Osiah Horst on Old Order Mennonites

Osiah Horst grew up in an Old Order Mennonite family in Canada.  Osiah’s father Isaac wrote a column for a local newspaper which eventually grew into the book A Separate People: An Insider’s View of Old Order Mennonite Customs and Traditions, a witty and incisive look at Old Order Mennonite society.

Isaac penned 2 dozen books and many columns, before passing away in 2008.  Osiah has kindly taken some time to answer questions today about Old Order Mennonite life and his father’s work.

A Separate People giveaway

A Separate People Isaac R HorstOsiah has also provided 3 copies of A Separate People for Amish America readers.  To enter the giveaway contest, just leave a comment on this post.

For an additional entry, share this contest on Facebook and/or on your own blog (1 extra entry each for a possible total of 3; send a message to amishamerica@gmail.com letting me know you did).

We’ll draw and announce winners next Tuesday, January 17th.

Osiah Horst interview

Amish America: Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself–i.e. where you live?  What do you do for a living?  Family?

Osiah Horst: For the past 30 years, we have lived in a (new) Mennonite community in the Ottawa Valley about an hour from Canada’s capital, Ottawa. This is about a 6 hour drive from the Waterloo County area where most Canadian Old Orders live. We are members of the Markham Waterloo Mennonite Conference; we drive black cars, use some technology (restricted access, filtered internet) but our origins, practices, and customs are Old Order. We have a family of six with 13 grandchildren. I have been working as a bookkeeper/accountant all my working years, the past 6 years self-employed.

The rest of the family is horse and buggy Old Order except for an older brother. My mother who is 91, is still living in her own quarters, on the farm where one of her grandsons is farming

Can you tell us a little about your father and his writing?  Was his pursuit of writing accepted in the community?  Is/was he read by other members?

My father was not a farmer at heart and never very successful at it, but as a committed OO, farming was almost mandatory. He normally had some off farm job to make farming possible. Farmland was more expensive in the Waterloo County area due to pressure from the OO community so shortly after they were married, he started looking for less expensive farms in areas forty to fifty miles away. However, as a committed OO, he would not buy land and make a move without support from his church community. The move to the Mount Forest area finally took place in 1968, more than twenty years after he started his search for land.

ontario old order mennonites
Ontario is home to a sizeable population of Old Order Mennonites

My feeling is that his status in his community did not improve with the start of his writing. Would a writer of books be any better than an unsuccessful farmer in a community where hard work and financial success defines the person? Anyone who shared his love for history read first his historical articles in the Pathway Publications and then also his earlier books. One of the reviewers of the book is a younger Old Order from his home community of Mount Forest. In time, more people did read his books, although I believe they were more popular in the U.S. Mennonite communities than at home. After all, “a prophet is without honour in his own country” or “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”  There seems to be a renewed interest in his work since his death.

My father was always sought out by people wanting help in tracing their family trees or just wanting to tap into his vast knowledge of the more recent history of his people. He also did considerable translation work, translating letters from the German script to English. One of his projects was translating David Beiler’s book Das Wahre Christentum. His masterpiece though, was translating and typing the 1,100 page collection of letters collected by Minister Jacob Mensch from Franconia during the late 1800 and early 1900. This work, which was done as a labor of love and not for compensation was completed over a twenty year period, ending about five years before his death.

How would you describe his book A Separate People?  What type of reader is it intended for?  What will readers learn from the book?

One of the reviewers, Lorna Bergey, put it this way: “I highly recommend this book to the inquiring public.” Mennonite historian Amos Hoover, a friend and at times co-worker of my father is quoted “Useful. Interpretive. Defends OOM faith and lifestyle.” Rather than try to put too much in my own words (after all as his son, I am both proud and a little embarrassed) I will quote John L. Ruth’s words in his book review.

“This loquacious book by an elderly horse-and-buggy Mennonite of Ontario welcomes the curiosity of anyone from nosy tourists to liberal cousins. Horst’s method, knowing what people are likely to ask, is to pose both questions and answers. His chatty dialogue takes readers vividly into meetinghouse, schoolhouse, and farmhouse, where he cheerfully points out the colorful, nonstandard features of his people’s behavior.

