I traveled back from the Amish Conference at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania yesterday. I was so glad I attended the conference. There were so many good presentations that stimulated good conversations and debates, that it is hard for me to know where to begin to describe it. Perhaps I will start in the beginning, as I experienced the conference and write more blog posts in the coming days as needed to cover topics of the conference that I found compelling.
Seminar: Are the Amish Models of Stewardship? Exploring the Amish Relationship with Nature by David McConnell, professor at Wooster College and Lyn Loveless, emeritus at Wooster College.
It was great to hear of this research that Professors McConnell and Loveless are conducting. They asked good questions, such as “Which best captures the Amish relationship to nature, the notion of stewardship or that of dominion?” “Where in church doctrine, texts, or ritual do we find roadmaps or signals for how the Amish envision their relationship to the natural world?”
The presenters talked about how most Amish they’ve spoken to do not have a concept of global environmental issues. They see the weather as God’s domain, and they cannot conceive of humans being able to bring about changes in the weather. Likewise, they do not understand population control, believing instead that God will always provide what people need. They concluded that the Amish see themselves as having dominion over living things, rather than as stewards.
The discussion at this seminar stimulated several new thoughts on the topic for me. One attendee said he thought that the Amish way of thinking of nature is mystical in the sense that they are more willing to accept that there are things, such as the weather, that is God’s domain and out of the hands of people. I thought that was a very good point.
When a person grows up Amish and attends Ordnungs Church twice a year, they hear the Bible stories reiterated, beginning with the creation story, central to their beliefs. The idea becomes ingrained that people “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth,” as written in Genesis 1:26. However, there are several things implicit in these beliefs that remain unspoken. They take the responsibility of “dominion” seriously and want to please God with doing it well. And as the gentleman mentioned, they are also accepting that there are things not under our control such as nature in general, the weather, suffering and death, and heavenly matters. They actually seem to know and accept these limits better than most people in the mainstream culture.
Professors McConnell and Loveless talked about how the Amish leave a lighter footprint by virtue of the lifestyle choices they make. They questioned whether the element of intention is necessary to become good stewards.
My take on that question is probably different than most people’s. I think not. The Amish make these choices for their culture, traditions, and religion. The fact that they leave a lighter footprint seems accidental. But the result is the same. Sometimes the Amish bring about major environmental decisions because of their lifestyle. One example is the proposed plan back in 2014 to take power towers through Amish country in Cashton, Wisconsin, and how they eventually diverted them because of opposition. This opposition was only effective because the Amish don’t use electricity. Another example is that if we lived in a pacifist world, no one would have any concept of nuclear weapons.
I very much look forward to the publication of the research that Professors McConnell and Loveless are conducting. I think they chose a fascinating topic for their research.
The second event I attended had three presenters on the subject Genetics and the Amish. Jessica Scott Schwoerer, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin presented a paper called “Genetic Care for Amish and Mennonites in Wisconsin.” She is part of a team of people from the University of Wisconsin Genetics Clinic partnering with the La Farge Medical Clinic to better identify and service patients with genetic disease in the Plain communities. These efforts are new in the last two years and it is quite a challenge because the Amish and Mennonites come from diverse communities. The genetic diseases in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are often different from those found in Geauga County, Ohio, or other Amish communities because of the “founder effect.” Dr. Holmes Morton has identified more than 100 genetic diseases in the Lancaster area alone. Because the Amish and Mennonites from Wisconsin come from all different communities, this team has quite the challenge of identifying the genetic disorders in these communities.
Sarah Miller-Fellows, a PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, presented a paper called “Amish Responses to Genetic Disorders in Ohio.” She has done her research in my home community of Geauga County, Ohio. She discussed how that community has been shaped by disorders and how medical clinics serving Amish communities have been shaped in the Amish context and how these have transformed the prognosis of many of the common genetic disorders from severe disability and early death to manageable disease.
One of the discoveries made by the DDC Clinic for Special Needs Children in Middlefield, Ohio, was the prevalence of Cohen Syndrome. Back in the 1990s, when they discovered 30 of these cases among the Amish in Geauga County, there had been only about 100-150 known cases worldwide. Here is a rare diseases archive on their website.
The third paper was called “Bipolar Disorder and Genetic Factors: Studies in Amish, Mennonite, and Other Communities” and was presented by Layla Kassem. Her work is in psychiatric genetics focusing on the Plain communities of North America and Latin America. Her presentation was fascinating. She described how bi-polar disorder manifests itself differently among the Amish. She described how instead of buying a whole bunch of cars they don’t need or cannot afford as might happen in the mainstream culture, an Amish woman might bake lots of loaves of bread, without any idea of who will be eating that bread.
Layla Kassem also talked about schizophrenia and a combination of both bi-polar and schizophrenia, which is called schizoaffective disorder. This was what my father suffered from, so it was very enlightening to hear this talk. I look forward to learning more about her work in the future.
I will leave it here for now, and I look forward to writing more about the conference in upcoming posts.