Donald Kraybill: Amish Expert on Amish in the City

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Well good afternoon everybody. The first episode of Amish in the City left a Chicago Tribune reviewer with this impression. His headline was, “The Reality of Amish is that the Regulars Look Like the Rubes.” After the first two hours he says, “It’s not the Amish kid you feel sorry for. They were brought up to be restrained and have a solid sense of themselves. They mostly maintain their dignity, even as cameras are sure to note all their marveling at escalators, beaches, sushi, art, et cetera. But most of the regular American kids put in a fancy hillside home with them came off like rubes and worse. Watching their smugness, their dismissiveness, and their mockery of the unusual, a phrase comes to mind. What were you? Raised in a barn?” Well, consider this an everything you wanted to know and were afraid to ask about the Amish with our guest, Donald Kraybill. He’s senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and author of numerous books on the Amish.

Q. And Donald, you were just telling me that the show actually did not air last night with the rest of the nation because in Amish country they’re actually screening it to decide whether they’re going to show it or not.
A. That’s correct. There was some controversy here locally, and so out of respect to the general community and the Amish community, they decided to do a screening first and then decide whether they want to show it.

Q. Now, how many Amish live in your area?
A. In Pennsylvania we have about 52,000, and about half of those live in the Lancaster County area. And I live in the western edge of Lancaster County. So including children, we have about 25,000 here in our area.

Q. Now, when we talk about the Amish, is it inaccurate to use the phrase in a kind of a general sense? I mean, are there a lot of distinctions within the Amish? For instance, within Lancaster County itself?
A. Well, nationally it’s very inappropriate to talk about the Amish. There are over two dozen different subgroups. There are 1,400 different congregations in 28 different states, and the ecclesiastical authority is in the local congregation. So practices vary considerably from region to region and also within, from congregation to congregation. So it’s really very difficult to make broad-sweeping generalizations.

Q. Now, are any of the five that are in the show from Lancaster County?
A. No, they are not. They actually tried to recruit here but weren’t successful. I believe they’re from Ohio and Indiana. I believe maybe one from Wisconsin. I’m not sure.

Q. Now, are they¢â‚¬¦ Yeah, there is one from Wisconsin. He’s actually one of my favorites. Moze is his name.
A. Right.

Q. Are they already kind of not stereotypical by virtue of the fact that they agreed to do this show?
A. Absolutely. These are not Amish people. These are ex-Amish. These are rebellious teenagers who’ve turned their back on their heritage and are snubbing it by even thinking about agreeing to being in this kind of a program. So one of the serious problems with this is that what you’re looking at are not truly Amish people in the sense that they are baptized within the Amish community. These are young people that were raised in an Amish home and decided to leave it.

Q. Now, the Rumspringa, as it was described in the show, is the time where a young Amish person is making their own choice regarding whether they want to be baptized. And the way it was positioned in the show is this is the time when they can kind of break away, sew their wild oats, explore the world outside, and then decide whether they want to be part of the Amish. Is that a misunderstanding of Rumspringa?
A. It is a misunderstanding. And it’s one of my problems with the show, that they’re creating new stereotypes about Rumspringa. Basically what Rumspringa means is, literally translated means “running around.” And that means starting to date, going out with their friends. It does not mean running wild, which is what UPN calls it. Amish young people typically during this time live at home, work at home or work with a next door neighbor, or work on a construction crew. They don’t leave the Amish community. But they are betwixt and between the supervision of their parents and the authority of the church because they really technically don’t become Amish or go under the authority of the church until they’re baptized. And that typically happens at between the ages of 19 and 21. So if young people are planning never to join the church, then sometimes they will move into a city or move away. And I think, it’s my impression, that the five people that agreed to be in this show are people that really are leaving. And this is not Rumspringa, but these are ex-Amish who have already left the community.

Q. Yeah. They were in Amish dress when they ¢€œ at least four of the five were in Amish dress when they appeared at the door of this hillside mansion in Hollywood Hills.
A. Right.

Q. But that does not, the fact that they dressed Amish doesn’t indicate that they are still in the Amish?
A. This is all a show. They were putting those clothes on for UPN. They have access to those clothes. They certainly don’t wear those clothes back in their community anymore. If they were baptized and joined the church, then they would be expected to dress within the order of their particular church.

