From where I’m sitting, it seems to me that the perceptions of the Amish are changing for those who look in from the outside. For years it used to be that people would say “Amish!” with stars in their eyes, and they would think an Amish life is idyllic, pastoral, and “simple.” In short, the Amish were being romanticized. And why not? Their farms look so pristine; their lives move at a slower pace; and their buggies and dress harks back to a simpler time.
My role, since leaving the Amish, seems to be to complicate people’s view of them. Whenever I would encounter this reaction, I would try to temper the view by providing examples of how the Amish were human too, and I’d remind people that the Amish have the same struggles as anyone else… especially the one that has to do with choosing between good and evil. Not all Amish people choose good all the time, the very same way not everyone in mainstream society chooses good all the time.
Lately, though, it seems the Amish are perceived quite differently. There are news stories that show that the Amish are struggling with wrongdoing within their communities. There are stories of drug abuse, violence (such as young people resisting the police or trying to overturn their cruisers), and the leader of one Amish church district who was abusing his authority being charged with hate crimes. Then there are the stories of sexual abuse. All these problems are very real. In fact, the insular nature of an Amish community can add to the complexity of dealing with these issues.
As if the “real” problems are not enough, we now have Hot Snakes Media engaging in cultural defamation and profiting by it in producing “reality” shows like The Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish. They either don’t seem to know, or else they don’t care, that the idea of a central and corrupt power is further from actuality than saying the Amish have a pope. The Amish have a decentralized religion. That means that each bishop only has domain over his own district. Sure, they converse with one another about the church rules or Ordnung, and they also have their deep traditions as guidelines, but they don’t have any one man who has authority over all the Amish communities and districts. And so the idea of a centralized power structure is completely out of the realm of the Amish traditions. Add corruption to the mix, and it becomes even more far-fetched. So Hot Snakes Media and the TLC channel are profiting from using the Amish name and spreading lies about them.
And then there is Breaking Amish. A more fitting name would be Faking Amish. The producers take 10 percent truth and make up the other 90 percent, and call it a reality show. I think knowing the back stories of the characters is enough to show without telling how little of this is true. So far I’ve felt like the best reaction to these shows is to ignore them and just make as if they don’t exist. But after having people ask me time and time again, “Is The Amish Mafia real?” I recognize that isn’t working so well.
So, no The Amish Mafia is not real. TLC and Hot Snakes Media are corporations that have the same rights as an individual, but without the responsibilities to go with it. They know that the Amish do not sue, so they can get away with this culture slander. It is maddening that the gauge in this society becomes what people (or corporations) can get away with without getting sued. It becomes the lowest common denominator for our moral code. That basically means nothing is off limits in our greedy and corporate society.
My role again is to complicate people’s views of the Amish by reminding them that the Amish are not all bad. It may seem like a contradiction for me to defend the culture that I chose to leave. But it seems I have become an accidental interpreter of the very culture I left. Because the Amish consider themselves “the quiet in the land,” and do not defend themselves, it seems I cannot stand by and watch them be so misinterpreted.
Just because the Amish slipped off the pedestal doesn’t mean they are all horrible people. It just means that they are human. Like in every other part of the world, the atrocities are what make the news. I have gotten to the point that I cannot read too many news stories because they distort my view of humanity. Only occasionally do news stories tell of someone resisting evil and succeeding to overcome it. Only occasionally do we hear of the incredible good someone has done. Yes, humans have the capacity to commit unspeakable evil. But we also have the capacity to do incredible good. And the essence of our human struggle is constantly having to choose between one and the other.
So, I’m here now to remind all of us that there is still incredible goodness among Amish people, despite the problems they are encountering. (I’m referring to the real problems, not those contrived by the makers of the reality shows.)
I’m reading a book by an Amish man named David Kline and it’s called Scratching the Woodchuck. Contentment is so obvious in this farmer’s musings, all without ever using the word. This book does not have an overt spiritual message, but it has a stream running through it that conveys a deep, abiding, quiet, yet profound faith that is the essence of the Amish belief system and world view.
