Monday, January 3, 2011

Amish, Mennonites, And the "Simple" Life

Can anyone tell me what this is?

A buggy, right? Who drives it?

If you guessed an Amish person, you are wrong.

Guess again.

Right, it's a Mennonite buggy. Old Order Mennonite. You've heard of them right? You may have even seen some, but you thought they were Amish. Because at the end of the day, you really can't tell the difference. Although there are some differences. For starters, this boxy, squarish, black buggy is specific to Old Order Mennonites, and though you will find Amish in buggies, you won't find one driving this one.

So. Why do people gravitate towards the Amish and not Mennonites? I'll admit that I get a lot of interest in the Amish here on my blog. People love to read my remembrances of when I lived with my extended Old Order Amish family, and I get e-mail requests from people looking for Amish pen-pals and looking for an Amish family to go live with. (By the way- you are out of luck on both counts.) But the question that does grab my attention is this: Why do people want to immerse themselves in the Amish and not the Mennonites? Why not the Brethren, or even Hutterites?

Here is my theory. It combines three factors. We are at a time when people feel overwhelmed by the abundant choices and options that they have the freedom to make. There is actually a book that studies this phenomenon (The Paradox of Choice: The Problem of Excessive Choices in Modern Western Affluent Society, by Barry Schwartz) and when people feel overwhelmed they look for something they perceive to be simpler. Notice I said "perceive". A perception is not always a reality.

At the same time, people like instant answers. We are becoming accustomed to having things happen immediately, and on demand. When you have the cultural habit of wanting and getting things right now paired with a feeling of overload, you make hasty choices. You quickly look for a safety raft that looks like it might hold you. The raft has a well-known brand name, and it looks familiar. You don't know all the details about the raft. How long is it? Does it really float? Is there a hole in it? You are just grasping for the raft because it looks like a raft and so it must be the safety you seek. For many people, the raft is the Amish. An easily identifiable brand that has a reputation for conveying simplicity and old fashioned norms to many people.

The third factor that comes into play is a prevailing sense of the loss of community. Community looks different to everyone, but the idea of a support network consisting of people who all share the same values, ideology, and morals as you sounds very appealing. Since we are at a place and time in western society where people have abundant lifestyle choices, a cohesive set of standard values no longer exists. So people seek out something that looks persistent and uniform. Again, the Amish look this way, and so the final criteria is met.

For a while I thought maybe this interest in the Amish had something to do with them being a mystery to most people. But I had to nix that when I saw that the abundant amount of information out there available on the Amish was not quenching the thirst of the public. If it wasn't mere curiosity then it had to be something more. And frankly, if it was just their peculiar aloofness that was the draw, well, there are even more aloof and mysterious plain groups you could be interested in than the Amish. At least the Amish will take in a convert here and there. The Old Order Mennonites? No chance. If you wanted to join them, they would dissuade you from it. And they don't call people "English" or "Yankees" but instead call them "Outsiders." How's that for exclusive? (Kraybill & Hurd 2006)

But I don't think people really want to join a plain group, anyway. Not most people. People searching for a simpler, less complicated life would find a horse and buggy community to be full of finely nuanced cultural rules and traditions with little meaning to the outside seeker. And those who ask why things are done a certain way or why a rule exists might just be met with the tried and true answer that it is so because that is way it has always been so. Also, people value complete autonomy over their choices, as well as a high level of privacy. You will find neither of those things in most Old Order communities. What I think most people are looking for is some way to integrate their notion of the beauty of the Amish culture into their everyday lives. People want to take the good parts and seamlessly apply it to their modern world, like fitting a jigsaw puzzle piece into a crossword puzzle.

If it's beauty and a God fearing way of life that you seek, read your Bible. Discover and develop your convictions and beliefs. Find a church that also believes these things and that will love and support you in times of need. I don't advise finding a church and then trying to fit yourself into their mold unless you share strong convictions with that church. Conforming externally without inner transformation is an empty act of faith. Putting on Amish clothes will not change your heart. If you are interested in visiting a Mennonite church, e-mail me and I can help, or else answer questions. Meanwhile, why not begin to simplify your life on your own? Wear what YOU feel is comfortable and modest. Question new technology before it enters your home. Spend an evening playing a board game with your family, or visiting someone who lives alone. And stop thinking about denominational labels, and start thinking about living a Christian life that presents a faithful witness to the world.

