The Amish: A People of Preservation: Transcription

The Amish: A People of Preservation: Transcription

By Beverly Patterson


[Film opens with the sounds of unaccompanied congregational hymn singing and a series of scenes of Amish life: a farmer plowing, a farm, children playing outside a one-room schoolhouse, a horse and wagon being driven through a covered bridge.]

JOHN RUTH: No one can speak for the Old Order Amish but themselves, and they have seldom chosen to do so. They distrust many words. Their life is their testimony.

[Sounds and scenes of the horse auction]

At the New Holland, Pennsylvania Horse Auction, which thrives on their trade, they enjoy a free and friendly mingling with their neighbors. Although their costume keeps them distinct, they're ready to do business with people of the world. They are involved as buyers and sellers and jockeys.
            Normally they will not willingly face the camera because they take the ten commandments seriously, including the one against making a graven image or likeness. When they talk among themselves, they use the language of their forefathers, a dialect of Switzerland and southern German. They cherish it as the language of their faith in their community.
            Their ancestors were Swiss mountain farmers from the Canton of Bern. Already a stubbornly rural and tradition-loving people, they side-stepped the priesthood in the reformation of the 1520s and began to read the Bible and meet in groups with lay leaders. In simple response to the teachings of Jesus, they abandoned warfare, refused to take civil oaths, and made baptism an act of voluntary adult commitment to the church.
            The state church establishment viewed their existence as a mortal threat, and persecution drove many of them north and west of the Rhine, particularly into the Alsace region. Here they found good land and more freedom to live quietly. In 1693 they experienced a division under an aggressively strict leader named Jakob Ammann over issues such as the severity of church discipline and uniformity in clothing. Ammann's followers have since been called Amish, and the larger more liberal group, Mennonites.
             In these Alsatian villages today, there are no more Amish as a result of 18th and 19th-century migrations to America. In the new world, religious tolerance and rich farmland allowed the Amish to prosper. In the 20th century, they have grown to some 75,000, scattered through 20 states and provinces. Harley Wagler left his Amish community in Kansas for the university at 19. He tells what it's like to grow up on an Amish farm.

HARLEY WAGLER: Right from the very start, he gives out an Amish way of looking at things simply because he doesn't have much opportunity to be exposed to other influences. So that you are extremely conscious of your family, your home setting.
            Even in the toys you play with, many of them are homemade or hand me downs from your parents or even grandparents. You are very close to nature. I remember I used to spend hours as a child, walking out through the trees looking at insects, birds, animals. They fascinated me, and it was part of my growing up.

JOHN RUTH: A one-room schoolhouse is all you need to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, which will fit students to live in their farming community. When the larger society discarded the 19th-century type schools, the Amish set up a system in order to preserve them for themselves. Here, the father can be confident that his teaching at home is not cancelled out in his children's education. As a lay trustee, he writes and signs the rules for the school he pays for without state funds. Textbooks printed by an Amish publishing house stress the virtues of humility, duty, truthfulness, kindness and orderliness.
            Teaching about God is often considered too sacred for the school and left to the church and home. The teacher is usually a young woman with a grade-school education who has shown aptitude in learning. The Amish teach their children two languages generation after generation. It's the parents, rather than the state, who loved their children for time and eternity, and they feel a solemn obligation to nurture their children through innocence to the point of marriage and entering the adult community of work and faith.
            Between the time when parents yield their control over their children's minds and the time the community takes over, the peer group is of extreme importance. Simplicity is prized. The Amish do not expect the world to understand this.
            Learning or reading, as ends in themselves, are seen as detrimental since they do not prepare a person with the practical skills and tastes needed for life in an Amish community.
            The Amish had been given the right to substitute for the required high school years training and work at home, carefully recorded in a daily journal, which is reviewed by an instructor.
            By the time Amish children are 14, most of them prefer to leave school for practical vocational activities. Their families need them economically, and that gives them a sense of worth. At recess, there's plenty of chance for exercise without expensive worldly sports equipment. Physical and social enjoyment rather than competitiveness is the point of the game.
            The Amish were deeply moved by the words of Chief Justice Warren Burger in the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1972, which recognized the legality of the Amish educational way within the American system. Justice Berger wrote, "There can be no assumption that today's majority is right and the Amish and others like them are wrong. A way of life that is odd, or even erratic, but interferes with no rights or interest of others is not to be condemned because it is different."

