A History of the Amish: Third Edition, Steven M. Nolt. New York: Good Books, 2016
Summary: A history of the Amish from their European Anabaptist beginnings to the present, tracing the different groups and their continued growth in the United States and Canada.
Ever since a childhood visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I’ve had a secret fascination with the Amish. Living in Ohio, one of our favorite getaways has been to Holmes County, home to the largest Amish population in Ohio. One quickly adjusts to sharing the road with horse-drawn vehicles and children walking to and from school. We’ve visited stores selling appliances that do not require electricity, and enjoyed the craftsmanship of Amish-built furniture, including two custom-built pieces in our home. For nearly half of my life, I have been a member of a Brethren Church, part of the same Anabaptist stream as the Amish, albeit far more liberal in its embrace of modern culture.
Steven M. Nolt’s book traces the history of this group from its origins within the Anabaptist reform movement of Germany and Switzerland and the split between Hans Reist and Jakob Amman. We learn about the first groups that came to the United States and settled between Philadelphia and Lancaster, drawn to the religious openness of the Quaker State. Nolt tells a story of persecution in Europe and a gradual dwindling of the faithful, coupled with waves of migration to North America, with settlements spreading to Ohio, Indiana and other Midwest states as well as Ontario, Canada.
Like so many things, growth leads to division, particularly over the issue of shunning, with first the Amish-Mennonites and then the Beachy Amish, and some smaller groups breaking off from what became known as the Old Order, who continued to take the most conservative approach to technology, generally worshiped in homes, and shunning.
The confrontation with America’s cultural life perhaps was most dramatically underscored by the challenges the Amish, as a peace church, faced when America went to war in 1917 and 1941, and gradually winning acceptance of its conscientious objectors from the government. Then there was the matter of education. Would they be permitted to educate their own children, and let them go to work after eighth grade? Could they opt out of the social welfare net that developed in the U.S. from the Depression onward, continuing to care for their own?
Nolt’s account includes a liberal amount of images, maps, and sidebar features. Some of the sidebars seemed to duplicate material in the text rather than supplement it, but many were features on key figures, ways of life, or historical moments.
A few more recent develops were among the most surprising to me. One was the Amish-Mennonite mission and evangelism movements. I had thought these communities more insular (and some are). The other were the measures they used and the success they enjoyed to retain a high percentage of their youth, 85 to 90 percent in many groups. Most churches in America suffer far greater losses. It was also surprising to me to learn that the percent of Amish engaged in farming has declined, though not as steeply as the rest of the country, even as they enter an increasingly diverse set of occupations and businesses, including an uneasy but explosively growing involvement in tourism.
What perhaps was most striking to me is that Nolt’s account was not one of a dying way, but a thriving one, economically, culturally, spiritually, and numerically. For example, I learned that the number of Old Amish church districts in the U.S. grew from 444 in 1974 to 2,119 in 2014. As of 2014, there were Old Order Amish settlements in 29 states and in Ontario with Ohio narrowly beating out Pennsylvania for the most Amish with Indiana a distant third. And this is just the Old Order groups.
Nolt offers an even-handed account of this people–their sharp divisions, their stricter groups, as well as portraying a life of enough, of salvation worked out over the course of a life in all of one’s work, of community solidarity, and a remarkable witness of refraining from violence and granting forgiveness. And for all the portrayal of a group locked in tradition, we see a movement continuing to evolve as it wrestles with faithfulness to principle and past, and to the changing world around them.
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