Who wants to join the Plain Mennonites and Amish? The real seekers of Anabaptist life

The Amish touched the world in their response to a shooting spree in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., in 2006. The indelible images of “plain people” who had lost their children attending the killer’s funeral and hugging his widow and other members of his family were a testament to the human capacity for love and forgiveness.

Flash forward a few years: The bottom feeders of reality TV are manufacturing a different image in shows such as “Breaking Amish” and “Amish Mafia,” where stripper poles, lap dances and revenge take center stage. “Like a bully who can spot his next victim, reality television has set its beady eyes on the Amish,” declared a television review in The New York Times.

Yet even though it is not a fair fight – with plain Anabaptist communities choosing a path of non-resistance – there is a growing interest in their simple lifestyle that emphasizes faith and community over fame, technology and wealth.

Who today would want to join the Plain Mennonites or Amish?

Young women, Baptists and seekers who have personal contact with Anabaptist life are some of the more likely candidates, according to a new study.

Distinctive, stable communities that place faith and family life at the forefront present an attractive alternative to some people, especially young adults, who appear to be seeking a genuine alternative to a modern world that glorifies technology, consumerism and secular lifestyles, suggests researcher Cory Anderson of Ohio State University.

“What group better serves as an antithesis to contemporary youth culture than the plain Anabaptists?” asks Anderson, who surveyed nearly 1,000 people interested in Anabaptist communities. He presented the study at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York.

Building Amish

Expect no great rush of people converting to Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite communities that in work, dress and communal life are separate in varying degrees from the larger culture. These communities trace their origins to a movement in 16th-century Europe that in general emphasized adult baptism and separation of church and state. They set demanding membership standards. Their growth is largely due to relatively high birth rates.

Anderson estimates there are only 1,200 to 1,300 first-generation members among the approximately 500,000 members of such communities in the U.S.

But that number has been growing in recent years as more people seek the plain life, in part lured by the utopian vision of a simpler, family-oriented lifestyle depicted in Amish romance novels, tourism sites, news features and some popular films.

“While … there is no grand social relocation to plain Anabaptist sects,” Anderson says, “the number of ‘outsiders’ seriously entertaining membership with these groups and the number actually joining have increased in recent decades.”

Anderson’s study is based on a survey of people who visited his Anabaptist website seeking information about “plain” churches in their area. Over 18 months, he gathered data from 953 people who made serious inquiries.

The results provide insights into what types of people are attracted to “plain Anabaptist” life and what draws their interest. Some of the key findings include:

• Younger adults and women had the strongest interest. In a nation where worshipers are significantly older than the general population, the largest proportion of inquiries came from people up to age 34. It was not until ages 54 and older that the percentage of people who inquire was underrepresented relative to the general population. About six in 10 inquiries were by women.
• Among religious traditions, Baptists and other evangelical Christians were the most likely to express serious interest. Evangelicals were two-and-a-half times more likely than mainline Protestants to be inquirers.
• Having a strong community, being serious about following the Bible and leading a Christian life and a commitment to modesty were the elements of plain Anabaptist life that were most attractive, with about two-thirds of those who expressed interest citing those attributes. They also were drawn by the strong family lives and traditional culture and simple lifestyle of plain Anabaptists.

“I am a Christian. I don’t like the way the English teenagers live. I have always treasured the simple life and the way the Amish live and am looking to hopefully become Amish when I’m old enough,” said one teen who described herself as “a modest young lady.”

The reality gap

Perceptions of plain Anabaptists have been evolving since the period after World War II and into the 1950s when Amish-themed tourism and some academics promoted a sense of urgency in connecting with these communities associated with the nation’s rural past “while they are still around,” noted historian Steven Nolt of Goshen College in Indiana.

As many of the communities grew, attention began to shift from questions about their survival to focus on the simple lifestyle of these groups in contrast to the emphasis on technology in the larger culture, including the space race. In the 1970s, when shortages produced long lines at the gas pumps, the Amish seemed to be people “ironically ahead of everyone else,” Nolt said.

More recently, the Amish response to the school shooting in Nickel Mines demonstrated the theological values of plain Anabaptists are taken seriously. Still, some cable TV shows and other popular portrayals seek to depict Amish leaders as hypocrites. Analysts theorize that these negative depictions reassure individuals tempted to measure their own lives in relation to plain Anabaptists that such ideals of communal harmony are not realistic.

The reality, of course, is that plain Anabaptists are neither perfect saints nor petty tyrants. What is also true is that, while plain Anabaptists struggle with universal temptations such as ambition and envy, they have created thriving religious communities dedicated to directing their lives toward God.

And, as Anderson’s study indicates, this lifestyle is appealing to many different groups. Women inquirers, for example, were positively correlated with the emphasis on a strong family life. Evangelical inquirers were particularly attracted to the Anabaptists’ seriousness in following the Bible and their perceived similarity to early Christianity.