Where it suits, he’ll quote Tertullian or an Anabaptist author to show how traditional Mennonites see themselves trying to live by pristine Christian standards. When no other rationale for a practice seems evident, he’ll simply concede that it’s ‘tradition.’ The folkways of his spiritual family witness to the ideals of the Mennonites of eastern North America before the majority of them made large concessions to modernity. –John L Ruth, Mennonite Church Historian, Harleysville, Pa.

old order mennonite meetinghouse
An Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse

The book’s sub-title is “An Insider’s View of Old Order Mennonite Customs and Traditions” and it is just that – one person’s viewpoint. It is not intended to cover the history of these people nor is it a truly definitive work explaining or defending all of the customs and traditions of this one group. It is however, a good and interesting read for anyone who wants to gain some understanding of the OOM.

What do Old Order Mennonites and Amish have in common?  What differentiates them?

OOM and Amish have very similar beliefs; both use the Dordrecht Confession of Faith. The biggest difference is in the application of shunning. One of the major causes of the Amish/Mennonite split in 1693/94 was the shunning issue. There are many smaller differences; one of the most noticeable is in the wearing of the beard. There are very few OOM groups where the men wear the beard whereas all Amish, including Beachy, do. I enjoy Mennonite history and sociology and since more is written about the Amish than about the Mennonites, I read the Amish materials in an attempt to understand Mennonite history and culture. There is enough similarity in the two to make this possible.

You see a lot of variation among Amish when it comes to what technologies are accepted.  What variation is there among Old Order Mennonite groups?

old order mennonite buggy pa
As with the Amish, the buggy is symbolic of Old Order Mennonite society

There is almost as much variation among OOM as there is among the Amish, with one exception. At the most liberal level, they all become Mennonite. Most of my father’s church fellowship accepts electricity, telephone and rubber tired tractors for field work. There are several groups of OOM in Ontario, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky who remain much more traditional in their way of life.

The vast majority of Amish refuse the phone and public electricity in the home.  Yet as mentioned above many Old Order Mennonites accept both, and still seem to be rapidly growing and thriving like the Amish.  Are Amish being overly cautious about these technologies?

As a member of an OOM group, I would not want to accuse/judge or whatever, any other group of being too cautious. None of us can, from a purely Biblical standpoint, argue that our ways are best. However, Amish historian, Alvin Beachy was quoted as saying that “wherever a Beachy church started up, it became a bridge from the OO Amish to the larger society.” I believe there is a lot of truth to this so the more traditional groups are farther away from the road of accommodation, acculturation and eventual assimilation. All plain churches seem to have one thing in common, fighting the drift away from what we used to stand for. As a computer user and a restricted user of the internet, I see the dangers of unrestrained use of these technologies and yet, to me the computer is as significant a tool in my trade as is the tractor is for the farmer.

What are common misconceptions people have about Old Order Mennonites?

On another forum, “MennoDiscuss” I have seen questions like “are the OOM born again?” OO people are accused of being “works Christians” because of our customs and traditions. Yet we do not believe or teach that they are the way to salvation but are only ways in which we try to live faithful Christian lives.

What are the most pressing current challenges facing Old Order Mennonite communities?

old order mennonite produce wakarusa
An Old Order Mennonite farmhouse and produce stand near Wakarusa, Indiana

The existing OO communities are facing tremendous pressure on land prices so one of the biggest challenges is buying farms where they can continue their farm based lifestyles. Another challenge is how to maintain OO practices while making a living off the farm or in farm based shops. Governments continue to push socialist programs while they want to be free from government handouts.

What do Old Order Mennonites think about more progressive Mennonite groups?  To what degree do they interact and cooperate?

The OO Mennonites financially support Mennonite programs such as MDS and MCC. In turn, they have looked to progressive Mennonites for help in dealing with government. They still interact extensively in the community and church functions. There is considerable freundschaft connection still, in particular at funerals.

What roles do women play in Old Order Mennonite homes and communities?

OOM women are probably slightly less involved in business and the church than OO Amish. Very few OOM married women run their own businesses, although singles do. They are, to a large extent, involved as partners on the farm. Women do not nominate candidates for ordination like Amish may. In the home, the roles are very similar to their Amish sisters. In my biased opinion, both Amish and Mennonite women are more “liberated” than their Conservative sisters.

