The Amish

cover of the amishDonald B. Kraybill, distinguished college professor and senior fellow (now emeritus) at the Young Center, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, distinguished service professor of anthropology (now emerita) at SUNY-Potsdam, and Steven M. Nolt, professor of history at Goshen College (now senior scholar at the Young Center), have spent decades researching Amish history, religion, and culture. In Spring 2013, they released The Amish, the first comprehensive study of Amish life in North America since 1963.

The Amish explores not only the emerging diversity and evolving identities within this distinctive American ethnic community, but also its transformation and geographic expansion. Drawing on archival material, participant observation, and hundreds of interviews, Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt provide a definitive portrait of the Amish today.

Learn More:
Table of Contents
Publishers Weekly Review
Purchase the Book: Johns Hopkins University Press


Known for their simple clothing, plain lifestyle, and horse-and-buggy mode of transportation, the Amish are often misunderstood and appear to be incompatible with the modern world. Their intense faith and 300-year-old traditions have by turn captivated and repelled, awed and irritated, inspired and confused America for more than a century, spawning numerous myths and misconceptions about their beliefs and way of life.

The Amish presents an authoritative, in-depth exploration of Amish life in America. The book discusses many aspects of Amish life and facts about the Amish, including these:

  • The Amish do not evangelize, yet their numbers in North America have grown from some 6,000 people in the early 1900s to more than 300,000 in 2018.

  • With some 460 settlements in thirty states and Ontario, Canada, the largest Amish populations are found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

  • Fifty years ago, most Amish relied on farming for a living. Now, about two-thirds support themselves by working in more than 12,000 Amish-owned small businesses or non-Amish shops and factories.

How and why have the Amish, an insistently separatist and communal culture, flourished within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth?  Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt argue that the Amish have devised creative ways to negotiate with modernity that have enabled them to thrive in America. And throughout the text, authentic Amish voices tell their own story and offering their perspectives. 

The Amish not only explores the emerging diversity and evolving identities within this distinctive American ethnic community, but also its transformation, population increase and geographic expansion.

The transformation of the Amish in the American imagination from “backward bumpkins” to media icons poses provocative questions. What does the Amish story reveal about the American character, popular culture, and mainstream values? What does the future hold for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past?

Q&A with the Authors (in 2013)

Q: Why did you write this book?
A: Mainstream Americans are fascinated by the Amish—and so are we. But despite the rise of Amish-themed tourism, television shows, and romance novels, there is surprisingly little authoritative information available about them. Although there are books about the Amish in specific locations and books about particular Amish practices, there was no book that provided a comprehensive picture of the enormous diversity of Amish life. There are more than forty types of Amish in 460 communities across North America. We’ve spent more than a quarter century getting to know these people, and we wanted to share the remarkable diversity and resilience we’ve found.

Q: What do you think would most surprise the average American about Amish life/culture?
A: Their friendliness and humor when you learn to know them. How satisfied they are even without the latest household conveniences and online technology. Also, people would be surprised by the creativity and inventiveness of the Amish when it comes to technology. They’re not dour folks left over from the 19th century.

Q: Is the Amish population shrinking?
A: No, the Amish are growing rapidly. Their population doubles about every 20 years, and today they number more than 280,000. So they are thriving even in the midst of a hypermodern, high-tech society.

Q: How do the Amish recruit new followers?
A: Most of their growth comes from their own children. On average, 85-95% of their children join the church as young adults. Outsiders who have no family connections to the group are able to join if they accept Amish beliefs and agree to live within the bounds of the Amish lifestyle. Although several dozen outsiders are currently members, it is rare for outsiders to join.

Q: Are the Amish able to survive and prosper by farming alone?
A: In the past almost all Amish were farmers, but many Amish communities have experienced a dramatic occupational transformation in the past thirty years. Amish families still live in rural areas, but on average only about 30 percent of Amish households depend on farming for their primary income. Most are involved in various forms of small business, from manufacturing to construction, many of which they own and operate.

Q: Are Amish businesses successful?
A: There are some 12,000 Amish businesses across North America. For the most part they are successful and profitable, despite limitations on technology. They benefit from the hard work of family labor, low overhead, a distinctive brand identity, and niche markets.

Q: What is the Amish school system like and why don’t their children attend public schools?
A: Until the mid-20th century, Amish children attended rural public schools. Parents feared that exposure to modern science, educational technology, and secular values in the public school would entice their youth to leave the Amish community. Although in a few communities Amish children still attend public school, most parents have developed their own one- or two-room private schools. Today more than 2,000 such schools, with Amish teachers, educate Amish children through the eighth grade. Amish schools focus on reading and writing (in English) and basic arithmetic. Amish children do not attend high school or college.

Q: Are the Amish Luddites or technophobes?
A: Categorically no. Although all Amish groups regulate certain types of technology (no television, no Internet access in schools or home, no ownership of motor vehicles), they selectively use technology, including some that is state-of-the-art. They are careful to avoid technology that threatens the welfare of their community or that promotes individual autonomy at the expense of the group. The regulations on technology vary widely among the various Amish groups. Many Amish business owners adapt mainstream technology to make it fit within the rules of their church, finding other power sources if their church forbids tapping into public utility electricity, for example.

