Donald Kraybill on What The Amish Teach Us: Q&A and Book Giveaway (plus: Podcast #3)

Donald Kraybill‘s new book What the Amish Teach Us: Plain Living in a Busy World will be out next Tuesday.

What the Amish Teach Us features 22 essays on a wide array of important life topics, each drawing lessons from the Amish example. Topics include “Limits: Less Choice, More Joy”, “Parenting: Raising Sturdy Children”, “Hacking: Creative Bypasses”, “Patience: Slow Down and Listen”, and many more.

In the lead up to book release day, I am happy to share this Q-and-A with Don today, covering not only lessons learned from the Amish, but his own reflections and experience with the Amish over the years.

Enter to win a copy of What The Amish Teach Us

We’ve also got a book giveaway courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press. To enter to win a copy, simply leave a comment on this post. I’ll draw a winner at random, and announce it here in a separate post next Tuesday, October 26.

Q-&-A with Professor Donald Kraybill on the Amish

Amish America: Growing up and living in Lancaster County, who were the Amish to you?

Donald Kraybill: I grew up in a Mennonite family. We operated a dairy farm. We did not have any Amish farms in our area. We viewed them as old-fashioned, stuck in the mud, leftover relics of the nineteenth century and we scoffed at their horse and buggy ways. Even though Mennonites and Amish had similar religious roots in Europe we Mennonites didn’t really want to be identified with them in the mid-1950s when I was growing up. We really thought they would soon die out. Our prediction was aligned with some professors at universities like Yale who also forecasted the demise of Amish society.

Amish America: When did you first recognize or realize that you wanted to research and write about the Amish? How did that happen?

Donald Kraybill: I began teaching sociology at Elizabethtown College in 1971. I had little interest in Amish studies until 1984. Until then my research had focused on various Mennonite groups and Mennonite education.

The paramount Hollywood movie Witness was filmed in Lancaster County in 1984. It created a big stir within the Amish community. Daily features appeared in the Lancaster papers. People started asking me questions about the Amish which I couldn’t answer. For example, why do the Amish keep their tractors at the barn and never use them in the field. And why do they pull modern harvesting equipment in their field with horses. These practices seemed hypocritical and weird. But they stirred my interest.

So I began visiting with some Amish farmers and soon realized that some of these practices which looked odd to us from the outside made a lot of sense inside Amish culture. My first Amish-themed book, The Riddle of Amish Culture was published in 1989.

How many books have you written on the Amish, and which was your favorite to write (and why)?

I have authored, coauthored, or edited a dozen books on Amish life and culture. My favorite one is Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Co-authored with Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher). This book tells the story of Charlie Roberts shooting ten young Amish girls at Nickel Mines (southern Lancaster County) in October 2006, and the subsequent forgiveness offered by the Amish community to Charlie’s (he took his own life) widow and family.

We decided to write a book in late October and I conducted about three dozen interviews in the fall. In late December we received a contract for the book. The three authors met one time face-to-face in late December. We taught at different colleges and Nolt lived in Indiana. We began writing in mid-January and completed the manuscript in ten weeks to meet our publisher’s April 1 deadline.

Looking back, it almost seems miraculous how the three of us working at different locations, and never meeting during the process, could complete the manuscript in ten weeks. Moreover, although different authors drafted different chapters, all of us read and revised all of the chapters. I still don’t know how we wrote it so fast. This is my favorite book because it was translated into four different languages, and touched the lives of thousands of people worldwide with a message of forgiveness.

What does this book cover and can you tell us about your approach to writing it?

This is a very different book than any of my other ones. It is not a broad sociological analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Amish culture. Rather it’s a collection of twenty-two short essays (about a thousand words each). In each one I focus sharply on something that I’ve learned from the Amish. In other words, I show how certain Amish practices and values have shaped me.

I suggest throughout all the essays that many times the Amish are so far behind us, that they’re out ahead of us. Ironically, I think that, these horse-and-buggy-driving people have much to say to the rest of us in a hyper-everything world. Some of the essays deal with religious themes such as salvation and forgiveness. Others focus on technology and entrepreneurship. Still others zoom in on Amish practices such as limited choice, strong families, education, retirement, and dying.

Are there any particular Amish people that stand out as having been “sources of wisdom”?

I learned to know a bishop in Ohio who took time over several visits to help me understand the deeper nuances of Amish faith and practice. A married woman in Pennsylvania has graciously hosted my students in her home, answered dozens of questions and read drafts of my several of my book manuscripts. One couple who lost a child at the Nickel Mines shooting has warmly welcomed me into their home over the years and given me a new and deeper appreciation for their spirituality. I have a special friendship with an Amish man who I observed go through several jobs and stages in his life. He’s the kind of person that I can ask any question without creating offense. We have a lot of fun and laughter teasing each other.

