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Amish Immersion, Part III: A community of traditions and beliefs

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.

By Greg Nicholl, acquisitions editor

A few colleagues and I joined the authors of The Amish for a three day trip to Lancaster County, which the group affectionately dubbed our “Amish Immersion.” In the days prior, I wondered what I would need to do to prepare for the excursion. I have been working on Anabaptist books for some time now, but this was new territory. This was physically placing the reader face-to-face with the subject of our books without the distance afforded by the printed page. I was worried that I would speak or act in a way that would offend our Amish hosts. I also certainly didn’t want to be seen as just another tourist who had come to ogle. But in a sense, wasn’t that what we were doing? The phrase “Don’t tap on the glass” ran through my head again and again.

As the editor of Amish books, it is important for me to see and experience Amish culture firsthand in order to better understand the books that we publish. This insight also allows me to be a better editor for our authors. But this trip offered me even more: it provided me with knowledge of a community not often experienced on such a personal level. The three days I spent in Lancaster County—during which I visited Amish stores, such as a quilt shop and a flower shop; thriving businesses, including a stove factory and wood shop; and the dining tables of everyday families who opened up their homes to us—will forever rank among the top five experiences of my life.

The excursion was coordinated by Donald B. Kraybill, Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. I continue to be in awe of the respect this man has garnered within both the scholarly community and the Amish community. This trip was no different. Every person we met in every house and business invited us in, offered us coffee, and opened up their personal lives to us. One Amish gentleman even mentioned that he turns to Don’s books to learn why he and his family do the things that they do. (He may not know the reason behind a particular tradition, but Don and all the authors in the series certainly do.) This is how knowledgeable our authors are about the Amish.

Coauthors Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on the immersion trip here) and Steven M. Nolt were invaluable in providing information as well. When we asked our three experts questions, we always received a well-rounded answer. Karen informed us about the ways of the more conservative Swartzentruber Amish, who live in upstate New York. While the Lancaster Amish may use battery-powered lamps above their dining room tables, for instance, the Swartzentruber communities rely solely on kerosene lamps or candles. Steve, who grew up next to these Lancaster farms, was also able to give us insight into the local traditions as opposed to the traditions of Amish communities in Indiana, where he is a professor at Goshen College.

While the things I experienced in those three days could fill multiple blog entries, I will distill it down to this: Yes, we ate lots of pie. Yes, we rode in a buggy. And, yes, we were tourists looking in on a community most of us had only ever heard about. But ask any one of us what happened on October 2, 2006, at the West Nickel Mines School, or tell us to locate the town of Nickel Mines on a map, and we will tell you about the five pear trees planted alongside the road and what they stand for, and about how a community turned to forgiveness in the wake of the shooting. We can also tell you that there is much more to the Amish than what is portrayed on television: they are a community that embraces family and friends and holds tight to their traditions and beliefs as they continue to move forward.

KraybillRumspringaShortKraybillTechnologyShortInterested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each. And read Kathy Alexander’s take on the trip here.

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Amish Immersion, Part II: What should we wear?

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.

By Kathy Alexander, head publicist

As I prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I peppered our authors, all leading experts in the field, with questions. What should we wear? When we have dinner in Amish homes, will we sit at the same table? Any major no-no’s we should avoid? I certainly didn’t want to unknowingly offend our hosts! Their instructions were: wear dark colors; avoid makeup or flashy jewelry. Beyond that, we should be ourselves—but don’t use the word “publicity.” (Note to self: Leave my business cards at home.)

Finally, the day arrived. I couldn’t believe how excited I was. I’d visited Lancaster County numerous times in my life, but it had always been as a tourist or as a shopper (there are great outlets in the area). Our authors had arranged for us to tour a couple of farms, a wood shop, a  stove factory, a quilt shop, a bookstore, a school, and an Amish restaurant; we’d also have dinner with a couple of Amish families. They’d even obtained permission for me to go for a buggy ride and to help with the chores: feeding and brushing the horses, sweeping out the barn. Normally, this is not what I would consider fun, but, in this instance, it was all part of the immersion experience.

I went to Lancaster looking for the differences between the Amish and the non-Amish world, and there were many: the presence of gas lamps, horses and buggies, and homemade clothes in muted colors that all looked alike; the absence of family pictures, street lights, TVs, and radios. What I didn’t expect was the openness! Our hosts welcomed us into their homes and workplaces as friends. When we entered a house, they brought out a stack of folding chairs and put them in a circle so that we could talk. They explained how they converted 120v electricity from 12v batteries, how they purchased material for quilts, how far they shipped their products, how they taught their children, and on and on. Nothing seemed to be off limits.

