In the first chapter of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, Joe Mackall offers a swift, thumbnail history of the Amish. The Amish began as anabaptists in 16th century Europe. Anabaptists rejected both Catholicism and Protestantism as it was then practiced, and believed that only adults could make a decision to be baptized as Christians. They wanted to live apart from corrupt society and in the manner of the early believers in the New Testament. Like the Quakers, they believed in living lives of peace and non-resistance, and like the Quakers, they refused to swear oaths. When they were persecuted in Europe, they took William Penn up on his offer to provide freedom of worship and came to America.
As mentioned yesterday, there are about 180,000 to 200,000 Amish in North America. (They have essentially disappeared in Europe.) The Amish population in North America has doubled in the past 20 years and Amish now live in 28 states and Ontario. However, 70 percent of Amish are concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Mackall's entre into the Amish community came when he drove his neighbor Samuel Shetler to his mother's funeral in Canada. Unlike other Amish groups, the Schwarzentruber Amish community of which Shetler is a part strictly forbids car travel, except in emergency cases. Because Samuel would have missed his mother's funeral if he tried to get there by buggy (it was a 10 hour trip by car), the local bishop allowed him to be driven.
Mackall introduces us to Samuel Shetler's work as a farmer. We also get a glimpse of the Amish ethic of nonviolence. When his girls are hit with soda (pop) cans thrown at them from cars by boys as a prank, Samuel asks the local sheriff to intervene by asking the boys to stop. Shetler leaves it at that. He has no desire to prosecute the offenders, who do, in fact, stop.
Mackall presents the Shetlers as hard-working, practical, frugal and worried about the growth of the non-Amish population in Ashland County, where they live, primarily because of the extra traffic on the roads.
The chapter also introduces, although not explicitly, a theme that runs throughout the book, the separateness of the Amish. It's illustrated in this chapter by how different the Shetler's lives are from most other Americans. Samuel Shetler lives close to the land, running a family farm. His does not leave home to go to an office that takes away from his wife and children. His family is close at hand, his children underfoot. And he does not respond angrily or fearfully to violence by retaliating against the boys who throw the "pop" cans at his children or by suddenly deciding his children must ride to school in a buggy or be walked to school by adults.
While Mackall gains the friendship and trust of Samuel and Mary Shetler, he never makes the least inroads with any other member of the Amish community. Not even Mary's father, who lives on Samuel's farm in an in-law house, will invite Mackall in for a visit. Samuel will be open and welcoming to Mackall when it is just he and his family and Mackall, but if other Amish are around, Shetler changes and distances himself from his friend. He can act as if he scarcely knows him and can give off a cold "get lost" vibe if he is talking to another Amish. Mackall knows he's unlikely to be invited to the important community events in the Amish world. When he invites Samuel and Mary to his daughter's wedding, they do not come.
As a result, Mackall's friendship with the Shetlers comes across as somewhat clandestine and he definitely is treated, albeit politely, as a second-class citizen when he meets up with Amish society. The Amish are hospitable to him, but not intimate.
The Amish have been a closed group since the beginning in order to keep separate from the world. This has helped them maintain an identity and not be assimilated into the wider culture. They avoid anything beyond polite interactions with the outer world. Do you think such a severe level of separation is necessary for a religious group to maintain its faith?
Related questions: At what point does a religious group's separation become dangerous or unhealthy? The Amish, while separate from mainstream Christianity, have never, to my knowledge, been labeled a cult. They have never been accused of not being Christian, despite the fact that their pacifism, avoidance of politics, and community ethos runs counter to the militarism, attempts to influence public policy and individualism of some strains of Christianity. Why do we, in general, see them in a positive light?