Can you give us an example of one or two lessons or concepts you cover in the book?

For many years in my research I couldn’t understand how Amish youth, eighth-grade graduates of one-room schools with no technology, could become savvy entrepreneurs operating sizable businesses that were profitable and successful. I realized one day the answer was: apprenticeship. It’d been staring it in the face for many years but I never was able to put the puzzle together. Between the ages of fourteen (when they leave school) and until they marry, Amish youth are engaged in various informal apprenticeships. Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published several essays on the importance of apprenticeship. It’s an example of where the larger culture is finally catching up with the Amish.

Another quick example is retirement. The Amish practice, “aging in place,” which recently has become trendy for mainstream retirees because it enables one to stay in well-known social networks, bolsters mental health. Plus it’s usually much cheaper than moving into an upscale gated retirement community.

What aspect(s) of Amish life do you feel is most incongruent with or counter to the values of a modern 21st-century American society?

I think Amish humility collides with the modern emphasis on the self. The selfie generation captures the preoccupation of our me-me-me society. The biggest chasm between Amish society and American society is the cut between communalism and individualism. In modern life the individual comes first, followed by family, and then community. In Amish life, that order is flipped upside down. First is community-church, then family, and finally the individual. Even so, there’s space aplenty for individual preference and expression in Amish life.

What aspect do you feel would have the biggest positive impact if it were widely adopted or practiced in modern society?

Over the years of researching and writing about Amish society I have been intrigued with their emphasis on smallness. I have a chapter on small scale in the book. Early in my research I had a conversation with an Amish carpenter in his shop and I ask if he hopes to expand sometime. Absolutely not, he said. Why, I asked? His response: BIGNESS RUINS EVERYTHING.

I think that’s a powerful summary of the Amish commitment to keeping things small. In modern life we assume bigger is better. Think about the corporate monopolies, the growing infringement of government in all crevices of life. Bigger bigger bigger is the American mantra. Smallness, argue the Amish, keeps things humane.

Are there any particular aspects of Amish life that remain riddles to you today?

One of the riddles that I haven’t completely solved is seating practices in church services. Men and women sit on separate sides. This not a unique Amish thing. It happens in other conservative religious communities as well. Does it reflect patriarchy? When a group “modernizes”, families typically sit together. Given the strong emphasis on family, we might expect families to sit together in Amish congregations. Does separate seating suggest that gender is more important than family? Or that the individual sitting on a gendered side is responsible directly to God and not mediated through the family unit? Not sure about these things. Need to do more research and engage in conversations with other scholars.

Where can we find the book, and any other info?

What the Amish Teach Us: Plain Living in a Busy World is published by Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore. It’s available on their website as well as on Amazon and from booksellers everywhere.

Podcast Episode #3

You can also catch the latest in Don’s companion podcast, What I Learned From The Amish. We previously head Don and Amish friend Ben discuss the topics of Community and Technology. This week, they tackle Apprenticeship, which Don touches on above. Here’s a snippet:

How in the world, do Amish people, learn to run successful businesses? I’m talking businesses that rake in a million dollars a year or more. Thousands of these operations run every day in Amish communities across America. Amish entrepreneurs, never attend high school or college. None of them holds an MBA.

I had never seen a 3D printer before. There I stood, a college professor, in an old-fashioned lantern shop, staring at ten machines running on solar power that eighth-grade-educated Abner, had programmed to manufacture an invention. How did he ever learn to do this? It turns out, he was as an apprentice with a self-trained, Amish computer wizard.

Apprenticeship explains how a young woman learns to run a successful, gourmet popcorn business and how another woman manages a sizable green house, and on and on. No one assigns an apprentice to a mentor. But everyone—children, youth, adults—they all know the tradition. It just happens informally.

You can listen to the full episode here, as well as at Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Podcasts.

Donald B. Kraybill is professor of sociology emeritus at Elizabethtown College and senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. An internationally recognized scholar, he has published many books and professional essays on the Amish and other Anabaptist communities in North America. 

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    1. Stephen Keel

      Book Giveaway!!

      This will be a good book to read!

      1. Amish with Love

        There is so much we can learn from the Amish. My husband and I travel to many Amish areas around Ohio, Ky and Indiana. I love learning all I can about the Amish and those who have left. I love talking to them, to learn all there is to know. It’s really hard to get them to talk but once they have your trust, they will open up. We have found that they are as curious about us as we are them.. I can’t wait to read his book..

      2. Kathy Wittig

        I’m new to the area

        I just started staying on Strasburg Road, and am really feeling pulled when I make a right out of my driveway towards the railroad… there is so much I want to know while I’m here. Perhaps I’ll stay. I’d love to read your book.

