The Amish in Missouri
Adam Brooke Davis
“Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (I Corinthians 6:14)
“Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (II Corinthians 6:17)
“And be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:2)
Most Americans are familiar with the Amish of Lancaster County Pennsylvania, where about 40,000 “plain people,” (including Old Order Mennonites) make up about 10% of the county’s total population, clustered around three towns: — Strasburg, Intercourse, and Bird-in-Hand. There are other major groupings in Ohio and around Elkhart IN. It is estimated that there are 150,000 Amish in 17 states (and more in Canada).
However, over the past several decades, Missouri’s Amish population has been among the fastest-growing nationwide. There are an estimated 5000 Amish in Missouri, with the largest settlements at Jamesport (120 households, begun 1953), and others at Clark (established 1954, 135 households), Stanberry (about 30 families in the past three years, mostly from Iowa andMichigan) and Seymour (where observance is more strict and conservative than elsewhere in the U.S., and tourists are not especially wished-for). Although the Amish have been in the state since 1850 or earlier, the oldest existing settlement is Bowling Green (begun 1948 with 11 households, now 65), with smaller groups near Mt. Vernon, Kirksville and Windsor, and new settlements appearing periodically. Far from dying out, as has long been predicted, the Amish have doubled their population in the last twenty years, due to high birth rates and a far greater percentage of young Amish now making their permanent, adult commitment to the church, despite the increasing difficulty of earning a living from small-scale, low-technology farming.
New settlements result mainly from migrations. The Amish typically migrate in search of more reasonably priced farmland, or to avoid government regulations which conflict with their religious beliefs (they will not defend themselves in court), or over internal disagreements as to Ordnung, the rules by which each community lives, in addition to the core beliefs expressed in theDordrecht Confession. These fissions are often emotionally traumatic, testing as they do the relative strength of commitment to loved ones and to what they regard as God’s call to live apart from the ways of the world: “What fellowship can the light have with the darkness?” they ask. We who live by a cosmopolitan ethic may find it puzzling that a people who value generosity, hospitality and gentleness do not also hold tolerance — or at least non-interference with others’ private business — as the highest virtue. The bewilderment is lessened, perhaps, as one comes to understand that in a communitarian (as opposed to individualist) worldview, there really is no such thing as a private matter. Amish separatism is the necessary condition for maintaining their dependence on one another.
Persons who break the rules of conduct and the vows of obedience taken as part of adult baptism present the community with a heart-rending challenge: shall we change what we do, rooted as it is in our understanding of what God wants, for the sake of this person we love? Sometimes that is indeed the choice that is made, and loved ones follow the innovator (or transgressor, depending very much on one’s point of view) into excommunication. Those who choose faithfulness to the ways of the original group are required to shun the breakaways, a practice known as meidung, or avoidance. In most cases, the particular issue seems trivial, at least to non-Amish: the use or non-use of tobacco (interestingly, largely accepted among conservatives, but rejected among the more liberal or “modern”), hip-pockets, or the width of a hat-brim. But also in each case, the question is whether this particular innovation will be the first step towards the ways of the larger society, in which the freedom to do what you please is the highest value, purchased at the cost of a sense of mutual responsibility and (even some moderns have opined) at the expense of much of what makes life meaningful. Major schisms over such issues as the use of the English language, the strictness of shunning, or the use of Sunday schools (to name only a few) have produced such subgroups as the Peachy Church or Beachy Amish.
Every society eventually encounters its own internal contradictions, and for the Amish, certainly one tension is between the will to obey God and conform to the community’s understanding of the Divine will, on the one hand, and the natural (they would call it the “fallen”) tendency of humans to do as they please, on the other. But a more profound fissure exists between the impulse to purity of belief and practice in service of a God Whose will is absolute, and the desire to remain in community with fellow humans, whose understanding is limited, whose drives are contradictory and whose will is imperfect. In fact, the Amish originated during the Reformation, in a 1693 rupture with the Anabaptist followers of Menno Simons. Jacob Amman differed with other leaders over the frequency of communion, among other issues. When no meeting of the minds proved possible, his followers broke away, founding a group that would later be called “Ammanish” Mennonites. Over the years, multiple fissions took place, with many of the breakaway groups eventually fusing with the larger Mennonite communities. A number of Amish groups, easily identifiable to the outsider by their commitment to what they call “plain” dress, have made judicious decisions about the costs and benefits of such things as electricity (often run to the barn but not to the house), tractors (used in some settlements for stationary belt-power) and even automobiles (permitted by some groups, but only in black and without chrome trim, in keeping with the emphasis on humility, and a horror of proud display).
