What does “wealth” mean to you?

“We could probably build a better car than Detroit can. I will go out on a wing and say that. I honestly believe we could do that.”

It’s not often you hear an Amishman make such a claim.

But it almost makes sense–when you learn that the fellow who said this is from northern Indiana.  Northern Indiana Amish are different than most Amish.  At least when it comes to their jobs.

The region’s many Plain people (in Elkhart and Lagrange Counties, and the Nappanee Amish area) in recent times have not been farmers or business owners, but factory workers.

Amish here make recreational vehicles.  No, not the first thing you think of when you think “Amish”.  But they are quite good at it.  One reason RV makers began locating here 50 years ago was the Plain work ethic.

amish bike nappanee
A lunchbox-equipped Amishman bikes through the Nappanee community

But lately, things haven’t been so sunny.

Demand for RVs has dropped.  Unemployment has gone in the opposite direction.  Many Amish have faced reduced hours or lost their jobs completely.  How have they dealt with it?

Not by starting car companies, the Amishman’s quote above notwithstanding.  A recent article profiles Mervin Lehman, the man who made the car claim.

When the crisis hit, Mervin looked to his own resourcefulness.  He started a premium mattress company.  He learned from scratch, worked hard.  Things began looking up.  Mervin recently expanded, to a 3,600 square foot facility.

When asked about the region’s low per-capita income, Mervin, a father of four, had this to say:

“Define wealth,” Lehman, 41, said. “If you’re defining wealth by average annual salary, then that’s why you come up with those numbers. If you’re defining wealth by personal net worth, you’ll get a different number. How many in this community own their own home? A large percentage of people do.

“I think we figure out how to live within our means. Our cost of living is a lot lower than the non-Amish cost of living. Why spend money that you don’t have? That is the philosophy of our culture.

“My goal,” he said, “is not to become a millionaire. My goal is to pay for my home, have something to live off of in my retirement years comfortably and make sure my kids and family are comfortable. That’s all I need out of this life. And helping my neighbor if he is in financial straits. Having enough money to help him.”

“Wealth”, of course, has more than one meaning.

I think Mervin would agree: it comes in shades other than green.

What does “wealth” mean to you?

Photo credit: ChicagoGeek

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    1. Alice Aber

      My wealth is stored in heaven. I have no earthly wealth and do not need it. Yes, I struggle at times to make ends meet but great is my reward in heaven. These struggles are but for a season, heaven is eternal.

      It is nice to be able to keep the bills paid and food on the table. To have that is a blessing, to have more is to be doubly blessed.

      Have a great day and be blessed!!

    2. Betsy

      Farming in Detroit

      Speaking of Detroit, There is a LOT of empty land! I think the Amish who want to get back into farming should settle here!

    3. TomK

      Wealth is the same as people – comes in many, many different shapes, ideas, beliefs, shades, standards, styles etc. etc…

      But Erik, since we are on the subject of wealth and Amish, does the Amish have an inner network among themselves as to who has what and how much? Is there like a Donald Trump of the Amish that when need be they can go to for funds?

    4. The Spokesrider

      Wealth vs speed

      That’s the first time I’ve ever seen an Amish bicycle rider with rear panniers on the bicycle, or any panniers. Those are almost like my Jandd set. My rig has over the years gotten attention from Amish people those few times I’ve ridden fully loaded through Amish country. Men and boys sometimes stop work to look at it as I ride by, and I’ve overheard comments. Sometimes I get questions. (More often I am not traveling self-contained, and have just one pannier. It’s a pannier that looks like the ones in the photo, but it doesn’t attract quite so much attention.)

      I’ve ridden through Nappanee several times, but don’t recall that I ever rode through that part of Elkhart County fully loaded. But there is no other Amish region I know of that has as many adult bicycle riders, so it would be a good place for panniers to be adopted.

      As to your question, I consider myself wealthy enough to be able to ride through places like this by bicycle. If I were not so wealthy, I’d have to go by car. If I were poverty-stricken, I’d have to fly far overhead. But my job gives me generous vacation time so I can go by bicycle and see things. If I were filthy, stinking rich, I’d be able to go on foot.

