The Riddle of Amish Culture

By Donald Kraybill, 1989

The destructive work of individualism in society and of centralization in government and the economy has been going on so long that we take it for granted.  When we hear about a traditional society somewhere in the world, we assume it must be on the way out.  The children will go to school, be taught to despise the provincialism of their parents, and give themselves over to atheism and fashionable sexual perversions.  New technology or changing world markets will disrupt established communities, forcing people to leave the land of their ancestors to find work.  Local culture will be pulverized by the standardized mass entertainments flowing through each family’s television and stereo.

Is there any way for a community to fight this process?  Donald Kraybill’s book, The Riddle of Amish Culture, would suggest that the answer is “yes”, but only if a society is willing to make great sacrifices in comfort and freedom.  Kraybill is a sociologist whose focus is on this very issue.  He seems to have a great admiration for his subjects, one that readers like myself have come to share.  He gives the impression of being someone who’s lived in a modern cosmopolis his whole life (or perhaps he just assumes that this will be his readers’ background), and he treats the advantages of gemeimschaft like fresh discoveries.

The Amish are an Anabaptist sect, and their success in creating a religious community separate from profane society is quite impressive.  The average Amish family has 6.6 children.  Although they do not make a formal commitment to the requirements of Amish life until their baptism at age 16-21, some 88% of Amish youth choose to be baptized  and remain in the community.  The Amish deliberately foster an attitude of what they call “Gelassenheit”, meaning submission, self-denial, and humility.  Their speech, dress, and possessions are regulated to exclude any hint of worldly vanity and individualism.  There is a rigid code of conduct, called the “Ordnung”, which violates liberal principles in just about every way.  For example, it enforces patriarchal gender roles, and it forbids divorce and fornication.  Birth control is forbidden or at least strongly frowned upon (I couldn’t tell which from the short discussion of this issue).

How have the Amish been so successful in resisting the modern world, when Catholics and mainline Protestants have failed so utterly?  Here are some keys to the Amish success:

1)      Separation.  The Amish live in their own separate communities.  Extensive contact with outsiders is discouraged.  The primary language of the Amish is Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German; this impedes the easy communication with the “English”, as they call outsiders.  Telephones are forbidden in homes.  Other electronic contacts with the outside world, such as televisions and computers, are also forbidden.  The Amish wear distinctive clothes to further mark their separation from the English.

2)      No high school or college.  Amish children are educated in one-room private schools by Amish teachers, and formal schooling stops after ninth grade.  In the 1950s, many Amish fathers were sent to jail for refusing to send their children to high school.  In 1972, the Amish were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Thus, Amish escape the atheist brainwashing the rest of us undergo.

3)      Discipline.  Those who violate the rules are subjected to varying durations of public ostracism.  The worst offenders who refuse to repent can be permanently shunned.

4)      Control over technology.  The Amish screen new technology; if the use of a device would significantly disrupt their way of life or compromise their separation from the English, its use is forbidden.  The fact that the new device would save labor or increase efficiency does not override the primary concern of protecting a way of life.  When I read about this, I was surprised that nothing like it had ever occurred to me.  I have always assumed that new technology must always be accepted, no matter how disruptive its effects, so long as no direct immorality is involved in its use.  The Amish have decided that they will control technology, rather than being controlled by it.  Of course, they would have a much harder time with this if they hadn’t limited themselves to a few occupations, primarily subsistence agriculture.

Kraybill concludes by wondering if there could be a society with a better mix of freedom and community than the lopsided moderns, on one hand, and Amish, on the other.  Of course, most societies before the advent of liberalism were such mixtures.  The question is whether a traditional community can survive in the face of aggressive liberalism without taking drastic steps like those of the Amish.  I suspect it cannot.

4 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed that, most thought provoking. Do you have any recommneded further reading?

  2. Hello Mr. Nerlich,

    Thank you. I’m afraid I haven’t read any other books on the Amish in particular, but I’ve read and, in some cases, reviewed other books on related themes. For theoretical work on how religions try to cope with modern life, see “The Sacred Canopy” and “The Social Construction of Reality” by Peter Berger. On how religious beliefs are generally tied to social structures, see “Natural Symbols” by Mary Douglas (reviewed on this site), and also “Purity and Danger” by the same author. For a good history of how the Catholic Church failed to protect Herself from erosive modernizing, see The Desolate City by Ann Muggeridge (reviewed on this site). On how Christianity itself managed to thrive in the hostile environment of pagan Rome, see “The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark. Also, of course, many of my essays deal with these issues.

  3. Nice. Thanks for sharing.

  4. There are around ten varieties of Amish, from those who use new technology to those who will not even use a windmill. The latter say that “God gave us the water, we should not expect Him to pump it for us”. When I was working in Wooster, Ohio in 1999, it was enthralling to see the Amish up close for the first time. Having spent most of my life in England, I had seen them only in Peter Weir’s film Witness, made in 1984, released in 1985. In Witness, only men drove the buggies. By 1999, women in Ohio were driving buggies.

    In Witness, the corrupt police captain has huge problems tracking the honest cop hiding out among the Amish. He can’t phone round to enquire – the Amish have no phones. In 1999 Wooster, my colleague Jeff’s friend was doing a roaring trade selling mobile phones – and a lot of his customers were Amish. Part of their rationalisation for using them was that there was no “physical” (i.e. wired) connection into their homes. I guess by now they have rationalised using 5g smartphones (essential for modern business, weather reports, etc).

    In 1999 in Indiana, I saw an elderly Amish man riding an electric wheelchair. His wife walked alongside. He obviously had access to some power outlets to recharge it. But such a vehicle merely restored some of the mobility he had enjoyed as an able bodied pedestrian. He could visit local family and friends. But he could not disappear for a weekend outing to a theme park and thus weaken community links.

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