Family Life: An Old Order Amish Manifesto

Marc A. Olshan

Marc A. Olshan, “Family Life: An Old Order Amish Manifesto,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 19), 143–60.

Marc A. Olshan was an associate professor of sociology at Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia, when this was published. He received his PhD from Cornell University, where he wrote his dissertation on the Old Order Amish as a model for development. He has studied Hebrew and taught at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The Old Order Amish [1] have rarely chosen to speak about themselves to the public at large. Instead, they have been willing to leave the task of explaining to the professional explainers and occasionally to enterprising neighbors whose only credential is their rural mailing address. Nor have the Amish generally proven to be willing collaborators with their would-be publicists. In fact, initial inquiries about the Amish way of life are likely to be answered with the Amishman’s own question, well designed to stop the enthusiastic researcher dead in his tracks: “What good would it do for you to know?” The question reflects a genuine skepticism implying that, compared to doing, little good can come from merely talking or writing. In any case, the typical Amish response is not intended to encourage conversation.

Another standard reaction is a disavowal of any knowledge about the investigator’s chosen topic: For example, “Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about organic farming (or horses, or the history of the settlement),” or “Well, I’m not much of a farmer (or blacksmith or Amishman).” This expression of humility, if accepted at face value, relieves the now self-disqualified Amishman of the burden of further questions. Sometimes he might even elaborate on this strategy by helpfully suggesting that Enos (or Moses or Levi), who lives “down the road a way,” is far more knowledgeable than he. The suggestion may bear fruit, but only in the form of an entertaining after-church conversation, for example, among members of the community about how they dealt with the stranger, and the degree of success they had in pawning him off on one another.

However, neither I nor, I suspect, many other researchers are fully deterred by this Maginot Line of disclaimers and counterquestions. We gather what information we can, and then proceed to turn out authoritative accounts of the Amish practices or beliefs in question. A few such accounts have found their way back to the Amish communities where they originated, and several have amused the people they claim to describe. In an article entitled “Who Are These People?” (Luthy, 1976: 13–14), the Amish author relates the “findings” of several researchers who misinterpreted or erroneously described Amish life. Their misconceptions of the Old Order portray a people who supposedly use battery-powered televisions but who rely on oxen-pulled farmcarts and are prohibited from bathing, reading newspapers, eating ice cream, or attending school.

Social scientists born into Amish households and who subsequently left the church have certainly made valuable contributions to our understanding of the Amish. But their interpretations too are colored and perhaps limited in some respects by their personal histories. Therefore, to truly understand the Amish we must listen to what the Amish have to say about themselves.

Amish Publications

In light of Amish reluctance to ponder with strangers about Amish life, we might do well to look for other vehicles through which the Amish express themselves. One such source of self-interpretations and descriptions are Amish publications, of which a surprising number exist. For the social scientist they represent fertile and, for the most part, previously unworked soil.

Two nationally circulated newspapers, The Budget [2] and Die Botschaft, [3] consist almost entirely of letters submitted by “scribes” representing almost all of the Amish and Mennonite communities in North America. Most often the letters are dominated by references to the weather, lists of visitors from other settlements, and descriptions of the mundane, seasonal tasks currently underway. Hosteller’s content analysis of The Budget (196: 91) provides an excellent summary of daily activities but is not particularly revealing of the Amish character. The Diary, a monthly published by an Old Order group in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, also prints news from Amish settlements but features historical and genealogical articles as well.

The several hundred genealogies that have been privately published by Amish families reflect a strong and pervasive interest in family history. Many of these genealogies are printed by the Amish-operated Gordonville Print Shop in Pennsylvania. This shop also publishes the minutes of the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, some texts used in Amish schools, and Raber’s New American Almanac, which lists Old Order church officials for each settlement.

All of these publications offer potential insights into who the Amish are. I would argue, however, that the publications most expressive of Amish concerns and values are those produced by Pathway Publishers in Aylmer, Canada. The usefulness of these publications stems from their introspective character and from a format that encourages and draws heavily on readers’ contributions. All three Pathway periodicals feature several columns comprised totally of letters from readers.

