I was asked once to talk about the Amish to members of a local church, and, as I debated how to help them make sense of what Don Kraybill has called “the Riddle of Amish Culture”[i], the answer hit me. The Amish don’t study their religion, read learned texts, or debate biblical scholarship. Theirs is a lived faith, expressed in the actions of dressing, cooking, lighting lamps and pumping water. The Amish acquire from their church-community a sense of who they are, where they come from and where they should be going. Within their church-communities, they learn the value of work and have the joy of working first with parents and grandparents and then with children and grandchildren. In times of need, they are supported by the entire community. If they are sick or their barn burns, the community will come together to donate labor, money, and spiritual and social support. Every event is an opportunity to visit and reaffirm the bonds of the Gmay, or church-community.
Why do the Amish eschew cars, telephones, central heating, and indoor plumbing? Because theirs is a life defined by faith. They are in church. And each Amish congregation is different. There are over 2,000 different Amish church districts or congregations, each with its own Ordnung or church discipline, and so there are over 2,000 different ways of being Amish—of being in church.
This diversity has fascinated me, for, in the 30 years that I have been exploring Amish life, I have seen districts divide, schisms rend families and communities, and subtle changes in the lives of people the mainstream world generally believe to be “stuck in time.” Much of my time in the Amish world has been spent in Swartzentruber Amish communities, and even here, among folks generally acknowledged as “ultra-conservative,” there has been change.
The so-called “Swartzentruber” Amish originated in a schism in the large Old Order Amish community in the Holmes County area of Ohio between 1913 and 1917 over differences in the application of Bann and Meidung (excommunication and shunning). While some, including a conservative-minded bishop named Sam Yoder, felt that any who left the church in which they had been baptized should be excommunicated and shunned, others thought that this would be unnecessary if they went to another plain church. Despite attempts by visiting bishops to find a compromise, Bishop Sam Yoder and his followers ceased to fellowship with the majority, and by 1919 the differences between the Yoder group and the other Old Order Amish churches was likely “quite pronounced.”[ii] At the time of the schism, the Yoder faction had 107 families in two church districts.
Since then, the Sam Yoder group has divided several times. In1931, for example, Bishops Jacob J. Stutzman and Eli A. Troyer disagreed with Bishop Sam Yoder, again over discipline within the church. Their breakaway faction eventually became known as “Troyer Amish.”
Sam Yoder died not long after this schism. Following his death, each of the two Sam Yoder church districts was led by a Bishop surnamed “Swartzentruber,” and so the Sam Yoder group soon became known as “Swartzentruber Amish.” Over time, perhaps attracted by the conservatism of the Swartzentruber churches, various families from other regions moved to Ohio to join them and establish new church districts. Currently, there are Swartzentruber settlements in fourteen states and one Canadian province.
There have been additional schisms in the Swartzentruber church since that 1931 division. Today under the broad Swartzentruber umbrella, we can include the Jeck Jecky Leit, the Perry Glick group, and the Joe Troyer, Mose Miller, Isaac Keim, and Andy Weaver factions.
Outsiders have difficulty distinguishing members of the different Swartzentruber church-communities, but the differences are not small to the Swartzentruber Amish themselves. While the issue that motivates the schism might appear unimportant to outsiders, the resolution of the dispute in fact requires the members of the church to define their community: who will be a member in good standing, how will members deal with those who challenge church rules, and how will the boundaries between the church-community and the outside (including other Amish groups) be maintained. In short, it is about nothing less than the survival of the church-community and how it will be Amish.
Today the Swartzentrubers remain among the most conservative of all Amish churches. They will ride in automobiles only in an emergency or when there is no bus service available and the distance is too impractical for horse and buggy. While they use telephones in an emergency, they prefer to ask a neighbor to make the call when one needs to be made. Their homes are built to a single pattern, with minimal differences in the arrangement of interior rooms. There is no upholstered furniture, nor is there carpeting or linoleum. Hardwood floors are oiled but never varnished. Unlike many of Old Order Amish, they do not use pressurized gas lanterns, nor do they have indoor plumbing. They are farmers, although they may have small home-based businesses, such as furniture shops, harness shops, or saw mills.
These small businesses remain subordinate to the Swartzentruber way of life. If the demands of the business are such that they impinge on one’s duties in the home or to the church, business activities must be curtailed.
Conservative and carefully guarding the boundaries of their church-communities, the Swartzentrubers are not always well understood, even by others in the Amish world. As one Swartzentruber bishop told me, his people are as different from the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as they are from the English.
[i] Kraybill, D. B. 2001. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
[ii] Weaver (2007: 9) writes that Sam Yoder “discouraged his ministers from communing with the main group.”
Karen M. Johnson-Weiner is Professor of Anthropology SUNY Potsdam, where she teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. She holds the Ph.D. in linguistics from McGill University. For over nearly 30 years she has been engaged in the study of Old Order culture, and her work has been supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and grants from the NEH, the Spencer Foundation, and the SUNY Potsdam Research and Creative Endeavors Program. Johnson-Weiner is the author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), which offers an in-depth exploration of schools in diverse Amish communities. She is also the author of New York Amish. Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State (Cornell University Press, 2010), which explores Amish settlement in New York, a state, which, in recent years, has seen its Amish population skyrocket. Most recently, Johnson-Weiner collaborated with Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt in research focused on “Amish Diversity and Identity: Transformations in 20th Century America,” which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The resulting work The Amish (Johns Hopkins 2013) is a comprehensive look at the growing diversity in the Amish world and evolving Amish identities.
Johnson-Weiner’s current research focuses on the Swartzentruber Amish, among the most conservative of all Amish groups.