The unprecedented rapid growth and dispersal of Amish communities throughout the U.S. is leading observers to ask whether this American religious tradition can hold together and retain its identity.
A report on the growth of new Amish communities in the Mennonite Quarterly Review (April) notes that while there has always been growth of new settlements, the pace of such establishments has sharply accelerated in the period 1990–2009. Over half of all surviving Amish communities today are less than two decades old. Authors Joseph Donnermeyer and Elizabeth Cooksey add that even after one accounts for the 14 settlements that were already extinct by the end of the 1990s, this “remarkable rate” means that one new settlement was founded approximately every three weeks during this period. Although the pace slowed in 2009 (probably due to the poor state of the economy), another nine settlements will be founded in 2010, including as many as five new communities in New York alone.
The spread of settlements to New York and other new areas such as Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois marks the new settlements, although there is also sharp growth in new settlements in already established areas of Ohio. Donnermeyer and Cooksey find that some difficulty has been experienced in expanding beyond the Midwest, New York and Pennsylvania. Generally, it is the proximity of other Amish communities that seems to be associated with the survival of the newly founded settlements. This pattern highlights the importance of assistance from and solidarity with other Amish communities and the network of extended family in ensuring these settlements’ survival. The researchers find a combination of “push and pull” factors behind the creation of new settlements, such as crowding (due to the high fertility rate of Amish) and the lure of less expensive farmland.
But they note that the dispersal of Amish communities beyond their heartland inevitably weakens the ties that bind Amish communities together. “The growing number of settlements means that each community must meet the challenges of living in places with differing physical climates, regional variations … and a bewildering array of regulations and laws.” The resulting differences can lead communities to conclude that they are no longer in fellowship with one another and “will inevitably lead to increased differentiation in all aspects of Amish society and culture.” In their new book, An Amish Paradox (Johns Hopkins University Press, $30), Charles E. Hurst and David McConnell focus on the country’s largest Amish settlement in Holmes County, Ohio, but they deliver a more positive prognosis of the religion’s cohesiveness and survival in North America as a whole.
The authors challenge the view that the growing diversity and modernization found in many Amish communities are weakening their religious commitment. They note that in Holmes County, Amish have adopted a wide range of innovations—from working in non-agricultural areas (including manufacturing and business) to using computers and modern means of travel. Schisms have long formed over the varying Amish adaptations to the modern world, but Hurst and McConnell argue that such involvement and the resulting organizational divisions have not greatly weakened cohesion among these believers.
They have developed the structures and events/ activities—mutual work projects, mission activities, weddings—that bring the wider community together. Even the new interaction with the non-Amish brought about by greater modernization is a twoway street. While such ties may encourage more individualism among the Amish, it is also the case that these believers may influence these fields, for instance, health centers adding “birthing centers” to accommodate Amish midwivery, public schools adding annexes for Amish students, and the Amish values of thrift and minimizing waste being carried into business settings.
(Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen College, 1700 S. Main St., Goshen, IN 46526)