    5. Primitive Christianity

      After about five years of living in South America-where there still actually are poor people-I ended up in Holmes County doing taxi work for the Amish. I would tell my Amish customers, “You Amish dont live simple.” Most of them would smile and say, “Yeah, we know that.” 🙂
      I dont remember the place I read it or I would reference it, but it has been estimated that the average conservative Anabaptist ranks at the top 6% of wealth (on a worldwide basis). To get in the top 10%, one only needs to have about $62,000 worth of monetary value.
      So our perception of material wealth depends on who we stack ourselves up against, Bill Gates or the average Bolivian campesino that has a net worth of a hoe, a machete, and an adobe house of 300 square feet. He may even own a couple of acres of land worth about $200/acre.
      That said, the Plain people do have another sort of wealth. I was just reading a missionary report from Tanzania this morning, in which the man was telling how that in his home congregation here in the US, “fornication is not once named among you.” (Not that it ever happens, but it is certainly not a regular occurrence.) As well, he would trust his pocketbook in the hands of any one of the brothers in his home church.
      Both of those aspects are practically unheard of in poor Tanzania, even among the “Christians.” Another fellow missionary made the statement recently that he doesnt know of a single Tanzanian that he would trust his pocketbook with … even though I am sure there are honest people there somewhere.
      As a Christian, I feel it is our call to share our wealth, both material and spiritual, so I admire people like the man in Tanzania who has left the opportunity to make a good wage here in the US to share his wealth with the poor, both materially and spiritually. Mike

    6. Helen Parnell-Berry


      The society that we live in (in the West) measures wealth in pounds (£) and dollars ($). Maybe with the global economic crisis we will see a shift away from this and more of a focus on what really matters. For example, as long as you have a roof over your head, you and your loved ones have good health and none of you are hungry then I would suggest that you are wealthy.

    7. Plain Lady


      We could forget about all the ‘stuff’ the Plain people own, and just consider the amount of food they consume in a year, or have available, and you would discover that they are very wealthy compared to other people in the world. I have lived in Haiti and know that for a fact!!!

    8. Colleen


      Amen to that!

    9. Colleen

      @The Spokesrider…

      Your comment really put things in perspective for me. May we all be so wealthy that we wear out the soles of our shoes on a regular basis!

    10. Amish investment bankruptcy

      TomK–starting from your second question, as to a Trump of the Amish, there is a sad story happening right now in Ohio which you may have heard of concerning an Amish-operated investment fund.

      The Amish fund manager actually lost about half of the $33 million entrusted to him over many years…from what I have followed it is still unclear what exactly happened. There have also been disputes over how to settle the debts.

      The Amish want to handle it amongst themselves, but the manager had already made an official bankruptcy claim, which after counsel he wished to retract. They are finding that is not so easy to do.

      A lot of trust was placed in him to be able to manage so much; in this case the trust and communal ties which are normally a strength of the Amish turned out to cut in the other direction, and a lot of people have lost a lot. Retirement funds, life savings, and so on.

      A bright note is that wealthier Amish who have also lost are apparently contributing funds to the ones who had essential moneys in the fund.


      That is an example of an unusual bad situation; but there are numerous Amish who do provide funds and help seed businesses for example, though in most cases they aren’t playing with as much money. Amish were involved in setting up at least one bank in Lancaster County, Hometowne Heritage, heavily used by Amish.

      Also Amish have various helping funds and one of the tasks of the Amish deacon is to coordinate funds for needs (medical, etc) in the community.

    11. Spokesrider I quite enjoyed your comment and Mike also thanks for sharing the interesting details from abroad…both great “perspective” examples. Now just to keep that perspective…

    12. Misty

      My husband and I are now “cash poor” as we just sunk every penny into our farm purchase. BUT with that farm we will have the ability to sustain ourselves and those close to us, come what may. So while we are cash poor we are Land Rich, and that just how we want to be! This life is not about acquiring “things” it’s about loving God and His people, doing His work.
      I really enjoy Amish America, I love the community feel to it, the posts lately really make me think, thank you Eric.
      Only 3 more days until we’re ON our farm!!!

    13. Michelle P

      Once upon a time wealth to my hubby and I meant a new car every couple of years, a big new home, more money, more things. Now we are content with more time together, we buy used cars only when the old wears out, good used furniture when we can and live in a 751 sq. foot home that seems big and comfy to us. We have plenty of hobbies to do and share with others, loads of friends on the internet and a lot of time together. I can say honestly we are both so much happier with less monthly income, less material things than when we had a lot of money and our days were focused on making more.

    14. Wendy B.

      "Store up for yourselves treasures in Heaven"

      Great article, Erik! If only we all viewed wealth this way, what a wonderful world it would be — without greed & loving kindness to all mankind.

      Alice & Misty, Amen! To God be the glory. =)

      Michelle P., I felt a calm after reading your post. I am ‘still’ single myself, but enjoy knowing you and your husband share contentment and joy together. Your marriage sets a good example. I too have scaled down in home size over the years. Less to fuss over, and more time to live wisely (and give to those in need) as our Lord intended.

