The Roots of Amish Popularity in Contemporary United States

Dachang Cong. Journal of American Culture. Volume 17, Issue 1. Spring 1994.

America has witnessed a great number of sectariian groups since the first Puritas settled in New England. But few of the groups have survived as long as the Amish. For example, Oneida, founded as a Utopian community in 1848, had disintegrated by 1881. Standing in sharp contrast to Oneida, Amish society has existed for three centuries. Yet it is still vigorous and its momentum of growth has been truly impressive. In 1890, there were only 22 Amish church disricts In North America, and the estimated Amish populatlon was 3,700. At present, more than 750 church districts, with an estimated population of 130,000, are scattered in at least 20 American states ao Ontario, Canada. In comparison, the Shakers’ population dwindled from about 4,000 in 1845 to less than a dozen in 1989.

It is also important to notice that the Amish overshadow all other existing sectarian groups in contemporary U.S.A. as far as reputation and fame are concerned. For instance, Hutterite society often encounters hostility and suspicion from mainstream society because of its communitarian way of life and constant need to purchase large tracts of land for expanding old colonies and establishing new ones. In contrast, the Amish enjoy a large harmonious relationship with mainstream society. What seems most interesting is that mainstream society voluntarily promotes the good image of the Amish people, and the popularity of Amish culture has been constantly on the rise.

The reasons for the success of the Amish are manifold, but the unique relationship between mainstream society and Amish society is of particular interest. For the Amish, their lifestyle is not meant to be admired or praised. But in the eyes of the American public, the Amish way of life is so distinct that it becomes irresistibly fascinating and fashionably old-fashioned.

This study aims to explore how and why the larger society comes to form a positive image of the Amish and explain why the Amish are so popular in the eyes of mainstream Americans. I seek to understand why the Amish people, who insist on separating themselves from the outside world, have actually accommodated themselves well to our modern time and unintentionally served many needs of mainstream society. This study is intended to contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of the majority-minority relations in the United States. Also, I wish to argue that the success of Amish society has a great deal to do with the highly positive attitude of mainstream Americans towards the Amish.

The Rising Popularity of the Amish

On March 22, 1989, President Bush, along with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and William Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, flew to Lancaster County, the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, for a special mission. While in Lancaster, President Bush delivered an anti-drug speech in a local school, and also met with 13 Amish and Mennonite leaders. It is interesting to notice that accompanying the news story was a photo of President Bush walking past a hitched horse and buggy. President Bush’s visit was highly symbolic, for it was made soon after Washington, D.C. had been dubbed the nation’s “murder capital.” To combat the drug-related violence, the city council had voted to impose a curfew on children under 18.

Lancaster is neither drug-free nor crime-free. Yet, for President Bush and the American public, it is an “oasis” that represents some highly-regarded values and strengths of rural America. It is no exaggeration to say that the Amish have been awarded a “favored status” in recent decades. Nonetheless, this special status is by no means the intention of the Amish people; rather, it is a cultural construction of the larger society.

Around the turn of this century, the Amish were not regarded as very different. At that time, the Amish drove buggies,which are now one of their distinctive symbols, but so did Mennonites, Lutherans and many others. It is obvious that the technological advances achieved in this century, such as automobiles, tractors, telephones, television and computers, have further separated Amish society from the “world” and made more visible the uniqueness of the Amish.

The Amish strive to keep a distance from mainstream society. They do not embrace whole packages of modern technology; instead, they make careful and selective responses. The Amish either say “no” to a new technology or accept it partially and conditionally. For example, all the Amish reject automobiles, but some Amish accept motor boats. In Northern Indiana, I was surprised to see an Amish man haul a motor boat with his horse-drawn buggy. Nonetheless, this seemingly strange practice has signified the Amish uniqueness.

The Amish have also made some changes on their own initiative to highlight their separation from the “world.” For example, as the style of clothing in mainstream society has been directed towards ever-changing fashions and tastes, the Amish have made their attire more formal, static and classic. In the early years of this century, many Amish in northern Indiana wore deer skin and flannels which are obsolete today.