HARLEY WAGLER: An Amish farmer's horses are a prized possession. We used to regard them almost as members of the family. We always fed them very well, took care of them very well during the winter. Horses have their own personality anyway.

JOHN RUTH: The standard color for the Amish family buggy in Lancaster County is gray. Made by his own people, it may cost the Amish man $1,500. He resisted electric lights until modern traffic and state laws made them necessary. Now his lights splash a constant warning along country roads: pre-20th-century vehicle ahead. As the gap widens between the Amish ways and those of their neighbors, places saved for them in a kind of amazement that such ways could survive so far into the 20th century. And it isn't easy.
            Clothing like all other aspects of Amish society is strictly defined by what the Amish call their Ordnung.

HARLEY WAGLER: The Ordnung is the set of rules which the ministers present. This is the set of rules you live by.

JOHN RUTH: Having stopped the clock of style centuries ago, the Amish make their clothing express obedience to the Ordnung of the congregation and the suppression of Hochmut or pride. The opposite of pride is Demut or humility.

HARLEY WAGLER: Demut is--it is what you would like to be characterized by because this is godliness.

JOHN RUTH: They delight in the natural colors of earth, but they very carefully controlled the use of those colors so that they never become a means by which the individual asserts himself or herself over against the community. Innocent children are not in as much danger of exploiting color for egotistic purposes, but even their dress must declare their identity.
            By her later teens, the girl's head is always covered and she always wears an apron--a symbol not only of humility, but readiness for work. On weekdays a kerchief may be allowed, but when meeting the public or on Sundays, she wears her cap neatly starched and a Sunday dress, which will later serve for weekday use.

HARLEY WAGLER: You know, it is possible even within the limitations of Amish dress to demonstrate Hochmut, if you stretch the limitations of the Ordnung. For example, at home we were not to wear pockets on our shirts because you could put nice things in here and these would be visible. Some of the young people would wear these. This was in a sense rebellion but it was also Hochmut. It was one way of saying, look at me, look at what I have that you don't have. That is Hochmut, and it's very important, especially for a married person, not to demonstrate this. Demut is the thing that you must strive for.

JOHN RUTH: It shows in the simple old-fashioned profile of their houses. When they buy a farm, they will not destroy what is already built. Though they may tear out the electric wiring. When they add buildings themselves, their stress on simplicity is expressed in a severe plainness. Several generations, and sometimes several families, live on the same farm. When parents turn over the main work of the farm to sons or sons-in-law, they will move into a smaller section of the house called the Daadi or grandfather's house. If there is none, one will be built on.
            An amazing composite architecture evolves, sometimes end to end, sometimes clustered like a crazy quilt. Roofs and gables and windows and porches form a pattern that means love for the trans-generational family. New farms continue to be cut out of larger ones as the encroaching cities shrink the available acreage. Even non-farming families, must have room for a horse and buggy. To be humble, an Amish home must be simple. But it's always substantial and, in its strictness, often beautiful. Inside it's just as plain and functional. There's enough space in the kitchen for it to serve as a combination living and family room.
            There may be some modern plumbing, but there's no electricity and the atmosphere of an earlier time persists. The pressurized gas lamp stays on all evening. It provides plenty of light to visit or read by.
            Reading material is usually limited to devotional historical and practical subjects with some harmless fiction and several regular Amish periodicals like The Diary or Family Life. The traditional Farmer’s Almanac listing Christian holidays and astrological data sometimes contains a directory of Amish settlements. The sitting room is for company and a few nice things in it speak for hospitality more than pride. A fancy calendar is acceptable because it's old fashioned.
            Consciousness of the family extends back through the generations. Students of genetic diseases have turned to the Amish family records for research data. The word of God, in German, has the place of respect in the sitting room.
            Plenty of chairs provide for long Sunday afternoons of visiting. The strictest of the Amish would have no upholstered furniture. Folding doors can be opened to make a large area for church services at home. By Saturday afternoon preparations for a day of worship and visiting are nearly completed. The Amish don't go to a church. Their church meets in their homes. A special wagon transports benches from house to house.
            This home has a carriage shop, so chairs are brought out to it from the house.
            They have no altar or holy place, in keeping with their understanding of the words of Jesus, "Where two or three of you have gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you." Here, the congregation will sit for a four-hour service of singing, preaching and praying. All ages will attend. Chairs are supplied in the front rows for aged members and ministers.
            The preaching will be done by men without special training who have been selected for the role of minister from the congregation by the casting of lots.