      All the posts have been a blessing this morning.

    15. Mona

      This is a great topic, and my hat’s off to you Alice……and Amen to your comment…..
      I’m sure the Amish could build better cars than Detroit…..because there would be less drinking and drugs……I’ve heard tales of some of the auto workers going to work so high on drugs and booze, they wonder just how they made it thru the work day…..not to get any feathers flying, but notice I said SOME AUTO WORKERS……not all of them……I have a nephew who works for one of the auto makers and he does not drink or do drugs…..so from what info I have heard about the Amish, this is definitely not one of their habits…..and they seem to know just what hard work is….. and they don’t need to buy a $300.000.00 home to keep up with the Jones…..as the saying goes….. and yes there is plenty of land in Detroit…..if anyone is interested…….

    16. Christina

      This is a great post! I think about this often and have concluded that wealth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We are the ones that put a value on things whether that be a green bit of paper that has some numbers, letters and pictures on it or an old rather ugly chipped enamel mixing bowl that’s precious because you remember helping your Oma mix dough in it for your favorite treat.

    17. Richard


      This will end up sounding a little corny, but to me as i get a little older every year, i would say just having good health would be wealth to some folks. So having wealth in the material way would only do you no good without your health. Hard to believe i wrote this, maybe I’m losing my funny touch.No, that’s not possible. Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish community.

    18. Magdalena

      on wealth

      We are quite poor by North American standards, but having a four room house to live in, a couple of acres to farm, running water and a steady but small income makes us richer than the people I knew back in Honduras. Part of the reason that the Amish value having some land, a paid-off mortgage and living debt free is that it keeps them from being a drain on their communities. It is an interdependence of independence, if that makes any sense. If one puts away retirement money, and provides the land or business opportunity for one’s children, there is much less likelihood that the family or elderly individual will need constant support from church, other family, or government. It is part of the Anabpatist heritage. It can, off course, veer off into worldliness, but the intent is not to measure grace or success by worldly standards, but to be a contributing member of the community, to have resources the community can draw on, and to be good stewards of the resources.

    19. Keith James


      I had the pleasure of meeting Mervin while attending the Northern Indiana Woodworkers Association’s Furniture Expo a couple months ago. I was first surprised to see Amish-made mattresses, because when I think Amish I think of wooden goods, quilts, or food items, if that makes any sense. Secondly I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) at the quality of the mattresses he makes; they are as nice or nicer than anything I’ve seen in a mattress shop. Beautifully made and very comfortable.

      As for Mervin, he stuck out in my memory because he has such a pleasant, easy way about him. Most of the Amish folks I’ve met are friendly, but it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I’d known him for a long time. Fast friends, as they say. I’m very glad to see him featured in this article and hope he does very well.

    20. Alice Aber

      Thanks everyone!! I just said what I truly believe.

      Much love and blessings,

    21. Dave

      Wealth of People

      @Magdalena – beautifully said. You should write cards or tracts.

      Adam Smith broke down human interaction into a game where every man woman & child was engaged in a pursuit of as much profit as possible based on comparative advantage. Work, consumption, goods, assets, finance, & lives would follow this flow. This is played out cradle to grave.

      Amish and some others realize; work, consumption, assets, and life follow Gods will and should be; ordered, prioritized and used accordingly. This is from cradle to heaven.


    22. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      I’ve been struck by the assertion by Canadian scientist, environmentalist, speaker, and TV personality David Suzuki, who suggests quite vocally that the economy is artificial and even detrimental on many levels. About a month ago I heard him say it on his birthday special on “The Nature of Things” and I had a “Huh? What?” moment, but been thinking about it since.

      I think that faith, family and love ought to come before earning a living, and that one ought to not live to work only, but work to live and give priority to the Lord, family and friends, not just the “bottom line”.

      It can be hard, especially when we’re young, to balance work and the rest of your life.

    23. Darlene

      I was giving my 5-year-old a bath tonight and she got the giggles and couldn’t stop…

      My 11-year-old asked me to stop in his room for a good night hug…

      I’m wealthy beyond my wildest imaginings!

    24. Annmarie

      I agree with Darlene…Even on the most tiring days, I look at my five kids and feel abundantly blessed and RICH. Would not trade a minute of it for more monetary wealth. This is just our pilgrimage not our final destination..and the Amish sure got that right.

    25. Investment Consultant


      Wealth are not the material possessions we own, because if we think that’s what wealth is then we would limit ourselves to those. Wealth are all the factors we have in life that we need and what are important.