So I don’t think we should write off the Amish just yet. They may have some important messages for the mainstream culture to decipher, if we care to slow down our lives enough to reflect what those messages are.
29 thoughts on “Perceptions of the Amish”
Well said and thank you.
So good to know all the misinformation (to put it politely) that I miss by not having a television! Thank you for the note about David Kline’s book. I just requested it at the library. And belated thanks for talking about Shirley Showalter’s book “Blush:A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World”. Would love to know other books by and about Amish. Am I correct in assuming Barbara Yoder (Finding The Way) is or was Amish?
Hello Johanna. I know, I don’t miss television, either. I’ve only watched parts of these episodes online.
You’re quite welcome about letting you know about “Blush.” so glad you enjoy reading books by Amish and former Amish. David Kline has two other books. The one I have read that is also very good is “Great Possessions.” He has another too, “Letters from Larksong.”
I had never heard about Barbara Yoder’s book, but her name sounds very Amish and I would think she wouldn’t be saying she grew up Amish if she didn’t.
If you like Amish fiction written by someone Amish, Linda Byler’s books are quite good. You’ll find her on Amazon.
Also, I will be introducing a former Amish memoir next week. It’s called “Runaway Amish Girl” and the author is Emma Gingerich. And I assume you know Ira Wagler’s book, “Growing up Amish.”
Thank you very much for stopping by and for your comments.
Thanks for all the author names. I look forward to more of this journey your books have started me on. I don’t use Amazon if I can help it. They are doing awful things to authors, book buyers and the people who work for Amazon. (https://stallman.org/amazon.html)
Amen on the Amazon issues. I stopped buying from them as well. I used to like the convenience, but I realized at some point it was counter-productive for authors and publishers. I’m glad I’m not alone in moving away from the “convenience.” You’re quite welcome about the titles. Happy reading!
Saloma, this is an excellent post. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to walk the line between romanticizing and demonizing the Amish. I think that part of the problem is that human nature being what it is, people like to think in black and white when, in reality, a great deal of life is gray.
I tell people that, for me, the best part of growing up Amish was the access to horses, lots of horses. My father was a horse trader and horse trainer so we rode at an early age, spending a lot of time on horseback, and worked the draft horses in the fields and forests.
The worst part, I tell people, is their willingness to live with ignorance, indeed to prize it as a virtue. I may be exaggerating it but I feel that they exalt physical, manual work and disdain the life of the mind. I had one girlfriend tell me once that one of her brothers had developed schizophrenia because he studied the Bible too much.
The Amish are not stupid, but ignorant? Oh yes.
Elva, it is a fine balance between romanticizing and demonizing the Amish. And the kind of black and white thinking you describe is very much an Amish trait, too. I know what you mean about the ignorance. And sometimes willful ignorance.
But you know, I’m now finding anamolies. There are some enlightened Amish, who do slef-reflect and read and pretty much educate themselves. David Kline, the author I mentioned, is one of these people. I don’t know if the Amish as a group are beginning to read more than they were when I was growing up or what. Though ignorance is often the case, it doesn’t seem to be true for all of them. Now, if only, they would decide to educate their children beyond the eighth grade…
Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. So glad you enjoy horses.
I watched 5 minutes of those series (curiosity) then switched channels. Not worth my time.
Kristine, it sounds like you are discerning. I wish more people were…
Thanks for stopping by.
We live in such a fast paced world, seems no one has time for others. Maybe what some see in the Amish is community; people are not alone but have others around them. I wondered if there really was a sense of community, of closeness? People send texts now instead of calling. They call instead of actually visiting.
Rhonda, don’t get me started about texting… I just refuse to do it, because it’s way too impersonal.
Yes, the Amish do have a sense of community, but that goes for both the positive and negative. There were many times when I wanted more privacy because it felt like the whole community knew my business. It’s a trade-off. Now I have privacy from my neighbors, but not from the corporations who want to track my buying habits.
