Understanding the Amish in Twentieth-First Century America

Article excerpt

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.

A VIEW FROM THE INSIDE: AMISH NEGOTIATIONS WITH MODERNITY

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. …