Donald Kraybill on The Amish (Encore Presentation)
Date: July 16th, 2017

Most people might be able to identify an Amish person as someone who drives a horse and buggy, but how much do we really know about this ethno-religious group?  Prof. Donald Kraybill, the Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, helps to fill out our understanding of this fascinating community.  The conversation also includes various references to Mennonites, both the modern, mainstream version and the “horse and buggy” (or Old Order) Mennonite community.  (Note: While the term “horse and buggy” Mennonite may sound like a stereotypical reference term, Dr. Kraybill explains his use of this term.)

After sharing his (not-so-positive) thoughts on the TV series The Amish Mafia, Prof. Kraybill covers the historical background of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, discussing their European (Swiss and German) roots in the Anabaptist movement and how they became differentiated in 1693.  We follow their progress of migration out of Europe and explore why there are few (if any) Amish and Old Order Mennonite settlements in Europe today.  Religious persecution pushed many of these religious adherents to the Americas in the early 18th century, with Pennsylvania’s attractive environment of religious freedom being a large attractor.  Even though we often associate central Pennsylvania with the Amish today, Don notes that there are Amish and “horse and buggy” Mennonite communities existing in 31 US states today.  Tony discovers that these groups are more widespread and numerous than he thought, with about 40 different Amish “tribes” in existence across the country.

Our focus then turns to the cultural and theological practices of the Amish specifically.  We review the reasons for men’s bears, the long hair and covering of women, distinctive clothing, the aversion to electricity and automobiles, and language.  Don explains how the stereotypical image of “no electricity usage” is misplaced.  While the Amish refuse to be connected to “the power grid” as they view it as a means of pulling the community apart (likewise with autos), they are known to use diesel engines, batteries, and even solar panels to power machine tools, coffee makers, and even photocopiers!  Prof. Kraybill also explains those popular images of horse teams pulling John Deere farming equipment, a question referred to us by Doug Johnston.  Our discussion here also covers Gene Sjoberg’s question on closed-community marriage and the myth of “rumspringa.”

Prof. Kraybill also answers a number of questions submitted by listeners such as Dave Dixon and Bud Kellstedt pertaining to Amish and Mennonite theology.  He explains why most Amish and Mennonites should not be labeled as “evangelical” (as is sometimes done in social science research) and the theological authority structure of these communities.  The Amish and Old Order Mennonites do not have a structured system of theological education, although more modern Mennonites do maintain a seminary and professional clergy.  We also dip a bit into views of soteriology and other theological beliefs.

We finish the interview with a discussion of how the Amish relate to the non-Amish communities around them.  We answer Adam Gurri’s question on how the Amish have diversified their economies over the past several decades, with a lower percentage of Amish engaged in farming relative to other enterprises.  Nonetheless, Don points out that the recent trend of consumers favoring “locally grown” produce has also provided a boon to these Old Order Anabaptists.  We also review the 2006 Nickel Mines School shooting and how the Amish reacted with forgiveness, rather than vengeance.  This allows Tony to ask Don a closing question about what he has learned from his study of the Amish throughout his career.  Rocky Barkington, the official Golden Retriever mascot of Research on Religion, makes several guest appearances on this episode.  Recorded: May 2, 2014.


Donald Kraybill’s bio at Elizabethtown College.

Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

The Amish, by Donald Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven Nolt.

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher.

The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher.

Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats of Humility in a Postmodern World, by Donald Kraybill and James Hurd.

Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Brethren, by Donald Kraybill.

See a full list of Prof. Kraybill’s books and other writings at his biographical link above.


 David Smith on Episodic Religious Persecutions.

Mike McBride on the Economics of Religious Leadership.

Mike McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormons.

Ron Mock on Pacifism, War, and Terrorism.

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