Blackboard Bulletin, another Amish publication, serves as a forum for Amish teachers to share teaching techniques, philosophies, and opinions. In the same magazine, letters from ex-teachers, parents, and pupils are published. In addition, a regular feature solicits readers’ opinions regarding a particular issue or question (e.g., “Does a teacher have the right to forbid things at school that he thinks are wrong, especially if these are not in the ordnung [rules of the church]?”) Then replies are printed two issues later. Inspirational articles and poems, announcements of teachers’ meetings, and some materials for classroom use (such as stories to read aloud) are also included. The Bulletin is published monthly except in June and July.

Young Companion is a magazine geared toward school-age or “young people.” It offers serialized stories, readers’ comments on articles from previous months. It also includes a “Let’s Talk It Over” section in which readers give their opinions regarding a question posed two months earlier (for example, “How should we react when tourists try to take our picture?”). Poems and short nonfiction articles are also published.

Family Life is the most general of the three publications. Farming techniques, relations with non-Amish neighbors, the history of Amish settlements, and the appropriate role of women are some representative subjects. Its editorials, new items, didactic stories, and how-to articles deal with any topic that might interest Amish fathers, mothers, and children. The mission of Family Life is explicit: “The promotion of Christian living with special emphasis on the appreciation of our heritage.” David Wagler, one of the founding editors of Pathway Publishers, elaborated on that mission in the first issue of Family Life.

The family is the heart of the community and the church. Even a nation is made up of families. If there is a strong family life, then the church, the community, and the nation will be likewise. If family life degenerates, then all will suffer. . . . This is the goal of Family Life—to be an instrument through which thoughts and ideas can be transmitted. (Wagler, 196: 3.)

Constraints of time and resources force the selection and analysis of a single feature in one of the Pathway Publications. Family Life is the logical choice because it has the largest circulation of the three and because of the more representative character of its readership. Further analysis reveals that the feature in Family Life generating the greatest volume of reader response that might reveal Amish values and concerns is a column called “What Do You Think?” [4]

The column first appeared in the October, 1970, issue of Family Life as a subheading of another column, “Across the Windowsill,” which featured recipes and suggestions regarding household chores and raising children. “Across the Windowsill” itself dates back to the January, 196, inaugural issue of Family Life and, from the beginning, solicited “contributions of original ideas [and] items of interest” from readers. Letters responding to this appeal were printed under the heading of “Some Mothers Write.” Many of those letters expressed a desire to know if other mothers were having problems similar to those noted in the letters, or could offer opinions or solutions. The column’s author, “Aunt Becky,” encouraged such exchanges: “There are probably hundreds of other mothers who are struggling with the same problem. If you have a question, let the readers also answer it. Or if there is something you would like to bring up for discussion, do so.” (“Across the Windowsill,” 1970: 37.) The enthusiastic response and the desire among readers to discuss a broad spectrum of family and community issues soon required the creation of a separate “What Do You Think?” column.

Beginning with the February, 1971, issue of Family Life, “What Do You Think?” printed readers’ comments regarding a specific question or dilemma that had been offered for consideration two months previously. In addition to the responses, the column prints a new question submitted by a reader, which will generate letters to be published two months later, and so on.

Content Analysis of Amish Letters

A manifesto is usually defined as a public declaration or proclamation issued by a central political authority of some kind. Such a declaration would be anathema to the Amish not only on the grounds of its public nature, but also in its assumption of the existence of a central authority entitled to speak for the Amish as a group. Yet Family Life does provide, through its readers’ letters, a public declaration, albeit one which was not intended as such. And, to the extent that those letters are representative of the Amish in general, they constitute a far more authoritative expression of Amish concerns and values than any outside observer could provide. The word manifesto has another meaning which is even more germane. It originally signified a proof or a piece of evidence. That is exactly what these letters represent, a heretofore unexamined piece of evidence that will shed additional light on the Amish character. Note, then, that the analysis presented here is both preliminary and limited in its objectives. It will only attempt to identify what values the readers’ letters reflect and the frequency with which they are mentioned. A logical step beyond this descriptive level would be a comparison of these findings with data from similar non-Amish materials.

