Old Order Amish: Brief Overview of Folklore and Folk Society Stability

During June 2002, Donna and I spent a few days exploring Old Order Amish communities in Michigan. As we dodged buggies on the back roads and observed horse-drawn farm implements being used in the fields, we began to see the bountiful benefits and weighty burdens that flowed from the folklore binding together Amish society. While loggers here in Siskiyou County might exchange colorful jargon, or Native Americans along our Klamath River might inherit slices of custom and material lore, the Michigan Amish appeared to be members of a relatively complete, fairly stable, and mostly closed society--a folk society structured in such a manner that its members do not often have either the opportunity or desire for significant exchange of lore with other folk groups. Instead, the many traditional threads of Amish oral, customary, and material folklore weave a complex Amish persona, keep a reign on their behavior, and have helped their population steadily increase to about 200,000 in 250 settlements in 25 states (though about 75% of all the Amish live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan). Interestingly, it was America's relative tolerance of religious differences that first brought the Amish here, and this same tolerance now yokes their future existence to the continuation of a pluralistic America accepting of unpopular and unchanging religious beliefs.
Galen Frysinger's photo of cars negotiate around Amish buggies

The Christian myth system's history is rife with the arrest, torture and execution of those whose interpretation of its myths were somehow out of favor, and 16th century Swiss Anabaptists endured branding, loss of property, and being sold into slavery for following what they believed to be the correct teachings of Jesus: adult baptism, nonviolence, and separation of church and state. In the late 17th century, Jacob Amman's Anabaptist congregation (the Amish) delineated from other Anabaptists when he demanded the shunning of those expelled from the sect and required members to partake in a ritualistic washing of the feet. The relentless persecution of all Anabaptist sects, by Catholic and Protestant alike, led to significant 18th and 19th century emigration to America by Anabaptists from Switzerland, and what is present-day France, and Germany.

Gayland Frysinger's photo of a young Amish boy wearing traditional clothes
In America, while the life and property of the Amish was generally safe, behaviors stemming from their religious myths were problematic for state authorities dealing with safety, education, and national security. The problem, simply put, was that most Amish behavior is founded in religious belief, and the Amish were adamant they could not compromise religious belief and remain true to God. Core Amish beliefs against compulsory school attendance and military service clashed with state interests. From the Amish point of view, education beyond the small, one-room schoolhouse could expose the Amish child to the wisdom of the world--a wisdom that according to the Bible would be viewed as "foolishness " by God (I Cor. 3:19). Service in the military would not only put the Amish member in continuous contact with worldly ways, it would conflict with religious prohibition against swearing an oath and resorting to violence. So far, major collisions with state interests have been decided in favor of the Amish, both in the courtroom and in the public mind, but the unwillingness of the Amish to allow the state to compromise Amish myths, customs, and material folk traditions make it clear their future in America is dependent on friendly court rulings and public support. Having taken a constitutional law class, I recognize the fragility and impermanence of such a relationship-a dependency that could easily fall victim to any number of compelling state interests having to do with homeland security, health and safety, and social welfare.

As someone who freely borrows everything from calendar customs to proverbs from other folk groups, I generally view the adoption of borrowed lore as a natural and potentially positive diffusion of human creativity. I am quick to quote Irish wit and eager to celebrate revolutionary ideals on Cinco de Mayo. The Amish, on the other hand, are dedicated in their efforts to isolate themselves and inoculate their myths and other lore from those who would pollute them--those they refer to as "the English." They understand well the significance of Mark Twain's oft repeated quip: "Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either." Though limited to an eighth grade education, they know better than most that even the thinnest supernatural soup, such as the popular New Age mythic system recipe that willy-nilly blends together bits of Buddhism, a cup of Christianity, and a splash of Shirley McLane, is still meaty enough to become a competitor in the marketplace of belief systems-a marketplace not often visited by the Amish. In fact, the encroachment of such competing belief systems is largely prevented by the religious, social, and occupational isolation of the Amish. Like stones in a wall, it was easy to see how the distinctive costume of its members, the use of Pennsylvania German, and the desire for self-sufficiency each help build a barrier to lore exchange. It was also obvious that the wall was not impermeable, that economic dependency on the English, as well as neighborly interaction with those outside the faith, has created chinks in the wall.

While I do not believe that neighborly interaction posses a threat to the Amish way of life, I do think the Amish's growing economic interaction with outsiders holds more danger. To quote Twain again, "'You tell me where a man gets his corn pone and I will tell you what his opinions is." Twain's obvious point about human nature, that a person's opinion is often determined by his source of income, should be disconcerting to the Amish.

The Amish desire to remain self-sufficient has certainly fallen victim to economic realities, and Donna and I bought cookies and needle work at Amish farmhouses, shopped at Amish hardware and general stores, and lamented we could not carry back one of the rustic hickory chairs sold by Amish craftsmen everywhere. Of course, the increased interaction with tourists has not only brought in money and potential exposure to worldly ideas, it has done much to create a vast network of positive feeling toward the Amish throughout the greater non-Amish society, and few would deny there is much about the Amish to admire.

Gayland Frysinger's photo of Amish furniture sale

My photo of a typical Amish sign indicating an Amish bakery is just down the road

As an outsider looking in, it seemed to me that the Old Order Michigan Amish are living in a relatively stable, fulfilling, and attractive pastoral society held together by folklore. They appear significantly less troubled by the alienation, ambiguity of roles, and other stressors common to mainstream life. I was also charmed by their modesty, impressed by their work ethic, and intrigued by the high level of family interaction. On the other hand, I am disturbed by the lowly place reason occupies in their epistemological hierarchy, and their counterculture stance against technology and progress seems intellectually inconsistent. Further, one could surely argue against the rigidity of their gender roles, the obvious loss of individuality, and the heavy hand of the "Ordnung"-the unwritten but omnipresent rules they live under. Other detractors might rightly wag their finger at the documented increase in hereditary disorders and rash of adolescent rebellion that currently confronts the Old Order Amish.

Gayland Frysinger's photo of Amish boys Donna and I very much enjoyed our short encounter with the Amish, but the interaction was so brief and limited that my observations should only be viewed as an introduction to the Old Order Amish and their lore. Students wanting a much more worthy analysis of Amish history and social structure, as well as a fair look at both the benefits and burdens of Amish society, should read John Hostetler's excellent fourth edition of Amish Society. For a general overview of Old Order Anabaptist sects, i.e., the Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, see On the Backroad to Heaven by Kraybill and Bowman. Lastly, while I did take a few unobserved photos of the Amish during our trip, I generally honored the Amish's wish to not involve them in "graven images." Subsequently, most of the Old Order Amish photos used here were taken with a very long telephoto lens and contributed by Galen R. Frysinger, and I appreciate his willingness to share his photos with this online class.

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