    2. Patricia Lee Huber


      I like learning about the Amish and enjoy their simple lifestyle. I absolutely love going to the Amish Haystack Breakfast and Dinners held here in Wisconsin as fundraisers! Besides being delicious the people are so friendly, children are adorable and it is such a fun atmosphere!

    3. Gail Dawson


      I’ve learned so much from Dr. Kraybill’s books. I’d love to read this latest one!

    4. Cathy Carruthers

      My Amish Interest

      After a visit to Lancaster, PA in 1970 I looked into
      Any information I could find. My father was from Dover Ohio. We visited
      Holmes County Ohio many times. Since it’s not far from home I like to
      visit often. Would like to read your new book. Thanks for the chance.

    5. Aly M.

      Book giveaway

      Can’t wait to read it! I love Don’s books!

    6. Fredericka Taylir


      Would love to read it.

    7. Love Amish

      Learned to love the simplicity of the Amish by frequently visiting Berlin Ohio area. I would move there if i could. Would enjoy this book. Thank you.

    8. Pam


      Because I live near some Amish, I am always interested in learning more about them. They are pleasant people.

    9. Debra Clarke

      What the Amish Teach Us

      I would love to win this book! I am interested in all things Amish and would love to learn more. My favorite place to go in the whole world is Lancaster, PA and my dream is to retire there. It is so close to where I’m from (Philadelphia) yet seems worlds away. There is definitely a lot that we English could learn from the Amish!

    10. Another Book!

      I’ve read many of Kraybill’s books and have learned so much from them. I’m glad to know that my favorite is also his – Amish Grace. It is a wonderful book about forgiveness. Looking forward to reading this new one. I’m a bit envious of friendship with the Amish. I’d love to have a friend from among them.

    11. Ken Venables

      Putting Life Into Perspective

      I have many friends in the area Amish communities. I appreciate their simple lives, dedication to family and hard work and to their faith in Jesus Christ. They have made a positive influence on the lives of many here in southern Iowa!

    12. Karen Cuyar

      Donald Kraybill book give away

      We have many Amish friends in Lancaster, PA. I am in awe of their lifestyles and the power of their convictions; every time we visit I learn more. God willing we will move there! I
      I am looking forward to reading your book. I have read all the others.

    13. Fran Handrick

      What Dr.Kraybill Learnt from the Amish

      Def8nitely, I will be reading this book. His views are always thought-provoking.

    14. Bonita Bryant

      I have read almost all of Mr. Kraybill’s books. I have learned so much.

    15. Scott Stephenson

      I just put your book on my wish list yesterday.

      Didn’t know you had a give away, I love all things Amish, listen to your first two podcast.

    16. Helen Marie

      Book Givaway

      Have had an interest in Amish for years. Would welcome a book on accurate information.

    17. Lynn Maniscalco

      What I Learned from the Amish

      Sounds like this book would make us reconsider some of the things we take for granted.

    18. Madeline N

      Looks like a wonderful book! I would love to read it

    19. donald-kraybill-on-what-the-amish-teach-us-interview-book-giveaway

      I have always admired the Amish for their Work Ethics, Honesty and Simple Way of Life. I believe the book will be a terrific read.

    20. Melanie Jo Adams

      Would love to read this!

      I have other books by Dr. Kraybill and would love to have the opportunity to read his new book.

    21. Beautiful cover

      I would to learn from the Amish via Mr Kraybill.

    22. kim hansen

      Sounds like an interesting book.

    23. Love learning about the Amish

      My brother works with some Amish here in Ky. I love to hear about their lifestyle. I’ve been learning some different ways to can and cook. Would love to add this book to my collection.

    24. Rita

      Enjoyed this snippet….

      Thanks for sharing this. I always enjoy your insight into the Amish lifestyle. Would love to win this book!

    25. Monica Perry

      Book giveaway

      I always enjoy reading your Amish America. I have learned much from your articles and always look forward to the next, just good honest perspective thank you.

    26. judy melish

      Eric, I love your website and your videos as well as the podcasts from Mr Kraybill. I will definitely read his new book. And would love to win the book of course. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge of the Amish with us.

    27. Stacy Myers

      Book giveaway

      I absolutely love learning all I can about the Amish. I make my hubby take me every year to Lancaster so I can shop their goodies. Nothing like finding off the main road, roadside stands with great prices and friendly people. My great grandparents were Pennsylvania Dutch and I guess it just intrigues me to think what I might have been had my family not left.

    28. Mechelle Houle

      Amish Book

      Excited to have this as a first and many more of these books to come!

    29. Amish and Love

      I wonder why I am hopelessly in love with the Amish. I don’t personally know them. I do not idolize their simple ways or cutsey clothes. I don’t admire their religion per se. Yet I love to learn about them and ask why their life style attracts me. I have been reading Amish books since they first became available and I know I’d learn more from Donald Kraybill’s new book.
      P.S. Writing this gave me a clue: They are human but I’m attracted to how well they love one another.