    26. Elin


      I really struggled to answer this question not having ever been genuinely poor or particularly wealthy. I am the richest I have ever been now for sure as I am childless and work full time and lack expensive habits. I tend to pay my bills, buy good healthy and tasty food and then not that much more so all the money that is left goes to my savings account. Being two people on a teacher’s salary is usually not seen as wealthy but I really have not any needs for more. I comparison with the world’s population as a whole I am rich of course. I never struggle to put food on the table, I live in a relatively modern appartment with electricity and heating which I pay for easily. Since I started working I have run out of money at the end of the month two times, both were special months when I was on vacation and of course I could just get some money to cover this from my savings which I later gave back to myself.

      I assume that I am poor to some and rich to some.

    27. Great responses, thank you

      Wow…these are some great responses. Thanks everyone for taking the time to share your examples. I wanted to respond to everyone but here are at least a few:

      Darlene thanks a bunch for jumping into the fray here and on the other post 🙂 Your example is great, those are things you can’t put in a bottle for later.

      Dave I didn’t expect to see Adam Smith show up on this post but I’m glad you brought him in 😉

      Keith, thanks for pitching in a personal anecdote about Marvin. He seems like an interesting guy. Whenever I read one of these stories from a community I sold books in I always wonder if I met the person while selling. It was a lot of people (with a lot of similar names) so unfortunately you just don’t recall everyone. But I was glad to read this story and see that people are moving into small business. That will of course help them reduce the risk of just depending on the one industry.

      Michelle, I live in a 350 foot place, but there’s only one of me 🙂 But it is pretty spacious for what it is and I am perfectly happy with it.

      Misty, great for you on moving into your formerly-Amish farm…I have a feeling you’ll have some great stories ahead 🙂

    28. Paul A. B.

      Our economy needs a value boost

      A few heartfelt thoughts about the current economic situation…

      Wealth, to me, is not merely increasing the numbers on the balance sheet – it’s about using the economy to contribute to stable families and a strong, stable society. It’s not only about money at all, but also about the health of people, and how balanced their lives are. Do people have the luxury of time to think and innovate – or are they forever chasing low-end job after low-end job just to try and stay on top of mountainous debt?

      Western consumerist society is broken. I can’t emphasize this enough. What’s the creed by which many people live? Many live by what they hear and see all around them: that more is better; we need unlimited growth; we need to cut the workforce, while those who remain multitask on top of multitasking, etc. Megastores stock literally tons of products of ever-decreasing quality and sometimes questionable safety, made offshore and sold to a population whose economic prospects seem stuck in neutral, if not sliding backwards downhill… and so on. In many ways, it’s a crisis of caring. Nobody cares anymore.

      Limitless growth as a concept and a mantra is inherently imbecilic and unsustainable – but it is also insulting when we see how things are and realize that, were it not for the values that guide it, things could be much different.

      Now, take a look at how the Amish live. They are Americans, yet Amish society as such is utterly countercultural to mainstream America: their worldview appears to emphasize first values, constancy, sufficiency, and – humility. Humility is properly seen as a virtue, not as the weak-willed and wussy characteristic that mainstream society sees it as. In these times of easy liquidity of “human resources” and easy transfer of knowledge, humility and honor seem to have less and less value. Also, what about the value of one’s word? The litigiousness of society has shot that one right out of the water. Both of these things need to be understood as being problems.

      Who, today, wants an oak cabinet that could be passed on from generation to generation, when you can get a potentially toxic, slap-it-together-yourself piece of disposable furniture that showcases the best of modernity? I ask this rhetorically, to highlight how values have changed – away from seeking stability, long-term good, and sustainability.

      North Americans in general would do well to look at how the Amish, as a society, structure their lives and their economic activities. Management needs to have as its end goal not endless growth or an orgy of short-term gains on the balance sheet, but prudent guidance toward sustainability and long-term betterment.

      Movers and shakers seem to have willfully forgotten that humans are living, breathing, feeling and thinking creatures, while the economy is an inanimate construct. People, as human beings, are not merely commodities or instruments to serve a system that is stuck on seeking limitless growth, with no amount of damage being unacceptable. The economy is an inanimate thing that should create betterment for humans. I think that the Amish, too, realize that work and productivity are necessary for sustenance and to produce a certain quality of life, but that people are the starting point.

      As I say, our ways are broken.

      Having said all this, Erik – I can’t wait to read your book on Amish businesses… the current state of our economy is a topic near and dear to me. New perspectives are sorely needed.

    29. Wealth

      My Great Grandfather, Shem Yoder owned quite a bit of land in Yoder/Haven Kansas. There was oil found, and he was offered a lot of money for the area where oil was found by the oil company. He gave it to them. The story goes that he said he had what he needed.