I recently read a book I’d been looking forward to for a long time.  An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community is an in-depth look at the Amish settlement at Holmes County, Ohio, and one of the most interesting books on the Amish I have read.

In Ohio last month I had the pleasure of meeting the book’s authors, Charles Hurst, emeritus professor of sociology at the College of Wooster, and David McConnell, professor of anthropology also at the College of Wooster.  The authors have agreed to answer a few questions for Amish America about their book and the Holmes County community.

David McConnell and Charles Hurst

They’ve also kindly shared a copy of An Amish Paradox for a book giveaway contest.  To enter the contest, simply leave a comment on this post.

The winner will be drawn Monday, June 21st.

Today, part 1 of 2 of the interview, on Amish diversity, the New Order Amish, Amish education, and the process of writing the book.

Amish America: What were some of the challenges in researching and writing An Amish Paradox?

Charles Hurst and David McConnell: The Holmes County settlement is not only the largest Amish community in the world, but also the most complex. So one of our first concerns was to make sure we were accurate in our descriptions and analyses of the community. To ensure the validity of our portrait, used multiple data sources, interviewing over 200 persons, sending out two questionnaires to Amish and ex-Amish, analyzing numerous Amish documents, and observing in Amish classrooms, at weddings, and other events. Reconciling conflicting comments often necessitated repeat conversations with many of our informants.

A second challenge was to balance the need for conveying the complexity of the Amish community and its culture with the need to make the text understandable to the average reader.

A third test was to cover all the important aspects of the community so that we did not miss anything major. Consequently, before we submitted our manuscript to the publisher, we had several Amish and other well-known Amish researchers read through it to identify any errors of fact or omission, misinterpretations, or faulty language.

A final difficulty was to keep in mind the need to balance empathy and feelings about the Amish community with our objectivity as social scientists. Consequently, we did not avoid presenting information that may have proven to be embarrassing or that might cast a negative shadow over aspects of Amish life. We tried to present a complete, truthful, whole portrait, including the positive as well as the negative.

Amish America: What observations or revelations surprised you most in studying the Holmes County Amish?

Hurst and McConnell: During seven years of fieldwork for this book, we encountered numerous surprises. One of the biggest was the degree of cooperation and openness the Amish extended to us. We expected a “closed” community to be less forthcoming, but once we gained their trust, many Amish individuals readily shared their views and experiences with us. The friendships we’ve made with the Amish have been among the most rewarding aspects of our research.

An Amish Paradox
An Amish Paradox

The changing work scene also caught us by surprise. We didn’t realize how few men were involved in full-time farming and how vulnerable the Amish were to economic fluctuations when dependent on outside employment. Nor did we expect Amish businesses to be so successful in marketing their goods and competing effectively with English businesses. The dynamic and creative ways in which Amish approach technology were also revelatory. One surprising implication of the success of Amish cottage industries is the extent to which new kinds of leisure activities and what we call “Amish-style consumerism” have taken hold in many Amish communities.

Finally, the diversity we encountered among the Holmes County Amish was mind-boggling, and it showed up in virtually every arena of life. We were surprised, for example, at the frequency of church divisions and the mix of factors (personalities, technology use, doctrinal interpretation) that gave rise to church schism. The sharp variation in attitudes towards rumspringa held by the Amish and the extent to which control of the young people has factored in church conflicts also stood out.

Moreover, we were amazed at the diverse educational choices Amish make, including parochial schooling, public schooling, and home schooling—and at how a number of local public elementary schools have successfully recruited and retained Amish students. Even among the ex-Amish we surveyed, motives for leaving varied greatly, including a number who said they left the Amish because they wanted a more intense and personal religious experience.

Amish America: On the point of education, we typically picture the Amish attending their own parochial schools. In Lancaster County, for instance, nearly all if not all Amish children attend such traditional Amish (or Amish/Mennonite) operated schools. But in Holmes County, as you describe, public school attendance by Amish children is significant. Could you explain why a sizeable minority of Holmes County Amish choose to send their children to public schools? And what are the implications of that?

Hurst and McConnell: We found that more than one-third of our Amish interviewees had attended public schools for at least some time during their eight years of formal schooling. In a few cases cost plays a role: a family may not want to pay parochial school fees in addition to local property taxes which support the public schools. Lack of proximity to a parochial school can also be a factor. But we discovered that neither cost nor distance seemed to be the real issue.

Instead, the reasons parents gave for sending their children to public schools had more to do with preparing them for a world of ever-increasing contact with the English. Many felt that Amish “scholars” learned to speak English more fluently in public schools and learned other skills that would help them navigate the changing “work scene” when they grew older.

Amish school in Wayne County Ohio
Amish school in Wayne County Ohio

Of course, the hidden curriculum in public schools also teaches competition, individualism, nationalism, scientific modes of thought, and other values that are incompatible with Amish sensibilities. As a result, many Amish parents opted for a “straddling approach,” sending their children to public schools for the first few years and then switching them to the parochial schools around third or fourth grade.