Why do you think we have a proliferation of novels, television programs, and websites about the Amish, but much less attention paid in popular culture to Mennonites?  Do you mind being relatively “overlooked”? (tongue-in-cheek question!)

Here I would quote Phyllis Pellman Good (What Mennonites are Thinking – 2000):

old order mennonite country pa
Pedaling hard. Old Order Mennonite country, Lancaster County PA

“I think of us Mennonites as a rather muscular group – small, scattered, varied but still making some difference in the world. So I was a little sobered the other night while watching Jeopardy on TV. I had just remarked about how intelligent the contestants seemed. But they all got stumped on the next question. The category was “Protestantism.” – The question was “the group related to the Amish, named for one of their leaders, a Mr. Simons.” None of the three players knew the answer. Kind of humbling, kind of funny.”

She goes on to say that “we (smug) Mennonites know why. If the Amish weren’t so visually obvious, they would be no-names too.” (also tongue in cheek.) There are obviously more Amish than OOM and spread over a wider area so they are better known. We get quite used to being asked if we are Amish. And in the end, I am not sure how much I would like “Mennonite” and” Harrison Ford” said in the same breath. Being overlooked has its benefits too!
To order A Separate People, you may contact Osiah directly at obhorst@mwpol.ca, or by writing to him at:

Osiah Horst
341 Zion Line
Cobden, Ontario, Canada K0J 1K0.

The price is $10 plus postage (plus GST in Canada). They are also available on ebay.


Read more on the Mennonites and Amish in Canada, or on Ontario Mennonite & Amish furniture.

Photo credit: Ontario Old Order Mennonites- Michael Schneider/flickr

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    1. Darlene

      I’d like a chance to win, Erik! Thanks!

    2. Donna P

      Thank you

      Very interesting, thank you for doing this.

    3. LOVE the ending comment, about Mennonites and Harrison Ford not being connected. He’s right… there are some benefits to being “the quiet in the land.” The fact that the Amish so fascinate people in mainstream America, while the Mennonites are largely overlooked, has long been something I’ve wondered about. I wrote several posts on my blog. Here are links to those posts:




      I would love to have my name entered into the mix, though the odds are pretty low, and I’ve never won a thing in my life. I suppose there is a first for everything… smile.

    4. Oh, I meant to say — great post! I enjoyed this interview very much.


    5. Melissa H

      What a facinating interview! Thanks Erik for the opportunity to hear from the OOMs. Would LOVE to read the book!

    6. Nancee

      Book Giveaway

      I’d love a copy of this book! If there’s anything I love it’s books about Mennonites and the Amish. Such a peace abiding group of people. Thanks for the offer!

    7. Loretta

      Oh, I definitely want to read this. Hopefully, I will
      be a lucky winner.

      Thank you for an opportunity. I think we all enjoy these.:)

    8. Scott

      Book Giveaway

      I would love to be able to win this. Thank you for all you do Eric.

      1. OOM questions

        Thank you, Scott, and everyone else who’s taken a moment to share. I’ve just been reading through some of Osiah’s responses to people’s questions and just think it’s great to have the follow-up from him, especially since generally less is known about Old Order Mennonite life and customs.

        I figured this interview would stimulate more questions. One thing I like about A Separate People is the writing voice that Osiah’s father Isaac has–it’s very conversational, and the book is written as if you are taking a walk through an Old Order Mennonite community with a knowledgeable and entertaining guide at your elbow.

    9. Linda McFarland

      Book Giveaway

      Love to win….I love reading about the Mennonites and the Amish….very inspirational way of life……………….babyruthmac16@yahoo.com

    10. Bob K

      Biblical basis for OOM lifestyle

      I am curious about the biblical basis for the ways and customs of the OOM. I believe that the value the Amish place on living apart from the non-Amish world is based to some extent on a few verses Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. I think the Amish views on how the hair should be worn stem from another verse in Corinthians.

      From what I read above, it seems like living apart and conforming to a certain hairstyle are less of a concern for the OOM community than for the Amish. What biblical tenets do the OOM look to as the basis for their special and unique beliefs and practices? Do they differ from those revered by the Amish?

