In the two decades spanning the movie "Witness" (1985)--which first introduced the Amish to a mass audience--and the dramatic story of Amish forgiveness following the Nickel Mines school shootings in 2006, the Amish have become a familiar feature in American popular culture. Yet that same familiarity has also fostered deep-seated misperceptions of the Amish as a monolithic, tradition-bound people whose dress, attitudes and practices are forever frozen in time. The essays gathered in this issue--emerging out of a conference on "The Amish in America" sponsored by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College--present a dramatically different portrait. As noted American historian Paul Boyer argues in the opening article, popular understandings of the Amish reveal more about the culture?s own concerns and anxieties than they do about the Amish. Boyer compares idealized images of the Amish with similar cultural perceptions of Native Americans, African-Americans and Quakers, and he insightfully demonstrates how these cultural projections?however flawed?have helped contemporary Americans think through issues of ethics, technology and community.
Steven Nolt, professor of history at Goshen College and a leading scholar of Amish life and thought, shifts the question of identity to the Amish themselves. In sharp contrast to standard caricatures of Amish culture as simple, uniform and static, Nolt highlights the remarkable variety found within Amish groups today?a variety conditioned, among other things, by profound differences in migration history, ethnicity, understandings of Ordnung, and ways of engaging the modern welfare state. Amidst the confusing kaleidoscope of local variation, Nolt proposes a model for conceptualizing Amish identity as a ?community of conversation.? Such an approach, he suggests, is better suited for capturing the fluid, dynamic and contested nature of communal identity than traditional models focusing on group consensus.
Part of the diversity Nolt describes can be attributed to various renewal movements that have enlivened?and frequently divided?Amish groups throughout their long history. G. C. Waldrep offers a microanalytical study of two specific renewal movements that have contributed to the rich diversity of Amish life and practice: the emergence of the New Order Amish during the second half of the twentieth century, and the proliferation of a colorful variety of splinter groups?so-called ?para-Amish groups??that defy easy categorization. Waldrep?s essay not only documents the emergence of these alternative expressions, but also reflects carefully on the complex dynamics that gave rise to them.
If Nolt and Waldrep emphasize the variety within Amish groups in North America, Royden Loewen makes a similar point in his survey of the various Old Order groups that have emerged out of the Russian Mennonite tradition. Like their Amish cousins, these conservative Low German groups generally reject modern forms of transportation and seek to remain separate from the broader culture. But these groups have also been extremely mobile, ready to migrate across national borders in a quest for economic and cultural survival. Although largely invisible to North American popular culture, the 180,000 Low German colony Mennonites scattered in isolated regions throughout the Americas represent a significant voice within the Old Order branch of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Loewen holds the chair in Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg.
On the surface, it would seem as if the Old Order Amish and modern science have nothing in common. Yet the Amish have played an important role in several recent scientific advances, particularly in the field of genetic-related medical disorders. Thanks to their endogamous marriages, deep interest in genealogy, stable community life and openness to medical research, the Amish have emerged as an ideal population for genetic studies. These studies, in turn, have helped to increase Amish understanding of genetic-related diseases and have enabled researchers to develop new therapeutic treatments for those affected. In this issue, Harold E. Cross--a pioneer with Victor McKusick in the study of Amish genetic disorders--collaborates with a colleague, Andrew Crosby, to provide MQR readers with an overview of research methods and recent findings in this exciting, rapidly changing, field.
Finally, we close with a research note by Steven D. Reschly and Katherine Jellison that highlights the shifting visual images of the Amish as documented in four collections of photographs from the 1930s and 1940s. When completed, their study will provide new insights into both the material culture of the Lancaster Amish at mid-century, as well as the changing interests of photographers who compiled these visual surveys.
The essays in this special issue offer a clear testimony to the living, vibrant and dynamic character of Amish life. In so doing, they challenge our stereotypes and invite further reflection on patterns of renewal, transformation and collective identity within other Anabaptist groups.
- John D. Roth, editor
With the passing of Jean Seguy on November 9, 2007, the French-speaking world lost its most well-known scholar of Anabaptists, Mennonites and other Protestant dissident minorities. A sociologist of religion by training, Seguy helped introduce the thought of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch into French-language teaching, writing and scholarship. His major work on Anabaptism, Les assembles-anabaptistes de France (Paris-La Haye, Mouton, 1977) is still widely known and quoted. Written as a sociological and historical study of Mennonites in France, it begins in the sixteenth century and finishes in the 1970s. Most of what he wrote still stands up against the last thirty years of research. Seguy also reviewed more than 200 major works on Anabaptism in Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, thereby introducing German, Italian and English-language scholarship into a world to where, Anabaptism had hitherto been largely unknown. His teaching has helped to train a new generation of French sociologists of religion.
French Mennonites remember Seguy as someone who constantly came to meetings, looked for documents, asked questions and frequently wrote articles about Mennonites in Christ Seul. Largely through Pierre Widmer, he became a true friend to many French Mennonites, and in an important way helped them reclaim a history that was mostly forgotten or unknown. Any present-day research on Anabaptist history or theology in French owes much to Jean Seguy. His research stimulated the beginnings the French Mennonite Historical Society (AFHAM) and its annual publication, Souvenance anabaptiste, whose forthcoming issue will include several articles focused on his legacy. Claude Baecher has suggested that Seguy played a crucial role in helping French Mennonites move beyond a largely negative self-image--being the object of serious scholarly research helped many to understand that the Anabaptist past was not something of which to be ashamed. On a larger scale, Seguy's research on Protestant dissidents opened up new ecumenical possibilities concerning groups that had been seen, or saw themselves, as totally marginal.
I remember Jean Seguy from my early years in France. His magnum opus was published the same year I began my own research on Marpeck. He was always encouraging to young students and researchers, never jealous of his status or lording it over others. I have many warm memories of meeting him for lunch, or of taking North American Mennonites to his apartment in the northern part of Paris, where we enjoyed his legendary tea and listened to his Oxford English. On several occasions long telephone conversations helped me to think through research issues or even personal questions.
In my last telephone conversation, Seguy told me that he was not doing well and could no longer read anything on Anabaptism. I replied that he would be interested in the recent study of Pierre Widmer published by Editions mennonites. He immediately responded that he read it the same day he received it in the mail. "Of course I still read things like that!" he said.
Within the highly secularized world of French scholarship, Jean Seguy used the categories of sociology to make Anabaptism understandable to both Catholics and Protestants. His contributions to French Mennonites were enormous. He will be missed by all.
- Neal Blough