What I learned from the Anabaptists on a trip through Amish country


Over the next couple of days, I’ll be posting on a few things I learned about the American Anabaptists (in particular, the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren) while working on Christian History & Biography‘s issue on that topic. This first item, my editor’s note from that issue, reflects on a research trip assistant editor Steve Gertz and I took to “Amish country” during the issue’s planning process:

Shaken Up by the Peace-Lovers
A trip through Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.
Chris Armstrong

Nothing restores one’s sanity like a little peace and quiet. As my colleague Steve Gertz and I rode through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the car of our host Steve Scott, the peacefulness of “Amish Country” refreshed us like a tonic.

Granted, faced with the near-perfect tranquility of the rolling fields, neat houses, and slow-moving black buggies, I did begin to get fidgety—looking around for a manuscript to edit or a layout to proof. But the sensation of being away from the “shot-out-of-a-cannon” life of publishing in the Chicago suburbs was nonetheless a pleasant one.

As he drove, Steve Scott, the administrative assistant of the Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, regaled us with “silly tourist stories”—like the one about the lady who, rebuffed by an Amish farmer when she demanded that she have her picture taken with him, threatened to call the police because this costumed fellow wasn’t “doing his job.”

And it occurred to me that a countryside that seemed so peaceful to me might contain its share of interruptions and frustrations for its inhabitants.

But how to get beyond such “outward” observations about the Amish and their Anabaptist kin—the “costumed” farmers, buggies, barn-raisings, and prospering farms—to these groups’ roots, beliefs, and worldview? This was our task at the Young Center, where we met to plan this issue with some of the foremost scholars of these movements.

Early on, our hosts at the center—Steve, director David Eller, Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh, and historian of the Amish Donald Kraybill—convinced us that an excellent way to communicate the inner workings of the Anabaptists was to ask Anabaptists to write our articles.

This we have done in most of this issue’s theme articles, and I am glad we did it this way. Often in these pages the author’s voice will emerge for a sentence or a paragraph, relating a trenchant observation, anecdote, or vignette in the first person. Through meeting these authors over the phone and reading their articles, I feel I have been introduced not just to a set of beliefs, but to a family of believers. Indeed, not just introduced, but invited to dinner—even to the famous Brethren “love feast.”

“Mirror, mirror …”

Not far into the editorial process, though, I found the mood of peace I had enjoyed on that tranquil day’s drive through Amish country broken decisively by an uncomfortable sensation: the sense of having my own lifestyle and presuppositions challenged. The more I studied the three groups we feature in this issue—the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren—the more I found myself looking into a mirror. And the way it reflected back on some of my modern American evangelical presumptions has made me just a bit uncomfortable.

These folks, after all, preach and live a conviction that seems heretical to most modern folk: If you want to live as a dedicated follower of Christ, you have to do without some of the comforts and conveniences that others around you take for granted.

Gentle counterculture

But there’s more. Consider the list of core values of these groups’ “Old Order” branches presented by Donald Kraybill and Carl Desportes Bowman in their acclaimed book On the Backroad to Heaven (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). These groups, the authors argue persuasively, are above all (1) relational, (2) practical, (3) constant, and (4) gentle.

(1) For the Old Orders, love is not an individual, subjective, personal feeling, but a matter of “bonds of intimacy in community.” The texture of their life together is one of “spiritual kinship, close relations, and a transparent lack of privacy.” How many times have I wished for more “community” in my church life? But not, please, the “intrusive” kind (as if there were any other kind!)

(2) The Old Orders live the truth taught in the Book of James, that “faith without works is dead.” For these practical Christians, “one’s manner of living outweighs concerns about proper belief.” I think of how easily I move in the realm of Bible studies and long discussions, but how far behind I lag in putting faith in practice.

(3) The Old Orders value constancy above innovation or novelty. They take pleasure in repeated patterns of life, greetings, and rituals: “Dress is old-fashioned, worship patterns are ancient, and songs are old.” I blush to think of how many times I have pored over catalogs researching the latest whatever-it-is.

(4) Finally, the Old Orders discipline themselves in a gentle way of life: Against the deadliest sin, pride, the Amish cultivate “gentleness, steadfastness, and devout living.”

The Anabaptists challenge almost every one of what Kraybill and Bowman call America’s “core values”: individual rights, moral autonomy, competition, success, participation in government, and the yearning for progress and material improvement.

Against such modern values, many Anabaptists espouse a church-centered, anti-individualist way of life so diametrically opposite to modern sensibilities that the fact they are able to sustain it is nearly miraculous.

No persecution, cultural pressure, or lure of prosperity and convenience the world has thrown at them has been able to derail these modern monastics from their path of “extreme discipleship.”

And that strong perseverance, surely, is a rare and precious enough quality that we should spend some time in its presence, learning what we can learn.

Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.

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