Riddle of the Amish Culture

Riddle of the Amish Culture / On the Backroad to Heaven, The

McLean, Scott

The Riddle of the Amish Culture

by Donald B. Kraybill The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore, MD 2001, 397 pages.

On the Backroad to Heaven

by Donald B. Kraybill and Carl E Bowman The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore, MD, 352 pages.

In the summer of 2001 Dr. Scott McLean served as a faculty scholar in the annual NEH/Phi Theta Kappa Summer Honor’s Institute, with the specific theme of diversity. Donald Kraybill facilitated the group of 23 faculty members’ training and insight into intracultural and intercultural issues that would later be used with undergraduate honor students in the week-long institute. Kraybill’s lifetime of living, working and interacting with Old Order cultures makes him a natural ambassador as well as a social scientist, and his texts capture many of the insights he shared with the faculty about inclusion, martyrdom, obedience, family, work and community.

This review will examine both On the Backroad to Heaven and The Riddle of the Amish Culture, two texts that offer similar and yet distinct insights into Old Order cultures and specifically the Amish. On the Backroad to Heaven, a relatively new text focused on Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish and Brethern, draws extensively from The Riddle of the Amish Culture. Carl F Bowman, a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Bridgewater College contributes considerably in the area of the Brethern, and in this contribution, broadens the scope of the text compared to the more narrowly focused The Riddle of the Amish Culture. We shall first examine The Riddle of the Amish Culture from the perspecfive of a healthcare practioner that would like to learn more about Amish communities and customs. We shall then contrast and compare On the Backroad to Heaven to previous insights, again with a focus on human interaction, culture and healthcare.

The Riddle of the Amish Culture is a text that provides a breadth and depth seldom found in current intercultural literature, with vibrant first person stories and an organizational structure that allows the reader to follow and build an increasingly inter-related knowledge base the farther you progress in the text. The first section starts with an apt quote “We wish especially that our descendents will not forget our suffering” by an Anabaptist writer in 1645. The same sentence could have been written today, and the first chapter relates the history, persecution and Anabaptist legacy that continues to bind current communities to the not so distant past. The second section incorporates the well known tradition of quilt-making to express the “patchwork of Amish culture the beliefs, myths, and images that shape their world.” Kraybill discusses the concept of social or cultural capital, the resources developed through human interaction over time that bind the community together and provide the foundation of Amish society. This inter-connectedness intertwined with cultural values associated with humility, self-denial, thrift and simplicity help create the communities that raise a barn in a day.

Kraybill then moves on to discuss symbols of integration and separation, and the social architecture of Amish society. His detailed discussions of the social network an Amish child is born into provides considerable insight. Each child’s inheritance at birth, in terms of social support and relationships to the community, are significantly profound and far-reaching. As the child grows, he or she will come to understand circles of support, and see how they extend beyond the immediate family to the community. Kraybill notes the Amish version of professional associations are often called reunions, and in Lancaster County (Pennsylvania), there has been an “Annual Handicap Gathering.” Community members, who are all cared for by their families, with cerebral palsy, polio, blindness, dwarfness, multiple sclerosis and deafness among other disabilities provide emotional support to one another. From a practitioner perspective, an awareness of these social support networks can be a powerful ally in healthcare.

The text also discusses in depth the general reluctance to use technology, and explains the historical and current antecedents for this quite well. It is helpful to note, however, that Kraybill notes that while Bishops may unify against various uses of electricity, that in cases of special need, the regulation may be relaxed. He cites the example of a family with an asthmatic child needing a 110-volt electricity for an oxygen pump who were granted the use of a generator.

The Riddle of the Amish Culture provides a broad coverage of how Amish Society has traditionally and more recently interacted with their non-Amish neighbors. Kraybill features a story about how special township meetings are held to discuss everything from zoning to children’s immunization. An increase in polio cases among the Amish in 1979 became a public health concern, and an outbreak of measles posed a similar concern in 1988, according to Kraybill. Amish leadership worked well with local health officials by encouraging mass immunization. It should be noted here that the Amish value of self-reliance and caring for their own members means they are not often enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid or similar pubic welfare programs. The text closes with social change and it’s impact on Amish culture with skill and depth that leaves the reader examining common ground rather than differences.

On the Backroad to Heaven provides a fascinating overview of Old Order culture and how each group uses a different strategy to create and retain their sense of community. Unlike The Riddle of the Amish Culture’s frequent and insightful stories about one Old Order culture, this text goes in somewhat less depth among the Old Order Hutterities, Mennonites, Amish and Brethern. This comprehensive discussion of similar but distinct communities is in fact the text’s greatest strength. While The Riddle of the Amish Culture provides depth and breadth about Amish Society’s interaction with, as Kraybill notes the non-Amish are often referred to as, “Moderns” or “English,” this text examines intergroup interaction as well as outsider/insider communication.

This text first provides an introduction entitled “Old Road to Heaven” which aptly describes the common history and values that these four groups share with one another. It then provides an chapter overview each group starting with the Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish before concluding with the Brethern. Chapter six examines how the Amish and Mennonites share similarities in how they approach, adapt and interact with the outside world. It also provides insight into how all four groups share similarities. The final chapter is fascinating in that in focuses on how a “traditional” community manages live in a post-modern world. The authors note that the groups developed their identities in the late nineteenth century as a protest against modernity. This critique on progress discusses several philosophical questions including whether human reasoning, as opposed to divine revelation, can be legitimately considered a source of knowledge, and “what is the good life?” This examination of what brings happiness or freedom is an intriguing discussion, offering insight into both the “modern” culture’s interpretation or possible mutation of these concepts. A third area of critique that again offers insight as well as debate is the Old Order assertion that not all values and beliefs are equally valid. In spite of these critiques, the adapation to modern world and neighborliness exhibited through the text, makes this an insightful comparative study.

Both The Riddle of the Amish Culture and On the Backroad to Heaven provide “Moderns” a way to come to understand Old Order cultures through stories, lessons learned, and scientific inquiry. The results are highly recommended for practioners who want to understand and interact successfully with member of Old Order cultures.

Reviewed by

Scott McLean, Ph.D.

Arizona Western College

Yuma, Arizona

Essie Alberta Riley, PhD, RN, SM

Founding Editor

Journal of Multicultural Nursing & Health

Copyright Riley Publications, Inc. Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Health Fall 2002

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