A second objective will be to test the proposition that the Amish exemplify in any significant way the characteristics of a folk society. I have argued elsewhere (Olshan, 191) that the Amish worldview and Amish institutions are, in fact, essentially modern. My assertion is based on an acceptance of Peter Berger’s definition of modernity: “Modernity means . . . that men take control over the world and over themselves. What previously was experienced as fate now becomes an arena of choices.” (Berger, 1974: 21, emphasis in the original.) The nature of the debate and dialogue that fill the pages of the various Pathway publications, particularly the reader response features, should illuminate this character. The mere existence of a “What Do You Think?” column would appear to be antithetical to the uncritical, unreflective, and tradition-oriented nature of a folk people.

An analysis of the column’s content should allow us to more accurately assess the degree to which the Amish perceive themselves to be either as confronted with choices or as actors whose lines have already been written, living in a world where “the old is the best, and the new is of the devil.”

The approach taken in examining this second dimension of readers’ letters will also be rudimentary. I will attempt to tally explicitly positive references to the role of tradition or the need to adhere to the old ways, and other statements which clearly imply similar meanings. I will do the same with references that either advocate the need for change in traditional practices or which express a view of life involving choices in how to live.

Given even these limited objectives, several methodological problems present themselves. For example, some of the letters are written by non-Amish readers. About 50 percent of Family Life’s subscribers are not members of Old Order churches. I believe, however, that most such authors can be identified by the content of their letters. A mention of any practice or equipment that would be proscribed by Old Order communities (such as driving a car or using an electric stove) will remove the letter from consideration. Many non-Amish writers seem to feel obligated to identify themselves as such, thus reducing the problem still further.

Another problem, which is not so easily resolved, is the editing of letters. In some cases, the column’s editors note that letters duplicating the reasoning in published letters either were not published or were published only in part. In other cases, responses that the editors deemed inappropriate were not printed. I am not aware of the exact extent of either of these practices. From a casual knowledge of the Pathway operation, however, I estimate they only have a moderate impact (at worst) on the frequency with which the various values appear.

Whether the letters are representative or typical of the entire Old Order population also depends on the degree of self-selection between writers and nonwriters. There is clearly some self-selection on the basis of sex; of the authors that can be positively identified, there are more females than males. But in many cases neither the content nor the manner in which the writer is identified in the column indicates sex. Most often letters are signed only with a set of initials or the name of a town or state. Self-selection may also take place along other diverse dimensions such as degree of conservatism, geography, income, or degree of literacy.

Pathway Publications subscribers in general cannot be treated as totally representative of the Old Order. Members of the most conservative Amish church districts would be less likely to subscribe. However, with a monthly circulation of over 14,000 (at least half of which represents Amish subscribers), Family Life probably reaches almost half of the approximately 15,000 Old Order households in North America. Moreover, because copies are shared within and between families, the above circulation figure should be treated as an extremely conservative estimate of readership. At the very least we can infer Family Life subscribers are not limited to a few atypical subgroups within the Old Order.

A further problem derives from the nature of the method itself rather than from the specific materials being examined here. One advantage of content analysis is that it allows the objective classification and quantification of data which might otherwise be left in the realm of the impressionistic. Inherent in that process, however, is the unavoidable step of interpretation that inevitably precedes the classification of any qualitative material. The problem of making erroneous inferences can be obviated to a large extent by attempting to analyze only statements that explicitly express or clearly imply personal values, or what the writer thinks ought to be valued. The same conservative approach will be taken in classifying statements as expressive of a traditional or modern stance. In other words, latent content or “the deeper layer of meaning” will be completely ignored and even that part of the manifesto content that does not self-evidently reflect a value position (or reveal a distinctly folk or modern worldview) will not be considered.

The array of methodological problems listed above is formidable. I am, however, treating this undertaking as supplementary to other research based on other methods. Even though the conclusions of this study must be severely qualified by the limitations of its method, the opportunity to even partially illuminate a facet of Amish life should not be ignored. So I will proceed.

The recording unit used is the theme or “the assertion of a value.” The context unit selected, “the largest body of content that may be searched to characterize a recording unit” (Holsti, 1969: 11), consists of the entire letter submitted by any individual. Letters vary considerably in length so that values (or worldviews) repeatedly espoused in a single letter by the more prolix writers might be disproportionately weighted. In practice, however, the longer letters tend to include descriptive and illustrative material, which usually does not qualify as a clear expression of a value (or folk vs. modern worldview) and therefore will not be coded.

