On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethrenby Donald B. Kraybill
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Hidden along the backroads of rural America are fast-growing societies that stand apart from the mainstream. Members of some of these communities speak a European dialect, wear distinctive dress, avoid higher education, drive horse-drawn carriages, and use technology selectively. Their cultural values produce many puzzling practicestractors with steel wheels, telephones outside homes, successful industries without electricity, word processors but not computers, and rollerblades but not televisions. These distinctive communities that spurn individualism, shun consumerism, and use technology cautiously challenge many of the dominant values of American culture.
On the Backroad to Heaven is a unique guidebook to the strange world of Old Order Anabaptist groups. Focusing on four Old Order communitiesthe Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and BrethrenDonald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman provide a fascinating overview of their culture, growth, and unique way of life. Following a general introduction to Old Order culture, they show how each group uses a different strategy to create and sustain its identity. The Hutterites, for example, keep themselves geographically segregated from the larger society, whereas the Brethren interact more freely with it. The Amish and Mennonites are more alike in how they engage the outside world, adopting a complex but flexible strategy of compromise that produces an evolving canon of social and religious rules. This first comparative study sketches the differences as well as the common threads that bind these groups together.
Along the way, the authors provide answers to many puzzling questions. Why have these groups not merely survived in the twenty-first century, but flourished? What strategies help them preserve their cultural identity in the face of the powerful forces of mass society? How have they changed, and why? Kraybill and Bowman explain how each group draws appropriate "lines in the social sand" to mark the boundaries between virtue and vice, and show how these symbolic borders continually change in response to internal and external pressures.
Finally, these groups raise fundamental questions about the nature of human societyparticularly about the interplay between the individual and the group. On the Backroad to Heaven therefore offers a cultural critique of our own society as well, for as we ponder alternative ways of living we learn more about ourselves.
About the Author: Donald B. Kraybill is professor of sociology and Anabaptist Studies at Messiah College. Widely recognized for his work on Anabaptist groups, he is the author or editor of many books, including The Riddle of Amish Culture and Amish Enterprise, both available from Johns Hopkins.
Carl F. Bowman is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Bridgewater College. Nationally recognized for his scholarship and publications on Brethren groups, he is the author of Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a Peculiar People, also available from Johns Hopkins.
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The Old Road
Why must we shun the pleasant path that worldlings love so well?
Old Order Roots
The four groups in our studyHutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethrentrace their lineage to the Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Europe. The Anabaptist movement emerged in southern Germany and Switzerland in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The first Anabaptists were young radicals who were chafing at the pace of the Reformation. They wanted religious reforms to move faster and to break more sharply with established Catholic patterns. In 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, impatient students of the Protestant pastor Ulrich Zwingli baptized each other as adults. This defiant act laid the foundation for an independent church, free of state control, and issued a bold challenge to Catholic, Protestant, and civil authorities alike.
Members of the new "free" church were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) because they insisted on rebaptizing adults who had already been baptized as infants in the Catholic Church. Adult baptism was a capital offense in sixteenth-century Europe because it threatened the marriage of civil and religious authority that had developed over the centuries. Infant baptism conferred membership into both Catholic and Protestant churches. It also granted automatic citizenship, which gave civil authorities the power to tax and conscript. So the question at stake was not merely the age of baptism, but amuchdeeper issue of authority in church/state relations. Where did ultimate authority rest? The Anabaptists placed the authority of the Scriptures above civil edicts. They turned their backs on traditional Catholic teaching, evolving Protestant doctrine, and the laws of the Zurich city council. The young upstarts chose to follow their own interpretation of Scripture and the literal words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament.
Known as radical reformers, many Anabaptists paid dearly for tearing asunder the church-state fabric that had been woven together over the centuries. Thousands of Anabaptists were tortured and killed by religious and civil authoritiesburned at the stake, drowned in lakes and rivers, starved in prisons, and beheaded by the sword. The harsh persecution fanned the fires of protest as the movement spread into northern Germany and the lowland countries around Holland. Many Anabaptists fled for safety into remote areas where they took up farming and tried to avoid detection. Memories of the persecution linger in the minds of many Anabaptists even today and temper their relations with the larger society.
Dozens of contemporary Anabaptist groups, including the four in this book, trace their roots to the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century. Anabaptists migrated to North America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in search of religious freedom, political stability, and fertile soil. Today their descendants, scattered around the world in many cultures, embody a wide variety of religious practices. Although many Anabaptist groups have blended into modern culture, the Old Order communities have actively resisted acculturation. Old Order identities formed in the late 1800s as some Anabaptist groups struggled with a variety of social changes spawned by industrialization. The four Old Order groups profiled here share a common theological heritage, but each, of course, has its own particular story.