Although the Amish were already very distinct in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, they were not yet a big tourist attraction. Two World Wars and the Great Depression dominated the American mind, and the nation’s wealth and moods could not sustain tourism in such an immense scale as we see today. Since the end of World War II, American society has witnessed more rapid processes of urbanization, modernization and scientific-technological advances. The resultant increase of wealth as well as the need for leisure and cultural activities have given a powerful impetus to the rise of large-scale tourism. Natural wonders have been extensively exploited and cultural resources skillfully cultivated to promote tourism and accommodate millions of tourists of various backgrounds and tastes. A person in a postindustrial society is a restless tourist.

Ethnic subcultures constitute an important part of the American tourism. Like Chinatown in San Francisco and Little Tokyo in L.A., the Amish settlement in Lancaster is a “cultural oasis” that meets tourists’ needs for leisure and excitement. It provides a temporary escape from the stress of modern living for mainstream Americans, especially for the urbanites and suburbanites in the New York-Philadelphia-Washington megalopolis. Lancaster was commercialized for tourism as early as in the 1950s. Kraybill reports that approximately five million tourists visit Lancaster annually and spend more than $400 million there. The tourist operations in Lancaster are higly sophisticated. To give some idea of the tourist business in Lancaster, it is useful to quote Buck’s descripons:

Amishmen are reproduced and caricatured in tourist promotion materials, area maps and billboards. Large plastic Amishmen, some of which are animated, beckon tourists into gasoline stations, diners, souvenir shops and motels. Amish dolls, most of which are imported, are popular souvenirs. Restaurant placemats are awash with fabricated Amish dialect and humor. Pamphlets encompassing every degree of accuracy, picture postcards, posters, prints and paintings depicting Amish life are commonplace. Mass-produced Amish straw hats and felt hats sold in souvenir shops show up as teenage attire on city streets, beaches and suburban patios.

A great many people from mainstream society hold a highly romanticized picture of these “plain folks” and conscientiously promote the image of the Amish. Authors have written articles and books to praise the Amish; photographers have produced award-winning pictures to present a saint-like image of the Amish and a scenario of the Amishland as paradise. In 1985, Witness, a movie conceiving a murder case witnessed by a small Amish boy and a love story between a Philadelphia policeman (played by Harrison Ford) and a young Amish widow (the boy’s mother, played by Kelly McGillis), won an Oscar for the best screenplay.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Amish have already gained a museum quality and antique status. Amish quilts, Amish furniture and Amish costumes are all popular with well-to-do collectors. Even the Amish people are often treated as a sensuous work of art. A young artist told me that a tour through the Amishland was an aesthetical experience—the Amish people immediately reminded him of Millet’s paintings on peasant life.”

Yoder enumerates five reasons for the popularity of the Amish:

The plain sects, and in particular the Amish, are presently at the center of the national focus on the Pennsylvania Dutch for several reasons—their insistence on the right of a minority to be different; their “nature-friendly” relation to the environment through the use of alternative energy sources such as wind and waterwheels; their excellence as general farmers in an age when the American farm is statistically and psychologically on the decline; their costumes, which reflect present-day religious identity as well as peasant backgrounds from Europe; and above all today, their abstract, almost modern art quilts done in dissonant colors (which are bringing astronomical prices on the market).

The popularity of the Amish prompts Yoder further to claim that, “In the world of symbols and tourist logos, Pennsylvania is no longer the Quaker State or even the Pennsylvania Dutch State: It is now the Amish State.” For the Amish people, who prefer to remain humble, so much publicity and glitter become an embarrassment. Some Amish leaders admit that the Amish people cannot possibly live up to such a high image. They are afraid that the image would spoil their young. Nevertheless, the larger society continues to idealize Amish culture, and the major reason for doing so lies in the needs of mainstream society.

An Emblem of Rural Ideals and “Good Old Days”

The existence of Amish society serves to accomodate a strong American need for rural ideals. Starting with Thomas Jefferson, a long list of famous American intellectuals have disliked or distrusted the idea of urbanism. It also appears that mainstream Americans often associate suburban and rural living with decency and higher moral value. The Amish people, with their simple lifestyle and strong attachment to land, fit this model of rural morality. In the American mind, the Amish, who still faithfully embody much of the early European peasant heritage, truly represent what Szwed calls “the nobility, innocence, and divine nature of the pastoral, the unspoiled the bucolic, the Arcadian.”