We also found a long tradition of attending and supporting public elementary schools among some families in the settlement. But Amish attendance in public schools is not only a function of “push” from the Amish side; it also involves “pull” from public school principals, teachers, and administrators. Many go to great lengths to cater to the Amish, since they receive money from the state based on student enrollment.
The implications of public school attendance among the Amish are several. For Amish parents, it can be a controversial decision because there is informal pressure to support the parochial schools. One father told us, “You have to be discreet about it. It can be a sore spot.” There are other risks as well. Though we did not collect data on this in our study, John Meyers found that rates of defection in Indiana’s Elkhart-Lagrange Settlement were higher among Amish children who had attended public schools.

Overall, though, we were impressed by the relative silence of church Ordnung on the issue of school choice, which has allowed a variety of educational accommodations to play out. In a sense, church leaders are walking a tightrope, on both sides of which are hazards. Maintaining control over education ensures continuity of Amish lifestyles, but there is also a pragmatic concern with giving children an education that will serve them well economically in a changing occupational and technological context.

Amish America: Diversity is a key theme of An Amish Paradox, and you detail in much depth the differences between the major affiliations (Old Order, New Order, Andy Weaver, Swartzentruber) in Holmes County. We English have our own perceptions of the Amish. But could you comment on how Amish view one another? And what role does group affiliation, or ‘order’, play in the Amish sense of identity?

Hurst and McConnell: This is a really good question, and it is a very important one that we try to address in our book.

On the one hand, all Amish recognize the many values they share, such as adult baptism, plain dress, limits on educational and job opportunities, and restrictions on technology, including ownership of cars and using power from the grid in their homes—all of which stem from a Biblically-based commitment to non-conformity and to the spirit of gelassenheit. The continued vitality of their mother tongue, Pennsylvania German, and the shared history of persecution in Europe also create a powerful sense of shared identity. We believe that this considerable stock of shared heritage and common outlook has created one of the most remarkable stories of cultural persistence in American history, perhaps in the world.

At the same time, the Amish are acutely aware of intra-group differences.The details of church schism and internal diversity are often glossed over by outsiders, but we believe they must be understood in order to get an accurate picture of the Amish. We view Amish affiliations as similar to status groups in the Weberian sense; that is, a ‘specific style of life is expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle”. The most telling example of this “internal cultural boundary maintenance” is marriage: it’s commonly known that one must “marry Amish to stay Amish,” but the pressure to marry within one’s affiliation is also very strong.

The affiliation to which one belongs also has implications for attitudes and practices surrounding such things as mission work, rumspringa, and shunning and excommunication. We also found that the social gulf between the Swartzentrubers and other affiliations was particularly wide, with many “higher” groups criticizing their adherence to “man-made traditions,” while the Swartzentrubers, for their part, felt that other groups had succumbed to “worldly drift”.

Holmes County Ohio
Holmes County Ohio

Even though church schism and group affiliation have cast a long shadow over Amish life in the settlement, there many contexts in which Amish live, work and go to school with Amish from other affiliations. As one Old Order man told us, “We don’t think, ‘Just because he’s Andy Weaver, I’m not going to sit next to him’”.

Like many other Amish scholars, then, we see Amish identity in plural terms and recognize that the Amish accentuate their shared identity in some contexts and downplay it in others. Thomas Meyer’s and Steven Nolt’s image of Amish culture as a patchwork quilt that combines different shapes and colors with a common thread neatly captures this diversity amidst unity, though perhaps not the accompanying tensions.

Amish America: In comparison to the Old Order Amish, the New Order Amish are often perceived as being more progressive. But you make the point that in fact, in some ways they are more progressive, and in other ways more traditional. Could you explain?

Hurst and McConnell: The notion of an “Anabaptist escalator,” to borrow Donald Kraybill’s term, is a useful shorthand for placing different Amish groups on a continuum. In general, the lower, or more conservative, churches observe stricter discipline and separation from the world, whereas the higher, or more liberal, affiliations have made more compromises with technology and are more integrated with English society. One of the interesting features of the Holmes County Settlement is that the main body of the Old Order Amish is “sandwiched” by sizeable conservative (the Swartzentrubers and the Andy Weavers) and liberal (the New Orders) affiliations on either end of the spectrum.

But the idea that all Amish groups can be placed on a single continuum also oversimplifies reality, and the New Order provide a case in point. In most cases, they are technologically progressive but doctrinally and morally conservative. For example, the New Order will accept travel by plane, phones in the home, air in their tractor tires, and more bells and whistles on their buggies, yet they are much more restrictive on courtship, smoking and alcohol consumption than are many Old Order. New Order parents were the first to reform the “singings,” which had become synonymous with parties in many church districts, and to exercise more control over the lives of their teenagers during the rumspringa period. In general, the New Order have developed a reputation for “clean living”.

The New Order example reminds us that that there are many different dimensions, or criteria, by which one can compare Amish affiliations. Our own notions of what is “liberal” and what is “conservative” don’t always capture the complexities of Amish practices in a useful way.


Check back soon for part two of this interview (on Amish women, health care, and Amish reaction to this book), or simply subscribe to Amish America to be notified by email.

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