Selection of Categories

The use of previously developed categories would be advantageous for at least two reasons. One, continuity of categories would facilitate comparison with other analyses measuring the same phenomena. And two, it would also relieve the researcher of the considerable task of delineating his own categories from scratch. Consequently, I examined several earlier attempts to identify and categorize values I hoped I would be able to build on. My search for an appropriate set of already existing categories was frustrated by what I believe is a systematic bias in the approach of social scientists to values.

Illustrating the character of this bias is Hadley Cantril’s international survey of what he refers to as “human concerns.” [5] Cantril claims to have avoided forcing respondents into making selections among arbitrary categories of concerns by asking the following open-ended question:

All of us want certain things out of life. When you think about what really matters in your own life, what are your wishes and hopes for the future? In other words, if you imagine your future in the best possible light, what would your life look like then, if you are to be happy? (1965: 23.)

Then, based on the responses received to a preliminary survey, categories of concerns were developed. Cantril’s claim is that the individual is totally free to define for himself, in his own terms, what concerns him, and what he values. The bias derives, however, from the character of the question itself, which essentially directs the respondent to limit his consideration to worldly concerns. To the devout of various religions the question of what constitutes a happy life is downright irrelevant. Although the question might eventually be answered, as most questions in an interview are, for such individuals the responses will not be valid indicators of “what really matters.” The wording of Cantril’s question more or less precludes consideration of spiritual or transcendental concerns. It is no surprise, then, that of the dozens of categories resulting from a tabulation of responses, only two included even passing references to such concerns: “Miscellaneous aspirations having to do with public service or with religion or morality where the reference is not restricted to self or family” and “Resolution of one’s own religious, spiritual, or ethical problems.” (1965: Appendix A.)

Ralph White’s “value analysis” categories (1947) contain no reference whatsoever to spiritual concerns. Holsti lists several other sets of value categories used in content analysis that mention spiritual concerns only tangentially (Lasswell’s category of rectitude and Cochran’s mention of religion as a subheading under “general problems of society”) (Holsti, 1969: 10–11).

In one open-ended survey of the hopes of the American people, two types of explicitly religious responses turned up with sufficient frequency to merit their own categories: “Resolution of personal religious, spiritual, or ethical problems; gaining admittance to heaven”; and “Christian revival in general” (Watts and Free in Laszlo, 1977: 25). Such broad classifications, however, would be of little use in differentiating the content of the Amish letters, almost all of which would qualify for inclusion in both categories.

Likewise, Robin Williams’s discussion of fifteen major value orientations in America includes a “moral orientation” category (1970: 452–500). While at least acknowledging the influence of moral and religious concerns, such a comprehensive designation does not provide any discriminatory power in classifying the materials at hand. The same can be said for Rokeach’s Value Survey, which includes the single category “salvation” to account for all transcendental concerns (Feather, 1975: 20). McCready and Greeley’s (1976) typology of ultimate values deals almost entirely with transcendental concerns, but their categories represent attitudinal complexes and are not helpful in characterizing discrete expressions of values.

This relatively fruitless search of the literature required that I devise my own set of categories. I developed the categories after an informal preliminary reading of a large sample of letters. They are not only devoid of almost all values that most frequently appeared in similar analyses (such as a comfortable life, an exciting life, equality, security, freedom, happiness, pleasure, independence) but are, to a large extent, antithetical to such values. It was not my intent to exclude secular concerns; they simply did not appear very often.

Table 1: Description of Value Categories

I. Discipline and Submission

A. To God. Doing and being content with God’s will, fearing and loving God. (E.g., “You are not the first one to be a victim of circumstances. But please do not forget to be content with the blessing which God has promised: namely, food, raiment, and shelter.”)

B. Of children to parents. Obedience and proper training. (E.g., “After the will has been conquered [and this should be done for the most part by the age of two], they will be ready to absorb your teachings from the Bible.”)

C. To rules of the church. Honoring one’s promise to live by the ordnung. (E.g., “How much easier it is for the Bishop and ministers if we all try to do our duty and stay under the church rules. We make a promise to live according to those rules when we join the church, and we all have to be true to that promise.)

II. Maintaining a Distance from the World

A. Guidance from God. Acting from pure or spiritual motives, as informed by prayer, rather than worldly motives. (E.g., “Ask the Lord for strength and guidance so you may not make the same mistakes.”)