Four Pilgrim Groups
The Hutterites. The Hutterites take their name from an early Anabaptist leader, Jacob Hutter. They branched off from the Anabaptist movement in 1528, three years after its beginning, and communal property soon became their distinctive trademark. Bitter persecution often forced the Hutterites to migrate in search of tolerable conditions. They sojourned in Moravia, Austria, Transylvania, Romania, and Russia, and then came to the United States in the 1870s. No longer found in Europe today, they live in some 425 agricultural colonies, each averaging about 90 members, in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
The Hutterites continue to embody many of their traditional practices and beliefs. Religious services are held each evening before a common meal. Sermons on Sunday are often read from sixteenth-century texts. Despite their traditional worldview, the colonists readily use the latest computerized equipment to operate large farms on thousands of acres. Families live in private apartments but eat in the colony dining room. Children attend a school on the colony that is typically supervised by a local public school. Private property, wills, personal credit cards, résumés, and televisions are unheard of among these communal people.
The Mennonites. Many Anabaptist groups eventually became known as Mennonites through the influence of Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist leader in the mid-1500s. A few Mennonites arrived in the New World as early as 1683, but most of the Swiss-South German immigrants came in the eighteenth century. With a warm welcome from William Penn, Pennsylvania became a favorite haven for Mennonites and other persecuted religious minorities. Eventually the Mennonites fanned southward into Maryland and Virginia as well as westward to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and beyond. The Old Order Mennonites emerged as a separate group in the late 1800s when some more progressive Mennonite groups began adopting new innovations. Although many Mennonite groups have merged into American culture, the Old Order communities maintain many traditional Mennonite practices.
The Old Order Mennonites own private homes and farms in rural areas where they live among non-Mennonite neighbors. Many of their homes have electricity and telephones. Although they use horse and carriages for transportation, steel-wheeled tractors are permitted for field work. They meet for worship on Sunday in austere meetinghouses without carpeting, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Mennonite men do not wear beards, but the plain clothing of both men and women sets them apart from the larger society.
The Amish. The Amish also trace their lineage to the Anabaptist movement of 1525. They were part of the Swiss stream of Anabaptism until 1693 when they formed their own group under the leadership of Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Anabaptist leader who moved to the Alsace region of present-day France. The Amish soon became a conservative group within the Anabaptist family. Although they share common roots, the Amish and Mennonites branched into separate bodies in 1693 before they migrated to the New World. Some Amish arrived in Penn's Woods (Pennsylvania) in the mid-1700s, and others came in the 1800s. They often settled near Mennonite and Brethren communities. The "Old Order" label developed in Amish communities after the Civil War when some progressive Amish adopted new practices and eventually merged with Mennonite groups. Those who resisted the changes became known as the Old Orders. Today the Old Order Amish reside in some twenty-five states, mostly east of the Mississippi, and in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Unlike the Mennonites, the Amish meet to worship in their homes every other Sunday. Telephones, television, and electricity are missing from their homes. The Amish use horse-and-buggy transportation for local travel and often rent vans with local drivers for longer trips or business. In recent years some Amish have developed profitable small businesses and are no longer farming. Children typically attend a one-room Amish school through eighth grade and then join the family work force.
The Brethren. Strictly speaking, the Brethren are not an organic offshoot of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, but they are still directly linked to the Anabaptist story. Influenced by both Pietism and Anabaptism, the Brethren formed in 1708 in central Germany. Although they were grounded in Radical Pietism, they embraced most of the doctrines of the Anabaptists with whom they often associatedadult baptism, the separation of church and state, pacifism, and church discipline. Alexander Mack Sr. is recognized as the leader of the first Brethren, who were also known for many years as Dunkers or German Baptist Brethren.
The first Brethren baptisms in Germany's Eder River signaled the rejection of the religious individualism that had marked Radical Pietism, which had sparked their spiritual awakening. While Brethren sought to keep the Pietist interest in a deep, almost mystical spirituality, they exchanged individualistic views of the religious life for understandings of community discernment, discipline, and correction that were much more typical of their Anabaptist neighbors. In fact, with the exception of an insistence upon immersion baptism, which eventually earned them the name "Dunkers," Brethren became barely distinguishable from the Mennonites, at least to outsiders.
