Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community

Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community

Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community

Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community

Synopsis

While most books about the Amish focus on the Pennsylvania settlements or on the religious history of the sect, this book is a cultural history of one Indiana Amish community and its success in resisting assimilation into the larger culture. Amish culture has persisted relatively unchanged primarily because the Amish view the world around them through the prism of their belief in collective salvation based on purity, separation, and perseverance. Would anything new add or detract from the community's long-term purpose? Seen through this prism, most innovation has been found wanting.

Founded in 1841, Shipshewana benefited from LaGrange County's relative isolation. As Dorothy O. Pratt shows, this isolation was key to the community's success. The Amish were able to develop a stable farming economy and a social structure based on their own terms. During the years of crisis, 1917-1945, the Amish worked out ways to protect their boundaries that would not conflict with their basic religious principles. As conscientious objectors, they bore the traumas of World War I, struggled against the Compulsory School Act of 1921, negotiated the labyrinth of New Deal bureaucracy, and labored in Alternative Service during World War II. The story Pratt tells of the postwar years is one of continuing difficulties with federal and state regulations and challenges to the conscientious objector status of the Amish. The necessity of presenting a united front to such intrusions led to the creation of the Amish Steering Committee. Still, Pratt notes that the committee's effect has been limited. Crisis and abuse from the outer world have tended only to confirm the desire of the Amish to remain a people apart, and lends a special poignancy to this engrossing tale of resistance to the modern world.

Excerpt

“Amish Country” is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Indiana. Demand for tourist information has increased so much that the Elkhart Visitor’s Center sponsors a “Heritage Trail Tour,” a CD-prompted, self-guided journey through LaGrange, Noble, and Elkhart Counties, which contain the third-largest settlement of Old Order Amish in the world. Here there are no amusement parks, exclusive restaurants, or resorts. the area is not even particularly easy to find, yet the people come.

The attraction of this Amish community, primarily set in LaGrange County, is more complex than it appears. Although academics often worry about the inevitable process of assimilation, every tourist knows that part of the appeal is that the Amish seem to have resisted integration into mainstream society. the public asks: How did this group survive as a cultural and ethnic entity when others did not? How has their culture been robust enough to withstand the onslaughts of materialism, war, economic depression, and technology?

This book is an ethnic case study of one particular Amish settlement; it is not a religious history. It emphasizes how the group has managed not only to survive but also to thrive. Certainly any examination of the Amish must consider their religion, for it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate questions of ethnicity from religious tradition. the Amish, however, are more than a religious denomination. They are an ethnic group: One is born Amish; evangelism is unknown. By definition, an ethnic group is a biologically and culturally discrete unit. Anthropologist George De Vos defines an ethnic group as “a self-perceived group of people who hold in common a set of traditions not shared by the others with whom they are in contact. Such traditions typically include ‘folk’ religious beliefs and practices, [and] language.” De Vos adds that . . .

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