Book Write-Up: Amish Society

John A. Hostetler.  Amish Society: Revised Edition.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, 1968, 1971.

I bought this book a while back at the Goodwill.  It looked to me like an informative, detailed, and judicious discussion about the Amish.  The author of the book, John A. Hostetler, was himself Amish, but he left the community to pursue higher education.

Here are some items:

A.  The book talks about how the Amish began.  The Amish were a sect that broke off from the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren in the seventeenth century.  They are named after Jacob Ammann.

Ammann had disagreements with others in the Swiss Brethren.  One area of disagreement concerned the practice of shunning and excommunication.  Ammann was much stricter about these things than were many other Swiss Brethren people.  Ammann’s opponents believed that shunning should only mean exclusion from taking communion, but Ammann thought that it should also include limiting interaction with shunned people and not eating with them.  Ammann also wanted to excommunicate a woman who told a lie, and he supported the excommunication of people attending the state church.

Another area of disagreement concerned communion.  Ammann’s group held communion services twice a year, whereas the Swiss Brethren only had one annual communion service.  Ammann also introduced footwashing at his communion services.

Anabaptists strongly believed that Christians should be separated from the world.  This was probably why Ammann advocated a stricter practice of shunning and excommunication: he supported a purified church, truly uncontaminated by worldly ways.  But Ammann also maintained that the Christian distinction from the world should be evident in Christians’ physical appearance, not just their spirituality or their practices.  Thus, Ammann “contended for uniformity in dress, including hats, shoes, and stockings,” and he “taught that it was wrong to trim the beard” (pages 28-29).

The Amish migrated to America in the eighteenth century.  According to Hostetler, that enabled the Amish to survive as a community.  In Europe, they were a marginal and persecuted sect, small, scattered, and continually on the move.  Hostetler doubts that they would have survived as a community had they remained in Europe.  In America, by contrast, there was a lot of land to go around, so the Amish could settle near one another, develop communities, and cultivate their culture.

B.  Years ago, I was eating lunch with some Seventh-Day Adventists, and they were aware that I was a religious studies major.  They wondered if I knew anything about the Amish, particularly the Amish avoidance of modern technology.  I did not know anything about that at the time, but the question remained in my mind.

The 2011 Family Guy episode, “Amish Guy,” manifests curiosity about that as well.  In one scene, an Amish leader is leading Amish men in prayer.  He acknowledges that God decided that the right amount of technology for humans existed between 1835-1850: “not too little, not too much.”

Did Hostetler’s book shed light on the Amish stance towards modern technology?  It did give some indications.  There is the factor, of course, of the Amish desire to be separate from the corrupt world.  As Hostetler states on page 48, “To the Amish there is a divine spiritual reality, the Kingdom of God, and a Satanic kingdom that dominates the present world.”  But there is also a belief that humans should be closer to nature, as well as an exaltation of hard work.  This coincides with an agricultural society, with not too much technology.  For the Amish, nature is good because God made it.  Hostetler states: “For the Amish, God is manifest more in closeness to nature, in the soil and in the weather, and among plants and animals, than he is in the man-made city” (page 66).

Hostetler acknowledges, though, that there is nuance to this.  There are Amish people who use tractors, for example.  There are even Amish people who use automobiles.  The latter are often called the “Beachy” Amish.

C.  I have been reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction: Beverly Lewis, Amy Clipston, and the list goes on.  How do these books line up, or fail to line up, with what Hostetler says?  I would like to address this question as it relates to three issues: religion, intellectual pursuits, and social etiquette.

Let’s start with religion.  In reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction, I have often wondered if these books’ focus on God’s grace and unconditional love reflects the actual religion of the Amish, or is rather the authors projecting their own evangelical Christian beliefs onto the Amish.  According to Hostetler, the Amish lean towards the “works” side of religion: doing good works and obeying God.  They recoil from any notion that people can truly “know” that they are saved in the here and now.

That is the overall picture, but Hostetler acknowledges some nuance.  Some Amish have been influenced by evangelical Christianity and Mennonites and have developed a focus on God’s grace and a belief that people can be assured of their salvation.  Some form Bible study groups that believe this, and, according to Hostetler, the broader Amish community does not care for these groups.

On intellectual pursuits, Hostetler states that the Amish are not too keen about this, or about abstract thought.  They prefer to focus on the practical.  This coincides with their belief that Amish people should leave school at a certain age to focus on the farm.  In some of the evangelical Christian Amish fiction that I have read, however, there are Amish characters who read books and discuss ideas.  They are curious about the world and like to read about it.  One character in a Beverly Lewis novel left thoughtful reflections in her copy of Little Women, reacting to the book.  Another character liked to buy books about biblical history.  In Leslie Gould’s Amish Sweethearts, there are thoughtful discussions about such issues as pacifism.

Is there a contradiction between what Hostetler says and what these evangelical Christian Amish fiction books depict?  I would say “not necessarily.”  The Amish in the evangelical Amish fiction books still focus on the practical: agriculture, their work, etc.  The books that they read are not overly abstract.  And even Hostetler occasionally refers to Amish people talking about items of interest that they read about.

Then there is the issue of social etiquette.  Hostetler depicts the Amish as rather stoic and reserved, socially.  In his depiction, they do not consistently follow certain rules of social etiquette that many outsiders take for granted (saying “excuse me” after belching, saying “thank you”).  In evangelical Christian Amish fiction, by contrast, the Amish do not look too different from others: they are polite, they express affection, they pursue romance.  At the same time, Hostetler does say things that balance out his depiction: the Amish are good conversationalists, children ask questions at mealtime, and husband and wife talk about how to manage life.

I would not be surprised if Amish society today is more liberal than what Hostetler depicts, especially since Hostetler himself talks about the liberalization that was occurring in his own day.  The Amish in evangelical Amish fiction do not seem to me to be as patriarchal as Hostetler’s depiction of the Amish, and some of the Amish in that fiction still interact with family members who leave the faith.  On the other hand, there are still prominent elements of Amish society that are conservative.  The 2012 PBS documentary on the Amish depicted the suffering of those excommunicated from the Amish community.

Hostetler’s book did mention some customs that I have yet to encounter in evangelical Christian Amish fiction (and there is much of such fiction that I have yet to read).  For example, Amish couples who court each other have a practice of laying down on the same bed.  They do not have sex outside of marriage—-that would be severely frowned upon.  Nor do they sleep in the same bed at night.  But, at times, they lay down in the same bed.

D.  In I Corinthians 5:11, Paul tells Christians: “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (KJV).

This passage comes up in discussions about church discipline: if a Christian is unrepentant and is being disciplined by his or her local church, to what extent are Christians allowed to associate or interact with him or her?

In light of this, Hostetler’s description of how shunning plays out practically within the Amish family was interesting.  The Amish family does not avoid interaction altogether, but the interaction is limited.  The shunned person eats with the children rather than the adults.  The Amish are forbidden to receive help from the shunned person, so (for example) the shunned person cannot drive his family to church in the buggy.  He is allowed to ride along in the buggy, though.  In some cases, if a person is considered too disruptive, he is asked to leave home.

E.  Hostetler’s book discussed other issues.  There are the controversies about whether the Amish should be exempt from public schools after a certain age, and the political issues surrounding that (some of them intersected with other issues, such as political factions).  According to Hostetler, the Amish have served on local public school boards (though earlier, on page 49, Hostetler says that they “refrain from holding public offices”) and have started their own schools.  Hostetler also details what an Amish church service looks like, almost in a play-by-play manner.  And there is discussion about Amish who are discontent about Amish society, as well as Amish stances towards medicine.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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