The Brethren migrated to Pennsylvania after 1719 and eventually fanned out to Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and westward. During the 1860s and 70s, the Brethren were torn by controversies involving church discipline, plain dress, revivalism, higher education, and various departures from the "ancient order" of the Brethren. Subsequently, the German Baptist Brethren experienced a three-way division in the early 1880s, and the Old Order group adopted the name Old German Baptist Brethren to distinguish itself from the other two groups. A variety of perceived accommodations to modern culture caused the Old German Baptist Brethren to withdraw from the larger fellowship in 1881, in an effort to preserve "the faith once delivered to the saints." The more progressive branches eventually evolved into two denominations, the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren Church, which have since spawned other groups such as the Dunkard Brethren and the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. Many of these groups now share little in common with the Old German Baptist Brethren, who have carried the banner of Brethren conservatism for more than a century. Old German Baptist Brethren are presently organized into some fifty congregations in fifteen different states.
In many ways the Old German Baptists interact more closely with the larger society than the other groups. They drive cars and have telephones and electricity in their homes. Television and video, however, are not permitted. Many Brethren children attend public schools. It is not unusual for Brethren to own a business or to work in a non-Brethren business. Traditional dress helps to set them apart from the larger society. The worship services and ritual practices of the Old German Baptist Brethren follow ancient forms.
Each of these Old Order communities has blazed a pilgrim's path on the margins of contemporary society; each has chosen a backroad, so to speak, on their journey to heaven. Any group that charts a different course to the pearly gates will stir curiosity as well as face misunderstanding. Ignorance, lack of contact, and caricatures in the media sometimes blur public understandings of peculiar groups like these. The following section explores some of the myths that enshroud Old Order communities.
Myths and Realities
Social Antiques. A prominent stereotype portrays Old Order people as relics of the colonial eracooking over open fires, dipping water buckets into wells, making candles from beeswax, and spinning wool from their own sheep. These communities, according to some myths, are immune to change because they live today as their ancestors did centuries before. Social antiques of a sort, they are viewed as pristine specimens of early American life. By turning to them, we can supposedly learn how our ancestors lived before the rise of factories and modern technology.
This image of Old Order life suggests that these communities have been insulated from the vibrations of industrialization. They do indeed stress separation from the world as a religious doctrine, but they are not cultural fossils from another era. To the contrary, they are constantly changing. While trying to remain separate from the larger society, they continually adopt new products, change their ways, and shift their cultural fences. Old Orders do value traditiona few still milk their cows by hand, and many preserve vegetables from their gardensbut they are hardly social heirlooms from earlier times.
Shunning technology. A related distortion portrays Old Orders as shunning modern technology. Media images of horse-drawn carriages on busy highways symbolize a radical rejection of twentieth-century technology. Many Old Order groups do drive horse-drawn carriages, and all of them ban certain types of technology, but none of them categorically boycott it. These are not modern day Luddites. In fact, all four groups use some state-of-the-art technology. The Hutterites plant and harvest their crops on vast prairie fields with gigantic modern tractors. The Mennonites routinely use telephones and tractors. Some Amish dairy farmers use automatic milkers and artificial insemination. The Brethren own microwaves and drive cars, though usually modest ones with darker colors.
The four groups employ technology selectively, albeit somewhat cautiously. They are dubious of technologies that might contaminate their values or disrupt the solidarity of their communities. All the groups, for example, forbid the ownership of television, which of course would open channels to the larger culture. On the use of motor vehicles, the groups vary. Individual Hutterites do not own cars, but the colonies operate trucks and vans for community purposes. The Brethren drive cars on a regular basis. The Amish and Mennonites forbid driving motor vehicles, but they do hire "taxi" service when their destination exceeds the practical limitations of horse and buggy travel.
Ignorant and Backward. A television series featuring an Amish family showed a young Amish woman who was startled by the light inside a refrigerator in a neighbor's home. Such scenes suggest that Old Orders are backward, uninformed, and naive. Moreover, the taboo on high school by some of the groups may imply that they are ignorant. Some outsiders are appalled to learn that many Old Order teachers have not been educated beyond the eighth grade. These teachers are not certified, nor are their schools accredited by professional organizations. Rooted in rural areas, denied high school diplomas, restricted in travel, shielded from television, and lacking the refinement of the arts, Old Order members may, at first blush, appear culturally disabled. In conversation with outsiders, they might ask questions like, "What language do they speak in France?" or "Where exactly is the World Wide Web?" Such questions may suggest that they are shackled by provincialism. Moreover, the uniformity of Old Order life conjures up images of mindless, robotic behavior.