Thanks, Rhonda for stopping by.
The people that believe these reality shows are like the people that believed “The Enquirer” 20 years ago. I think there is a warped sense of interest in lies and other such things for many. The reasons are numerous I’m sure. One stands out: You don’t have to look at yourself when you’re scrounging around in other peoples’ affairs. Another is, people can just be plain ignorant. Though I hate to admit it, there are times when I fall under this category.
I’m with you on not overdoing the morbid stories the world puts out there. What I read, speak, hear, and see all have an influence on my mood and how I see the world. Philippians 4:8 “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.” Yet, this can be a struggle sometimes. Especially when the first thing one sees via the computer is the bad news of the day. What’s worse is it seems to have a hypnotizing effect. There sure is a lot of ugly in this place.
Well, when I’m feeling a little blue I just punch in the name Pharrell Williams and listen to his song “Happy.” Now that’s a good song.
Hello Fran. Thanks for your perspective. Yes, there is a lot of ugly in our lives… but that is what’s most visible. Look further, and you can see the good deeds people perform. This is what I need to focus on or think about. I love the verse you quoted. Keep spreading the goodness that is within you… it all helps to offset the ugliness.
Thanks for the song recommendation. I will go and listen to that, if I can find it on the internet.
Take good care, Fran.
I live in the Netherlands and have been invited to different women’s groups to talk about my suitcase full of quilts and I combine this with talking about the amish and their way of life. I of course get asked about the TV shows Amish mafia and Breaking the Amish. I have tried to tell my listeners about the good things the Amish do believe in and do but I also try to tell them they aren’t perfect.All of my ancestors were Amish and my parents grew up amish but the whole group left the amish and started the conservative mennonite amish conference. I have just read your 2 books Salome and was deeply touched by them. I felt when I finally got out into the “world” from my conservative background, I had to go thru a major culture shock. I also went thru another culture shock when I came to Holland and there are some major things that are universal, no matter where you come from. Changing places, going out of a comfort zone, entering a completely new place with other systems whether religious or not can be quite drastic. I was a very curious person, I couldn’t be bound only by rules, I had to be able to make my own choices and I know my life was more difficult because of this very thing. I have had some very good mentors along the way and I have thanked the Lord many a time for giving me the gift of curiosity and the need to keep reaching out to something beyond. I wish you the very best in your journey. Sinserely, Mary
Mary, it’s good to hear from you. Sorry it’s taken me a while to moderate the latest comments. I was away for the weekend.
I’m so glad you’re helping to spread the honest word about the Amish culture and its people. I know what you mean by culture shock, but it sounds like you’ve had a greater measure of it than I have. I agree that there are certain things about humanity that are universal, no matter which part of the world we come from or how we were brought up.
I hope you keep reaching out to something beyond and I hope you are showered with blessings along the roads you travel.
Saloma, This is the first time I have ever visited a Blog. This was interesting. I went to the book signing at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I loved it. I have finished Why I Left the Amish and now starting Bonnet Strings. Very impressed. We have Amish friends in northern Iowa. I visit their bulk store and bakery alot when we are up there. I have great respect for you and for them. I was happy to see about the other books. Thank you for signing my copies in Cedar Rapids. I will continue to follow your blog.
Patricia, thank you very much for letting me know you like my books. That is coming at a time I am feeling a bit discouraged about my book sales, so thank you very much. And it was my pleasure to sign your books.
If you enjoy my books, and feel so moved, I would LOVE to see your reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads. That always makes my day (and my week and my month) when I see a new review.
Wishing you all the best, and thank you again for your kind words.
Your question about perceptions about Amish people brought to mind some lines from To Kill a Mockingbird.The boy Jem
Is trying to figure out his family and neighbors ,the good and the bad he sees around him . He says he has figured it out.Theres one kind of folks-folks.