Moreover, Amish society serves to quench a strong American nostalgia for historical roots, traditional values and “good old days.” The Amish style resembles that of the Americans in the industrial era. And the basic Amish values parallel those of the Puritans, Quakers and many other Christian groups in the early days. For example, the devotion of many Amish leaders to establish a godly community is very similar to that of Winthrop and early Puritan leaders. Although the values on family, church and community are less practiced by contemporary mainstream Americans, they are still lauded, especially by political, civic and religious leaders.

Oddly enough, the Amish people, who prefer to be rustic and simple, possess certain symbols that are interpreted as reflecting status and wealth, such land-ownership, home-ownership, horses, buggies and costume-like attire. Of these symbols, horses are the most important. The Mennonite groups that adopted automobiles do not attract tourists as the Amish do.

Yoder highlights the influence of Pensylvania Dutch on the culture and landscape of the United States by pointng out:

The lasting influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch on American culture, not only in Pennsylvania but in the areas in the South, North and West to which they had migrated by the hundreds of thousands before the Civil War, are apparent to anyone who takes a good look at the American rural landscape. Even Thomas Jefferson noticed all this in the eighteenth century. In his diary for 1788, reporting on a trip he made to the Rhineland, he wrote that from the similarity of its culture, the Rhineland was the America’s “second fatherland.” What he meant was that the major lines of America’s culture were shaped by British models. But those areas that were not so shaped were influenced largely by the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought with them from the Rhineland in the skills of their hands and in the treasures of their minds and hearts.

The Amish as the most famous Pennsylvania Dutch group still faithfully carry much of the Germanic peasant heritage and continue to fascinate the American public with their distinct lifestyle. And it seems to me that the popularity of the Amish may have a lot to with the fact that a very large portion of the American population carries some degree of Germanic background.

An Alternative, Utopia-Like Community

A strong, deep-rooted interest in utopias and alternative lifestyles, which characterizes the American mind, contributes significantly to the fame of the Amish. In the past 400 years, America has provided soil for social experiments, cultural diversity and alternative ways of living. Even today, numerous intentional societies are scattered all over the country. FitzGerald, in her study of four different communities, characterizes the United States with the following statement:

The country, of course, was founded by visionaries. “We must consider that we shall be a City Upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” John Winthrop told his Puritan company crossing the Atlantic to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The remarkable thing was that four centuries later Americans were still self-consciously building cities on a hill.

Indeed, thousands of Americans are currently building a “city upon a hill” in one way or another, for themselves as well as for their children. More profoundly, to the millions who are not building a “city upon a hill,” the idea of utopia is ever-fascinating.

Amish society is not a utopia, but its success demonstrates that an alternative, utopia-like lifestyle is not only viable but also livable and rewarding. For those who are in the “back to earth” trend and those who are willing to live an alternative lifestyle, Amish culture provides an inspiring example. Foster observes that Amish values resemble the “eco-philosophy” proposed by Skolimowski, and that Amish society is a workable example of Schumacher’s “frugal community.”

In Habits of the Hearts, Bellah and his colleagues seek to explore how to preserve or create a morally coherent life.” They are concerned with “the destructive side of individualism” and look for “alternative models for how Americans might live.” They state that, “In thinking about what has gone wrong, we need to see what we can learn from our traditions, as well as from the best currently available knowledge.” The Amish way of life is an “alternative model” that promotes “a morally coherent life” and avoids “the destructive side of individualism.” Indeed, Amish tradition is one of “our traditions,” and many of Amish ideas and practices are among “the best currently available knowledge.”

The Amish interpret the Bible strictly and follow the Biblical teachings in daily life. They reject materialism and value simplicity, yet their way of life is meaningful and purposeful. To the Amish people, the utmost answer to the social problems and human sufferings of our time is neither the display of rugged individualism nor the expansion of government control nor the advancement of science and technology; rather, the answer lies in submitting to God’s will and living in harmony with nature. Their fear of God is genuine and their belief in heavenly eternity is unwavering.

