Amish’and especially to the beautiful young widow played by Kelly McGillis’returns to his hard-bitten life as a big-city detective. Unquestionably, too, the idealized images can involve distortions. Anne Taylor Fleming, for all the eloquence of her commentary, repeated hoary stereotypes of Amish ways. And the romanticizing can be subtly condescending. Near the end of Witness, a small army of Amishmen comes rushing over a hill to save the day, looking for all the world like the lovable Munchkins of The Wizard of Oz. But when all is said and done, we should perhaps not too quickly discount the idealized images of the Amish that pervade mainstream culture. On balance, as Thoreau argued, it is good for societies to think about alternative social models, even if the process involves distortions and misperceptions.

From one perspective, the Amish are the quintessential outsiders, cut off from mainstream cultural discourse, if not from the mainstream economy. But insofar as they figure in our national conversation on a range of topics’from forgiveness and the value of community to the social impact of technology and the problem of how to deal with renegades and noncomformists’they will continue to play a role in the ongoing process by which we evaluate our way of life and try to chart a future course. To the extent that the Amish stimulate the larger society to reflect on the possibility of a social order radically different from the present one, they remain a valuable moral resource.

[*]Paul S. Boyer is Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wish to express thanks to Donald Kraybill, who read and commented on an early draft of the lecture, as well as to Ann Boyer, Saloma Furlong, Charles Cohen, and Robert Kingdon.
A prefatory note and disclaimer: I was reared in the Brethren in Christ church, a collateral branch of the Anabaptist ?family tree? to which the Amish also belong. My parents wore plain clothing, and ?Be not conformed to this world? (Romans 12:2) was an often-repeated text. When I was baptized and joined the church in 1944 at age nine, the one biblical passage to which I was asked to give explicit assent was Matthew 18:15-17, a foundational text for the Amish practice of Meidung, or shunning. Nevertheless, my personal history gives me little claim to a deep knowledge of Amish culture. Southwestern Ohio, where I grew up, was not a center of Amish settlement. Further, while some of my scholarly work has focused on American religious history, I have not researched the Amish specifically. So this essay represents observations by an interested non-specialist, with whatever insight that perspective might bring.
1. Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, rev. ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 237. See esp. chaps. 8-10 (?The Riddles of Technology,? ?Harnessing the Power of Progress,? and ?The Transformation of Amish Work’). See also The Amish Struggle with Modernity, ed. Donald B. Kraybill and Marc A. Olshan (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994).
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[2]. ?F.M.,? ?Plain Folk,? review of John A. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963) in The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 30, 1964, 5.
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[3]. Donald B. Kraybill, ?Spanning the Century: The Amish Experience in a Changing World? (abstract of paper presented at conference entitled ?A Century of German-American Crosscurrents,? Pennsylvania State University, Oct. 18-20, 2001); Steve Scott, ?Amish Districts and Settlements by State, 2006? (unpublished data, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, 2006).
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[4]. Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), viii.
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[5]. A tour of Lancaster County Amish businesses and industries organized in connection with the June 2007 Amish in America conference at Elizabethtown College made stops at Country Lane Woodworking and Country Lane Quilts, among other enterprises. As Samuel Stoltzfus distributed his business cards to the tour group, someone observed, ?You should have a website.? ?We do,? he cheerfully responded, ?but we don’t put it on our business card because of the bishop.? On Smucker’s Harness Shop, see Michael Janofsky, ?Rustic Life of Amish is Changing But Slowly,? New York Times, July 6, 1997, and Howard Rheingold, ?Look Who’s Talking,? Wired (Jan. 1999), on the web at www.wired.com/-wired/archive/7.01/amish.html (accessed April 14, 2008).
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[6]. Information on the DCI Cheese Company and its Amish-themed products may be found at http://www.dcicheeseco.com/products/amish.asp.
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[7]. Kraybill and Nolt, Amish Enterprise, 243. See also Jameson M. Wetmore, ?Amish Technology: Reinforcing Values and Building Community,? IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Summer 2007, 10-21. My thanks to Urs Gessner for bringing this article to my notice.