      1. Osiah Horst

        reply to question about Biblical basis

        I am sorry to take so long to respond and have only a few moments this morning. To the question about the Biblical basis for OOM practices, they are very similar to that of the OO Amish. We have the very same Anabaptist background and the two groups work together on such issues as Social Security, photo id and other similar issues that both groups are opposed to. Our family was acquainted with the Stoll and Wagler families from Aylmer, Ontario and a number of us have had articles published in the Pathway Publications. The biggest differences between the two groups aside from the method of shunning, are more cultural factors than faith based. i will look at these posts later today and respond to more questions but right now I have to run. Thanks, everyone for your interest.

    11. Tom-GA

      Book Giveaway

      Would love to win. thanks

    12. Leon A. Hadden

      Book "A Separate People"

      I have friends who are Mennoite and I am always looking for more information about Amish and Mennoite families. I like the lifestyle and try o live in a plain manner in my daily interactions with others and within my family. I would really appreciate having this book.

    13. Rita

      Thanks for the interesting article. I would love to win this book!

    14. Debra Harbour

      I would very much like to be included in this drawing for the book. I read books about the Amish and Mennonites every chance I get and would also like to read this one.

    15. Amy Jo

      Fascinating Erik! Count me in please!

    16. alice

      Sounds like a great book, would love to win a copy!

    17. Katie Troyer

      I used to know Issac Horst when I lived in Ontario, working at Pathway Publishers.

    18. MaryEtta

      I would love to be included in the giveaway. I hope I am not too late.
      Thank you!

    19. Brett

      Free Book!

      Yeah, I’d like a chance to win that book! Thanks

    20. Rachel

      Thanks and question

      The OO Amish practice shunning, what keeps the OOM growing? Do they shun as well?

      1. Osiah Horst

        OOM on Shunning

        OO Mennonites shun differently. Two of the 18 articles in the Dortrecht Confession which both Mennonites and Amish use deal with the Bann or exclusion from the Lord’s Supper and shunning. The OO Mennonites do not shun anyone that leaves the church. The bann applies to anyone who falls seriously outside of church order and is unrepentant. Shunning then applies but is unlike most OO Amish shunning in the extent to which it is taken. Anyone that is in “the bann” is excluded from taking part in church council, communion, and feet washing and from eating with the immediate family at special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

    21. Jackie Tessnair

      Book give away

      Please enter me….I would love to read this book.Thanks jackie_tessnair@yahho.com

    22. Joyce

      Book give away

      Loved your blog page and would love to read the book.

    23. Tom Schulte

      Great interview

      I don’t want to enter the giveaway (let someone else have the joy of winning) but will probably buy the book soon.

      I do want to say this was a really well written interview. I especially liked hearing about the OOM. It’s fun reading about groups with a totally different lifestyle, sort of like reading western fiction.

      Eric, does it help your site in any way (other than the community spirit) to get comments? I am an avid reader but have rarely seen a need to comment.

      1. Commenting is good!

        Tom, thanks for reading, and in answer to your question–definitely.

        Comments definitely add “meat” to the blog–I post something new 5 days a week but reader comments are a big part of adding to the knowledge and experiences shared here. Also the activity of commenting helps it get found in search engines. Last but not least I enjoy hearing from people and getting feedback, so I’d be lying if I said that comments didn’t motivate me to regularly post new posts, at least a little 😉

        You are welcome to comment anytime you feel like sharing something but of course no obligation. Anyway, nice that you asked.

    24. Tammy Traxler

      I read anything that I can find about the Amish. I love the history and tradition. I’d love to win!

    25. Lee Ann

      I shared the information on facebook. Please put my second entry in for the book giveaway.

    26. jackie

      love this paiting on the cover of the book. Please enter me in the contest!

    27. JoAnn

      An interesting article/interview. Would love to read the book! Hope to win! Thanks for this great website!

    28. Marilyn

      Book giveaway

      Sounds like an interesting and informative book. mk

    29. Rosemarie

      Great Post

      This was a fascinating interview. I’d love a chance to win a copy of the book.

    30. Eugenia

      Book Giveaway

      We have very close Mennonite friends in north Florida. We love Plain people, love to learn more and more about them, and would love to have this book!