B. Guidance from the Bible. Acting in accordance with biblical precepts and standards. (E.g., “The Bible is still our best and most stable guide.”)

C. Quietness and plainness/avoidance of worldly practices. Eschewing worldly standards and practices and emphasizing those that are uniquely Amish. (E.g., “I also think it is wrong to have images, knick-knacks, and photographs, and believe we should all work harder to keep our houses plain and simple and consistent with our dress.”)

III. Valuing Others

A. Sympathy/understanding/patience/love/forgiveness. Striving for these qualities, regardless of the attributes of the other party. (E.g., “I believe that love and prayer are stronger tools than fault-finding and criticism.”)

B. Respect/humility. Looking for the best in others and keeping in mind one’s own limitations. (E.g., “Let us look on the good things our loved ones do instead of finding fault.”)

C. Sharing/helping/offering hospitality. Freely and willingly engaging in these activities. (E.g., “God wants to use people to help to provide for each other’s needs.”)

IV. Family and Marriage

These institutions, especially through the opportunities they provide for working and praying together. (E.g., “Nothing is more pleasant than when married couples get along well.”) V. Community and Church

These institutions and the fellowship, unanimity, and support they represent. (E.g., “We go to church to grasp something, a bit of comfort, a bit of help, something to think on that will help us through the next week.”)

VI. Salvation

The salvation of one’s soul. (E.g., “My goal in life is not material possessions but eternal life for my husband, children and myself.”)

VII. Privacy.

Being alone (either as a family or an individual) and away from the scrutiny of others. (E.g., “These are the times when I would like to live way back in the mountains where nobody sees or cares what I’m doing.”)


A ten-year period, from February of 1971 to January of 191, was examined. All letters printed in the “What Do You Think?” column during this time were analyzed. The frequency with which each of the value categories was mentioned is reported in Table 2. The category “Privacy” does not appear in the final tally. In fact, it was mentioned only eight times. Other values mentioned more than once, but not frequently enough to justify including them in the list of value categories, were (numbers in parentheses indicate frequency) submissiveness of wife to husband (), [6] frugality (6), honesty (6), the satisfaction of hard work (5), being content with one’s lot (5), farm life (4), and serving as a light or example to the world (3).

Table 2. Frequencies of References to Value Categories

 Discipline and Submission  Maintaining Distance from World  Valuing Others Family/MarriageCommunity/ChurchSalvation
To GodOf Children to ParentsTo Rules of ChurchGuidance from GodGuidance from BibleQuiet/Plain, Avoid Worldly PracticesSympathy, Love, Forgiveness, etc.Respect/HumilitySharing/Helping   

Certainly the subject matter of any given question does, in part, determine the type of value most likely to be invoked. One can see, however, from the diversity of subjects covered (see Appendix), that there were ample opportunities to express whatever values were held.

The attempt to identify explicit expressions of a pro-tradition or anti-tradition attitude was unsuccessful. A rejection of grandfather’s traditional practices, for example, might be based on a resurrection of even earlier traditions. One writer argued that “We should compare our traditions and standards handed down to us with the Perfect Pattern and prove all things thereby.” The topic of immediate concern in this case was the practice of feeding children snacks in church to keep them quiet. Even though this is a traditional practice, the writer reasons it is wrong.

Similarly, with regard to the practices of “bed courtship” and the raising of tobacco, one reader states, “I am glad for those who are writing to work on the situation, instead of saying, ‘Oh, we’ve always had it, so what can we do now?’”

Although explicit references to tradition are rare and, furthermore, difficult to classify as being either critical or supportive of tradition, the letters do shed some light on the role of tradition in Amish life. As seen in Table 2, readers often expressed the need to search for answers, either from the Bible or directly from God through prayer. This search was sometimes portrayed as an emotional and even tormenting experience. So, to the extent that the appropriateness of individual behavior and communal institutions is determined by reference to ultimate values as revealed in the Bible and through prayer (rather than by reference to the practices of past generations), the Amish are accurately characterized as wertrational (value-rational) rather than traditional.