    30. Kurt

      The same but different

      I attended the Amish Conference a few years back as part of my study of conflict resolution in groups. It was really interesting to see how similar the Amish are to the English, only with a common cause of what I call “Amish-ness.” But even within the Amish-ness it takes a great deal of effort and will to maintain unity and simplicity. Simplicity is a lot more work than people realize. I am looking forward to seeing the gaps the book can fill in!

    31. Suzanne Sellner

      Book Giveaway

      I loved a Road Scholar program that my husband and I attended comparing Amish and Mennonite culture. I’ve always had the utmost respect for the Amish, and I marvel at their industriousness and family/community-oriented perspective. Your comments about apprenticeship and aging in place were most interesting. I’d love to read your new book!

    32. Deborah Hazelton

      Love learning more about the Amish.

      Can hardly wait to read this book. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

    33. Stephanie H.

      Amish Book Giveaway

      This book sounds like an engaging and educational read about the Amish. Thanks for the chance of winning our own copy.

    34. Heather M Knisley

      Great Q&A

      The interview was very thought-provoking. Can’t wait to read the book!

    35. Gabriele Gersh

      Everyone is different....does not mean they are strange.

      I love learning more about the Amish. They view many things differently than us “Englishers”, some things for the better. I love the “simple” life they live.
      I will honestly say I just learned about the author D. Kraybill, but like what I have read. I’m going to start reading some of his work. You can never learn too much!

    36. What the Amish have taught me!

      I work with the Amish and have learned so much from them! Most importantly I have learned they are really no different than the “English” in their humanness and how peaceful their life is. I come home from a week in Amish Country and feel like I’ve been at a spiritual retreat! I am Blessed to get to work with them!

    37. Susan Wilfinger

      Book Giveaway

      I find the Amish fascinating & interesting. I enjoy learning about the simple life they lead, not saying they’re not hard working people, how they raise their children, different chores they are given, etc. I would very much love to read this book.

    38. Dorothy Borders

      Amish newsletter

      The article was very interesting and left me wanting to learn more. There is a good sized Amish community nearby and I would like to learn more about them.

    39. Love Dr. Kraybill Books!

      Dr. Kraybills’ books are authentic and realistic unlike some others who do not depict the Amish in a true sense. I spent a lot of time in Lancaster County visiting Amish and we have so much to learn from Dr. Kraybill’s books that have helped me interact with them.
      I am a huge fan of Dr. Kraybill and alway seek out his books, DVDs, and podcasts. Can’t wait to read this new book!

    40. Diane Castleberry

      I wanna win!

      We can learn a lot from the Amish!

    41. Comtest

      As a newcomer to living in an Amish community, and, a minority- I would love to learn more about their culture, since I deal with a few families on a daily basis.
      It has been very an interesting experience.

    42. So much to learn!

      I’m a Registered Nurse at an Amish clinic in Pennsylvania, and am constantly learning new things about the Amish way of life. We could learn many things from their culture and slowly, our world,as we know it, would change for the better. I have so much respect for their strength,commitment, sense of unity and devout Christianity. It would be wonderful to learn more!

    43. Mary W


      I have always been intrigued be the Amish since I have been a little girl. My family would vacation in Lancaster, PA every year. I have since been to many communities and I love the feeling of slowing down every time that I am in the presence of the Amish.

    44. Book Give Away

      I have already pre-ordered my book. If I win, I will give it to our local library. I believe I have all of Mr. Kraybills books. Thank you in advance.

    45. J.O.B.

      The older I get the more I see the benefits with stopping schooling at the 8th grade level and then beginning the apprenticeship in something you are passionate about.

    46. Susan Campbell

      Book Giveaway

      Thank you so much for this interesting question and answer column. It was very interesting. I am looking forward to reading the book.

    47. Robyn Nichols

      What The Amish Teach Us

      Thank you for the opportunity to win this book. I greatly admire the Amish way of life, even though I could not live this way myself. I have read several books on the Amish and would like to read this one also!
      Thanks, Robyn

    48. Susan Conrad

      Because I grew up with what I now know was a very strong Pennsylvania Dutch influence in my life, I have become very interested in learning all I can about the Amish culture. I am looking forward to reading this book.

    49. Why did my Grandfather leave the Order ?

      Possibly after reading the book my question could be answered.
      My Grandfather died before I was born.
      Now that an Amish settlement has moved into my neighborhood I am finding myself in being entwined with their way of life.

    50. Kevin Lindsey

      I have enjoyed reading Dr. Kraybills books, and would like a chance to win this one.