Hello Sally. Thank you for that concept. I like it, and it fits what Mary Keim Maarsen and I were discussing a bit ago. I agree with Jem.
Thank you for stopping by and for commenting.
Hi Saloma: Always enjoy your website & people’s comments. Recently had a bad experience with an Amish builder. He is the 3rd one I’ve used. The first 2 were excellent. Honest, did good quality work. This more recent one, the exact opposite. Truly dishonest and a cheater. He built a 48×64 pole barn for me to house my sheep and on May 2l it was totally destroyed by wind. He willfully failed to put the posts deep enough into the ground–only placing them 8-18 Inches deep instead of 3-4 feet in concrete. No other buildings were damaged in the area, but my barn was lifted right up out of the ground–posts and all and thrown across several fields. Quite a mess to clean up–took 6-8 weeks just to clean up. He also refused to cooperate with the county building inspector by notifying him to inspect the post holes before proceeding with construction. I guess dishonest builders can clear more profit if they use shorter poles, don’t place them deep enough and save on concrete. Buyer beware!
Joyce, I am so sorry that you had this experience. Most Amish builders/craftsmen are honest and hard-working, but unfortunately one can ruin the reputation of many. Like anywhere else, one needs good references before entering into an agreement. The Amish should not be exempt from that, because as you just pointed out, there can be a bad apple among them. Eventually these people are “found out.” He may have a hard time getting jobs after a while.
I wish you all the best.
I grew up in Canton and later taught in Ashland Ohio so seeing Amish and Mennonites was a common experience.I think if I were Amish ,all those tourists coming to stare would really tick me off. I haven’t seen the Tv programs you mention but see all those Amish romance novels around and think they can’t be a lot of help in people’s perceptions. Wondered what you think of the groups who take up ministering to the Amish. Not those trying to assist those who have left on their own
accord , but those,trying to make evangelical converts . I have stumbled over some of this on the Internet.
Sally, you have great comments and questions here. I had typed out my answers to you, and then I got thrown out of the system. Halfway through typing them, I realized this could be the topic of my next post. I will email you and ask permission to quote you and then answer in my next post.
Thank you so much!
I decided this morning it was time to check in with Saloma before setting out to explore Seattle.
Excellent post. You do a good job of debunking both extremes of perfect ideal and demonic depictions. Enjoyed the conversation in the comments. Thanks again for helping your readers find Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.
Hoping to see you again in the fall.
Hi Shirley! I’ve been thinking of you and wondering where you are in your travels. I hope you aren’t too travel weary. I wish I could come with you to the West. Have always wanted to make it to the West Coast, but I haven’t so far in my life.
Thank you for your compliment about the post. And it is my pleasure to let people know about the authentic Plain stories I know about.
Many Blessings to you along the roads you travel.
I am Old Order Amish and work in a tourism-based business. I think one thing I’d like to add is none of us should generalize an entire group of people based on positive or negative experiences. I am always ashamed when I hear of something like the dishonest builder but equally uncomfortable when someone carries on about how much they “love” the Amish crew that put their home up.
I know some non-Amish people I respect and some that I don’t. We are all human, right?
Mark, thank you very much for stopping by and leaving a comment. You are so right, that the Amish culture is made up of individuals who are all human.
I think your point about someone carrying on about how much the love the Amish crew that put up their home is well taken. Leave the “Amish” part out, and they aren’t adding to the generalization that Amish builders are all good. And in the example above, there is the danger of grouping all Amish builders in the “bad” category because of the dishonest man’s actions. “Amish” should not be the criteria that people use to determine whether a builder is reputable — or that a person is trustworthy and honest, or it’s opposite.
I think the reason that people in the mainstream society tend to put the Amish in one category is because of the emphasis on community and the collective. There often isn’t the realization of the various communities within the Amish and the various individuals within the community. The individualistic society in which I now live is intrigued by that, because in general we have forgotten how to come together for the common good.
Thank you again for your comments, Mark.
Pingback: About Amish | Amish Conference 2016, Part 3