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. Sara Holst

      New to learning about the Amish

      I am brand new to learning about the Amish. Just started on the website and reading all past posts and love looking at the homes. It’s a less stressful way of life and I envy it. Will continue to learn more about these fellow Americans

    2. Christina Amos

      Very interesting!

      I have been interested in the Amish for several years. Interesting article. Would be thrilled to win a copy of the book!

    3. Maria Guadagno

      I would love to win your book,for my ministry work in Greece,and for me to share with others.One book goes a long way!

      Hello Mr.Kraybill.
      I am an American living 30 years in Greece.I have a family.I have a ministry
      also where I teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.I have also tried to help people who live hardened lives and difficult
      lives to live more simply and Christ like to find more peace and joy in their life.The Amish people often intrigued me and I felt jealous of their simple beautiful lifestyle.I try to learn from them,however ai fan,I believe they set examples of how to live the abundant Christian life on all levels.They have so much to teach us.I also sell olive oil and would love to offer it to the Amish,but I don’t know how to do that.Maybe someone reading this comment would help me offer my olive oil to the Amish with a ten percent commission on each order they bring me.
      Proceeds help me in my family and ministry in Greece.
      Thank you and God Bless you.

    4. Bóbis Károly

      Buying a book in Europe

      t is a pity that Donald Kraybill’s books cannot be bought in Hungary. Especially his newly published book.

    5. learning about the Amish

      I would love to be able to learn more about the Amish, and this book sounds like an awesome resource. I wish Donald Kraybill success with this book, and would love to have my own copy
      Stay safe

    6. Loretta Shumpert


      I enjoy anything written by Mr.Kraybill as I am aware that he is considered the premier expert on the amish, along with just a few others (who I enjoy also.) I know that I can believe what I read in his and others books as they are knowledgeable and do their research well and have relationships with amish to gain this knowledge.

      I enjoyed this article, Erik, thanks for all you do.

    7. Ila Terry

      Stoltzfus book give away

      I so enjoyed “Amish Grace”. What a wonderful book.
      I would love to read your new book.
      Thank you.

    8. Nancy Vater

      Book giveaway

      I hope to win this book! While growing up I lived about an hour from Amish country in Lancaster, PA and I’ve always admired them and the way they live their lives.

    9. Christy


      Win or loose I will certainly be getting a copy of this book. I’ve had it marked on Goodreads for a while. It sounds quite interesting as well as comforting!

    10. Lawrence Jones

      I agree that apprenticeship is a great tool to aid the young

      I recently did some work with an Old Order Mennonite family and noticed the a similar kind of apprenticeship with the older teenagers. It seems like a great model. In fact, your interview above has me wondering about my 19-year-old and how he might find a positive, mentoring relationship outside our nuclear family.

    11. Susan McKendry

      Hoping to win

      Have read most (if not all) of his books and would be so happy to win this new one.

    12. Love to read this

      I love the information you provide on this blog. This book would be fun to read.

    13. Barry Mudd

      I would love to read this book

      Very interesting interview. I look forward to reading the book.
      I admire the Amish for their cultural practices.
      There is nothing more delicious than attending an Amish dinner!

    14. Martha Smith

      Would love to read this book.

    15. Denise

      Book giveaway

      What an interesting book! Can’t wait to read it. Would be happy to win it.

    16. Jeanne Mccarthy

      Book Giveaway

      I can’t wait to read this book. A wealth of information. Would love to win a copy.

    17. Cathy J. Jenkins

      Surprising info

      I was surprised to read that people, including Dr. Kraybill, expected the Amish to fade away and die out. I never encountered that before.

    18. Bernice DiVincenzo

      What The Amish Teach Us

      My interest in the Amish began when I was a young child when my parents took the family to Lancaster, PA many times. Through the years I have read many books about the Amish & especially found Donald Kraybill’s books most interesting. I would love to read this book.

    19. Elizabeth Butler

      Too win the book

      I have always liked how they have such a simple life and peaceful one and they are so close to there relationship with God.And they can teach us so much . Thank you so much for the chance to win the book.

    20. Can't Wait to Read This Book

      I’ve been a fan of Mr. Kraybill’s for years & have always found his writing informative & interesting. I hope to win his newest book, but if I’m not chosen, I’ll be ordering it.

    21. Daniel Simon
    22. Carmen Huerta

      Great job

      It is a fantastic job for knowing better a wonderful way of life for respect a community that works in a simply and marvellous life ❤️ Would be great to win the book, Anyway thanks in advance.

    23. Marlene Colebank


      I appreciate the information about the Amish, the pictures, and the the updates about their areas.

    24. Helen Curtis

      What the Amish Teach Us

      Sounds interesting.

    25. In the October 20, 2021 issue of The Budget (Amish-Mennonite weekly newspaper) there was an article entitled “Krabill to launch book in Berlin at AMHC”. It the article it stated,

      “Don Krabill will be the focus of an event at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin (Ohio) on Thursday, November 4.

      A public presentation will begin at 7 p.m. where Krabill will speak.

      Light refreshments will be served after the event. A book signing for Krabill’s new work, What the Amish Teach Us, will be held.”

      I have read several of Kraybill’s books and am looking forward to reading this newest book. In this post on Amish America, it was very interesting to read about Kraybill’s journey and motivation in beginning to write about Amish faith/life/history.

      (I do not wish to be in the book giveaway).

    26. Jenny-Lynn Fricke

      I would love to win this book. I am very curious about them.

    27. Donna I Stufflebeam

      Donald Kraybill on What Amish Teach Us.

      Am very interested the Amish. Have read several books and love to go to Amish country in Indiana and Ohio. Hope to go to Pennsylvania soon.Thanks for the chance to win your new book.

    28. Farren Constable

      Have enjoyed the 3 podcasts so far and wishing there would be more than 4.

    29. Stephen Sugg

      Eager to read

      I have read nearly all of Kraybill’s work going back to an Amish studies rural sociology class at the University of Missouri in the 1990s.
      From what I can tell from the interview, this book book is relevant to a wide audience. And timely.
      Thank you for getting the word out.

    30. Larry Clarence Lewis

      Apprenticeship and Modernity

      Dear Erik,

      Once again, I thank you for these kind of postings. As a longtime student of the whole way of life of the Amish, I give thanks for all the fine studies which Donald Kraybill has carried out and made available. I can say that I have read many of them. So, for this reason I have found this interview and the podcasts very informative and enjoyable. Together with his upcoming book, What the Amish Teach Us, we have the benefit of Donald Kraybill’s studies and what he has learned as a man of faith over the years.

      I am so glad Dr. Kraybill has brought to the fore the importance of apprenticeship for young Amish men and women. This was missed by many over the years, who view education simply as schooling. I was alerted to this fact by a study cited many years ago by Gertrude E. Huntington. The study tracked those Amish who left the Old Order with a grade 8 education. The aim was to see how they fared. Not a single Amishman had any difficulty making a living, and not a single one became a burden to the state. Indeed, employers sought them out because they had skills and attitudes which were highly sought after.

      Finally, I call to mind a most important insight brought to the fore by Sandra Cronk in her dissertation(1977) entitled,”Gelassenheit”. Here, she makes the dramatic, but truthful assertion, that the Amish are every bit as modern as the rest of us; they have simply chosen a different way of being modern.

      As always, I look forward to reading Donald Kraybill’s new book for the wisdom it imparts.

      Larry C. Lewis

    31. Brother J JeremyDominic

      Yes, the book would be handy.

      Given the various questions and essay topics by Mr. Kraybill, I

      would find it very handy.

      Brother Jeremy