On Sunday morning when the people arrive in church, they stop before the church house or the house and turn the wheels to one side so that the ladies can get out of the buggy. And they drive on out in front of the barn and unhitch the horse, take the horse back into the barn. And then they usually come back out through the milk parlor, and there they stand and visit until it's time to go in. Adult men, or the married men, will go in together, and the young fellows will always stay and go in just at the very last minute.
            And this is always a very exciting experience because it's usually arranged so that when you come in you have to walk in front of all the other people and then circle around behind and sit on the back bench. So this is a very exciting experience, especially if you know that the girls out in the kitchen will be watching you as you walk in. And usually there's a problem deciding where you're going to put your hat and then you look around for nails on the wall or sometimes you just put it underneath your bench. But the ministers, when they come in, they always sit down together and only then do they take off their hats. And then here again, it's interesting to see them looking around. Where am I going to put my hat? It’s a really--a beautiful homey atmosphere

JOHN RUTH: For their congregational singing, the Amish use the Ausbund, or Selection, the oldest Protestant hymn book in continuous use. It consists mainly of martyr ballads and spiritual songs written by European Anabaptists in the 16th century. They sing by oral tradition, embellishing the ancient melodies, almost beyond recognition.

HARLEY WAGLER: Men are in one room and women in the other. And usually the minister stands in the doorway between these two rooms so that he can speak to one group and then the other. And while they are preaching they will usually develop a rhythm, kind of sing-song method of delivery.

JOHN RUTH: While the automobile was driving most blacksmiths' shops out of existence, this father and son saved their occupation by moving into an Amish Mennonite community.
            It was once a part of every boy's growing up to watch the village blacksmith shoe his father's horses. What the outside world views with nostalgia is still a part of everyday Amish life.
            Old steam tractors are kept in shape by the Amish who used them to steam their tobacco beds in order to kill weed seeds and fungus before planting the tobacco.
            Many of the Amish who are strictest in their Ordnung have no basic objection to the use of tobacco by the older boys and the men. Although cigarettes are modern enough to be considered worldly, there are large groups of Amish, however, who consider smoking as sin and do not want to be identified with it. Those Amish who still grow tobacco consider the issue more in terms of the handwork involved than the more modern question of public health. Since the Amish count on their work to bind their families together, some of them tend to regard the giving up of tobacco raising merely as the loss of willingness to do old fashioned hard work.
            The seedlings are carefully selected to be transplanted by hand. Three generations make a team. The plants are ready to be cut down in August and attached to lasts from which they will hang to dry. By September they are hanging in slotted sheds and barns where they will be stripped from their stems and baled during the winter months.
            The Amish man will accept a new invention or implement, but only after it is clear that this will not change his way of life or threaten his community and the rules that bind it together, or make him a slave to what people call progress. Once he is allowed by his church the use of a side delivery rake, he outfits it with his own kind of wheels minus rubber tires. Too much mobility would make the pace of life hectic. It would be too modern.
            Some Old Order Mennonites who share this dislike of modernity have decided that they can accept tractors but only with steel wheels. The Old Order Amish man is not yet ready for self-propelled equipped. This he fears would set off a chain reaction whereby everybody would follow the principles of efficiency and convenience to the neglect of humility and communal discipline. Still he doesn't object to the internal combustion engine and places it on horse-drawn equipment without any concern for his neighbors’ inability to figure out what seems to be an inconsistency. It makes sense to the Amish man.
            It simply means that he will not let modern technology run away with his community or his family at its own pace. He'll accept some progress but he won't sacrifice to progress all contact with the past and its virtues. He will keep the simple rhythms and human-sized implements that will allow him to live humbly, in community, and in a friendly relation with the earth God gives him, and to save what the machine would waste. On a modern farm, a self-propelled combine would require only one person for the whole grain harvesting operation. What the Amish lose in speed, they gain in fellowship. Work under the right circumstances is as enjoyable as play. Shared work is, in many cases, the Amish men's recreation.
            A tractor is allowed for belt power, but not to pull equipment in the field. That would be crossing an invisible technological line that the Amish define for the sake of their community. They sense just how much change their community can support without coming apart at the seams by getting onto the uncontrollable escalator of progress. By resisting technological change, or at least slowing it down to controllable speed, the Amish also keep their old people from becoming obsolete as fast as the machinery of their youth is outmoded.
            Maintaining simple ways of farming lessens the distance between the generations. Shared within the family, hard work becomes a seasonal ritual. You've done it before with your parents and you'll do it again in the same way with your children. Greater speed and size in their implements might eliminate some labor, but the Amish find their happiness and meaning in labor rather than in escape from it. If our electronic civilization should fall, the Amish might be the last to miss it.
            They have never stopped employing the simple sources of energy that make nature seem like a friend. The wind lifts water to an old railroad tank car upended at a spot on the farm higher than the buildings, and gravity takes it back down to the faucet. Wind isn't the only free energy the Amish man taps. By damming the stream in his meadow, the farmer stores up enough power to turn a little wheel even when there's no wind. It works for the family night and day by converting the weight of falling water into a backward and forward motion. This motion is conveyed up to the house and barn by a cable. And even when the neighbor's electricity goes off, there'll be constant running water for man and beast on this Amish farm.
            So much of what seems different about the Amish is only their continuing to practice what everybody used to long after almost everybody else has stopped doing it. By not forgetting the art of the windmill, the Amish preserved for the rest of us a visual link with our own pre-urbanized past.
            John Fisher, a businessman, grew up in an Amish home in Lancaster County.