After all, that's the real message anyway.


  1. Wow, Monica, this is VERY well put. You have shared some profound insights -- thank you!

    The idea that people are looking for an immediate "fix" for their hectic lives in the same manner that they buy the latest technologies is an interesting POV. Joining a Plain group is a process, and cannot be made in an instant.

    I love your conclusions!

    I'll be putting a link on my blog to this post.

  2. I believe you've hit the nail on the head again, Monica. People are looking for an escape from all the stresses of their own lives, and the Amish communities seem to show how this can work in this day and age. As usual, we tend to romanticize things we know little of - like the way I dreamed of escaping to the *Little House on the Prairie* life, to offer a safe, wholesome, and "uncomplicated" life in which my young family could grow up. As to why the Mennonite life isn't as fascinating to the non-Amish and non-Mennonite, people want extremes, and only "extremely-different" will suit idealists looking for something other than what they have. The Mennonite life isn't extreme enough, compared to the Amish life.

  3. Saloma- Thank you, your point of view on this is very affirming! My guess is that the few people who feel they need an extreme fix in their life and attempt to join a plain group as a reaction to their current life, well, they probably bail out soon after they figure out they are simply entering into a different but equally complex world!

  4. I have a couple theories about this ~ (you'll wish you could tell me to stop hits a nerve)
    First: BatMom is right, people like extremes which also ties into your "quick fix" theory. I've wanted to do a post on this for so long (not the Amish thing but our society). We live in an age where people want to stand out and be "seen" and be different. They love that. I know in Saloma's post as well as yours, the part about changing your own life FIRST is what needs to be done - simplify, etc. if that's what you're looking for, especially on the inside. People don't want to BE Amish as much as they want to be "seen" as Amish because then they'll be perceived as "gentle, simple, Godly". Religion has become a competition and whoever ACTS and LOOKS the holiest, then God loves them the most. NOT. But it gives them that feeling. I think when people find out just how much the Amish keep to themselves and what hard work it is, the attraction minimizes, which could explain why many leave.
    Second: It IS a much slower-paced life and although many people (me, for one) find it "endearing" (which I'm sure they wouldn't like hearing), I am attracted to it because of its difference. I'm fascinated that they can maintain that lifestyle in this day and age. I have an interest and a curiosity but not a desire to BE Amish.

    Our personal walk with Christ is put under a microscope if we're not standing out in some way. I don't wear a head covering and pants are my daily wear but do I feel that I'm modest and love the Lord with all my heart? Most definitely! If you were the PR person for the Mennonites, the line would be out the door. You're one of the most non-judgmental, supportive people I know. People are very tied to their labels though, including their religious label. They need to be tied to their Lord and their journey first though, like you said.

    GREAT POST! And I'm SO sorry I rambled, but like I said it hit a nerve because it's just so true.

  5. I like your insight into why people wish to be Amish and not Mennonite. The old-order Mennonites are definitely very inclusive, though I think that some of the other groups are more open to new members. I lived with an Eastern Mennonite family while I was in college. They were very open about their faith and were active about evangelizing.

    I think people perceive simplicity in the Amish life which they long to have in their own life. They also see the connections among the community and want the family feeling that is so missing in our society.

  6. Yikes-it appears I'm hitting nails on heads all over the place. Let's see...

    BAT Mom- A hearty AMEN to your observation about people looking for extremes. But I may have to do a follow up post on addressing the notion that Mennonites aren't different enough. Sadly, many people visit, join, and then leave our church because they find us to be too different, even though it's what they liked about us to begin with!

    Beth-Another good observation regarding people who like to be seen as Amish, as an extension of being seen as different. Like you, I share an interest and curiosity regarding the Amish way of life, but merely as an observer/social scientist. But I know too well that the Amish are people like everyone else, and there is no church anyone can join that will solve their problems.

    Jess-I'm very familiar with the Eastern church, and they are very open to sharing their faith and evangelizing. They are not Old Order in that respect, and in fact, some OO Mennonites who want to evangelize leave to join the Eastern church.

  7. This was an interesting post, it made me think about other reasons why the Amish way of life seems so attractive! Thanks for blogging, it is really fascinating. :)

  8. Very well thought out. You go, girl! I like your heart and attitude here. (Was that a small - just a tiny soapbox? Hee hee. You used it well!)