Q. Now, there is a scene where Mose, who is described as the most conservative, as an elder in the group ¢€œ I mean, he’s 23 years old ¢€œ and as someone who takes his religion very seriously. That’s kind of the way he’s positioned in the show. He nearly drowns on the beach. And there’s a scene where you see him reading his Bible in German, out loud, and then he gets down on his knees and starts praying. And he talks about how in the Amish community you go to hell if you’re not part of the community. And that one of the things that frightened him most about this near drowning was his belief that he would go to hell if he had not made his commitment to be baptized and be part of the Amish community. Is that a piece of Amish theology or practice or not?
A. It is a piece of Amish theology that would tell young people that if they leave the faith in which they were raised they would be putting their soul in jeopardy. I would say the Amish, in many ways, are harsher on their own young people than they are toward outsiders. They would be loathe to say that Presbyterians or Catholics are going to hell. They would simply say they live, you know, and practice in a different religious tradition, and the Amish would have respect for that. But they would tend to be somewhat harsh on young people that were raised in their own community who then turn their backs on it.

Q. Now, there was a New York Times¢â‚¬¦
A. On the other hand, another point, though, is they do respect the right of the individual to make an individual choice. They are Anabaptist so they respect the integrity of adult baptism.

Q. Now, there was a reference in the New York Times article that I read yesterday to the fact that if you choose to be baptized, then you must stay in the community. And if you fail to do so you’ll be shunned. But if you choose not to be baptized, you’ll leave the community but you’ll be welcomed back because you didn’t choose to join. Is that accurate?
A. Well, it is correct that if you are never baptized you can’t be excommunicated or shunned. In other words, excommunication and then shunning only applies to people who have been baptized and then leave. Everybody is always welcome back. I mean, the church will receive excommunicated members back if they make a confession. The church will receive young people back if they make a confession and agree to comply with the rules and regulations of the church. So the back door is always open to anyone, regardless of whether they left as, you know, excommunicated or if they left as a young person. But it is correct that only, shunning does not apply and excommunication does not apply to young people who decide not never to join.

Okay. We’re going to be back with some more of Donald Kraybill right after this. He’s senior fellow of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, author of numerous books on the Amish. We’ll be back with more right after this.


Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the YoungCenter for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of numerous books on the Amish.

Q. Don, if somebody were to read just one of your books that would give them the best basic overview of what it means to be Amish today, which book would you recommend?
A. It would be The Riddle of Amish Culture, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and the publication date is 2001. It’s sort of my flagship book in terms of understanding Amish faith and culture.

Q. Okay. Now, let’s talk about what it means to join the Amish. Obviously, most of us at a cursory level think of it as a severe separation from the world. Is that the most kind of salient, easiest way to get into understanding what it means to be Amish? And if so, what’s kind of the Biblical, theological, historical tradition behind that?
A. Well, I would say the more important point is this deep sense of community, and commitment to community, and commitment to a church where you’re accountable to the authority of the church. That’s the first premise. And then, secondly, it would be the point of separation from the world and non-conformity to the world. And all of this comes out of the radical reformation in the 16th century. And the Amish very much flow from that tradition that emphasized a strong separation of the church and the State, strong separation of the church from the outside world, and a strong focus on discipleship and the practice of the faith once one commits to it as an adult.

Q. Now, what was it that happened to them historically that drove this as deep as it did in their experience?
A. Well, they separated in 1693 from the Swiss Anabaptists, who later became Mennonites, and in many ways the Amish are a more conservative wing of the Anabaptist group and focused on a lot of specific practices that became part of their cultural tradition and were preserved in rural areas after they migrated here to the US.

Q. What would some of those traditions be?
A. Well, some of the traditions would be small, local congregations where they worship in homes. They do not have meeting houses. They meet every other week for services. Continuation of the German dialect, the Pennsylvanian German. In the 20th century, then, they developed specific forms of separation related to technology, such as the rejection of the ownership of automobiles, the rejection of electricity from public utility lines, and they’ve always forbidden television, which is why this particular UPN show is such an affront to them in many ways.

