The Amish "Mission Movement" and the Reformulation of Amish Identity in the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Abstract: During the middle of the twentieth century a grassroots "mission movement" emerged among Old Order Amish set on promoting revival within the church and active service to others. Engendering a sharply mixed reaction, it led Amish supporters to organize national mission conferences, participate in Mennonite service programs, attend college, distribute literature to thousands of homes, and fund Amish mission workers. By the early 1960s most of those active in the movement had moved into Mennonite circles or toward affiliation with the Beachy Amish, while those who remained Old Order often adopted a more religiously sectarian stance. Recognizing the importance of the mission movement means that scholarly explanation of the Amish needs to consider today's definition of "Old Order" as at least as dependent on the events of the 1950s as the 1850s. It also points to the evolution of the Beachy Amish and the role of Mennonites in Amish self-understanding.

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"It may be that God will call us from our nice quiet Christian community to a life of action," noted an Old Order Amish writer in early 1953. (1) The hopeful tone of the opinion signaled not fear of such a divine summons, but an eagerness to engage a wider world beyond the bounds of traditional Amish settlements. Such an outward-looking posture among a people popularly known as sectarians was remarkable, yet by the early 1950s these sentiments were shared by a significant number of Amish from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, who dubbed their informal, grassroots network the "Amish mission movement."

From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the activities of the mission movement jar assumed categories and definitions. For about a decade during the middle of the twentieth century, Old Order church members organized national mission conferences, attended and graduated from college, participated in Mennonite voluntary service programs, distributed mission-oriented literature to thousands of Amish homes, and funded full-time Amish mission workers from Mississippi to Ontario. To be sure, by the early 1960s all this would become impossible and even unthinkable in an Old Order context, but during the 1950s it was part of a yeasty mix of ideas and values competing for the Amish soul.

If this crucial chapter in Amish history is relatively unknown a half century later, its significance at the time was lost to few. In 1954 sociologist John A. Hostetler thought it one of the most important developments in North American Amish history, and Mennonite theology professor J. C. Wenger (1910-1995) warmly endorsed the movement. (2)

Mission movement promoters pursued a dual program of witness, both to those outside and inside the Amish fold--"gospel-starved area[s]" of larger society and "work among our own people," as the Amish writer in 1953 put it. (3) Amish mission activists strove to bring a particular type of spiritual renewal into Old Order homes and churches and then to marshal that energy and conviction and direct it outward in evangelism and service to others. The resulting ferment redirected lives, divided communities, gave rise to new congregations and institutions, and permanently altered relations between North American Mennonite and Amish groups.

That the ground was somehow shifting under the Amish church was obvious by 1956 to mission movement promoter and Nappanee, Indiana native, Harvey Graber (1930-1978). But, he admitted, what the "lasting influence upon the Amish Church" would be, "and whether it is possible for the very character of the Amish Church to adapt itself to this new ... quality of Christian life, remains to be seen." (4) In the end, many Amish mission movement participants-Graber included--ended up in Beachy Amish, (Old) Mennonite or Conservative Conference circles. Yet their exodus should not mask the fact that the movement ultimately led to a reformulation of Amish identity in the second half of the twentieth century that was as significant for Old Order society as for those who took up other paths. …