  9. Monica, another great post. This is one of the best analyses I've seen on the draw of the Amish.

  10. Very wise words...with much truth..thanks for sharing..I consider myself very plain...I do live by my own convictions and the leading of the Holy Spirit...I truly do not believe its the doctrine of whatever church you join yourself to but,what rules in your own heart that leads one to live a set apart life style. First and foremost is to believe in the son of God and except him into your heart ...then be led by his Holy Spirit as he convicts us of our sins...God will show us a more perfect way through reading his word and applying it to our own life.I live my life before others as an example...I only pray that how I choose to live will make others want to seek their own Salvation through the precious blood that was shed so willingly for us all by Jesus...God's son... I am in this world but,truly not of it...I am only passing through.. we all are his body...who believe and live what we believe! Righteously,Holy lives set apart for his Kingdom ....Blessings,Shelley

  11. Great post!

    Your question: "Why do people gravitate towards the Amish and not Mennonites?" I feel can also be answered by saying that in 'high traffic areas' like Lancaster Co (we just came back from a theatre trip) you find Amish Homesteads, Amish Cooking, Amish Buggy Rides, Amish Furniture, Amish Markets. Most everything is labeled "Amish" (even if it isn't) and very few, Mennonite. However, the information center is ....ta dah!!... Mennonite! We stopped there so our granddaughter could see first hand the difference between groups and they had a wonderful, historically accurate timeline to follow.

    By the way, Amish in my area of NY have black buggies :-) and had me confused when I began seeing them back in the 80's when they arrived from Indiana and Ohio! The Mennonites in my area are not Old Order, drive cars and many women do not even wear a head covering.

  12. Peggy- Your comments about the Amish being more visible to the public play into my notion that people grasp for an easily identifiable brand of something, without gathering the details. I can guarantee you that in Lancaster, while the word "Amish" may be everywhere, the tourists are rubbing elbows with just as many Mennonites, it's just that they cannot tell the difference between the two. And yes, it's correct that many Amish in other states have black buggies. And some Mennonites drive cars, or only drive black cars, and then there are many people who identify as Mennonite but have no identifiable plain characteristics about their dress. It can be confusing!

  13. I think being drawn to the Amish is just a movement. It is something everybody wants because everybody wants it. Remember the Back to Earth and Homestedding movement in the 1970-80? How many are still in it? Very few because the galmour is gone and it is not the in thing anymore.

  14. What a great post, Monica! I have been interested in the Amish since I visited Lancaster Co as a child, but I wouldn´t like to join them: after reading about their beliefs, I know I wouldn´t fit.
    I have, however, a "challenge", if it may be called so: would you write a post about Mennonite beliefs? I have never been able to differenciate between Amish and Mennonite (I mean, between the beliefs of both communities), so I would love to read more about it.

  15. Katie- That's a good point and it does speak to the snowball effect of the Amish popularity.

    Elena- I may take you up on your challenge. ;-)

  16. Thanks so much Monica for a thought provoking post! You did an EXCELLENT job but your last part was where I was shouting AMEN! I sometimes wish labels and just be a "follower of Christ."


  17. I've been mulling this over ever since it was posted. I have a little bit of a different take on what it is that draws people to the Amish.

    I think it's the innate call to holiness that attracts people. People want to feel like they can 'do' something to get to God. While they may not understand that Jesus is a free gift, they do understand that as people there is a way to live... they just don't know what that is. So, they look for the hardest way to live, with the most apparent success, and land on the Amish faith (which is one of the most visible of the Plain groups).

    I think that some people romanticize the Amish, others are drawn to simplicity, and still others want a sense of community which is completely lost in today's world for the most part. But those things, in my own opinion, is only secondary to the heart issue... men and women will continue to seek God (even though many don't realize that they are) and externally, the Amish appear to have found Him. However, just like in every church, there are some who really HAVE found Him through His Word, and others who are just living a certain way because it is 'good', 'moral', 'kind', 'the way it's done', ect.

    Think of the early church! Acts 4:32-34a Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them...

    People want THAT, but so much of the church (collectively... MANY do) does not give that. To the outsider, it appears that the Amish do... don't be surprised when people are drawn to morals that are found in God's Word. They are supposed to be drawn! But unfortunately, when they get into the nitty gritty... not all Amish churches offer saving faith in Christ, or at least make it VERY hard to find. Those same people who were seeking are then disillusioned, and leave.