Q. For a person that doesn’t really know the Amish but knows a little bit about American Protestant fundamentalism, how is it different than fundamentalism?
A. These are not fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination. I would say these are¢â‚¬¦ The focus here is on a communal understanding of faith, a communal understanding of salvation. For example, personal Bible reading is not particularly encouraged because of a fear of individualism and individuals making their own decisions about the Bible. Preachers, when they preach in front of the congregation, three or four other preachers then would give witness or testimony to what they’ve said. So it’s really a communal religious experience. And really it is a strong dose of humility. They are loath to say that they are sure they are saved. But they would say, in contrast to fundamentalists, we simply follow the way of Jesus and we have a living hope, but our faith is in the hands of a loving God. And so it would be very arrogant or conceited to say that we know we’re sure we’re saved.

Q. Okay. Now, that’s interesting because one of the characteristics that Martin Marty draws out in his work about fundamentalism is that a mark of a fundamentalist, in American experience anyway, or even in the Islamic tradition, has been fighting. They’re feisty towards the world. What I’m hearing¢â‚¬¦ That’s a distinction that you’re making.
A. Yes. The Amish are pacifists. Their emphasis is on Gelassenheit, on yielding to others, on humility, on meekness and mildness. I mean, the spirit here is opposite that of, you know, die hard fundamentalists.

Q. Interesting. Now how would it be like or unlike Jewish Hassidism?
A. Jewish Hassidic tradition would actually have many parallels. I mean, a strong emphasis on community, a strong emphasis on tradition, a strong emphasis on symbolism, and in separation from the world. So I think¢â‚¬¦ I don’t know the Hassidic tradition very well, but it’s my impression that there frankly would be many more parallels with a Hassidic Jewish tradition than there would be with the mainstream American fundamentalism.

Q. Now, how did they understand Jesus ¢€œ who appears to have understood the calling of God to go into the world ¢€œ to be part of the world, to be a loving, kind of transforming presence in the world, and very actively engaged in the daily life of people in the community? How do the Amish understand that? I understand that they’ve picked up on the kind of alien and exile tradition in community, but how do they justify that with this kind of other view of Jesus?
A. Well, they would say that their form of witness is through their community, that their community should be a light on the hill, a beacon on the hill. They should be, as a community, salt and light in the world. And the focus is more on what I would call a kind of communal witness. They do engage in disaster service, in relief work, in things like that, but it’s done in the context of their community. It’s non-individualistic. A key difference in their culture and mainstream American culture and mainstream American religious and evangelical culture is their rejection of individualism. So they don’t emphasize individual evangelism or individual Bible study or individualistic things, but it’s more a communal witness. The other thing to remember is¢â‚¬¦

Q. And yet, if I can just interject there. What’s interesting about that, though, is that they do, it sounds like in their decision of baptism, that is an individual decision.
A. It is.

Q. In other words, it’s not like a reformed tradition where if you’re born into the family, you know, there have been branches of the reformed tradition where if you’re born into the family you’re saved because we’re saved as a family, as a community, or like Israel would have had that in the Old Testament. This still has that element of individualism.
A. You’re correct. Again, they’re Anabaptist. They emphasize a voluntary adult decision to join the church. But once they join the church, it’s joining a communal experience and it’s being part of that, and it’s being responsible to the authority of that tradition. So it is at the point of baptism an individual experience.

Q. Now, do they view the world as evil? In other words, there was a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that says, “The Amish, young and old, aren’t hapless innocents, but in fact know a great deal about the real world, which is why they choose to keep a distance from it.” In other words, the Inquirer was saying what you need to understand about the Amish is they are worldly wise, they see the world, they don’t think they want to be part of that world. Is that accurate?
A. I would say in general that’s the case. They read daily newspapers, they’re interacting everyday with outside people, they live in communities where they talk with English neighbors. In their work and commerce many of them interact with the outside world. So for them the outside world is filled with divorce, it’s filled with sex, it’s filled with war, it’s filled with fraud, it’s filled with single-parent families, it’s filled with all kinds of what they would call moral junk that they really prefer to stay away from.

We’re going to be back with some concluding comments with Donald Kraybill right after this. Senior fellow at the YoungCenter for Anabaptists and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of a number of works on the Amish including The Riddle of the Amish. We’ll be back right after this. Don’t go away.


Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Kraybill. We’re talking about the Amish. Of course, the new reality TV series, The Amish in the City, we’re putting it in that context and learning so many new things.

Q. I’m of course noticing even my bumper music sounds very worldly when we’re talking about the Amish. And one of the young women, another one of my favorites ¢€œ my favorite guy was Moze ¢€œ and the young woman that I felt was most trying to represent an Amish tradition, based of course on my ignorance of the Amish, but was Ruth. And one of the things that happened with Ruth is, first of all, she did have this wonderful sense of wonder when she went to the beach. And I looked at my kids, I was reminded of Abraham Heschel’s book about I Asked for Wonder, and about the loss of wonder in a jaded, cynical society. And one of the things that you did see in this character of Ruth was she couldn’t sleep all night because she was going to see the ocean for the first time. And she believed that she was going to see something of God when she saw the ocean. That kind of sense of wonder was just, was just touching. But she also was taken through a store that had artwork, a lot of artwork, and she was fascinated with the art. And she said, “We don’t have art in the Amish community.” Now Don, is that an exaggeration? Or what is the attitude of the Amish towards art?
A. Let me comment on the ocean first. That didn’t have anything to do with the Amish. There are a lot of other people in Indiana and Ohio that have never seen the ocean. The Amish here in Lancaster go down to the ocean frequently. So there’s nothing Amish about her sense of wonderment seeing the ocean. That has to do with more the rural culture of people that don’t see the ocean. On the art, the Amish have a lot of art. They are doing quilts all the time, very, very lovely quilts that have a real sense of folk art. They do an enormous amount of folk crafts that they sell and make. So I would argue there’s a great sense of folk art in the Amish tradition that’s very well accepted. What they don’t typically have are professionally-trained artists that are doing modern art. And to the Amish way of thinking, modern art would be a waste of time because it doesn’t have a utilitarian value. So there is a sense in which they don’t have artistic sensitivities in the modern sense of doing art that you’re going to hang on the wall and look at.

Q. And yet, what’s interesting theologically is that traditionally the Anabaptist communities have had an appreciation of beauty, which is a more, some would argue, a more Biblical view of the role of art in the image of God as creator.
A. Yes.

Q. In other words, they’ve made beautiful things. Their furniture has not just been utilitarian. Now, in the Amish community I understand, though, it’s fairly utilitarian. Like the Shaker community is known for its beautiful kind of design, whereas my sense is in the Amish community it’s more functional.
A. I would say functionality, practicality, utilitarianism, they are very strong themes in the Amish community. Again, you need to remember that these are people that have not gone to high school, they’ve completed eighth grade, most of them in an Amish school. So their focus has been on work, on craftsmanship, and on practical, utilitarian things.

Q. Now, one of the issues that came up, the educational issue did come up last night. Another issue that came up is roles of men and women. And in the house there are complaints that the Amish men aren’t really cleaning up after themselves. One of the Amish girls says, “Well, in the Amish community the women are cleaning up after the men.” You know, the men aren’t used to having to clean up their dishes.
A. Right.

Q. Is that an exaggeration or what?
A. No, I would say that’s probably typically fair. There are variations, of course, in different households. But in general the women would tend to clean up after the men.

Q. And so there’s a¢â‚¬¦ In the Amish community, when it comes to marriage, it’s a hierarchical, the man is the head of the house, the woman is in submission or not?
A. I would say they would accept that Pauline teaching typically. But as one Amish man told me, he said, “The man is a king and the woman is a queen, and we have that kind of a relationship.” And there is a lot of crossover in terms of work. I mean, women will help out in the barn or out in the field. Men will help in the garden or in the house, depending on the time of the season. But in terms of dealing with the outside world, typically the man will step forward. It is true that only men can be ordained into the ministry and typically only men hold prominent roles on committees in the community and so on.

Q. Now, I read that there is zero divorce rate in the Amish community. In other words, you had talked about what they see in culture and they see kind of abuse and violence and divorce and that’s not part of their community. Is that accurate?
A. That’s correct.