There are enough reality TV characters such as Snooki and “The Situation” from MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and the Kardashians celebrating fame and excess. Few “outsiders” will actually join plain Anabaptist communities, but their enduring witness provides a simpler, spiritual alternative that a growing number of Americans appear to be seeking.

Explore the Mennonite denominational family tree.

9 Responses to “Who wants to join the Plain Mennonites and Amish? The real seekers of Anabaptist life”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Last year, I published an eBook about the Amish Lifestyle in German and noted surprisongly high and increasing demand. We now made it available in paper, too, as more and more people asked about it. Note the irony: People are using modern technology to get informations about the plain people!

  2. Jay says:

    I read recently that there are also ‘plain Catholic’ groups forming.

  3. Donna McClure says:

    I hope that many “English” will join these communities. The Amish and the Mennonites represent a real and welcome alternative to our increasingly technlogically-centered lives, where people at adjacent desks email or text each other. How real is that?

    The increasing gulf between the haves and the have nots, with most of the produced wealth going to the rich, whose representatives are set on reducing food stamps, beggars the days of Dicken’s debtor’s prisons. Even prisons in the USA are run for profit.

    I am an older American, and wonder if I will live to see the day that the value of community and respect for others returns to the USA.

    Thank you for this article.

    Donna McClure

    PS Also: new members would be good for the genetics of the Amish and the Mennonites!

  4. Bill says:

    A significant part of the appeal of these communities would also be their agrarian values. It seems to me that lots of folks these days are seeking ways to opt out of our industrial society and to live more sustainably and in harmony with nature.

  5. Henry Troyer says:

    Many “English” people speak very approvingly of the Amish people, and I am aware of a certain fraction who express some degree of interest in joining the Amish. There are however, mighty few who actually follow through and join the Amish with membership. Most people become discouraged from joining when they begin to see the Amish from the inside. The Amish life is not paradise — far from it. In the latest Ohio Amish Directory, I can only find 3 out of the 6700 households who were outsiders joining the Amish. When they do join, they are most likely to join the New Order Amish than any of the other 5 or 6 horse-and-buggy Amish sects of Holmes County.

  6. Steven Plumlee says:

    I would say I also am attracted to the Amish and Mennonite way of life. After watching some youtube videos online of their lifestyle, especially the video of “The World’s Squarest Teenagers” seeing Leah Miller’s family life, how they all circle around the table to sing worship songs and they farm their own groceries, and can goods, and the wife stays home while the men work… and the women are modest.. and then seeing those two girls going on Rumspringa journey, held to their convictions and even though one of the girls tried a few things, she really seemed convicted and seemed to regret letting her hair down.. and she hated the sin in the clubs and stuff..

    I want a godly family with a wife who is modest and submissive and women who wear those style of clothing is really attractive to me in a pure and holy way.. I would love to join a society like that, except one thing.. I really like evangelism and open air preaching, so I would like to maintain my evagelistic zeal, while also maintaining a plain lifestyle.. some Amish communities I heard from documentaries would say that my open air preaching would be prideful.. and not in humility.. so I dunno, since, I have such conviction to do it. So, I would have to find a community of plain people who would allow me to still preach the gospel in the open square in towns and such, on friday nights or saturday, at fairs, and such… if they would not frown on me, I would be totally intrested in finding a mennonite community, and building relationships and beginning a family in that style of living.

  7. The lifestyle of amish is wise.
    I pray an increase of evangelizing the lost among them as well.
    the earliest form of the Anabaptist
    were so early church in its form.
    What Stephen said
    is right. We would be wise to have
    both the plain lifestyle and the Evangelizing of truth.
    without the spreading of the gospel, there is no hope for
    the lost
    but the lifestyle of the amish
    has wisdom. It hits home on a dream
    I had a few yrs back.
    I had this dream and in it
    I was speaking to an amish lady
    She showed me their corn fields
    and then I noticed only patches here and there.
    THEN she said we used to have full fields of corn.
    I went in to pay for some corn, and she said its twenty five cents……….but I gave her a dollar to help out.
    Then I woke up.
    I believe the amish NEED to evangelize
    while Keeping the plain way.
    do as did the early church. Godliness with contentment.
    great gain.

  8. Daniel Wuorio says:

    i would say that the best thing to do would be to take note of the Amish way of the life as the best example of how Christians should live. Study that way of life practice it and potentially get a group of individuals who are united in that way of life and create a community through that movement. The Amish are a perfect example of a people who succeeded in large part from the rest of society. if one group could succeed from the rest of society so can another but that process will be long and difficult. The first step would be for individuals to unite in their desire to succeed from the rest of society to create a christian way of life.

  9. A says:

    I was raised in the world, grew up, found Jesus, and joined a plain church.

    If you are sincerely interested, I would recommend a few books to understand what we believe.

    “The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down” by David Bercot, is a great place to start. Read about non-resistance too. Look for “A Change of Allegiance” by Dean Taylor.

    If you like listening to sermons, find some online by Denny Kenaston. Look into the Charity Churches in Lancaster County. They are plain, but definitely allow street preaching! : )

    May God bless you on your journey!

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