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[8]. Diane Zimmerman Umble, Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), esp. part III, ?Divine or Sinful: Competing Meanings of the Telephone,? 107-159.
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[9]. Jack Brubaker, ?Most Amish Have Phones’and a Growing Number Now Carry Cell Phones,? Lancaster New Era, April 9, 2007, on the web at http://articles.lancaster online.com/local/4/202609 (accessed April 18, 2007); Paul Levinson, ?The Amish Get Wired. The Amish’? Wired, Dec. 1993, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.06/ 1.6_amish.html (accessed April 14, 2008).
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[10]. Quoted in Brubaker, ?Most Amish Have Phones.?
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[11]. Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 133-147, 272-286; Ken Burns, ?American Stories: The Shakers,? http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/shakers (accessed April 14, 2008). See also Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, Work and Worship: The Economic Order of the Shakers (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974), Part II, ?Hands to Work,? 38-159 (pp. 153-159 includes a list of Shaker inventions and patents).
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[12]. Maren Lockwood Carden, Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), 113-154, 179-188; Randall Hillebrand, ?The Oneida Community,? New York History Net, http://www.nyhistory.com/central/ Oneida.htm (accessed April 14, 2008).
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[13]. Diane L. Barthel, Amana: From Pietist Sect to American Community (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 65-74, 137-146.
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[14]. David Weaver-Zercher, The Amish in the American Imagination (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), chap. 2, ?Civilizing the Amish,? 47-81.
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[15]. Qtd. in ibid., 109.
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[16]. John A. Hostetler, Amish Life (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1952) , qtd. Writing the Amish: The Worlds of John A. Hostetler, ed. David L. Weaver-Zercher (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 180-181; C. W. Hall, ?Revolt of the Plain People,? Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1962, 74-78; ?City Kids Discover the Old World,? McCall’s, May 1955, 66-68; F. Klees, ?Bonnets and Broadbrims,? Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 26, 1957, 22-23; ?Caring for Their Own,? Time, Nov. 5, 1956, 66; H. Sutton, ?When the Little Dot Comes,? Saturday Review of Literature, Apr. 10, 1954, 51-53. See also W. Amos, ?Let’s Go Dutch,? American Magazine, March 1953, 106-109; F. R. Schreiber,?World of the Unworldly,? American Mercury, June 1952, 47-55; ?Land of Tradition,? Coronet, July 1954, 8; ?Quiet Countryside,? Coronet, Dec. 1955, 122-134; P. A. Mullen, ?Plain People,? Cosmopolitan, Feb. 1955, 24-33; ?Old Scene Alive Today,? Life, March 17, 1961, 24-25.
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[17]. Shawn Francis Peters, The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 135, 137. For similar admiring assessments see 99-101, 105-106 and 146.
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[18]. David E. Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 278.
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[19]. Thoreau qtd. in ibid.
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[20]. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 76.
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[21]. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940), 316.
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[22]. Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian, 95.
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[23]. Hughes, The Big Sea, 325.
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[24]. James Emmett Ryan, ?Imaginary Friends: Representing Quakers in Early American Fiction,? Studies in American Fiction, 44 (Fall 2003), 192.
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[25]. Ibid., 196-197. See also 192, 198.
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[26]. Qtd. in ibid., 210. The Shakers, too, have been similarly idealized thanks to an ex post facto vogue for their furniture, music (especially Aaron Copland’s setting of ?Simple Gifts? in his 1945 orchestral suite Appalachian Spring), and restored settlements, which have become popular tourist destinations. See Stein, Shaker Experience in America, ?The Selling of the Shakers,? 394-408.
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[27]. Rheingold, ?Look Who’s Talking.? For perceptive explorations of media representations of the Amish (as well as channels of communication within the Amish community itself) see The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).
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[28]. Anne Taylor Fleming, ?Essayist Gains Inspiration from the Amish Community’s Ability to Forgive,? Online NewsHour, Oct. 6, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/ social_issues/july-dec06/forgiveness_10-06.html (accessed April 14, 2008). See also Kevin King, ?Witnessing Amish Grace and Forgiveness Firsthand,? Behind the Hammer (Mennonite Disaster Service publication), Dec. 2006, 1, 4.