Q. Now, when you talk about a zero divorce rate, there are within¢â‚¬¦ Some people have stereotypical notions of highly communitarian and male-dominated cultures as cultures where there’s been kind of physical abuse against children, or even their spouse, and it’s gone unchecked because, after all, he’s the man. Is there any evidence of that kind of thing within the Amish community?
A. There are occasional cases where there’s physical abuse towards spouses or children and sexual abuse. No one has good evidence systematically in terms of the rapes. I do know of some cases, but my general impression is that these are, for the most part, happy, functional, content families.

Q. So when we look at the trend lines in the Amish community ¢€œ and most of us are familiar that there were these charges of drug dealing against some Amish that were supposedly in Rumspringa and so forth ¢€œ and there’s obviously the, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep technology out of their lives.
A. Right.

Q. What are some of the trend lines? What are some of the things that are happening right now that are complications for the Amish?
A. Well, the biggest change is a shift off of the farm into small businesses. In Lancaster County alone there are over 1,600 Amish owned and operated small businesses, and many of those put them in direct contact with the outside world. They increase their appetite for technology. In many communities across the nation they’re working on construction crews and getting away from home. They have more freedom with technology on construction crews. Cell phones, for example, is an issue right now in a lot of the communities. So I really see the occupational change as, frankly, the biggest change in the 20th century that increases their interaction and interface with the outside world.

Q. Now, are they learning that by definition, that kind of interaction diminishes the value and importance of Amish community? In other words, is it inevitable¢â‚¬¦ One of the things that’s fascinating to me about the Amish is I look at the American Protestant tradition and I see fundamentalism as being in reaction and as we said a feisty reaction to culture. But it did have the kind of holiness, a pietistic piece in it. You look at evangelicalism, which was an attempt to say, no, we need to be part of culture, we need to engage culture. And now we have so many studies showing that evangelicals are essentially a mirror reflection of culture, not differentiated from culture. And so a serious minded person of faith who wants to retain the deeply held values of community who has come to understand that, yes, we’re ambassadors to the culture but we’re also aliens and exiles, and aliens and exiles in community, looks at the Amish and says, you know, as much as we have thought this was a radical extreme form of Christian community, it in fact seems to be one that has preserved from generation to generation, deeply held belief and practice, and has in fact been a light on the hill, if you look at the divorce rate and so forth. So then people are asking, is there an intermediary? Is there a way that you can have that sense of community, like the Amish, and yet be part of the broader community without losing what you have as a separatist community? Is that kind of the issue that they’re facing right now?
A. Well, I think that’s the big challenge. Is there wisdom in the Amish tradition that we can learn from? And how do those of us in the more mainstream evangelical tradition, how can we appropriate that? And is there some middle ground here where we can commit ourselves to a vibrant Christian community that is part of the world and yet very much is separate from it?

Q. And if you had to kind of summarize some of the lessons that you yourself have learned and you would say, yeah, these are some things we need to learn from the Amish, and these are some of the issues that we’re going to face as we try to retain those values and be part of the community, what would they be?
A. Well, I would say one is that individualism is very dangerous and I have increasing respect for the wisdom of communal discernment. And I think that’s a key thing that comes out of the Amish tradition. Another one is the importance of family and the importance of tradition. Tradition at some moments may seem like a sterile ceremony, but I think traditions, if they’re meaningful, can be very valuable in communicating the faith and restoring the faith in many ways.

Q. What about technology and television, the entertainment world?
A. Well, I’m actually working on a book right now on how the Amish tamed technology. And it’s very interesting. I think they are the only group that has tamed technology over several generations. They’re unique in that sense. And they’re also unique in that they’re doing it as a community, it’s not just an individual family turning off their TV or getting rid of their TV. So I think there’s an enormous amount of wisdom that we can learn from them in terms of the negative impact that technology has on our family, on our family structure, on our community relationships. So I do think that that is a major gift in a sense that they bring to us in terms of what they’ve learned about that.

Q. Wow. So any heads up on what we should be watching for on Amish in the City as we close our time?
A. I don’t think we should watch it. Turn your television off, Dick.

There you go. Our guest has been Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of a number of books on the Amish. You can check them out online, and one of them is The Riddle of Amish Culture. Thanks, Don. We’ll be right back.

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