    I hope this makes some sense! I feel like I may have rambled a bit.. please forgive that!

  18. Sorry for the double comment... I got the "too big" error message, and then was in the process of reposting before I realized that the original did post. Please delete this and the double, if you can :)

  19. @Laura- I deleted your double post. I know what you mean about the error, it does it to me too!

    While I agree and can identify with the idea that people are drawn to holiness, there are many other visible groups with an unusual appearance that convey holiness that people could rally around. For instance, nuns and monks have offered a holy way of living that is much older than the Amish way, and may be even just as difficult to live out and maintain. But you have definitely put your finger on something KEY and that is how people are looking for a way to live out their faith in a visible way, but have few ideas on how to accomplish that. So they are searching. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  20. Aren't the Hutterites considered a Mennonite sect? What are the 'Brethren'?

  21. Kim- The Hutterites are communal Anabaptists who share similar spiritual roots, but no, they are not Mennonite. They are named after Jacob Hutter, their founder.
    The Brethren is a name shared by several Anabaptist groups.

  22. Also, with there being SO many different kinds of Amish, and differences among the Amish faith itself, how would you know what you're being drawn to? There are functional and dysfunctional Amish, Catholics, Baptists, you name it. I think the search needs to be an inner search first and foremost, but how? That's what people struggle with I think. I do like the point that Laura makes about being drawn to holiness and sometimes people don't know how to start or where to look, so they go or search where it "looks" to be the most holy. They'd probably have a hard time finding nuns who stand out anymore though ~ and they'd love some new ones so if anyone's interested...LOL (but true). Hey, maybe they need to start wearing their habits again - a marketing strategy. :D

    There are sooo many good answers to this post, Monica - AWESOME job!!

  23. I just found your blog and am loving the wonderful pictures and recipes...YUM!!!I live in NW PA but we go to Ohio's Amish country sometimes to shop and I just love the beauty and peacefulness of it! I truly enjoy the simple things in life for sure:)

  24. Seems to me I have seen this picture before.......:)
    Great post!
    I joined the Amish and discovered a lot about them and even more about myself!

  25. Hi Monica I just emailed you.. But here I see you talk about the buggy.. Thanks for the two posts they were great..
    Blessings sisterbrenda

  26. I occasionally drop by at your blog but rare comment.Today however I feel compelled to comment because I grew up in a church that was once very similar to Anabaptist churches and because I am slowly converting to Anabaptism.

    The media started this frenzy for all things Amish when the movie The Witness was released.Before this movie people probably viewed Anabaptists are decent country people stuck in their ways.The movie romantized the Amish life, made them out to be "noble savages" (a concept that people used when wanting to paint native peoples in other countries in a good life.This was a guilt based reaction to the harsh treatment of such people in the past).Obviously there are people out there who are weary of their busy lives & empty hearts, they look at movies like The Witness and think "if only I could become Amish!".

    The Witness was probably incorrect in many of it's movie based "facts" (fiction presented as fact) and it is these "facts" that are still floating about.Because The Witness was about the Amish, it was the Amish people became fascinated with.A lack of religious education means that for many on encountering a woman with a kapp in a buggy, believe the woman to be Amish.And then there are SO many different Anabaptist groups with often subtle differences in their attire for an outsider to distuingish what kind of Anabaptist someone is and what group he/she belongs to.

  27. @L- Didn't the movie "Witness" come out 25 years ago? I don't think it deserves much credit for today's Amish popularity. The Amish certainly weren't popular as they are today through the late 80's or 1990's. That's a significant time lapse. Although most people have seen the movie, I think most people are aware of its shortcomings and that Amish romance novels share much more of the blame for the popularity of all things Amish.

  28. I am not sure what year The Witness was made (I grew up without a TV) but I do know it was made in the 1980's- and it was then that the whole Amish tourism started.I think The Witness was the trigger to the fascination with the Amish.

  29. One of the most popular posts.

  30. I have found your blog through Saloma Furlong's blog. Wow, do I appreciate your post. As we become more disconnected by our technological connections I think we start searching for some way to reconnect. I believe there are many factors which contribute to why people are more drawn to the Amish than to Mennonites, however, I think you have articulated the most important reasons. Nancy


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