Since I’ve been back in the US I’ve finally had a chance to watch the National Geographic Amish specials (on ex-Amish, and Amish courtship and marriage) in full.

You may recall a couple of posts on these last fall: Leaving the Amish and Amish dating.  I didn’t comment too much at the time, having only seen the short excerpts available online.

Leaving other issues aside, I found the “Amish Out of the Order” episode the more interesting of the two.  However it seems clear that many in the ex-Amish group featured here have their axes to grind.

Amish Out of the Order

Mose Gingerich is the “star” of this episode, and leader of the Columbia, Missouri ex-Amish community.  I have never met Mose, but I have to say I like him–he seems a warm person who really fits the role he has taken on.  He seems to be acting in good faith, and has apparently offered a lot of support to many individuals who’ve left their Amish communities.

But I have to disagree with Mose on a couple of points–one in particular is when he says that pretty much all Amish communities are the same.  I think the people featured in this show have mostly gone through a more “extreme” experience in their departure from the Amish.

For instance, Mose and one of the youth don’t seem too welcome when they pay visits to their Amish homes.  But the way leavers are treated–and the experience an individual has growing up Amish–can vary based on the affiliation, community, and of course family.

As an example, last summer I had a long talk with Holmes County Amish friends, unmarried youth in their late teens-to-mid-20s.  Of the Holmes County settlement’s four main affiliations, these youth belong to the largest, the mainstream Old Order group.  However, they live near the large Swartzentruber population in the northern part of the settlement and have frequent contact with them.

They described how when Swartzentruber youth decide to leave their communities, it is often in the middle of the night, without telling anyone.  It was obvious by how they talked about this behavior that they considered this unusual. For that matter, they tended to consider Swartzentruber youth behavior extreme.  A lane behind the boys’ home was frequently used for Swartzentruber parties.  One Sunday morning they rode by a youth with a keg of beer sitting outside of his buggy, a remnant of the previous night’s festivities.

I share this as an example of how experiences can differ.  Essentially, these Old Order boys–themselves members of a “singing” youth group–found a pattern among Swartzentruber youth behavior, and it was obvious by their descriptions that they did not approve.  Swartzentruber youth behavior was “wild” for them.

Why that might be, is another question altogether.  But different people experience an Amish upbringing in different ways–sometimes remarkably differently.  We’d expect their reactions, and opinions about Amish life, to be affected by their upbringing.

In “Out of the Order”, viewers follow along with one of the ex-Amish youth to Wisconsin to witness a similar situation, as another youth runs away in the middle of the night to travel to the Columbia ex-Amish community.  I’m not sure that these are Swartzentruber communities, but the Wisconsin and Missouri communities profiled in this documentary seem to be among the more conservative ones from what I can tell.

That issue aside, I found the show itself compelling as a document of one particular ex-Amish group’s experience.  They demonstrate how some Amish-raised individuals adapt to life outside of Amish society.  The people in this show try to recreate something of community–one aspect that most still seem to appreciate about their Amish upbringing.

I would not generalize to all Amish from this though.  However, I imagine that’s probably what many viewers have done.

If you’d like to view it, here is the “Amish Out of the Order” excerpt clip:

Amish at the Altar

As for the second episode, “Amish at the Altar”, I’ll just say outright–I feel they could have chopped this by 2/3 and made it a 20 minute show and not really lost much.

This episode features three couples–a young engaged Kansas Amish couple, a Beachy Amish couple, and an already-married, former Amish couple living at the Columbia, Missouri ex-Amish settlement (the same as profiled in “Out of the Order”).

Starting from the ex-Amish couple, I didn’t find their plans to renew their vows in pseudo-Amish style very compelling or particularly educational in terms of learning about an Amish wedding.

This section of the show revolves around the pair planning their renewal ceremony so that ex-Amish friends could attend.  The couple wears Amish garb, and have a Beachy Amish preacher do the vows in what looks to be a gazebo-like structure.  I’m sure it was a beautiful event, but I’m not sure how much it added to viewers’ understanding of Amish practice.

The second 1/3 of the show centered on a Beachy Amish “simulated” wedding service.  The Beachy couple they feature sort of fits the mold as they look almost Amish, but this portion of the program also leaves something to be desired.  We follow the hand-holding couple throughout the program but don’t actually hear much from them, as they mainly serve as a backdrop to the narrator’s commentary.

For the service itself they are joined by friends wearing what looks like mostly Amish-style garb.  The groom’s short-cropped haircut is not Amish though, and neither are the modern hairstyles of their friends, nor the public hand-holding.  The wedding scene takes place in what looks to be a Beachy meetinghouse.  There only seem to be about eight individuals present.

I’m criticizing here, though I think the producers probably did the best they could with what they had to work with.  It’s going to be hard to film a bona fide Amish wedding.  That said, I found the remaining 1/3 of the show remarkable.

This portion of the program features on-camera interviews with a Garnett, Kansas Amish couple, and also their soon-to-be-married son and his fiancee.  This bit of the show as worth the price of admission alone.  This is obviously a fairly progressive community in one sense, in that they are consenting to be interviewed on camera in their home for a national program.  Laverne Keim, the father here, is very warm, likable, and funny–a great “catch” to put up on screen.

In another sense, this group is quite conservative when it comes to their children’s dating behavior.  Laverne makes it very clear that premarital sex is not tolerated.   I don’t think this is technically a New Order Amish group, but they seem to share some practices and cultural mores in common with the New Order.

We can see the problem the producers have, though–at a certain point in their wedding preparations, the young couple is advised to stop being filmed, and thus ends the on-camera coverage, well before the wedding.  However the descriptions the two couples give of Amish values and the wedding ceremony itself are illuminating and valuable.

Here is the “Amish at the Altar” clip:

It’s interesting that these two episodes seem to rely on the experiences and input of two “opposite” ends of Amish society–the ex-Amish who have presumably left mostly conservative communities, and the progressive Garnett Amish group (and I guess you could include the Beachy Amish here as well).

In the latter case, however, though this is a progressive group, much of what they share–such as the general description of the wedding itself, and even beliefs about clean courtship–could apply to many Amish.

Well, those are my takes.  I’m curious what you think.

And if you haven’t seen these and would like to, National Geographic continues to air them periodically.  The next showing is Wednesday, March 9th, at 8pm EST.

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