Amish society is by no means problem-free, but Amish life is livable and wholesome. The Amish people live in a caring, tightly-knit community. They are sensitive to the needs of their community as well as to the well-being of the needy and less fortunate. As farmers, factory workers or small business owners, most of the Amish are doing fine financially. There are some poor families among the Amish, but they receive adequate financial help from church districts, relatives and friends. It is to be noted that there are no homeless people or perpetual unemployed in the Amish community.

A typical Amish family lives on a farm it owns and has nutritious food as well as warm clothes. As is well known, the Amish do not own automobiles, computers, VCRs, camcorders or other modern luxuries; nevertheless, this enables them to accumulate more savings and suffer less from credit pinch. They do not purchase health or life insurance policies; yet, they are better protected by their own community than are mainstream Americans by insurance companies. In 1990, an Amish woman had a kidney failure. Her sister donated a kidney to save her, and many districts in northern Indiana collected funds to cover the high costs of surgery and medicine.

Stable family life is highly valued in Amish society; divorces are almost non-existent. The Amish take good care of their children. They also respect and look after the old people. Kinship and kindred play many essential roles such as social support and financial aid. A typical Amish person has a large number of relatives and friends. He or she rarely feels lonely or helpless.

Amish society has a rigid yet effective political structure. A church district, consisting of 20 to 40 households, is the basic political organization. A bishop, two to five preachers and a deacon form the district leadership and take care of the physical, spiritual and financial well-being of church members. Amish clerymen are chosen through two procedures, nomination by voting and selection by drawing lots. The two procedures, combining a democratic principle with divination, endow clergymen with power and legitimacy. The Amish clergymen have many responsibilities, but they are not paid to do their work.

The stability of the Amish community is partly attributed to an efficient legal system. There are no judges, lawyers or sophisticated legal codes. Church leaders are legal authorities, and church members often serve as arbitrators and consultants. The Amish have a clear understanding of their church discipline, and legal sanctions are usually predicable, consistent and clearly defined. The Amish do not have security guards, but everybody is in the “crime watch.” Another significant feature of the Amish legal system is that the Amish collectively impose social-psychological sanction on those who break church discipline.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, American society is facing many serious problems. In contrast, the Amish, by refusing to follow mainstream society, have avoided many pitfalls of the modern world. Oliver and Cris Popenoe thoughtfully point out:

If we are indeed entering some new Dark Age, or facing some great cataclysm, it may be that those people who are devoting their lives to creating new communities have an important role to play. Perhaps they are the “seeds of tomorrow.” It behooves us then, to examine their communities closely, not as little utopias—which they certainly are not—but as serious efforts by committed individuals to find better ways of living.

In this sense, the Amish people can offer useful lessons to mainstream society beset with major social problems such as crimes, poverty, pollution, AIDS and the decreasing legitimacy of the political and legal systems. The Amish experience demonstrates that a small-scale, well-managed community is able to generate collective actions and solve problems. Inevitably, as mainstream society becomes more and more troubled by social problems, Amish society is further and further idealized and respected as a model community of wholesome living and traditional virtues.

A “New Model Minority”

The reality of racial and ethnic relations in the United States also contributes to the popularity of the Amish. Like Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Korean Americans, the Amish are regarded as a “model minority” within certain contexts. Being white, Christian and of European origin, the Amish have been much better accepted by the dominant section of mainstream society than are many other ethnic groups. Moreover, settling in the countryside and living with other Pennsylvania Dutch groups, the Amish are able to avoid much of the racial and ethnic conflicts as witnessed in urban America.

The Amish can further reduce clashes with mainstream society by not competing for political power, government-sponsored financial resources and educational opportunities. For example, while many Asian American parents feel frustrated because their qualified children are rejected by top universities, Amish parents dismiss the notion of higher education in the first place and are happy to see their children only complete the eighth grade. To the Amish, higher education is a waste of time and money. What’s the worse, higher education serves to consolidate “worldly ways” in the minds of the young.