It is a widespread misconception that the Amish are opposed to modernity or to technology. What they oppose are those features of the modern world which might lead away from a life of mutual dependence and responsibility, or might encourage competition for status. Thus, most Amish communities reject mechanized farming not because machines are evil, but because a farmer with a tractor has less need of neighbors’ help. Similarly, electricity (rejected by most Amish in a 1919 decision) and all the doodads and gewgaws it drives are seen as leading to a “keeping up with the Yoders” mentality. Their rejection of public high schools is similarly misunderstood: it is not that they do not value knowledge (although they have little interest in non-practical, abstract or speculative studies) but that the public school system foregrounds competition, careerism, independence, individual vision, personal understandings and self-advancement – all values of the larger society which the Plain People, for whom humility and community are the greatest of virtues, reject.
Relations with Tourists, Folklorists, Scholars:
We have something to learn by examining our own demonstrable fascination with the Amish (you’re reading this page, aren’t you?). There is idle curiosity, nostalgia, also a certain desire for reassurance about the possibility of living simply in our complex world, and not seldom a desire to be affirmed or reassured, adjudged worthy by the Amish themselves. This last impulse is found among the “seekers,” individuals who are drawn to the Amish way, but almost always find it too far removed from our own deeply engrained cultural assumptions — or just too hard. The Amish regularly and gently admonish such persons to seek simplicity in their own way, and in their own world. The Amish are used to being romanticized by outsiders, and they are also, unfortunately, familiar with questioning that can occasionally become interrogation – Amish simplicity can be experienced by some of us as a kind of reproach to our own ways. They themselves do not evangelize or engage in missionary work, except insofar as their lives bear witness to their beliefs, and they dislike visits from proselytizing outsiders. Because for the Amish, the true way is lived rather than spoken, they are rarely articulate in responding to these challenges. They are by their own design ill-equipped to compete, or even to operate, in a world where the greatest truths are thought to lie in the future, awaiting discovery by a process of argument and analysis that systematically sets aside existing assumptions, that thinks of novelty as a value in itself. They have neither apetite nor aptitude for debate or theology.
While increasing numbers of Amish make their living at least partially from the sale of handicrafts produced for the tourist market, they remain deeply ambivalent about the commodification of their culture, a process that began with the entrepreneurial folklorist Alfred Shoemaker’s efforts to market the “Pennsylvania Dutch” beginning in the 1940s. These people make little distinction between work and play, and the cult of leisure is a foreign concept to them. They find the idea of tourism peculiar, the tourists themselves somewhat silly or merely annoying. The Amish want nothing more than to be left alone. Many visitors find them standoffish, a stance the Amish have learned over time to adopt, rejecting the easy intimacy, the “have-a-nice-day” familiarity which many sociologists see as a mechanism for denying the alienation in mass society. Their isolation has occasionally made them prey to the unscrupulous outsider, as in the Elsie Ropp Case (http://www.kcstar.com/plain/stories/elsie.htm).
But most of their difficulties come with those who wish them well. While many Amish have cordial relations with the neighbors they call “English” (a reference to the fact that outsiders do not speak the old Alemannic dialect of German still in use among the Amish), they have very mixed feelings about the attention drawn by their lifeways. They particularly dislike having their pictures taken. It has something to do with the Old Testament prohibition against graven images, but more to do with what they regard as that peculiarly modern idolatry and egoism which make the camera and the personal snapshot so ubiquitous. And certainly they do not like to feel that the visible correlatives of their most profound convictions, that they themselves, are reduced to the quaint and the decorative.
This affectionate if patronizing view of the Amish is fairly recent. Their pacifism drew public ire during the World Wars and through the Vietnam era (including vandalism of their property and jailing and abuse of their young men), and they have been at odds with much of the regulatory apparatus of the modern welfare state. They do not wish to participate in unemployment insurance or social security programs, as these would reduce their reliance on each other, the glue which holds their community together. A good example of their reasoning might be their adoption of the orange “slow-moving vehicle” triangles on their buggies; resistant to anything not “plain,” they are nonetheless concerned about becoming the cause of harm to others. Amish men engaged in construction work, on the other hand, refuse to trade their traditional headgear for hard-hats, and are typically exempted on the grounds that in so doing, they endanger no one but themselves.
Those who encroach upon them mean no harm, or can scarcely imagine the consequences of what seem like the noblest motives, the most ireproachable ideals. One ex-amishman traces his separation from the church to a schoolteacher who said to him, “You can be so much more than a farmer!” That teacher had no doubt the best intentions, and the fact that probably most of us would agree with her view indexes the depth of our non-understanding. It is common for outsiders to suggest that Amish young people should be exposed to alternative views, so as to be able to make their own, informed decisions. “That,” said one ex-amishman, “would be like sending your son to a brothel so he can look around and make a rational judgment about whether that sort of thing has any appeal.”
It was for the sake of maintaining control of cultural input during their children’s value-forming years that the Amish sought to have their own schools, a wish that was finally recognized in the 1972 Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder. In that decision, the high court agreed that the state had the duty to see to it that every citizen got enough education to participate in the political process (the Amish will not hold elected office, but many vote) and so as not to become a public charge. The court held, however, that in this instance, the state’s duty was in conflict with the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. Concerning the same issue in his own state, the governor or Iowa pointed out that the Amish showed no potential for becoming a burden on the welfare system, and concluded that “we are in a deep spiritual sickness if we cannot tolerate 23,000 frugal people in our midst.” Similarly, courts have determined that the Amish may be exempted from other compulsory programs, such as mandatory health insurance — as can other groups which can demonstrate religious/philosophical opposition as well as a history of effective measures for the care of their sick and elderly.
