Learning from Amish Letters

In an age of sophisticated computer software that can calculate a hifalutin statistical outcome which only a few mathematical geniuses can understand, one can forget the value of other ways to knowing about peoples and cultures anywhere in the world. In volume 3, issue 2 of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities (JPAC), however, we are reminded of the importance of plain, everyday communication between people as a way to learn.

Karen Johnson-Weiner’s unique article on the value of letters is a reminder that numbers are not the only thing that make up rigorous research. Her JPAC article is titled “Buy that Stamp! Letter Writing and Amish Research: A Personal Reflection on a Research Technique.” Below are excerpts from her article and pieces of her correspondence that illustrate the value of letters for learning about the Amish. ~ Joe Donnermeyer

One  technique  researchers  have  at  their  disposal  is  to  take  that  pad  and  pen  and  build  on  fieldwork connections with letters. Through letters, a researcher can approach the Amish in a way that equalizes the exchange. The Amish informant is no longer “put on the spot” by a questioning researcher, nor is the researcher rushed to “get everything” during a short visit.

Letters  substitute  for  visiting  when  geography  makes  in-person  catching  up  difficult.  In  the  Amish  world,  circle  letters  create diverse  communities  within  communities,  uniting  groups  of  cousins,  sisters,  single  women,  childless women, or parents with twins into communities that cross state, settlement, and affiliation borders. Circle letters are really packets of letters. When receiving the packet, each correspondent writes his or her news, adds it to the packet, and then sends the packet on to the next correspondent on the list. When the circle letter comes back to the first correspondent, that person reads all the other letters, takes out his or her original letter, adds a new letter, and then sends it on to the next person.

I  discovered  the  value  of  letters  when  I  was  researching  Amish  schools.  Traveling  with  Amish  friends, we would stop for a couple of hours to visit each school and observe what was going on in the classroom. The work was fascinating, but I always had too many questions. Further, I found that I had even more questions after I had left the classroom, and by then it was too late to ask the teacher. Early  on,  I  promised  to  send  every  teacher  I  talked  to  copies  of  the  pictures  I  had  taken  (with  permission), and I asked if I could write and ask follow-up questions. The response was invariably positive, and I began correspondence with Amish teachers in schools in diverse communities across several states. The correspondence gave me the opportunity to question my observations and impressions from those short field visits. More importantly, the teachers who wrote me back generally gave me far more detailed answers to questions than I could ever have hoped for in short, face-to-face interviews.

This letter from a teacher does much more than answer questions about curriculum.

Here is a letter from an Amish woman writing about Ordnung, change, and fellowship.

Over the years a variety of letters have kept me up-to-date on activities and included me in family and community events in ways I never imagined when I first encountered the Amish.  From outlines of children’s hands to show me how the little ones have grown, to invitations to make potato chips…I have received missives I could not have imagined when I wrote that first letter to ask a question. 

And then there are the letters with a good sense humor. The first both challenges gender assumptions about the activities of Amish women and acknowledges the author’s joy at taking on the very traditional role of Amish wife. The next letter sent to me jokingly hides the sender’s name.

These letters and many more have informed my research.  Through the correspondence in my files, I have been able to let the Amish speak for themselves.  In each of my books, letters from Amish correspondents have augmented oral interviews, archival work, and participant observation. In fact, the letters I have received over the past 30 plus years are primary source materials I never expected to have.

Karen Johnson-Weiner has contributed all her correspondence to the Earl H. and Anita F. Hess Archives and Special Collections at Elizabethtown College. If you visit the High Library of Elizabethtown College and access some of Karen’s correspondence, don’t be surprised if you find yourself there at closing time, engrossed in the same fascinating learning curve that informed her research. 

Karen Johnson-Weiner is a Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emerita at SUNY Potsdam, New York. She earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She was a Snowden Fellow with the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, in the Fall, 2015.

A sampling of her scholarly work includes: The Lives of Amish Women (2020, Johns Hopkins University Press); New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State (2nd ed, 2017, Cornell University Press); Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools (2007, Johns Hopkins University Press), and with co-authors Don Kraybill and Steven Nolt, The Amish (2013, Johns Hopkins University Press).

The Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities can be accessed at https://plainanabaptistjournal.org. While there, register (upper right hand corner) for the journal, which takes only a few minutes to complete.

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    1. Denise

      Amish letters

      This was a very interesting post! I’ve often thought it would be nice to have an Amish pen pal. I have many things in common with their daily way of life. But always assume they have more than enough correspondence with which to keep up.

      1. Clu Carradine

        Amish Pen Pal

        I would love this also, but as you say they have more than enough to do in their busy days. I miss writing and receiving letters like we used to do back before the Internet!

    2. Jackie M


      I moved to Florida from Central NY 3 years ago where I had Amish neighbors I was friendly with. We still write to each other. I’m not as good at it as she is but I enjoy staying in contact.