The Amish as a model minority appeal to both the liberals and conservatives in mainstream society. They uphold conservative views on a number of issues such as taxes and abortion. On the other hand, the Amish attract the attention of the liberals with their insistence on minority rights, religious freedom and nature-friendliness. It is important to notice that, while mainstream Americans hold a positive image of Amish society, the Amish have a negative image of mainstream society. Many Amish think that mainstream society is associated with evils of greed, wastefulness and temptation to decadence. Their distrust and low opinions of the outside world are historically rooted, and the memories of their forbears’ sufferings in Europe are kept fresh by church leaders. In this century, the Amish encountered some difficult times with mainstream society, especially in the issue of school consolidation.

The Amish have been alarmed by the social problems in mainstream society. Family Life, a major Amish journal, regularly publish news items that highlight the “ills” of mainstream society. A typical item is as follows:

AIDS Cases In U.S.

More than 50,000 people in the U.S. have AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, including more than 20,000 Americans who contracted the disease in 1987, federal health officials reported last week.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that AIDS will strike 270,000 Americans and kill 179,000 by the end of 1991. The 20,620 new AIDS cases last year was up 58.5 percent from the 13,008 new cases in 1986.

This item is used to alert the Amish about the problems of the “world.” At any rate, news items of this type are effective as an educational tool. An Amish bishop abmitted that the AIDS plague in the larger society is the most powerful tool he can use to persuade Amish youth to join the church. He felt a great relief that the Amish would most likely be spared by the plague due to the practice of endogamy and conformity to strict sexual codes.

It seems to me that the sharp contrast between the Amish image in the American mind and the American image in the Amish mind actually contributes to the survival of the Amish. The positive attitudes towards the Amish, held by mainstream society, not only help create a benign and favorable atmosphere in which the Amish can survive, but also help the Amish people develop self-esteem and personal satisfaction. And the negative attitudes towards mainstream society held by the Amish enhance the Amish solidarity and help maintain a steady membership growth.

The Amish have made serious efforts to separate themselves from the “world.” Nevertheless, Amish society, though placed marginally, is an active and organic part of American society, and the very survival of the Amish depends on mainstream society. First of all, the United States is relatively tolerant of cultural diversity and religious differences. Without this relative tolerance, the existence of the Amish would be endangered. Second, America is endowed with a highly stable political system and an advanced economy, which are essential to the well-being of the Amish people. And, indeed, a country like China or Egypt cannot possibly sustain the current living standards of the Amish although the Amish lifestyle is regarded as “simple and plain” by the general American public. Third, the cultural atmosphere and environmental conditions of rural America, especially certain areas in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states, are suitable to the Amish. Fourth, Amish society relies on the larger society for various services such as health care, banking, legal service, schooling, communication, transportation and law enforcement.

Despite their negative attitudes towards mainstream society, the Amish are well aware of their dependence on the larger society. They understand that the relationship between the dominant majority and minority groups can be troublesome and strained. To reduce conflicts and avoid confrontation, the Amish have to exercise great care and alertness. When conflicts arise, they usually choose to use peaceful and passive means to resolve them.

Schreiber gives detailed accounts of the Ohio “Meidung” case in 1947, which can best serve as an example of Amish pacifism and passivism. In March 1947, Andrew Yoder, an Amish farmer, sued the bishop, two preachers and deacon of his district for organizing a boycott against him and asked $40,000 for damages. According to Yoder, the painful legal battle originated from transportation difficulty. One of Yoder’s daughters was afflicted with poliomyelitis and required frequent medical treatment. Having tired of hiring taxi drivers, Yoder bought a car in 1942 for the sake of the little girl. He had made a peaceful withdrawal from the Amish church and joined the Beachy Amish. Immediately, the Amish church issued a shunning order against Yoder. Yoder claimed that the shunning, which had been in effect for five years by 1947, had caused tremendous suffering as well as economic losses to his family. The trial was held in November 1947, with the courtroom filled to capacity. The four Amish defendants attended the trial without help from a lawyer and were legally unversed. The Common Pleas Court of Wooster located in Wayne County, Ohio arrived at a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him $5,000 and ordering the church to stop the shunning. The Amish leaders did not appeal, nor did they comply with the court order. Consequently, in December, the chattel property of the bishop was put on sale by the county sheriff, which brought tremendous humiliation to the bishop, but generated $2,276.51. In January 1948, the second defendant, one of the two preachers, delivered $2,939.04 to the sheriff’s office to cover the remainder of the $5,000 and other odd costs. There was an unofficial report that a sympathetic businessman, who had a lot of business transactions with the local Amish, donated the amount. The weight of the legal ordeal was unbearable. The second defendant and his wife both died in 1949, and the next year the first defendant followed them. Life for Andrew Yoder was difficult, also. His little girl died in the spring of 1949 after a brief illness, and Yoder continued to be shunned by the Amish.