JOHN FISHER: The child learns to work primarily by imitation. He learns to respect work because it's close to shameful to be lazy, it's unheard of to be insolent until maybe the adolescent age wanting to exert independence. But I would say in most of the Amish habitual ways of doing things, these things are learned by imitation. There's just a way to do them and that's the way you do them. Whether it's watching your father work when you're two years old and that's how you learned to do the job.

HARLEY WAGLER: He begins to work as soon as he is physically capable. You ask him to gather the eggs as soon as he's able to carry a bucket out into the chicken house. He is taught to have responsibility. Then as you grow older you get more and more responsibilities, and then eventually you get to the place where you can do the chores so that if dad is gone, he doesn't have to worry about being at home on time. It's very serious to accept your responsibilities and fulfill them. You like play very much, but in order to enjoy play, it's good to have some work done so that you feel you deserve playing.

JOHN RUTH: At farm auctions, Amish and old order Mennonite boys sometimes play corner ball, a form of dodge ball with a homemade leather covered ball thrown from four corners. Here the Mennonites are throwing and the Amish are in the ring. When he's hit he's asked to leave the room. If the thrower misses, he's out. The game will go on most of the day. Sometimes there are two games, one for the smaller boys.

HARLEY WAGLER: There is an unwritten law in Amish society whereby young people are given more liberties than older people. After you are married, you are not expected to transgress any of the Ordnung, but they wink at these among younger people. This varies from group to group, but at home this meant dressing up the horses' harness or turning up the brims of your hat.

JOHN FISHER: Seems to be a set pattern before you begin running around at age 16 what gang you're going to join. It's either a gang by way of Freundshaft or a gang by a way of geographical location. Many times by common interests, common interests being that all the parents are friends. And from his gang, he will choose his girlfriend. It will many, many times be someone that he knew before he ran around before she ran around. The boy always takes the initiative in asking for a date and in choosing the girl he wants to court. Sometimes this initiative will be somewhat conditioned and even sometimes predetermined by who the parents approve or disapprove of.

HARLEY WAGLER: He's proud of his horse and proud of his buggy. I spent many weeks laboring lovingly over my buggy. You want to have a good harness and you'd like to have eight or 10 ivory rings on the lines that stretch back from the horse to the driver. The first girl I dated, I said, “I hope, I hope you don't think I'm kindisch or foolish for having dressed up my buggy so much.”  “Oh, no.” she said, “I think it's beautiful.”

