Amish Immersion, Part III: A community of traditions and beliefs

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 Johnson-Weiner and Steven 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 kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.

By Greg Nicholl, acquisitions editor

A few colleagues and I joined the authors of The Amish for a three day trip to Lancaster County, which the group affectionately dubbed our “Amish Immersion.” In the days prior, I wondered what I would need to do to prepare for the excursion. I have been working on Anabaptist books for some time now, but this was new territory. This was physically placing the reader face-to-face with the subject of our books without the distance afforded by the printed page. I was worried that I would speak or act in a way that would offend our Amish hosts. I also certainly didn’t want to be seen as just another tourist who had come to ogle. But in a sense, wasn’t that what we were doing? The phrase “Don’t tap on the glass” ran through my head again and again.

As the editor of Amish books, it is important for me to see and experience Amish culture firsthand in order to better understand the books that we publish. This insight also allows me to be a better editor for our authors. But this trip offered me even more: it provided me with knowledge of a community not often experienced on such a personal level. The three days I spent in Lancaster County—during which I visited Amish stores, such as a quilt shop and a flower shop; thriving businesses, including a stove factory and wood shop; and the dining tables of everyday families who opened up their homes to us—will forever rank among the top five experiences of my life.

The excursion was coordinated by Donald B. Kraybill, Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. I continue to be in awe of the respect this man has garnered within both the scholarly community and the Amish community. This trip was no different. Every person we met in every house and business invited us in, offered us coffee, and opened up their personal lives to us. One Amish gentleman even mentioned that he turns to Don’s books to learn why he and his family do the things that they do. (He may not know the reason behind a particular tradition, but Don and all the authors in the series certainly do.) This is how knowledgeable our authors are about the Amish.

Coauthors Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on the immersion trip here) and Steven M. Nolt were invaluable in providing information as well. When we asked our three experts questions, we always received a well-rounded answer. Karen informed us about the ways of the more conservative Swartzentruber Amish, who live in upstate New York. While the Lancaster Amish may use battery-powered lamps above their dining room tables, for instance, the Swartzentruber communities rely solely on kerosene lamps or candles. Steve, who grew up next to these Lancaster farms, was also able to give us insight into the local traditions as opposed to the traditions of Amish communities in Indiana, where he is a professor at Goshen College.

While the things I experienced in those three days could fill multiple blog entries, I will distill it down to this: Yes, we ate lots of pie. Yes, we rode in a buggy. And, yes, we were tourists looking in on a community most of us had only ever heard about. But ask any one of us what happened on October 2, 2006, at the West Nickel Mines School, or tell us to locate the town of Nickel Mines on a map, and we will tell you about the five pear trees planted alongside the road and what they stand for, and about how a community turned to forgiveness in the wake of the shooting. We can also tell you that there is much more to the Amish than what is portrayed on television: they are a community that embraces family and friends and holds tight to their traditions and beliefs as they continue to move forward.

KraybillRumspringaShortKraybillTechnologyShortInterested 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. And read Kathy Alexander’s take on the trip here.