Amish Immersion, Part I: An author confronts the diversity that is the Amish world

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner and Steven M. Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicks off this three-part blog series.

Guest post by Karen Johnson-Weiner

In preparing for the “Amish immersion” in Lancaster County, I wondered a lot about what my JHU Press colleagues would think. I had stayed in different Amish homes in the course of doing fieldwork, and only one of these experiences seemed like something one could do with folks who’d never experienced Amish life. I’d spent time with Amish friends in Southwestern Michigan, and their home had indoor plumbing. It was the most upscale Amish home I was ever in. Most of my Amish stays have been far more primitive. There was the home in Ohio, for example, where the outhouse was about 20 yards away and could be reached only by using the little plank bridge to cross a little stream. Not user friendly at 3 a.m.! And there was a stay in Missouri with folks so plain they used no machines. In the Mohawk Valley, New York, I took my bath in a galvanized steel tub in the wash house—not something one could do every day. In fact, in the past when traveling for fieldwork, I routinely brought a scarf to cover my hair and planned a hotel visit at the end of my stay so that I could stand under a shower for a long time. (I thought that would be only fair to anyone I sat next to on a plane!) Somehow, I didn’t think the Lancaster County visit would be like this.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from our immersion. I’d spent a lot of time doing work in Lancaster County, but mostly with Mennonites in the Groffdale Conference—the so-called Wenger Mennonites. Like the Old Order Amish, Wenger Mennonites use horses and buggies (all black, in contrast to the Lancaster Amish gray), but their homes have electricity and telephones. The Lancaster Amish were new to me—and much different from those with whom I work.

Harvested iceblocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

Harvested ice blocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

From the beginning, there were surprises. I found it hard at first to recognize Amish homes. The presence of multiple homes on the same site—dawdy houses indicating multiple generations—was a giveaway, but there were fewer obvious indications of Amish ownership than I am used to. I have done much of my work in ultra-conservative Swartzentruber communities, where all homes are built to the same pattern. In fact, when someone buys an “English” or non-Amish home, they quickly begin making renovations so that it will look like a Swartzentruber home: white, two-floors, a front porch that runs the width of the house. The Lancaster homes were all different! And landscaped! And many had solar panels. Businesses, too, were different—larger, powered by large generators, some with a sizable work force, all with telephones, some with computers. These are a sharp contrast to the small family businesses of the most conservative communities, in which the size of a generator—if one were even permitted—would be strictly controlled. I remember that once, in a conservative Swiss community, a young furniture maker installed a larger generator. (In contrast to Lancaster builders, who use pneumatically-driven machines, his powered belts that ran machines.) This brought a visit from the ministers, who basically told him that his generator was too big and violated the Ordnung, or discipline, of the church. The young man ended up leaving his community. Yet his big generator would have been swamped by some we saw.

In the guest house there were propane lights, which were new to me. These aren’t permitted in many more conservative communities, and I appreciate their brightness. From minute one of our immersion, I was confronting the diversity that is the Amish world!

kraybillKaren M. Johnson-Weiner is a professor of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam, coauthor of the forthcoming The Amish, and author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, published by the JHU Press, and New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State. 

Interested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each.