They had only one question for us: “Have you seen the show about the Amish mafia?” They were very concerned with the way the media was portraying the Amish, and had no way to counter the perception. Our authors, Donald B. Kraybill, Steve M. Nolt, and Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on our immersion trip here), have studied the Amish for over twenty-five years. They have assured me that the Amish mafia is a fabrication of the media.

Now, as I look back on the experience, my lasting impression is not of the differences that I found but of the similarities. The Amish belong to a close-knit community. They love their family and friends, and cherish their children. They are also very happy to help others. In shop after shop, I saw mimeographed flyers asking for volunteers to help rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy (the Amish had hired buses to take them to New Jersey and New York). They also have an annual fundraising event to help the people of Haiti (and no, they have no mission in Haiti to recruit new members). They do these things because someone needs help, and they are happy to provide it.

What an absolutely eye-opening experience. I can’t wait for our new book to come out. There is so much more I want to learn about this loving people.

KraybillRumspringaShortKraybillTechnologyShortInterested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each.

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Amish Immersion, Part I: An author confronts the diversity that is the Amish world

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner and Steven M. Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicks off this three-part blog series.

Guest post by Karen Johnson-Weiner

In preparing for the “Amish immersion” in Lancaster County, I wondered a lot about what my JHU Press colleagues would think. I had stayed in different Amish homes in the course of doing fieldwork, and only one of these experiences seemed like something one could do with folks who’d never experienced Amish life. I’d spent time with Amish friends in Southwestern Michigan, and their home had indoor plumbing. It was the most upscale Amish home I was ever in. Most of my Amish stays have been far more primitive. There was the home in Ohio, for example, where the outhouse was about 20 yards away and could be reached only by using the little plank bridge to cross a little stream. Not user friendly at 3 a.m.! And there was a stay in Missouri with folks so plain they used no machines. In the Mohawk Valley, New York, I took my bath in a galvanized steel tub in the wash house—not something one could do every day. In fact, in the past when traveling for fieldwork, I routinely brought a scarf to cover my hair and planned a hotel visit at the end of my stay so that I could stand under a shower for a long time. (I thought that would be only fair to anyone I sat next to on a plane!) Somehow, I didn’t think the Lancaster County visit would be like this.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from our immersion. I’d spent a lot of time doing work in Lancaster County, but mostly with Mennonites in the Groffdale Conference—the so-called Wenger Mennonites. Like the Old Order Amish, Wenger Mennonites use horses and buggies (all black, in contrast to the Lancaster Amish gray), but their homes have electricity and telephones. The Lancaster Amish were new to me—and much different from those with whom I work.

Harvested iceblocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

Harvested ice blocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

From the beginning, there were surprises. I found it hard at first to recognize Amish homes. The presence of multiple homes on the same site—dawdy houses indicating multiple generations—was a giveaway, but there were fewer obvious indications of Amish ownership than I am used to. I have done much of my work in ultra-conservative Swartzentruber communities, where all homes are built to the same pattern. In fact, when someone buys an “English” or non-Amish home, they quickly begin making renovations so that it will look like a Swartzentruber home: white, two-floors, a front porch that runs the width of the house. The Lancaster homes were all different! And landscaped! And many had solar panels. Businesses, too, were different—larger, powered by large generators, some with a sizable work force, all with telephones, some with computers. These are a sharp contrast to the small family businesses of the most conservative communities, in which the size of a generator—if one were even permitted—would be strictly controlled. I remember that once, in a conservative Swiss community, a young furniture maker installed a larger generator. (In contrast to Lancaster builders, who use pneumatically-driven machines, his powered belts that ran machines.) This brought a visit from the ministers, who basically told him that his generator was too big and violated the Ordnung, or discipline, of the church. The young man ended up leaving his community. Yet his big generator would have been swamped by some we saw.

In the guest house there were propane lights, which were new to me. These aren’t permitted in many more conservative communities, and I appreciate their brightness. From minute one of our immersion, I was confronting the diversity that is the Amish world!

kraybillKaren M. Johnson-Weiner is a professor of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam, coauthor of the forthcoming The Amish, and author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, published by the JHU Press, and New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State. 

Interested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each. 

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