This case clearly demonstrates the Amish people’s insistence on restraint, passivity and non-resistance. During the lengthy trial, the Amish leaders did not have a lawyer and were obviously unfamiliar with the legal procedures. And the tremendous humiliation of the Amish did not result in any form of further legal actions, mass demonstration or violence.

In comparison, some other religious groups took a different approach in dealing with the larger society, and the results were disastrous. Woodcock and Avakumovic, in their book about the Doukhobors, provide a case that reveals tension and conflicts between a small group of radicals and Canadian society. The Doukhobors are an ethnic-religious group that moved to Canada from Russia in the late nineteenth century. From 1923 to 1962, the Sons of Freedom, a radical minority of the Doukhobors, felt extremely indignant over the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government and frustrated by the trends towards materialism and assimilation as witnessed among the Doukhobors. On many occasions, the most devout members of the Sons of Freedom staged nude marches, burned down their shacks and destroyed belongings. A small group of extremists even destroyed public properties by arson and dynamiting with wristwatch-operated bombs and Molotov cocktails. These radical acts, which inevitably caused punitive reactions from the state, were not only self-destructive, but also created a very negative image about the Doukhobors as a whole in the Canadian mind.

FitzGerald has made detailed descriptions about the disintegration of the Rajneeshee community in Oregon. This group of red-clad people, led by an Indian guru, made aggressive political advances and imprudent shows of wealth and military power. For instance, the guru had over 60 Rolls-Royces and a band of armed escorts. The philosophy and actions of the Rajneeshees caused fear and anger in the local residents as well as displeasure from the state. These unsolvable tensions, in addition to despotic hierarchy, corruption and mismanagement, finally brought the community of radical social experiment to a collapse in 1985.

In contrast to the experiences of the Doukhobors and the Rajneeshees, the Amish preference for passive and peaceful means has generated beneficial results. Indeed, the Amish people have been able to maintain a largely peaceful relationship with mainstream society. The Amish still prefer to use passive means to deal with the state and regard such a stand as being wise and non-destructive. And, as a matter of course, the pacifism and passivism of the Amish are better accepted by the dominant section of mainstream society.


In this article, I have studied the reasons for the rising popularity of the Amish in contemporary U.S.A. First, the existence of Amish society accommodates an American nostalgia for rural ideals and “good old days.” When urban America is declining and American society as a whole fails to solve major social problems, this nostalgia becomes very strong. Second, Amish society, as an alternative, utopia-like community, has proved to be workable. Therefore, it provides a great inspiration and valuable lessons to the Americans who seek alternative ways of living. Third, the Amish are treated as a “new model minority.” Being white, Christian and of European origin, the Amish are more readily accepted by the dominant section of mainstream society than are many other ethnic groups. Moreover, the Amish, with their passivism, pacifism and disinterest in competing for political power and economic resources, do not constitute a challenge to the power elite in America.

It is true that the Amish have encountered some difficult times since they came to settle in North America, and they have good reasons to remain apprehensive of the encroachment from the larger society. Nonetheless, the Amish are not a historically subjugated and displaced minority. Unlike the Native Americans and Afro-Americans, they have largely been able to build and maintain an alternative community according to their own designs. The Amish experience is also very different from the Hispanic or Asian American experience.

It is obviously misleading to claim that other minority groups should adopt the Amish passivism. And it is an exaggeration to say that Amish society provides answer keys to all the major social problems in American society. Nonetheless, the Amish ethnic experience presents a different model and adds to our understanding of the complexity of racial and ethnic relations in America. And, more important, the Amish people can offer us some useful lessons, especially in community development, family life and organic farming.