    31. Carol

      Book Giveaway

      It looks like a very interesting book, and I would be so happy to win one 🙂 Please enter me in the contest.

    32. Osiah Horst on Old Order Mennonites/ Book Giveaway

      Thank you so very much for sharing such a beautiful look into the life of the Old Order Mennonites through the eyes of Osiah Horst. I would feel very honored to receive this gift.

    33. L. Yoder

      Free book

      Thanks for writing, Erik, so we have “a breath-of-fresh-air” things to read. I would be glad for a free book.

    34. Chris

      Book Giveaway

      This book looks like a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse into the OOM world. Thanks.

    35. Shawn Butchko

      A Chance to Win!

      Hi, this is Shawn, and I would really like a chance to win this book. I’m actually thinking about starting up a new Amish/Mennonite-type of group, here in Santa Cruz, California. I’m wondering if the Lord wants me to do this? I just came back from New Wilmington in November, because the Lord told me to return here. So, here I am. But lately, I’ve been getting information about starting a new group here. Even this morning, somebody told me the Bible says to start with 10 people. So anyway, I would really love to have one of these books. It would help me get started, I assume, if that’s what the Lord would have me do here. Plus, another thing is, I would love to find out more about how the Mennonites live. I’ve done alot of studying about the Amish the past couple of years or so, and I would like to find out more about Mennonites as well. Thanks. Shawn

    36. David


      Enter me please.

    37. Mona (Kentucky Lady).

      Also would like to win this book, also will post on Facebook…..

    38. Judy cosgrove

      win the book

      I would very much like to be a winner of one set of books
      The article answered alot of questions and am sure th book will answer more
      Thank you for the chance

    39. NS
    40. Mary

      Comment on Osiah Horst

      I too, loved to read Pathway Publications. It’s a sad comment that people’s individual talents (your Father’s writing ability) were not accepted or appreciated. But, individuality is not something that is generally encouraged in the Amish or OOMennonites, is it?

      1. Osiah Horst

        Things are changing in that regard. The Pathway Publications have had an impact and I think my father helped break the ice as well. He and my sister Esther (Horst) Bowman had numerous articles and poems published. Esther has published several books of poetry as well as children’s books. Currently, several OO groups jointly sponsor an annual writers’ meeting to encourage and stimulate an interest in writing. The meetings are very well attended and some travel to writers’ meetings in other areas as well.

    41. juan carlos

      book giveaway entry

      thank you Erik and Osiah for the opportunity to win the book. yes… please… include me. Erik, thank you for the questions you asked Osiah (most of them are questions i’ve always had)… and thank you Osiah for being so gracious in your answers.

    42. Ed

      Hello, I’ll enter my name in the contest. Thank you Osiah for answering our questions and making available your father’s writings.

    43. Tammy wiggins

      Book give away

      I would so enjoy having this set of books! Thank you!

    44. Margaret

      Book Give Away

      Loved this article! I definitely need to get this book for my husband, whether I win one of these or not! His family is OO Mennonite, and he would love it (and so would I).

    45. janice ableitner

      book giveaway

      Would love to read these books.Just Finished reading “An Amish Christmas In Lancaster County” Hard to put the book down.I am very interested in there way of life.I have just signed up for Amish America email.Just happened to see it on site yesterday. Thank you Janice

    46. Jane F Thompson

      Mennonite book

      I appreciated the interview, and hope to read the book. Please enter me in the contest. I have discovered this year that I may have Anabaptist roots from my mother’s side of the family, and am learning whatever I can. Of all the emails I receive every day, Erik, yours is one of the first I read, and is never deleted unread.

      1. Wow, Jane, you just upped the pressure on me! 😉 Just kidding, that is really nice to hear.

    47. Amber Horton

      Very Interesting.

      What a great interview. So much to learn. I’d love to read your book.

    48. M B Morphies

      Would love to enter drawing. Thanks!

    49. M B Morphies

      Would love to be entered.Thanks.

    50. Debbie Welsh

      Thanks, Erik, for this interesting interview. Every time we go to Lancaster I always enjoy riding around amongst the OOM communities as much as the Amish ones. And once you become familiar with the differences it’s easy to tell them apart.

      I would love to win a copy of this book so count me in, please!