The Amish have their troubles, including the sorts of petty squabbles and cattiness that plague every intimate society. They worry about their children, their mortgages and their marriages, as others do. More seriously, the limited gene pool and frequency of second-cousin marriage (five surnames account for perhaps half the Amish population) results in a high rate of dwarfism, the highest incidence of twinning recorded in a human population, a cluster of serious metabolic disorders, and an unusual distribution of blood-types. But their suicide rate is half the U.S. norm, no provision exists for divorce, separation is rare, and the incidence of drug and alcohol abuse is a fraction of that in the general population. Crimes against property occur seldom and crimes of violence are virtually unknown. They are different from mainstream society in ways that run deeper than most appreciate, and along axes of value that often remain incomprehensible. Outsiders are often startled, in near encounters with the Amish, to find that they are gentle, not soft, purposefully simple, but neither stupid nor ignorant, and most had enough experience of the world during the time they call “running around” (the courtship age, when behavior that would get a baptised adult shunned is tolerated, perhaps even to a degree expected) to know what they are rejecting. While Family Life often features discussions of the duty to meet the well-meant inquiries of outsiders with thorough and sincere answers, probably the attitude for “English” in approaching the Amish that would be most appreciated is a cordial and respectful distance.
Some Amish Links:
A semi-Official Amish Website (no, this is not a joke, and yes, it’s in black-and-white). Developed in consultation with the Amish of the best-known settlements in Lancaster County, PA, this site provides answers to some common questions:
National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom: an organization working on behalf of the Amish, whose religion forbids resistance to ill-treatment; this group’s work has established important principles of religious freedom for all Americans, regardless of their beliefs or non-beliefs.
Click here for a good collection of resources from the University of Virginia
A list of videos on Amish History and culture (note – Amish who have seen “Witness” regard it as silly. There was a mercifully short-lived (1988) TV series, “Aaron’s Way,” a pretentious variation on the “Beverly Hillbillies” about an Amish man who moves to California to assist his son’s non-amish widow in the operation of a vinyard; ex-amish viewers pronounced it “disgusting.” There’s no need to discuss “Kingpin.”
Ervin Beck of Goshen College: a bibliography on Amish and Mennonite Folklore and Folk Arts
Amish Heartland Magazine, from Ohio, includes FAQ:
Some Key Works:
Hostetler, John Andrew. Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of the Amish Culture. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
—. The Amish and the State. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Nolt, Steven M. A History of the Amish. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992.
The Budget, a publication by and for Old Order Amish.The Budget does not have a website at this time; to order a subscription, call (330) 852-4634 or write:
P.O. Box 249
Sugarcreek, OH 44681
Die Botschaft: a weekly including news and notes from Amish “scribes” throughout North America.
200 Hazel St.,
Lancaster PA 17608-0807
Publishing house established in 1964 by two Amish farmers (David Wagler and Joseph Stoll) and run by Old Order Amish, produces books and such periodicals as Family Life (since 1968, the largest-circulation Amish publication); Blackboard Bulletin (begun in 1957 as a “round letter”; a resource magazine for Amish schoolteachers); Young Companion, for Amish children and young adults, and the Pathway Readers, for use in Amish schools.
Route 4, Aylmer ON
LaGrange, IN 46761
Herald Press: “Our mission […] to publish books from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective for adults, young people, and children.” Publishers of the Mennonite Encyclopedia.
Mail: 616 Walnut Ave., Scottdale, PA 15683
Features and Journalism:
Missouri’s Amish Communities, from Destinations:
The Kansas City Star: a feature on the Amish of Northwest Missouri:
(Iowa State University Press) by Linda Egenes
Studies and Essays:
Furner, Mark – On the Trail of Jacob Ammann
Greksa, Lawrence P. and Jill E. Korbin – Key Decisions in the Lives of the Old Order Amish: Joining the Church and Migrating to Another Settlement
Gross, Leonard (Director of the Mennonite Archives). Background Dynamics of the Amish Movement: The Dutch Mennonites vis-à-vis the Swiss Brethren; Pivotal Individuals within the Swiss Brethren Division of the 1690s; and The Question of Reformed (Calvinist) Influence
McGonigal, Kate. Durkheimian Explanations of Key Aspects of Amish Culture
Meyers, Thomas J. (Goshen College) The Old Order Amish: To Remain in the Faith or to Leave.
Nordstrom, Mark (Bowling Green State University):
an essay on the diffusion of innovation among the Amish
Sharp, Jamie (Loyola University, Chicago): The Amish: Technology Practice and Technological Change
Amish-style foods, a Lancaster County store operated online by an ex-Amishman: