Part Two: An Amish America Q-and-A with a Lancaster County Amishman

In this second part of an interview with an anonymous Lancaster County Amishman, we look at the phenomenon of outsiders joining the Amish, using the Amish name to market and sell products to the public, Amish participation in the recent presidential election, and the meaning and purpose of shunning.

(And if you missed the first part, here it is: An Amish America Q-and-A with a Lancaster County Amishman, Part 1)

Lancaster County AmishmanA lot of people express admiration for what they perceive as the ‘Amish’ way of life. Some even express a desire to join. Yet in reality, outsiders rarely convert to the faith. Why do you think this is the case? And if the Amish feel that Amish living is the best way to pursue the Christian ideal, why do you think the Amish aren’t more aggressive in pursuing outsiders with the goal of sharing the community?

The first thing is obviously the huge cultural gap and the differing worldviews.

The next is I am not so sure at all that the Amish feel that Amish living is the best way to pursue the Christian ideal.  Or certainly not in a comparative sense or in a rational weighing of pros and cons.  If the Amish feel it is the best way it is not meant in a superior way meaning all the rest are inferior but rather it is perhaps the best way for the Amish themselves since the way of life is seen as a calling or a gift from above.  It is not a bed of roses but rather entails sacrifice.

As to why the Amish are not more aggressive in pursuing outsiders I think there are two primary reasons.
The first is the martyr heritage which has caused Amish to be somewhat reserved and shy and suspicious of outsiders.

The second is somewhat ironically the nearly complete loss of the one true church concept that was prevalent in Anabaptism in Europe.

The Amish today know that salvation means believing in the Lord and following his commandments.

If we love the Lord and accept Him as our Savior we will have eternal life, whatever denomination we are.

Let me just say this yet.  If the whole world were Amish it would be a boring and bland place indeed.

However if the Amish were gone from the landscape a solid and I would like to think vibrant color would be missing from the American mosaic.

Furthermore, sharing the community can be achieved by means other than converting to the Amish.  I was inspired by the words in Pauline Stevick’s book called Beyond the Plain and Simple.

It was written as follows:

We realize that not everyone is cut out to be one of the Plain People.
Many have not the opportunity.
But here is a challenge.

If you admire our faith—strengthen yours.

If you admire our sense of commitment—deepen yours.

If you admire our community spirit—build one.

If you admire the simple life—cut back.

If you admire quality merchandise or land stewardship, then make quality.

If you admire deep character and enduring values—live them.

This I think captures the true essence of evangelism which is spreading the Good News.  It also distinguishes from proselytization which is merely winning converts.

In other words, if people generally bloom where they are planted, then it would be a much better world than if everybody would be Amish.

And also, spiritually at least, the Amish simply do not have that marketing mentality or that urge to promote what they have to offer, in short to sell themselves, that seems to be so prevalent in American society including some churches.
Amish country popcorn

Recently on the blog and in a public lecture at Elizabethtown, I brought up the issue
of using the Amish name in order to sell products. The main issue that emerges seems to be the question of what ‘Amish’ actually means—is it a faith/religion, or a culture? Some entrepreneurs justify using ‘Amish’ to sell product on the basis of it being a cultural name and nothing more—Christianity being the religion. Yet others are adamantly against it, comparing it to selling one’s birthright for a bowl of pottage. As a business owner and member of the community, what’s your take on that issue?

Indeed the name Amish does get used to sell product.  And it is something I am not really comfortable with.  If I do the naming I would be more prone to call the product a Lancaster County product or Pennsylvania Dutch product or a product of the Plain People.

However this is an issue where balance and avoidance of extremes is very much in order.  For instance, at our farmer’s market deli, I do sell Amish Butter Cheese and Amish Roll Butter, etc.  And I really don’t have a serious issue with that provided the product really is an Amish product.

Truth in advertising is of the essence.  As to whether Amish means a culture or a faith/religion, I would say as a culture it is different from typical Modern Culture but as a faith it is essentially Christian with the same basic tenets as any Evangelical, Fundamentalist, or Biblical Church.

Such as belief in the Trinity, The Apostles’ Creed, The Bible as the divine Word of God, Salvation by Grace through Faith and the Crucifixion as atonement for humankind’s sin.  However for the Amish, culture and religion are intertwined to the point where it is hard to separate the two.  Indeed it is a faith culture.  So if we hang on to our beards, buggies, and bonnets only so we can sell trinkets, we will indeed have sold our souls and our birthright for a bowl of porridge.

Or to the other extreme, if we sacralize the name Amish to the point that we can hardly use it at all we will have missed the point, which is, our lives are to be a light to the world and a service to Christ.

As it was a rather unusual election season in terms of length and level of coverage, many Americans reached the point of overdosing on politics.How much of that gets through to the Amish community, and how do members of the community find out about political issues? Was there a lot of interest in the election? Bush visited Ohio and PA in ’04 in search of votes from the Amish community. How much interest did the Amish have in voting this time around, and how many in your community do you think voted?

It is a subject that gets talked about quite a bit depending on the personalities of those in the discussion.  Members find out about political issues through contacts with outsiders and newspapers and news magazines primarily.  There was kind of a resignation about the current election I think mostly because most Amish are “armchair Republicans” and it was obvious that the Bush administration fell short.

There was a lot less interest in voting this time around mostly because of  the war.  I would venture to guess about 25% of those who voted  in ’04voted this year which translates into a lot less than 10%, although I have no statistics to back this up.  It would be interesting to know myself.  I also don’t think Sarah Palin had much effect on Amish opinion.

I think one thing that gets a lot of attention in the media is the idea of shunning. Some paint it in the worst tones possible. Others recognize it as a Biblically-rooted social device that helps preserve the church. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, social shunning in the Amish church is done not in a spirit of vengeance, but in a spirit of love and out of the hope of getting an erring member to change his/her ways.

First of all I believe the name “shunning” itself is a misnomer.  Shunning makes you think of avoidance or ostracizing when in reality only some forms of interaction are restrained.  “Shunning” as practiced today could perhaps be best described as a ritualistic reminder of having gone astray and having broken your commitment to the Lord Jesus and the body of believers you made your commitment and baptismal promise with. Notice I said ‘with’ as opposed to ‘to’.

It is also a statement that the rest of the flock has no intention of leaving the fold and that it takes its commitment to the Lord and each other seriously.  But most of all it is done so the soul of the deviant may be saved on the day of Judgement.

It is based on a literal and biblical interpretation of the commandments of Christ and the apostles—Matthew 18;  1 Corinthians 5;  2 Thessalonians 3:14;  Titus 3:10;  1 Timothy 5;  2 Corinthians 10:8;  2 Corinthians 13:10;  John 15.  Therefore the feeling is, a mandate for filial discipline amongst a body of believers is very plainly mandated in the Scripture.  With that being said, shunning is usually done with great reluctance and only once there is nothing else left to do.  Upon repentance the relationship is restored and what is in the past stays in the past. Lancaster County Amish barn at daybreak

Shunning is never pleasant business both for the church and for the shunned individual and it would be easiest and most convenient to not practice it.

But feeling bound to the Scripture and knowing of no better way other than to try and use Christian Discretion and moderation, the practice continues in varying degrees.  Some almost totally ignore it, especially in private settings, while others are more rigorous.  It is important to remember there is no sacramental value on the ban to the point a banned one is considered as going to hell.  The Lord is still the final judge.

I like what John Ruth had to say about the application of Matt 18 which is the model of church discipline.  When Jesus spoke about the one who rejects the counsel of the ecclesia (church community) he is to be unto us as a heathen and tax-collector.

Before we take this to mean that we are to despise such persons, we should remember that Jesus himself socialized with tax-collectors and had friendly relations with Non-Jews.  So what he means in his statement regarding the person who rejects the counsel of the circle is that he may be told, ‘We’ll be neighbors, and we’ll treat you as fairly as anybody but we won’t call it church’.

In effect, you are not in the church if you don’t listen to it.  Just as, if as batter you want to call balls and strikes yourself, it’s not baseball.  What ‘shunning’ is about is how to relate to someone who on bended knee has promised in the presence of the covenanted circle to obey Christ and the Church and then leaves that particular covenant.  End Quote.

Yet many I think miss that point and only see it as a cruel and unhappy practice. Could you maybe give a little insight on what shunning is like for the individual and for the church/community? In your experience, does it ‘work’? What’s it like for the individual and for the church when the erring member actually does return to the flock?

One reason “shunning” appears so harsh to outsiders is that this American Me Generation and Taking Care of Number One Society has lost a concept of being keepers of their brothers and the idea of communal and church community discipline is not appealing.

Usually there were certain immoral things you did not do in a neighborhood and you also kept your promises and commitments.  Now it is nobody else’s business, and if a promise or commitment becomes a burden you discard it.  Americans do not like to be told about right and wrong especially not by some church.

Amish on the other hand still have some idea of being their brother’s keeper and simply cannot accept from themselves a do as you please mentality.  With all that being said, however, the stocks and pillory, the Ducking Chair and the Whipping Post of Puritan New England are definitely better off gone from society.

Amish church discipline was never taken to those extremes, which I think is a big factor in why the idea of being your brother’s keeper still carries weight by the Amish.

As to whether it “works”, not perfectly.  But it does cause you to thoroughly examine your reasons for leaving.

You think twice before leaving for superficial reasons.  And I personally do not have much experience with the issue.  Only recently has the company I am employed by hired some that are in the ban.

I have no close relatives in the ban and personally know less than 50 people that are in such circumstances.  Only once in my 43 years has anyone in our district decided to leave for good.  And as to what it is like when somebody does return.  The parable of the lost sheep in Matt 18 is very descriptive.  Many tears are shed and there is a feeling of restoration.

I did however twice experience the ban before I was married.  In both instances I voluntarily went to speak with the bishop and agreed to accept the counsel of the Church.  I can attest that an outward expression of an inner repentance goes a long way towards strengthening convictions and helps you to do better.  Both times I was admonished that the inner repentance is of greater importance and, without which, the outward expression does no good.

I became much closer to Christ and his church through those experiences.


If you enjoyed this interview, go here for more Amish America interviews.

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    1. Wow! Great questions, fantastic answers.

      I’ve always wanted to know the real world, bottom line take on shunning held by the Amish themselves. I was familiar with most of the scriptural passages, as a basis for this practice, that he quoted … but not all. I am also familiar with what I take to be the outside worlds’ view of shunning, but not what any of the Plain people actually think about it. Great insight.

      This just blows away any residual stereotypes that I may have been harboring about the Amish as a culture or a body of faith, though I had made a concerted effort to have none. I am a little embarrassed to have held views that I didn’t even (consciously) realize that I had, particularly about the analytical and communicative skills of the Amish. I must have been somehow been equating “plain” with “simple”. There is nothing “simple” about this guy! Anyway, I am very much in awe of your friends’ ability to shatter those stereotypes … whether consciously held or not.

      I’d really like to visit with this guy sometime, though I know that is not possible. Just so refreshing to see someone that can navigate through both cultures; plain and “mainstream” (whatever THAT is) so easily.

      Again, great work. Thanks so much for conducting this interview and posting to the site. I hope he agrees to further interviews in the future.

    2. ann

      I read this with interest… especially the part about shunning. Possibly the underlying intentions aren’t meanness or cruelty but that is certainly the way it is employed in some cases. Without writing a book, I’ll just say that I’ve read the verses mentioned and believe the Amish are misinterpreting scripture when they use them for defending the practice. My family left only when we became convinced that the Amish church as a religion could not be defended with the New Testament. A deep conviction that something is wrong prompted us to make that move. The result was ‘punishment’, being cut off from family, being publicly humiliated (in town as well as in large gatherings where Amish and non-Amish were gathered). A deep conviction that, although we were essentially launching out into an unknown world, we were doing the right thing also sustained us. When the thing you’re supposed to repent from is a conviction that the elders, bishops and church doctrine are wrong, it’s not even an option to ‘repent’. Only God can convict someone of sin- and we repent because of sin and because we’re sorry about it. If shunning isn’t an attempt by men to govern the faith of others, I don’t know what it is.
      We have a fairly good (although far from ‘cuddly’) relationship with our Amish family now- for one thing, we haven’t ‘gone to Hell in a handbag’ as they expected, my parents (especially my mom) have maintained as much as possible a peaceful relationship with their parents. Thirty years have made a difference and they have gradually backed off on most of the shunning- which in itself seems hypocritical- if it’s so right, then it should be maintained. We would, however, have no relationship at all if it weren’t for the determination of my parents to keep in touch with people who are our flesh and blood.
      I follow this blog with great interest because of my Amish background. I in no way intend to be disrespectful to the blog in writing this; but I do feel rather compelled to speak up as far as my own experience.

    3. Helen Parnell-Berry

      Hello Erik; what a fascinating interview. He sounds like a very interesting chap. And very forthcoming with his answers. Keep up the good work; it’s brilliant.
      If I don’t comment before have a super Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year 😀

    4. Bill

      Very interesting interview. I also like the new look!

