John A. Hostetler. Amish Society: Revised Edition. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, 1968, 1971.
bought this book a while back at the Goodwill. It looked to me like an
informative, detailed, and judicious discussion about the Amish. The
author of the book, John A. Hostetler, was himself Amish, but he left
the community to pursue higher education.
Here are some items:
The book talks about how the Amish began. The Amish were a sect that
broke off from the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren in the seventeenth
century. They are named after Jacob Ammann.
disagreements with others in the Swiss Brethren. One area of
disagreement concerned the practice of shunning and excommunication.
Ammann was much stricter about these things than were many other Swiss
Brethren people. Ammann's opponents believed that shunning should only
mean exclusion from taking communion, but Ammann thought that it should
also include limiting interaction with shunned people and not eating
with them. Ammann also wanted to excommunicate a woman who told a lie,
and he supported the excommunication of people attending the state
Another area of disagreement
concerned communion. Ammann's group held communion services twice a
year, whereas the Swiss Brethren only had one annual communion service.
Ammann also introduced footwashing at his communion services.
strongly believed that Christians should be separated from the world.
This was probably why Ammann advocated a stricter practice of shunning
and excommunication: he supported a purified church, truly
uncontaminated by worldly ways. But Ammann also maintained that the
Christian distinction from the world should be evident in Christians'
physical appearance, not just their spirituality or their practices.
Thus, Ammann "contended for uniformity in dress, including hats, shoes,
and stockings," and he "taught that it was wrong to trim the beard"
The Amish migrated to
America in the eighteenth century. According to Hostetler, that enabled
the Amish to survive as a community. In Europe, they were a marginal
and persecuted sect, small, scattered, and continually on the move.
Hostetler doubts that they would have survived as a community had they
remained in Europe. In America, by contrast, there was a lot of land to
go around, so the Amish could settle near one another, develop
communities, and cultivate their culture.
Years ago, I was eating lunch with some Seventh-Day Adventists, and
they were aware that I was a religious studies major. They wondered if I
knew anything about the Amish, particularly the Amish avoidance of
modern technology. I did not know anything about that at the time, but
the question remained in my mind.
The 2011 Family Guy
episode, "Amish Guy," manifests curiosity about that as well. In one
scene, an Amish leader is leading Amish men in prayer. He acknowledges
that God decided that the right amount of technology for humans existed
between 1835-1850: "not too little, not too much."
book shed light on the Amish stance towards modern technology? It did
give some indications. There is the factor, of course, of the Amish
desire to be separate from the corrupt world. As Hostetler states on
page 48, "To the Amish there is a divine spiritual reality, the Kingdom
of God, and a Satanic kingdom that dominates the present world." But
there is also a belief that humans should be closer to nature, as well
as an exaltation of hard work. This coincides with an agricultural
society, with not too much technology. For the Amish, nature is good
because God made it. Hostetler states: "For the Amish, God is manifest
more in closeness to nature, in the soil and in the weather, and among
plants and animals, than he is in the man-made city" (page 66).
acknowledges, though, that there is nuance to this. There are Amish
people who use tractors, for example. There are even Amish people who
use automobiles. The latter are often called the "Beachy" Amish.
I have been reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction: Beverly Lewis,
Amy Clipston, and the list goes on. How do these books line up, or
fail to line up, with what Hostetler says? I would like to address this
question as it relates to three issues: religion, intellectual
pursuits, and social etiquette.
Let's start with religion. In
reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction, I have often wondered if
these books' focus on God's grace and unconditional love reflects the
actual religion of the Amish, or is rather the authors projecting their
own evangelical Christian beliefs onto the Amish. According to
Hostetler, the Amish lean towards the "works" side of religion: doing
good works and obeying God. They recoil from any notion that people can
truly "know" that they are saved in the here and now.
is the overall picture, but Hostetler acknowledges some nuance. Some
Amish have been influenced by evangelical Christianity and Mennonites
and have developed a focus on God's grace and a belief that people can
be assured of their salvation. Some form Bible study groups that
believe this, and, according to Hostetler, the broader Amish community
does not care for these groups.
intellectual pursuits, Hostetler states that the Amish are not too keen
about this, or about abstract thought. They prefer to focus on the
practical. This coincides with their belief that Amish people should
leave school at a certain age to focus on the farm. In some of the
evangelical Christian Amish fiction that I have read, however, there are
Amish characters who read books and discuss ideas. They are curious
about the world and like to read about it. One character in a Beverly
Lewis novel left thoughtful reflections in her copy of Little Women, reacting to the book. Another character liked to buy books about biblical history. In Leslie Gould's Amish Sweethearts, there are thoughtful discussions about such issues as pacifism.
there a contradiction between what Hostetler says and what these
evangelical Christian Amish fiction books depict? I would say "not
necessarily." The Amish in the evangelical Amish fiction books still
focus on the practical: agriculture, their work, etc. The books that
they read are not overly abstract. And even Hostetler occasionally
refers to Amish people talking about items of interest that they read
Then there is the issue of social
etiquette. Hostetler depicts the Amish as rather stoic and reserved,
socially. In his depiction, they do not consistently follow certain
rules of social etiquette that many outsiders take for granted (saying
"excuse me" after belching, saying "thank you"). In evangelical
Christian Amish fiction, by contrast, the Amish do not look too
different from others: they are polite, they express affection, they
pursue romance. At the same time, Hostetler does say things that
balance out his depiction: the Amish are good conversationalists,
children ask questions at mealtime, and husband and wife talk about how
to manage life.
I would not be surprised if
Amish society today is more liberal than what Hostetler depicts,
especially since Hostetler himself talks about the liberalization that
was occurring in his own day. The Amish in evangelical Amish fiction do
not seem to me to be as patriarchal as Hostetler's depiction of the
Amish, and some of the Amish in that fiction still interact with family
members who leave the faith. On the other hand, there are still
prominent elements of Amish society that are conservative. The 2012 PBS
documentary on the Amish depicted the suffering of those excommunicated
from the Amish community.
did mention some customs that I have yet to encounter in evangelical
Christian Amish fiction (and there is much of such fiction that I have
yet to read). For example, Amish couples who court each other have a
practice of laying down on the same bed. They do not have sex outside
of marriage----that would be severely frowned upon. Nor do they sleep
in the same bed at night. But, at times, they lay down in the same bed.
D. In I Corinthians 5:11, Paul tells Christians: "But
now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is
called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a
railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to
This passage comes up in discussions about church
discipline: if a Christian is unrepentant and is being disciplined by
his or her local church, to what extent are Christians allowed to
associate or interact with him or her?
light of this, Hostetler's description of how shunning plays out
practically within the Amish family was interesting. The Amish family
does not avoid interaction altogether, but the interaction is limited.
The shunned person eats with the children rather than the adults. The
Amish are forbidden to receive help from the shunned person, so (for
example) the shunned person cannot drive his family to church in the
buggy. He is allowed to ride along in the buggy, though. In some
cases, if a person is considered too disruptive, he is asked to leave
E. Hostetler's book discussed other
issues. There are the controversies about whether the Amish should be
exempt from public schools after a certain age, and the political issues
surrounding that (some of them intersected with other issues, such as
political factions). According to Hostetler, the Amish have served on
local public school boards (though earlier, on page 49, Hostetler says
that they "refrain from holding public offices") and have started their
own schools. Hostetler also details what an Amish church service looks
like, almost in a play-by-play manner. And there is discussion about
Amish who are discontent about Amish society, as well as Amish stances
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