While it is true that Old Order people do not have résumés or academic diplomas, and are not acquainted with the graces of middle-class manners, it is unfair to call them ignorant. Without television they may miss the latest political scandal, but they have ample wisdom in the depths of their communal reservoir. From delivering babies to burying the dead, they live their lives with little need of self-help manuals. The Hutterites ably manage productive farming operations with hundreds of animals on thousands of acres. Amish and Brethren entrepreneurs whose annual sales top a million dollars may not hold MBAs, but they understand how to market products. The bounty of handcrafted items flowing from all of these groups bespeaks the elegance of simplicity and the beauty of homespun ways. Members of Old Order groups may appear to dress alike, but they are not pressed from a cultural mold that pares off individual expression and artistic creativity.
Stern Puritans. Outsiders who observe these communities may think that members are filled with piety and offer prayers at every turn. Sensational cases of shunning, publicized in the media, imply that leaders castigate wayward members in a callous fashion. Excommunication and the shunning practiced by some of the groups may feel harsh to modern folks who cherish moral tolerance.
Amidst their religious devotion, however, there is ample humor, laughter, and levity in these communities. Although members may display a sense of quiet reserve, they also enjoy the pleasure of good fellowship at weddings and Sunday evening singings, and the thrill of exciting volleyball and softball games. Frequent visiting, often mingled with work, is a special source of delight. Quilting parties and work frolics blend work and play in the spirit of community. Many Old Order people enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, skating, and other outdoor sports.
These are, indeed, religious groups; but like any human community, the measure of devotion and sincerity varies from person to person. These groups have high religious ideals, but they are not perfect. Greed, gossip, envy, deceit, and revenge sometimes lift their ugly faces. And there are occasional cases of alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence as well. Despite their outward cloak of righteousness, these people are people.
Declining and Dying. Living on the fringe of American society, Old Order groups are oftentimes viewed as social relics fading into oblivion. Groups who have the audacity to spurn the virtues of modernity, to buck the fads and fashions, to call higher education irrelevant, and to turn their backs on some forms of technology will likely die, we suppose, in a matter of time. They might be interesting and different, but they surely will not endure. In due time, like other deviants, they too will succumb to modernity and bury their traditions in the graveyard of cultural castoffs.
Such doomsayers may be surprised to learn that many Old Order groups are not merely surviving but are indeed thriving. A few schismatic Old Order groups have failed, but many are growing. In fact, some are doubling almost every generation. Large families and strong retention rates have produced the growth rather than missionary efforts to convert outsiders. The four communities surveyed in this book pose an intriguing question: How is it that those who shun modern ways are able to not only survive but also flourish in the midst of contemporary society?
Uniform and Identical. A myth of similarity also masks the diversity of Old Order life. Media photographs often focus on the uniform attire worn by members of these groups. A few public symbolsblack hats, beards, head coverings, and buggiesquickly become the earmarks of Old Order life in the public consciousness. These distinctive symbols create an impression of uniformity across the groups. The myth of similarity suggests that members of these groups are cultural clonesand not only clones, but unreflective and thoughtless ones as well.
There are certainly many areas of common agreement and practice among these groupscommonalities that we explore in Chapter 6. But despite their common concerns, these groups are not cultural facsimiles. Many differences exist within and between them as well. Some Hutterites have telephones in their homes, and others do not. Most Amish homes have indoor bathrooms, but some do not. And although most Brethren have not attended college, a few have advanced degrees. The differences within each group are often complicated and hidden to the outside eye.
The differences are even more pronounced between the groups. The Hutterites use CB radios, but the Brethren have prohibited them. The Amish forbid the ownership of private cars, but the Brethren drive them all over the country. The Mennonites use tractors in their fields alongside their Amish neighbors, who farm with horses. Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren practice footwashing and exchange a "holy kiss" in their religious rituals, but the Hutterites do not. And surely the greatest difference is the Hutterite practice of communal living.
Real differences thread their way within and between these communities. Nevertheless, many common themes and practices imprint a distinctive ethos on Old Order life. What is the essence of Old Order life? How does their worldview differ from the assumptions and perspectives of mainstream American culture?
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Donald B. Kraybill is Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Widely recognized for his work on Anabaptist groups, he has authored and edited many books, including The Riddle of Amish Culture and The Amish and the State, both available from Johns Hopkins. Carl Desportes Bowman is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Bridgewater College. Nationally recognized for his scholarship and publications on Brethren groups, he is the author of Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a Peculiar People, also available from Johns Hopkins.
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