    5. Hi Ann, thank you for your comments and very kind of you to share. I have heard from one or two people that have had perhaps similar experiences to what you describe hear. It is interesting about what you say concerning shunning being lessened later on. It stirred my curiosity about which community or general area of the country you grew up in. Of course feel free to leave that question alone if you like. My thanks again for reading the blog and sharing your thoughts.

    6. Helen,

      Great to hear from you as always and thanks for the kind notice of this piece.

      Best to you as well; in Polish we say ‘Wesolych Swiat’ at holiday-time!


    7. Bill, muchos gracias. Glad you like the new blog design; I think it is maybe a little easier to read and hopefully more eye-pleasing.

      I thought about it for a long time and figured that after all, if the Amish could change, well gosh darn it so could the blog.

    8. Amish stereotypes not always true

      Oldkat many thanks for the nice comments. My friend, bless him, was very kind in sharing his thoughts so candidly, and I think he’d find (or perhaps has found) the reaction interesting.

      Just on a general note–on this blog and on a couple others that have linked to the interview, I have read with interest a few comments that my friend is maybe not a ‘typical’ Amishman, ie especially when considering his level of (self-)education, insightfulness and internet usage, for example.

      I think some people have also been surprised at what was revealed and perhaps by the very idea that an Amishman would do an interview for a blog, which I could understand–ie perhaps because of preconceived notions or stereotypes or just by the fact that we don’t often read candid 10-page interviews with Amish people; typically we get quote snippets in newspaper articles and not much else.

      As he said, there is a small percentage of Amish that do use the internet, and especially when you go into the business community, you begin to find more and more Amish that are a lot more savvy about life, street-wise, than we might think. Of course, Lancaster County is a more progressive community than, say, Adams County, Indiana; and it would probably be a bit harder to find someone like my friend there or in say a smaller more isolated settlement.

      I think the main thing is that sometimes we categorize Amish as being of a certain type, and while there are typical modes of thought and ways of approaching the world common among the Amish, there are certainly different personality types among the Amish–the stern and serious, the jokers, the introverted thinkers, gregarious types, etc., just as among any people, so I think it shouldn’t be surprising to find somebody that is as interested in learning and insightful as my friend here. (He is free of course to correct me if he happens to be reading this!)

      However, on the other hand I’d say that the theological/spiritual ideas he expresses and his devotion to the faith and his family are quite ‘typical’ of the Amish…again I am always wont to generalize and use the term ‘the Amish and I imagine someone could probably pick holes in something here if they tried hard enough…In fact I think I may need to do a post called “The Problem with ‘The Amish'” just to address the diversity issue one more time.

    9. ann

      @ the question about which part of the country I grew up in- I don’t mind answering- Northeast IN, Lagrange County; the strictly enforced shunning was always in a district about 5 miles south of Lagrange; the Shipshewana people (about 3 miles east of Ship) were not all that interested, for the most part.

      You are absolutely right about the huge amount of diversity among the Amish- my 2 sets of grandparents lived approximately 15 miles apart- one near Shipshewana (an area known for being more liberal), the other from south of Lagrange. The differences in the 2 districts (not so much outward appearance as interpretation of rules- ie use of electricity, tractors, bicycles, method of heating homes, acceptance of public education; more recently their attitude towards computers) is startling at times. Going south to Allen County made us feel like we were among ‘foreigners’!

    10. Amish parents of college students

      In northern Indiana–Elkhart/Lagrange–I ran across the very few instances I’ve found of Amish parents whose children attended high school. Also one ‘proud’ mother of a Purdue student.

      And Ann that’s interesting to hear. I have been all over both N. Indy and Allen Co and know exactly what you are talking about.

      In Amish Patchwork Steve Nolt and Thomas Meyers have an interesting rough map outlining the geographic differences in Elkhart/Lagrange Ordnung.

    11. ülane

      hey erik, indeed this interview was extremely interesting… hope u are doing great. sending holiday greetings from cold estonia 🙂

    12. ann

      if you’d have met my aunt, you’d have met another proud mother of a university student. My grandfather on that side encouraged all his children to complete high school if they chose to (only 1 out of the 13 did); this particular aunt gave all of her children the same opportunity and 2 of hers did. In all 3 cases, the high school graduate went on to college- 2 of the 3 finished college; none of the 3 remained Amish.

    13. Ulane, wonderful to hear from you over in cold estonia! All is well and hope the same with you.

      And Ann, thanks for sharing. Something tells me it would be rare for someone raised Amish who ended up going to college to be baptized Amish in the end. I don’t believe I’ve heard of a situation like that, but I suppose it’s possible.