JOHN RUTH: Amish girls lovingly build up a trousseau as they anticipate marriage. They almost never plan for independent careers. As long as the girl wishes to be Amish, she finds women's liberation ridiculous, but if she becomes marginal in her loyalties and begins to look elsewhere for her identity, it's another story.

JOHN FISHER: The girl and the girl's family is still a very steadying influence and if the boy wants to marry the girl, he has first got to join the church and he does not question that for a moment. And he will join the church--many times not until the summer that he wishes to get married in the fall. And then he will do without the car because amazingly many of them, after a couple of years, will admit that it was a frivolity because the car does not replace the deep-seated security that they feel by identifying with the mother group.

HARLEY WAGLER: They respect the family and the church tremendously. I have a good friend in the Old Order church, happily married. He was working in a trailer factory for a number of years and didn't like this, but I remember when we were young people going together, there were many, many discussions that we had since the option was open. Do we want to join a church where we can drive cars and have radios and telephones and things like this, or are we going to stay in the Amish Church and be faithful to our heritage? He stayed in the church, but he's very happy. He has a nice Amish wife and two children and they live just as simply as his parents did. And I also think he is satisfied with himself because he feels that he has not betrayed his parents. He said it's much better to be back on the farm because you are closer to God.

JOHN RUTH: About 80 Amish couples a year begin housekeeping in Lancaster County, and each new couple needs a new buggy. Making these and replacements for worn out or wrecked buggies provides work for men who are crowded off the farm.
            Here, crafts that had been largely forgotten elsewhere thrive and are handed on. The trend toward collecting and restoring antiques brings to the shop more restoration work than the crew can handle. Power equipment is run by compressed air supplied by a diesel engine rather than electricity from the public utility, which is forbidden by the Ordnung. Hard to get replacement parts for horse drawn implements can still be bought here as well as the special supplies for which an Amish community preserves an unusual demand. Some features of the modern factory do intrude into the atmosphere of the traditional family workshop.

HARLEY WAGLER The Amish man feels that it's his responsibility to be neighborly to his neighbor, to be a good neighbor, to help him if he needs help, and also to ask him for help, if he needs help,

JOHN RUTH: They will not hesitate to ask a good neighbor for automobile transportation. Though once they join the church, they may not own cars themselves. While they do use some folk remedies and would not study medicine in a university, they appreciate and gladly pay for a good medical and hospital service. The same goes for the telephone, which they may not have in their homes. That would allow convenience to dictate the family atmosphere rather than simplicity and loyalty to the congregation of Christ, which they call the Gamay. And keeping the little telephone booth on the other side of the road or halfway in the lane or at least no closer than the porch, holds the proud world at a controllable distance from the minds of the precious children. When circumstances bring Amish children into direct contact with the world, the pressure to conform is overwhelming. Their parents do not have to look far to see what they do not want for their children.
            At home with the daily chores is the safe place for Amish children to grow up. Because the milking machine makes it possible for the family dairy to stay in business, it has been accepted. Economic pressures have forced them to reconsider an earlier ban on bulk milk tanks.

HARLEY WAGLER: They are constantly struggling with questions. What should we permit and what should we not permit? They did not permit bulk tanks for many years, but they have just permitted them in order to keep more of the Amish farmers working on the farm rather than having to go to the trailer factories or somewhere else. It isn't as cut and dried as we think perhaps.

(40:47) JOHN RUTH: The Amish like to do business in one-to-one relationships where they can buy and sell what they raise or make or bake at home. There's a simplicity and directness about a farmer's market that make it, with the public auction, one of the few places where the Amish meet the world freely without any threat to their way of life.
            Several million tourists visit Lancaster County every year, understandably fascinated by the Amish ways.

HARLEY WAGLER: Whether the Amish are responsible for this or not, they are going to be affected by it and it's shameful in some ways to see this happening to them.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: I'll just take it like that. So how much do I owe you?
            A dollar forty-five.
            A dollar forty-five? Is that right?
            Uh-huh. Yeah.

