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The Puzzles of Amish Life

The Puzzles of Amish Life

by Donald Kraybill

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          Revised edition! People's Place Book #10. A sociologist provides a way to understand the Amish people's intentional way of living in a world far different from their own. Fun to read. How do the Amish thrive in the midst of modern life? Why do the Amish separate themselves from the modern world? Why do a


          Revised edition! People's Place Book #10. A sociologist provides a way to understand the Amish people's intentional way of living in a world far different from their own. Fun to read. How do the Amish thrive in the midst of modern life? Why do the Amish separate themselves from the modern world? Why do a religious people spurn religious symbols and church buildings? Why is humility a cherished value? Why do a gentle people shun disobedient members? How do the Amish regulate social change? Why is ownership of cars objectionable, but not their use? Why are some modes of transportation acceptable and other forbidden? Why are tractors permitted around barns but not in fields? Why are horses used to pull modern farm machinery? Why are telephones banned from Amish homes? Why are some forms of electricity acceptable while others are rejected? How is modern machinery operated without electricity? Why are some occupations acceptable and others taboo? Why do the Amish use the services of professionals — lawyers, doctors, and dentists — but oppose higher education? Why do Amish youth rebel in their teenage years? Are the Amish freeloading on American life? Are the Amish behind or ahead of the modern world?

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Skyhorse Publishing
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People's Place Book Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

The puzzles of Amish life are many. Telephones, taboo in homes, stand at the end of farm lanes. Powerful tractors used at Amish barns rarely venture into fields. Horses pull modern hay balers and corn pickers on Amish farms. State of the art calculators are permissible, but not computers. Forbidden to own or operate motor vehicles, the Amish freely hire cars and vans for transportation. Electricity from public power lines is off limits, but 12-volt current from batteries is widely used. Clothing, styled in traditional patterns, is made from synthetic materials.

The unique blend of old and new in Amish life baffles us. Indeed, at first glance, the unusual mixtures look silly to modern folks. These perplexing puzzles, however, are quite reasonable when pieced together in the context of Amish history. Many of the puzzles are practical, cultural compromises-bargains that the Amish have struck between traditional ways and the powerful forces of modernization.

Amish settlements are scattered across 22 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. The following essays reflect the life of the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the oldest and most densely populated Amish settlement. The relentless press of urbanization on this community has produced a host of intriguing puzzles. While the details of Amish puzzles vary from settlement to settlement, the cultural values undergirding the puzzles in this book sustain the life of many other Amish communities as well. However, the specific examples are drawn from the Lancaster Amish.

Chapter 1 -- Growth

Puzzle: How do the Amish thrive in the midst of modern life?

Extinct in their European homeland, the Amish have flourished in North America in the 20th century. From a meager band of 5,000 at the beginning of the century, they exceed 150,000 adults and children today. The Lancaster settlement with less than 500 persons in 1900 has already passed the 19,000 mark. In many areas of life, the Amish cling to traditional ways-shunning electricity, cars, and higher education. Yet they have survived, indeed flourished, in the face of modernization. Ironically, their growth paralleled the rise of industrialization. How did such traditional folks manage to thrive in the midst of modern life?

Three factors have contributed to their success: biological reproduction, cultural resistance and a willingness to strike compromises with the modern world. Groups that want to grow must replace their members through biological reproduction or outside recruitment. They must, in essence, either make babies or converts. The Amish do not actively evangelize or proselytize. They welcome outsiders into their ranks, but few have made the cultural leap. A high birth rate feeds Amish growth. Women typically give birth to seven children. Following the toll of death and disease, the number of children averages 6.6 per family. The rejection of birth control and the use of modern medicines have boosted Amish birth rates. Large families are typical in rural societies where children are welcomed for their labor. Family size typically shrinks as families leave the farm. It remains to be seen if the Amish birth rate will slump as they leave their plows to work in small cottage industries.

Most Children Join

Large families, alone, do not assure growth. Children must be convinced to remain in the group. Widespread defections would, of course, offset any gain produced by high birth rates. The Amish have successfully kept most of their children. Estimates of the dropout rate in the Lancaster settlement vary from 10 to 15 percent. According to Amish leaders, more and more of their youth are embracing their religious heritage. In any event, four out of five children remain Amish. Why?

Amish parochial schools effectively socialize children through the eighth grade. The taboo on high school and college insulates Amish youth from modern values. Surrounded by dozens of uncles, aunts, and cousins, children are entangled in a warm web of family ties. Jobs, friendships, and business opportunities within the Amish community provide strong incentives to stay. The Amish have created an alternative society, an Amish world, that offers emotional security-meaning, identity, and belonging. These forces pull Amish youth toward membership and cancel out worldly tugs that might entice them away. Some, of course, do leave the ethnic fold, but the bulk of the children (85%) join the Amish church. The high birth rate and few defections have produced vigorous growth. Beyond natural reproduction, the Amish use a two-pronged strategy for surviving: cultural resistance and cultural compromise.

Resisting Modern Society

The Amish have resisted encroachment of modern society in several ways. They have translated many of their core values into visible symbols of identity-ethnic flags that mark off their cultural turf. Humility, modesty, obedience, equality, and simplicity are symbolized in plain dress. Such values are also reflected in the horse, the buggy, and the lantern, as well as the traditional modes of farming. These stark symbols of tradition draw sharp contours between modern and Amish life. Their daily use reminds insider and outsider alike of the cultural fences dividing the two worlds. Moreover, these ethnic flags call members to surrender convenience, pleasure, vanity, and even personal identity for the sake of the group's larger mission.

The Amish also resist modern life by curbing interaction with outsiders. The use of Pennsylvania German as the child's native tongue shapes a unique world view, binds members together, and draws a sharp line between insiders and outsiders. The dialect controls and limits interaction with non-Amish. The Amish do speak English, but the Pennsylvania German dialect or "Dutch," as it is called, reminds speakers that the ethnic community is their primary home. Horse transportation limits travel and hence, interaction with outsiders. Taboos on political and social involvement in community organizations also restrict social ties. The rejection of radio, television, and other mass media insulates the Amish from threatening secular values. Amish schools immerse youth in traditional lore and thought. The schools also remove Amish youth from the corrosive influence of worldly peers. All of these practices enable the Amish to resist assimilation into modern life.


Meet the Author

Donald B. Kraybill directs the Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at Elizabthtown (PA) College where he is also Professor of Sociology. He is the author of The Riddle of Amish Culture, and the editor of The Amish and the State both published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He has also co-authored The Amish Struggle with Modernity published by the University Press of New England.

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