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The Amish: A Concise Introduction.

Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 141 pp. ISBN 9781421419565 ($16.95 paper and ebook).

Everyone thinks they know something about the Amish, through movies like Witness, reality TV shows, vacation trips to "Amish Country," or what the author calls the "bonnet ripper" brand of popular novels. This book does a great service to dispel many of the myths surrounding this group that has seemingly forsaken modern American life to live in community.

It turns out, they have not turned their backs on it at all; they have just taken American culture on their own terms. This book traces the historic background of the Amish in Europe, their emigration to North America in the eighteenth century, and their conscious decision to limit their use of new technology in the mid-nineteenth century.

The author, a professor of history and resident scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, is author or coauthor of several books on the Amish. He writes with clarity for the lay reader as well as the scholar.

He excels in bringing the reader up to date on Amish culture, from their movement off the farm into factory work, where the members can use power equipment if it belongs to someone else, to the rise of home businesses like quilt shops or organic vegetable farms.

He discusses the concepts of Gelassenheit ("obedience," both inward and outward), with members yielding to the will of the group, without individualism, and Ordnung ("order," or rules for living). Both of these concepts inform the lives of every Amish church member and direct how they live in congregations as well as how they interact with "English" outsiders. Tradition is viewed as "a trustworthy guide for navigating an uncertain future" (14). The author explains how each congregation, led by lay bishops, reinforces these collective beliefs.

The future of the Amish church is robust: families have an average of seven children each and 85 percent of young people choose to join the church. A chapter is devoted to "Rumspringa" or "running around," the period in late adolescence where the Amish young people "try out" modern life, with the conclusion that though it makes great TV, the reality is much tamer.

The Amish's relationship with the outside world is covered in a chapter called "Amish Images." Nolt gives historic background of the romanticization of Amish life, from the musical "Plain and Fancy" in the 1950s to the opening of Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Amish Farm in the 1970s to the acceptance of Amish quilts as serious art in the 1980s. Many "Amish" attractions are run by the English, but Amish often work there or profit by running smaller, related, businesses nearby in their homes. He also points out that, rather than just exhibiting life as it was, the Amish can set an example for the future, noting their emphasis on organic farming and their use of renewable resources.

In conclusion, he points out that the Amish are perhaps misunderstood by today's mainstream society, but they have "benefitted from America's generously positive view of 'colorful' white minorities" (116), even though many outsiders cannot understand why they wish to "give up" modern conveniences. Nolt makes the point that the Amish "exchange choice for collective purpose" and "see security as a healthy bargain" (118).

In an appendix, Nolt discusses the Amish's differences from and relationships to other groups often confused with them, including the Mennonites, Hutterites, Beachy Amish, and some other communal groups like the Shakers and the Amana Society.

The book is lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photographs of contemporary Amish life and includes an extensive bibliography and index. It is indeed a "concise introduction," informative and thoughtful.


Director, Communal Studies Association
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Author:Nolt, Steven M.; Fernandez, Kathleen M.
Publication:Communal Societies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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