JOHN RUTH: A local Amish man expresses his mixed feelings.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: They, I don't know what, what they read. From some of these cities and so on, but uh, I don't know what they expect to see really. But there's a shoemaker right across road from the bank, and uh, there's a tourist stop there and they come in and ask Mose Bahtery, an old Amish man, and they ask Mose where you can see the Amish people. “Well,” he says, “well you, you just drive up the road here, you might meet some.” And he was talking to one.
            So what they expect to see, I don't know. Why they advertise for it. They advertise for it. And we never prepared for it. Expected it. That's why they've got all that tourist traffic. It's so hazardous on the roads. You're driving along with your horse and wagon, and a tourist may be coming this way, and the car in back of you. And the tourist will just stop sometimes right in the middle of the road to see what, what's coming, you know. They're really a nuisance, if I dare say. They are. They want to talk to you. And if you're busy--some of them don't even know what they're asking me. I feel this way . . . you know, and you don't have to visit with them if you don't want to. A lot of people are making a pocket full of money out of us. They really are. Rich.

JOHN RUTH: When Amish communities change, they often take on evangelistic interests. John Fisher comments on this tendency.

JOHN FISHER: In my teen years, I felt a change coming about certain areas of the Amish Church. The closer to the urban settings, the more affected it was. Where Amish families felt suddenly that they get a bigger blessing out of reading the Bible in English and studying it in English for the first time and felt that when they verbalize this, they created an estrangement in the church and in all sincerity felt they had to leave the church. But they were followed by a large faction who were looking for an Ausrede, or an excuse to do the same thing because really what they wanted was cars and modern machinery.

JOHN RUTH: With their rural neighbors, Amish farmers are unable to match the prices developers are willing to pay for open land.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Yeah, this land situation is, is a problem. But I mean, the young man that--once you start up farming and his dad can't buy a farm for him, he's just licked. He can't buy a farm and stock it.

HARLEY WAGLER: And you know, they lament this, but there's nothing they can do about it. And so many of these families are going to be moving out and in fact, quite a number of them have moved to Missouri and other areas where they feel they will be free for several generations at least from the encroaching urbanization and so forth.

JOHN RUTH: When the Amish man's body is returned to the earth he has tilled, he is surrounded in death as he was in life by his community. "Here man, discover what you are. Learn here what your existence is. How swiftly flees your span of life, from time into eternity."
            The strength of the Amish community is dramatically visualized after a barn or house burns. The Amish man is never alone in his troubles, and he is bailed out by people he knows rather than by a commercial insurance policy.

JOHN FISHER: Everybody just automatically gets together. There is no word that goes out. It's a happening and it happens and it always happens the same way. The people who come the day before the actual raising are the ones who are being paid for their services. They are the carpenter and his crew and maybe a few chosen people besides who are going to do the basic structure and plan the entire raising. They are really the only ones that are welcome there on that day.
            At a barn raising, there is always a foreman. The carpenter foreman is probably the overall foreman and overseer, but there are certain people in the community who always emerge as leaders wherever they are and they cannot hide the urge to lead when they're there. You will very seldom hear or notice the carpenter foreman because he delegates leadership silently and forcefully and really has things very well organized. And uh, is evidently not thrown off his pattern by the unofficial--
            The press and the outside attitude towards the barn raising has made it a, an even more significant happening to the Amish people. It seems to have become a very popular thing to them since it was viewed as it was to the outside world. A barn raising is a time of a lot of fraternizing and fellowshipping with one another. I don't know how safe I am in saying this, but I would say that a goodly number of them are not there because they're exercising the love thy neighbor as thyself philosophy. They're there because it's a time to get together and do something with rest of the people.

JOHN RUTH: They are a people who, in their respect for the law of God, cherish the earth and keep it, who will not sacrifice community for convenience, who have not been caught up in progress, who believed that order brings unity and contentment, the people who have not yet been able to accept fully the first stages of the industrial revolution, though they live in its latter phase, the people who don't discard the past, who fear pride and who don't argue with nature, who know how to accept limits, who live what they believe--people who are in the world but not of it, people of preservation, a people of God.

[Film Ends]

[Closing Credits]

Narration: John L. Ruth
               Harley Wagler
               John Fisher
Editing: Nicholas Spies
Consultant: John A. Hostetler
Camera and Technical Direction: Burton Buller
Written and Produced by John L. Ruth
A Heritage Production