This past December, a group of Amishmen visited the White House and met with the president and vice-president.
Steve first addresses the question: Was this the first time Amish people were guests of a president in the White House?
Very likely, yes. Certainly Amish people have, on occasion, visited the White House as tourists and taken the standard tourist tour. But in terms of being an invited guest, this is probably a first.
This is not the first time a president has met with Amish people. In March 1989 George H. W. Bush met with Amish and Old Order Mennonite leaders at Penn Johns School, near Bird-in-Hand. George W. Bush met privately with a number of Amish in 2004 and publicly in 2006, both during visits to Lancaster County.
There was another historical meeting cited in the Washington Times article…but which Steve finds unlikely:
Regarding the Washington Times claim that Woodrow Wilson invited an Amish minister to hold a “prayer service” in the White House during World War I, I don’t believe that’s correct.
There is a story that circulates in some Midwestern Amish communities that an Amish man traveling by train in the late 1800s had a railroad layover in Washington, DC, on a Sunday morning, and while waiting was approached in the train station by a stranger who invited him to attend an ecumenical service in the White House.
The story has some of the marks of an urban legend, and the various versions of the story differ in their details. Most versions mention William McKinley. In some versions, it was two Amish travelers (Joseph Wittmer and Peter Wagler) of Daviess County, Indiana.
If there is a kernel of truth in the story, I’m certain it was not during World War I nor did it involve Wilson, nor an Amish man leading such a service.
Having recently reviewed archival materials regarding Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren interaction with Washington during World War I, there is no evidence of Amish visitors to the White House during those years.
In 1917, several Amish men from Ohio used personal connections with the family of Ohio Senator Atlee Pomerene to arrange a direct meeting with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker at the War Department. And Lancaster Congressman W. W. Griest arranged for a White House meeting between President Wilson and Church of the Brethren Elder I. W. Taylor, of Neffsville, Pennsylvania.
But there is no record of Amish in the White House during the Wilson administration, let alone preaching there, which I find implausible.
One reason the presidential meeting story got attention is the Amish reputation for staying apart from political matters, with relatively few voting, and none running for political office.
But was this always the case? Steve also comments on whether Amish have ever held elected office themselves. It has happened in the past – at least on a small scale:
In the 1800s, Amish men in Pennsylvania occasionally held local community posts, such as road supervisor or township schoolboard member. This sort of involvement became rare in the 1900s. I think the last cases in Lancaster County were in the 1930s.
In 1933 an Amish father was elected to the Upper Leacock Township school board. (Amish children were all still attending one-room public schools at this time.) In 1937 David B. Zook, was elected to the East Lampeter Township school board. The Lancaster New Era claimed that his election “command(ed) nationwide attention.”
In terms of Amish-connected politicians, the notable example is Amish-reared Congressman Samuel Yoder, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1880s and 1890s. He never joined the Amish church, but he spent his entire childhood and adolescence growing up in his Amish family’s home.
Yoder was raised in Holmes County, Ohio, and later represented a district in the western part of the state. Yoder’s correspondence with his Amish relatives in Ohio and Indiana, now housed at the Library of Congress, is a valuable source for nineteenth-century Amish history.
Thanks to Steve for providing these additional layers to the history of Amish interactions with political officeholders.