Outsiders often express an interest in joining the Amish. The Amish traditionally do not seek out converts. In one example related by John Hostetler in Amish Society, a particularly zealous outsider–though never actually formally joining an Amish congregation–did much to stir up Amish circles in the 1950s. As Hostetler writes:
When outsiders join, or attempt to join, the Amish church, issues may arise that polarize the group. This occurred when a Detroit working-man was overjoyed in his discovery of the Amish people. While in a state of uncertainty about the adequacy of his religion, he read a newspaper account of Amish in Kansas who had sold their farms and moved away because oil was discovered on them. Maniaci concluded that”either these people were fools or their religion was real,” and in hopes that it was “real,” he wrote to one of the Amish farmers asking how he could join their group. He was referred to an Amish family in his own state of Michigan. But the Amish had no precedent for taking in outsiders and referred Maniaci and his family to a small Mennonite mission in Detroit, which they joined. Still aware that it was the Amish who had won him to Christ, Maniaci began to arouse the Amish to do missionary work. The Amish expression of the Christan life, he felt with deep sincerity, should be proclaimed far and wide. He began publishing an evangelistic news sheet, Amish Mission Endeavor, and to all Amish ordained persons sent specially prepared letters in which he said: “My only interest is to see the Amish Church on fire for the Gospel. What about the debt that you as a leader owe to the unsaved? There are many young people in your church who are willing to launch out…Will you lead them or will you cause them to join other churches?” Maniaci’s efforts brought some results, and he succeeded informing a “mission-minded” group in several states. The first of several Amish mission conferences was held in Kalona, Iowa, in 1950. Amish persons attended against the advice of their bishops.
Maniaci was considered a dangerous innovator by Amish leaders. After all, he could not speak the language of the Amish and was regarded by them as an intruder. To offset this criticism from the leaders, his Amish sympathizers conducted the annual missionary conferences in German. Maniaci concluded that “they did not like an outsider running their affairs.” Nevertheless, with his pointed, mimeographed messages,he had helped to form a special interest group within Amish society and had put like-minded persons into communication with one another.
Amish are occasionally criticized for having an overly inward-looking focus. Amish tend to concentrate religious energies on their own,rather than seeking out new converts. Operating in a spirit of humility, Amish choose quiet witness over brash proclamation. Perhaps some of the inward focus also comes out of apprehension of cases like Maniaci’s. Being Amish is not predicated on being raised within Amish culture, but as Amish themselves say, it certainly helps. The skill sets are present and sense of identity ingrained for a person raised Amish, enabling him to more easily adapt to adult member life, much more so than for someone coming from a ‘modern’ orientation.
At the same time, while evangelism is largely off the table, there has been some interest among Amish in mission-oriented work, seen today in the support of some Amish for the activities of organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee. As Steven Nolt adds in A History of the Amish on the Maniaci case, though Amish attempted to separate themselves from Maniaci’s mission movement, at the time there was a clear interest in church activity that “worked outside traditional church structures.” The result was the formation of a Mission Interests Committee which worked to orchestrate out-of-community work projects. Nolt points out that Amish mission supporters of the time often eventually went the way of full-scale shifts to Beachy Amish or Mennonite congregations,sometimes under the justification of the necessity of cars or college ministerial-prep study to being effective in mission activity. Nolt writes on the mission movement:
For Old Orders, it confirmed a suspicion that agitating for reform in one aspect of church life probably was linked to a wholesale embrace of modernity. Even the innocent interests of mission-movement supporters quickly produced automobile ownership and higher education. As a result, many Old Orders became more wary of outside religious influences that promised to solve Amish problems with new spiritual insights.