Truly traditional behavior, in Weber’s typology, is based on the habituation of long practice. It is often a matter of almost automatic reaction to habitual stimuli in a course that is repeatedly followed. Traditional or reactive behavior is based on an unself-conscious respect for the sanctity of the existing order. It “lies very close to the borderline of what can justifiably be called meaningfully oriented action, and indeed often on the other side.” (Weber, 1964: 116.) Whatever values might be invoked as evidence of a traditional orientation (such as submission to the rules of the church and emphasizing uniquely Amish practices), they are more than offset by the number of references to ultimate values or sources of guidance, which require individual interpretation rather than unthinking adherence to past practices.


This analysis “rests on the assumption that cultural values which have been institutionalized in certain segments of the society are represented in the communications of individuals from those segments” (Riley and Stoll, 196: 373). Therefore, an evaluation of Amish-authored letters should yield a fuller understanding of what values are most important to the Amish. That evaluation reveals a set of values that in some respects varies significantly from the representations of those who have described Amish society. For example, in describing the Amish “charter” (the fundamental values and common ends recognized and accepted by the people), Hostetler includes the values of humility, stewardship, submission, marriage, family, children, a disciplined life, sharing, hospitality, separation from the world, and closeness to nature (Hostetler, 190: 76). In his much less comprehensive account, Kephart (192: 51–53) mentions simplicity, humility, conformity within the community, and separation from the world.

While these values are generally consistent with the findings presented here, the listings fail to indicate priorities and are too abstract to convey their significance for the Amish.

For example, Hostetler, Kephart, and other commentators all cite the value placed on being separate from the world. However, the unrelenting tension and struggle implied by adherence to that value have been, for the most part, overlooked. The wording of the category used here—”maintaining a distance from the world”—was deliberately selected to convey more accurately the significance for the Amish of being separate. All three components of this most frequently mentioned value represent a constant and purposeful rejection of the values and standards of “the world.” In the words of one Amish writer, “The Christian life is a warfare.”

The supposed placidness and passiveness of Amish life must be questioned. Separation from the world is not a static position that, once chosen, removes the newly baptized church member into a mythical Amishland, free from contact with the world and its problems. The truth of the matter is the Amish are not physically separated from the rest of the world. In fact, even the largest Amish settlements are located in counties where the Amish are a small minority. [7] Passing automobiles and airplanes, electric lines, junk mail, salespeople, customers, employers, doctors, bankers, and an array of inspectors and other government officials are all a daily part of Amish life. Because contact with the world is constant, separation from the world is achieved only through constant struggle.

Each Amish person decided as an adult to become Amish; this choice must be reaffirmed each day after the baptism following that decision. To waver, to stop actively struggling, is to stop being Amish. What evolves then, and is demonstrated in the Family Life letters as well as in face to face dealings with “worldly” people, is a communal confidence that falls just short of self-righteousness. This communal certainty is often balanced, however, by individual self-doubt regarding one’s own ability to live up to Amish standards. The letters often reveal an agonized attempt to determine the correct, spiritual course of action. Prayer and biblical guidance were most often advocated as the best means to live, in the words of one writer, “a victorious Christian life.”

The analysis of Family Life letters provides a fuller understanding of two other dimensions of the Amish character: (1) it shows an unexpected emphasis being placed on valuing other individuals, and (2) it demonstrates an equally unexpected paucity of references to the community and salvation. The value placed on sympathy, understanding, patience, love, and forgiveness may be another symptom of just how difficult it is to be Amish. A recognition of the need for these qualities is most likely born out of the inherent tension of being “in the world but not of it.”

A preference for the less abstract “Sharing, helping, and hospitality” and “Submission to the Rules of the Church” categories may account in part for the relatively few References to “Community and church” (or Gemeinde). Similarly, the category “Family” is also closely related to the submission of children to parents. In the case of both sets of values, the distribution is significant to the extent that it reflects Amish perceptions rather than typologies that are derived primarily from alien worldviews.

A final insight into Amish life that can be gleaned from the “What Do You Think?” column is the role of Family Life itself. Its supportive function in the ongoing struggle of simply being Amish is evident from the comments of numerous readers. The following references to Family Life were embedded in answers to various questions submitted over the entire ten-year period examined:

“It lifts our spirits so and makes us feel we are not alone on this road.”

“[The Pathway magazines] always make me feel happier and I want to try harder to be a better person after reading them.”

“Reading Family Life shows us others also have these problems.”

