That’s the question Kelsey Osgood asks in a longform article for the Atlas Obscura website.
Long or medium-term readers of this site know that joining the Amish has been a frequently-covered topic here, including posts on Amish converts in Maryland and Maine, or on joining the Amish later in life.
Osgood’s article tells the story of two experiences – the journey of one couple–Alex and Rebecca–to the more progressive, Beachy Amish church, and that of Jan Edwards, who joined the strict Swartzentruber Amish group, though later left (Jan appeared in the 2014 PBS film The Amish: Shunned).
Though there is not a lot of input from current Old Order Amish converts, it’s an interesting piece, made more so since Osgood writes it from the perspective of a religious convert (to Orthodox Judaism).
A few excerpts follow below.
First, Osgood notes how, despite many internet commenters’ (“wishful Amish”) interest in converting, actually joining the faith is unlikely for most:
Amish conversion is extremely uncommon, which makes sense: who actually wants to give up modern convenience for more than a week or so? For those who have made the leap, the lived experience of conversion deviates greatly from the fantasies moving across web pages every day; it’s harder, crueler, slower than the hopeful could imagine. It’s also not a static state–for most converts, the emergence of a perfect Amish self never truly occurs.
On the difficulty of becoming–and remaining–Amish:
Many idolize the Amish world, but few actually infiltrate it. According to the 2013 book The Amish by scholars Donald Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven Nolt, only 75 people have joined an Amish church and stayed since 1950. One researcher estimates there may be as many as between 150 to 200 converts living Plain lives today, though not all will stay Amish in the long run. It’s unlikely, in other words, that the wishful Amish writing blog posts about desperately wanting to become Plain will ever do much more than that, let alone seriously pursue conversion.
Still, an intrepid bunch of spiritual seekers manages to go the distance. There are a few “celebrities” among them, like David Luthy, a Notre Dame graduate who was on his way to join the priesthood when he decided to move to a settlement in Ontario and devote his life to documenting Amish history, or Marlene Miller, Holmes County resident and author of the memoir Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order, who married her husband while he was living outside the community. Miller, who has now been Amish for almost 50 years, raised 10 children in the church, but will still twirl a baton to amuse visitors. A convert’s success can be aided by the openness of the community that he or she chooses to join, as some settlements, like those in Unity, Maine, or Oakland, Maryland, which is the oldest settlement in that state, are traditionally more welcoming to seekers who may show up there. Others, like the more established ones in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes, Wayne, and Guernsey Counties, in Ohio, are less likely accept outsiders.
Edwards on the perception of Swartzentruber Amish people being aloof with outsiders:
Contrary to popular conception, she found her Swartzentruber neighbors to be very warm. “The Amish were downright friendly. Probably because they were so starved for–you know, like the old pioneers, they’d finally see somebody coming up the landing, and they’d throw open up the door. ‘Come on in!’ Even if it was a stranger, they just missed people. They just wanted to talk to somebody and exchange an idea or a thought. A howdy-do or something.”
And on the Amish as imperfectly human:
In a way, Alex has come to realize what the wishful Amish of the internet haven’t fully grasped yet: that the Amish universe and its denizens are not perfect. They don’t have a vested interest in your quality of life–spiritual, technological, or otherwise–anymore than you do in theirs. When the wishful Amish express disappointment at this–“Why don’t they seek to try to save this terrible world?” as one Internet commenter opines–they are ignoring the fact that the Plain-from-birth are not operating as full-time beacons of goodness, but as people whose “private convulsive selves,” as William James wrote, more often than not trump ideology. They’re also not spending every moment musing on the purpose of community and separatism. They’re just humans: they get tired of their lives, they skirt convention, they just want to go sledding when they should be reading. It takes someone like Alex, acutely aware of the socializing forces at work on them, enamored of and devoted to the faith they all share, a part of and yet a stranger in the community, to remind them of what they have.
You can read the article in full here.
Image credit: Anne