Q: Do the Amish accept modern medicine?
A: Amish acceptance of modern medicine varies widely. Some of them have a family physician, seek standard medical treatment for illness, and participate as subjects in scientific studies of various diseases. Others rely primarily on traditional and homeopathic remedies and only seek medical care for serious emergencies.

Q: Are Amish women treated like second-class citizens within their own community?
A: No. The Amish have a soft patriarchy in the sense that men typically represent the household to the outside world. However, in the family context women have considerable authority and freedom regarding family and household matters, and their work and their opinions matter. Although women may not serve as clergy, they are schoolteachers and owners of small businesses. They are able to vote on church matters.

Q: Are the Amish pacifists? Do they hunt?
A: Yes, the Amish are conscientious objectors to war and reject the use of force (including initiating lawsuits) based on their interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. Many of them own guns and archery equipment to hunt for wildlife. They consider killing humans a sin but will kill animals for food.

Q: As U.S. citizens, do the Amish vote and pay taxes?
A: Amish people pay all taxes (income, real estate, sales) except Social Security, which they consider a form of health insurance. They believe that members of the church have a duty to care for the physical and material needs of other members and thus they reject commercial and public insurance.  Amish people are permitted to vote; however, the rate of voting varies from group to group and is generally low. They are forbidden by their church from holding public office.

Q: Do the Amish use non-Amish institutions like banks, restaurants, and grocery stories?
A: Yes. They have accounts in commercial banks, and purchase goods in local grocery stores as well as big box stores such as Walmart. Some of them eat occasionally at local restaurants, but most of them do not “eat out” on a regular basis. Amish entrepreneurs also operate many small retail stores that cater to their own people.

Q: What exactly is Rumspringa?
A: Rumspringa is the time when Amish youth can “run around” and socialize with their peers away from the watchful eyes of parents. This typically occurs between the age of 16 and when they marry, which is usually around 20 to 22 years of age. Rumspringa is a time to find a spouse and to decide if they want to join the Amish church and make a lifetime commitment to it. During this time youth live at home, but on weekends hang out with their friends. Most of them are not yet baptized church members, so they are not yet accountable to the rules of the church. In some communities rowdy groups engage in “worldly activities” which may include driving cars, using alcohol, and participating in the nightlife of public entertainment. In other communities these activities rarely happen during Rumspringa.

Q: Why do you think the Amish have become the darlings of reality TV?
A: For starters, the Amish are interesting because they appear so different from the rest of us. Outsiders have trouble imagining that anyone would be satisfied living without a car, a smartphone, or a high school education. So Amish-themed reality TV sets up lives that are radically different and “Amish” characters who then rebel against Amish ways of life, smashing our stereotypes of quiet, reclusive, rural pacifists.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Amish?
A: The fact that Amish society has enormous diversity and complexity and is not simple or simplistic. The Amish are a robust and ingenious American group that has creatively developed ways to negotiate with the outside world to both maintain their traditions and tap many benefits of modern life.

Table of Contents

I. Roots
            Chapter 1. Who Are the Amish?
            Chapter 2. European Origins
            Chapter 3. The Story in America
II. Cultural Context
            Chapter 4. Religious Roots
            Chapter 5. Sacred Rituals
            Chapter 6. The Amish Way
            Chapter 7. Symbols and Identity
III. Social Organization
            Chapter 8. Diverse Affiliations
            Chapter 9. Population Patterns
            Chapter 10. Community Organization
            Chapter 11. Gender and Family
            Chapter 12. From Rumspringa to Marriage
            Chapter 13. Social Ties and Community Rhythms
            Chapter 14. Education
IV. External Ties
            Chapter 15. Agriculture
            Chapter 16. Business
            Chapter 17. Technology
            Chapter 18. Health and Healing
            Chapter 19. Government and Civic Relations
            Chapter 20. The Amish in Print
            Chapter 21. Tourism and Media
V. The Future
            Chapter 22. Pursuits of Happiness
            A. Related Groups: Mennonites, Brethren, Hutterites
            B. Key Events in Amish History

Publishers Weekly Review

"In this companion piece to the PBS American Experience documentary of the same name, Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt (professors at Elizabethtown College, S.U.N.Y.-Potsdam, and Goshen College, respectively) present a comprehensive collection of history and modern research on the Amish, whose religion continues to draw converts and grow in number despite its strict doctrine of simplicity and humility. The authors successfully address the seeming exoticism of the Amish without sensationalism. Following a solid grounding in Amish history from its origins in Europe in the 1500s to middle America in the 1950s, the authors frame their expansive work around the “Amish struggle with modernity,” devoting attention to Amish religious beliefs and the way those beliefs are put into practice through ritual and tradition. The authors take care to describe the wide range of Amish practices, from those of more traditional communities living as they might have 200 years ago to others that allow their teenagers to have cell phones and drive cars. Particular attention is paid to debunking myths surrounding the teenage rite of Rumspringa, a time of contemplation before full commitment to the church through baptism. The scholarship is enlivened with quotes and personal anecdotes, and the final section on the future of the Amish raises fascinating questions, even for casual readers." (Reviewed on 03/18/2013)