“Thanks for the many articles in Family Life about the wearing of the covering. To me this is like a cup of hot soup on a cold day.”

The magazine’s influence is not limited to the kind of psychological support indicated here. Readers also pointed out that Family Life might play a role in resolving interpersonal disputes, or in helping to set community standards:

“I believe if the parents in your community are at all concerned about teaching their children the right way, your letter in Family Life may have already accomplished much toward the solution.”

“What would I do with neighbors who are continually misusing their borrowing privileges? I’d give them the October issue of Family Life.”

The extent of Family Life’s influence is extremely problematic because, whatever its extent, that influence might be viewed by some as a threat to the community autonomy, which is one cornerstone of the Amish church.

This analysis was undertaken as a contribution toward deepening our understanding of the Amish by examining what some Amish had to say for themselves and about themselves. Their testimony helps reveal the dynamic and demanding character of Amish life. The Amish are not a people suspended in time, drifting in the past. They are a people actively attempting to govern their lives according to their own standards. Perhaps it is the larger society that can be more fairly described as drifting unthinkingly and uncritically toward ends that have not been agreed on or even fully considered.

APPENDIX: Sample Questions to Which Readers Responded (1980)
Date of QuestionParaphrase of Question
JanuaryShouldn’t the family have a daily Bible reading in the home?
FebruaryTo what extent should we limit our farming or business activities on Sunday?
MarchIsn’t it wrong for small groups of women to gather before or after church and whisper and laugh while glancing at others around the room?
AprilDoes the church have the right to restrict families from moving into a settlement?
MayDoes the biblical teaching against women speaking in church apply to the teaching or preaching of the word only, or does it also include giving a voice in church matters?
JuneIsn’t it wrong for ministers to chew gum before and during church services?
JulyIs it wrong to charge interest on a loan to younger members of the church struggling to make ends meet when I don’t really need the money to get by?
August–SeptemberAfter moving to a new settlement where we have no relatives we often feel homesick. Are we too closely attached to our relatives?
OctoberWe have some farm equipment that needs changing to meet church standards. We want to do it, but it seems so expensive. Are there hidden blessings we are cheating ourselves out of by waiting too long?
NovemberOur handicapped child is gaped at and picked on by other children. The child sometimes shows off or fights back. Should be punish our child? How can we deal with the other children?
DecemberShould a woman go ahead and assume responsibilities that are usually the man’s if he doesn’t fulfill them? Should she initiate the Bible reading or outside work or would she be going outside of her calling?


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Feather, N. T. 1975. Values in Education and Society. New York: The Free Press.

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Luthy, D. 197. “A History of the Budget.” Family Life (June): 19–22 and (July): 15–1.

McCready, W., and A. M. Greeley. 1976. The Ultimate Values of the American Population. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

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[1] There is no single, formally organized group known as the Old Order Amish. The term encompasses many relatively diverse and autonomous churches.

[2] For additional background information see “A History of the Budget” (Luthy, 1978).

[3] Die Botschaft is an English-language weekly started in 1975 in response to the increasing number of letters from liberal, non-Amish contributors. The Budget printed such letters, along with some of the commercial advertising which was thought to have a harmful effect on the Old Order communities. Letters in Die Botschaft come from Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities only.

[4] The column was discontinued with the April 1983 issue of Family Life.

[5] While “concerns” are not synonomous with “values,” Cantril’s explication of his own work indicates that he is treating them as such. The scale he developed “was utilized in this study as a means of discovering the spectrum of values a person is preoccupied or concerned with and by means of which he evaluates his own life.” (Cantril, 1965: 22.)

[6] The issue of the wife’s submissiveness to the husband was mentioned far more often than eight times. However, the value was most often presented as conditional on the husband’s own submission to God. Those references were not interpreted as establishing that the wife’s submissiveness was itself valued.

[7] The largest concentration of Amish is in the five-county area centered in Holmes County, Ohio. The roughly 23,000 Amish living in that area comprise about 4 percent of the total population of Holmes, Wayne, Coshocton, Tuscarawas, and Stark counties. In the second largest settlement, located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Amish also make up about 4 percent of the county’s population. Both estimates are based on an average of 199 people per church district (Hostetler, 1980: 99), and a total of 114 districts in the Holmes County area and 77 districts in Lancaster County (New American Almanac, 1984).