Simple Living: Interview with author of ‘Amish Way’

After ‘Amish Grace’ & Nickel Mines, We Want to Know More

The 2006 tragedy at the West Nickel Mines School made us aware that Amish, as a community, are far more than “quaint.” These thousands of families have deep roots in pacifist Christian tradition and live their faith in simple grace that startles those of us caught up in the myriad demands of American culture. Who are these people? How do they live? And, is what we think we see—really there among the Amish?

In PART 1, we shared a brief excerpt from “The Amish Way” to show you how Don Kraybill and his colleagues sort out myth and truth in Amish life. TODAY, in Part 2, we talk with Dr. Donald B. Kraybill.
In Part 3, Don recommends some Amish movies.


TEAM OF SCHOLARS AT WORK ON ‘THE AMISH WAY’ (from left): Steven M. Nolt, Donald B. Kraybill and David L. Weaver-ZercherDAVID: Say the word “Amish” or show a photo of an Amish buggy—and most Americans think: Pennsylvania. That’s partly because of the shooting tragedy you explored in your earlier book, “Amish Grace.” That’s also because the Lancaster area is a major tourist attraction. My son and I just visited Lancaster in our American Journey series. Before we visited, however, some outsiders we talked to sounded very skeptical. One person told us, “Oh, there aren’t any real Amish there anymore.” Well, obviously, that was wrong. There are thousands of real Amish in Pennsylvania. So, let’s start our interview with Pennsylvania and Lancaster: Is that going to remain a healthy center for Amish life?

DON: I’m a scholar, writer and interpreter of Anabaptist communities in North America and I’m based in western Lancaster County. This is an important part of the country. We have 30,000 Amish people living in this area and that’s about half of the Amish in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s the largest Amish settlement in the state, but the Amish here do face a major demographic crisis: too many Amish babies and too few acres.

The land is very expensive here. Good farming land will sell for $14,000 to $15,000 an acre. You need $2 million in up-front investment to start a new farm. Some Amish have moved from here to other states and remain affiliated with the Lancaster brand of Amish.

DAVID: Is farming the only option?

DON: No, another option is to move into small businesses. Today only about 40 percent of Amish households get their primary income from farming. Many have sizeable businesses making high-quality furniture or manufacturing metal products and so on.

DAVID: Is that happening nationwide?

DON: In the rest of the Amish world, when people move off the farm, they tend to set up their own Amish-owned and operated businesses. Many are in construction, siding, roofing, plumbing. Others have businesses that involve cabinetry, furniture making, metal crafting. One makes barbecue grills that you can pull with a tractor and, when you set it up, you can roast a whole pig. Women own about 20 percent of these businesses—greenhouses, quilt industries, crafts.

DAVID: That 40 percent figure you mentioned earlier may surprise some readers. Of course, that’s a national estimate, right? Is that 40 percent the rule in most individual Amish communities?

DON: No, it varies from settlement to settlement. Some communities are mostly farmers; in other communities, there are hardly any farmers left at all.


DAVID: One really fascinating theme in your book is diversity—not a theme you’d expect to encounter in learning about the Amish. The truth is, Amish communities vary widely, right?

DON: Yes, there are 40 different Amish subgroups and there are some things that unite all of them such as horse-and-buggy transportation and speaking Pennsylvania-dialect German or, in some communities, a Swiss-German dialect. Their worship services are similar. The clothing is distinctive, but it varies form one church group to another. Within these 40 different groups there is enormous variation. Some buggies are white topped; some are black topped. In western Pennsylvania, buggies are burnt orange. Some have LED lights and a battery on their carriages. Others still carry kerosene. Some still have iceboxes to chill their food at home. Many others are using propane-fueled refrigerators. Some have access to computers through third parties. An Amish business might hire a neighbor or third party to provide computer services; others would never get close to a computer. Some carry cell phones; some are reluctant even to touch a payphone.

I often tell audiences when I lecture that it’s hazardous to talk about “the Amish.” There are 1,825 local congregations and ecclesiastical authority for the Amish rests in these local congregations, so here in Lancaster, one congregation may permit power lawnmowers and the one across the street may not. It’s very complicated and it makes my work very complicated.

DAVID: The educational level is almost universal, though. Most Amish leave school after the 8th grade.

DON: The fact that they terminate at the end of the 8th grade also means that they don’t have seminaries or formal theological training for lay people or pastors. Their view of the world and their practices is driven by tradition. They do respect the wisdom of older people. Most rules and regulations that guide daily life are not written down, so they are passed along by oral tradition and that privileges the elderly and those in charge. They’re the ones who remember and pass along the traditions. There’s also a profound respect for God’s work in the world and a strong belief that the world is mysterious. There’s a belief in a very active devil and in angels. In many ways, this is a pre-scientific worldview.


DAVID: Amish are close knit and generally enjoy that closeness, you write in the book. Outsiders may dream about living in that kind of community, but you emphasize that this really may be more than most Americans could tolerate.

DON: The deepest wedge between Protestant Christianity and the Amish faith is the distinction between individualism and communalism. The Amish give themselves up to the community and put themselves under the community. The big tension for Amish is a temptation to stray into the world, juxtaposed against the values and teachings of my church. I can’t overstate the importance of this dichotomy of communal versus individual. It’s deep. And it’s hard for those of us outside of the community to appreciate this. Here’s an example: If you’re Amish and you’re thinking about working in an occupation that doesn’t fit the Amish way, then you might have to pull back your hopes for that kind of life. To be part of the community, you have to live according to the community’s traditions. And there is little privacy, compared with what most Americans expect in their lives. Everyone knows your business and what’s happening with your family.

DAVID: These things we’re talking about really highlight the unique nature of your book. You look into the spirituality of Amish life, and the nuts and bolts of everyday life that keep this enduring faith alive. What you’ve written, between these two covers, isn’t available in other books.

DON: That’s right. What is unique about “The Amish Way” is that it’s the only book that unpacks Amish faith, beliefs and practice. All of the other books out there related to the Amish, including our own earlier book, tend to be historical. I think it’s astonishing that no one has done a book like this.


DAVID: We’re also going to recommend your earlier book and provide a link to its Amazon page with this interview (below). I know millions of Americans watched the drama unfold and our hearts were moved by what we saw. So, can you give us a little update on the families?

DON: Well, what I can say is that of the five girls who survived, four of them are leading relatively normal lives. They are going to school, taking care of themselves. One is still wheelchair bound and is fed by a feeding tube. She is not able to walk and talk. She needs 24-hour care and seems to be somewhat at a plateau, I would say. She does go to a public school for children who have had this kind of trauma and they are trying to work with her.

Some of the older boys have had what psychologists call survivors’ guilt. One wouldn’t eat for a while. They were feeling responsible that, as 13 year olds, they didn’t do something to prevent this. The man who did the shooting, at one point, laid down his pistol and the boys think: We might have grabbed it. There are these kind of lingering effects.

The parents seem to be moving on. They are helping other Amish communities with tragedies. They are talking with people who come to visit them, sometimes even from other countries, asking them to talk about forgiveness. I had a three-hour lunch with some of the families recently and I felt a remarkable level of maturity in the way that they aren’t running away from the effects of the event—yet they also are moving on with their lives.

Come back tomorrow for a final look at the Amish—in movies.

REMEMBER: You can purchase The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World at Amazon now.

OR: You may want to order the earlier Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy also available at a discount from Amazon.

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