Chances are you’ve read a book or two to try to better understand the Amish. In today’s post, Richard Stevick shares his experiences with the people who write those books, starting with John Hostetler, through some of today’s authors.
Growing up in a working class community and in a family from which nobody had ever gone to college, I never imagined that I would write a book, let alone come to know authors of any kind. So an unexpected by-product of my having gone to college and eventually studying Amish life has been the privilege of learning to know fellow scholars and other Amish-theme writers.
I never personally met John A. Hostetler, arguably the most eminent scholar of all things Amish through most of the latter half of the 20th century. He was born into an Amish family in Mifflin County, PA, and knew from age six that he wanted more than an eighth grade education. He graduated from Goshen College in the late 1940s, and eventually earned a doctorate in sociology from Penn State University. He later took a position in the sociology department at Temple University where he taught for decades.
Since he had retired by the time I began teaching a college class on Amish life in 1991, I never got to know him personally. However, I was invited by Donald Kraybill to the dinner sponsored by Elizabethtown College in June 1993 by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies to honor him for his many contributions, academic and personal, to the understanding of Amish life.
Although he was to suffer from depression in his final years, I clearly remember how his humor and modesty surfaced when he stood to address us after listening to the many accolades. His first sentence was in Pennsylvania German, and the Dutch speakers erupted with laughter when he said, “Der Mischt iss am deef vadda do hinn” (The manure is getting deep here). Besides his scores of publications and advocacies, he is remembered most for his four editions of Amish Society, one of the first books I read that accurately depicted and analyzed Amish culture.
Besides his academic and personal achievements, John’s other major accomplishment was mentoring a young Temple doctoral student through his doctoral studies to become the most highly productive and best-known Amish scholar today, Donald B. Kraybill, founder of the Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, PA, College.
I got to know Don in the early 1990s when I began teaching a class on Amish life and culture at Messiah College. On our way to visit the Lancaster County Amish, our class would stop each year at Elizabethtown to learn from the acknowledged guru of All Things Amish. Don, who subsequently became Provost and my boss at Messiah College for five years, would lay aside his work for an hour. He is extremely disciplined, insightful, and one of the most productive scholars I know, with nearly a score of books on the Amish and other plain people.
One of the highlights for me and my class in those early days was hearing Don respond to the many questions that baffled my students. Later, Don also mentored and encouraged me throughout my research and writing of my first book, Growing Up Amish: The Teenage Years. He must have read through the manuscript twice and gave generously of his time in helping me through this new challenge. If Don doesn’t know everything about the Amish, I’m quite sure that he knows more than anybody else in our field. We remain good friends, and he always has a place to stay with us when he is speaking or researching here in Holmes County.
I met another eminent Amish Studies scholar a few years after I began teaching my class at Messiah. I had been accepted to present a paper on Amish adolescence at the International Conference of Cross-cultural Psychology in Montreal, Canada. When I looked at the map—no GPSs then—I realized that I would be passing close to the St Lawrence River and a New York Amish community that was arguably one of the plainest enclaves among these ultra-plain Swartzentrubers.
I contacted a youngish anthropologist, Karen Johnson-Weiner, who was studying Pennsylvania German and had been developing relationships within this Swartzentruber Amish group. Long story shortened, Karen offered to show me around and meet some of her friends. That encounter was the beginning of my interest in the Swartzentruber people, an interest that continues to this day.
Since then, Karen has become the undisputed expert on all things Swartzentruber. Despite doing her own research and teaching full time at Potsdam State University, she willingly gave of her time to answer my dozens of questions on Swartzentruber life, especially with their Youngie. This help helped me get up to speed and resulted in a much more extensive treatment of plain Amish practices and their implications for their future.
Her books on Amish education (Train Up a Child) and New York Amish are masterpieces of scholarship and clarity. She is also a co-author of PBS’s American Experience-related book, The Amish and is one of the principal experts in the filmed version. (These are must-haves for anyone with serious interests in Amish life and culture.) Karen is not only an articulate and engaging writer, but she has the ability and character to develop close relationships with a group that typically distances people like us. In the fall of 2013, Karen was invited to three Swartzentruber weddings, an unheard-of occurrence. Her Amish friends trust her and so do her colleagues.
Another person that I have learned to know and respect is David McConnell, co-author with Charles Hurst, both of Wooster College in Ohio. I consider An Amish Paradox, their book that explains and analyzes the complexities of the multi-leveled Amish communities in Holmes, Wayne, and Stark Counties, to be extremely clear and insightful.
My all-time favorite passage in the literature of the Amish describes an Easter night in Holmes County in the early 1980s at the time when youthful behavior at Sunday night singings was so disruptive that most parents refused to host them. Although I had interviewed the Amish bishop that recounted those events (written on page 75-76 of Paradox), I did not succeed in getting him to tell me that story, one that I had known about but only through rumors.
David, along with his esteemed colleague, Chuck, has the personality, temperament, and ability to quickly establish genuinely safe and mutual relationships with their Amish cohorts. After reading their book, some of my Amish friends paid them the highest tribute by saying that they didn’t know how the authors learned so much about the Ohio Amish and ruefully wished that some of the things that they wrote about were not so.
However, together they produced their award-winning book with its solid information and analyses—and the Amish admire this kind of rigor and truth. Their book is a must-read for anybody with a serious desire to understand the complexities and nuances of Amish life. (David is currently focusing on the Amish as users of technology and their attitudes and practices towards the environment and sustainability.)
In a future article, I plan to continue the theme of writers about the Amish, focusing this time on some Amish and ex-Amish authors, and also picking up fine writers outside of academia whom I have met and have come to admire, people such as Linda Byler, Saloma Miller Furlong, Ira Wagler, David and Valerie Weaver-Zercher, James Cates, and our own Erik Wesner. Machs goot and keep reading.