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[29]. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, 315. Adds Kraybill, summarizing a view held by critics of the Amish: ?Although they expect tolerance from the state for their dissident views, they show little tolerance toward dissidents within their own ranks? (326). Ironically, the first generation of Anabaptists viewed the practice of shunning, often criticized today as excessively harsh, as a more humane alternative to the physical torture and even execution the authorities were using against the Anabaptists themselves. The Schleitheim Articles of 1527, a foundational statement of Anabaptist principles and still a key text for the Amish, lists the ban, based on the procedures outlined in Matthew 18, as a core doctrine, but adds, ?Within the perfection of Christ only the ban is used for the admonition and exclusion of the one who has sinned’without the death of the flesh’simply the warning and the command to sin no more.??Qtd. from Umble, Holding the Line, 162.
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[30]. For a thoughtful discussion, see Donald B. Krabill, Stephen M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).
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[31]. Marc A. Olshan, ?Conclusion: What Good Are the Amish’? in The Amish Struggle with Modernity, ed. Kraybill and Olshan, 242.
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[32]. Dan Neidermyer, Jonathan (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973). For a full account of the controversy, see David Weaver-Zercher, ?Putting the Amish to Work: Mennonites and the Amish Culture Market, 1950-1975,? Church History 68, 1 (March 1999), 109-114.
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[33]. John H. Fenton, ?The Right-To-Work Vote in Ohio,? The Midwest Journal of Political Science 3 (Nov. 1958), 241-253, esp. 249.
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[34]. ?Life Without ?Welfare’: Story of the Amish,? U.S. News and World Report, July 24, 1961, 50, 52.
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[35]. Peters, The Yoder Case, 53, 59-61.
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[36]. Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, 184; Donald B. Kraybill and Kyle C. Kopko, ?Bush Fever: The Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the 2004 Presidential Campaign,? MQR 81 (Oct. 2007), 165-206.
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[37]. Donald A. Erickson, ??Plain People? and American Democracy,? Commentary, Jan. 1968, 37-38.
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[38]. Ibid., 44.
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[39]. Peters, The Yoder Case, 86.
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[40]. Deborah Morse-Kahn, ?Wisconsin Needs State Office to Advocate for Needs of Plain People,? LaCrosse [Wisconsin] Tribune, March 11, 2007, C7.
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[41]. For a particularly egregious case of sexual abuse extending over several years within an Amish family, see Ed Hoskin, ?A Question of Justice,? LaCrosse Tribune, March 28, 2004, A1; Nadya Labi, ?The Gentle People,? Legal Affairs: The Magazine at the Intersection of Law and Life, Jan./Feb. 2005, on the web at http://www.legalaffairs.org/ issues/January-February-2005/feature_labi_janfeb05.msp (accessed April 16, 2008); and Robert Rhodes, ?Cases Show Amish Have Failed to Deal Effectively with Abuse,? Mennonite Weekly Review, Feb. 21, 2005, on the web at http://www.google.com/ search? hl=en&q=robert+Rhodes +cases+show+amish&btnG=Google+Search (accessed April 16, 2008).
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[42]. In April 2008 I led a library book-discussion in an area of western Wisconsin with a rapidly growing Amish population. When the subject came up, considerable hostility quickly surfaced, including criticism of Amish ?hypocrisy? (for their cell phone use) and their unwillingness to participate in a regional-planning exercise. Morse-Kahn’s op-ed column, too, (n. 40), produced nearly forty on-line responses, many of them hostile. One reader even claimed to be offended by her description of the Amish as ?plain people.? ?I am plain and boring to look at myself,? he wrote, ?but I’m not Amish, nor do I have a farm. Please come up with a more politically correct term. ?Plain people? is already taken up by us middle age, balding guys with beer guts.???Jake? to LaCrosse Tribune, Mar. 11, 2007. http://lacrossetribune.com/articles/2007/03/11/opinion/editorial/0311amish.txt (accessed April 16, 2008).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Understanding the Amish in Contemporary America
MQR 82 (July 2008)