The tourist brochures at the Indiana Turnpike rest area on Tuesday afternoon seemed to promise smiling Amish kids and scenes of perpetual summer in Shipshewana. Despite the overcast, rainy afternoon in mid-February, perhaps it was worth a look. Patches of old, dirty snow and numerous pieces of trash speckled the countryside along the highway, which had wide, paved shoulders for the Amish buggies. Many of the craft, curio, and collectible shops in town were closed, but a few gave the lone travelers refuge from the falling temperatures and cutting rain.
But Shipshewana is more than just a tourist town where, in season, people stop to gawk at horse-drawn buggies, plain clothing, and rural simplicity. Shipshewana is a farm market center for LaGrange County, and it is also the term used by outsiders for the entire Amish settlement in Northern Indiana.
A recent book by Dorothy O. Pratt, Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community, seeks to expand public knowledge of the Amish through a careful historical survey of the entire settlement in the northern part of that state. While the book considers many local Amish developments in relation to the broader themes of Indiana and American history, probably the best chapters are the ones that explain their religious pacifism during World War I, World War II, and the post-war period.
As pacifists whose native language was German, the Amish in Northern Indiana had to endure many stresses during World War I. The military draft particularly tested young Amish men. Their opposition to fighting may have been understood by some officials in government agencies, but local people at draft boards and in army camps were often intolerant toward men that they perceived as shirkers.
Government officials became alarmed at the large number of requests for draft deferments from LaGrange County, not realizing that a high percentage of county residents were Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, people whose religious beliefs did not allow them to fight. After they were drafted, some of these men adopted an absolutist position in the army camps and refused to obey military orders. Others were willing to do assigned work but refused to wear uniforms. In some camps, the Amish were respected, while in others they were persecuted.
One Amish man from LaGrange County reported that he was beaten until he passed out because of his refusal to cooperate. A guard put a gun to the head of another Amish man and pulled the trigger after beatings failed to intimidate him. Fortunately, it misfired. The company commander then beat him some more, expressing the hope that this would teach him to fight. At a later court martial of the officers who had perpetuated this abuse (or was it torture?), the Amish man refused to testify against them. He explained, “we felt we could not conscientiously testify against them as [that] would be helping to punish [the officers] and cause ill feelings and be a poor light in our church …” (p.49)
On the other hand, some of the Amish men felt they were treated quite fairly. One man wrote to the Shipshewana newspaper about the treatment he had received from the Army. He found the experience very trying, but he went on to say, “I cannot thank God enough in words for the love, mercy, and kindness He has showed toward me thru these officers.” (p.53)
A major problem for Amish families that stayed on their farms in LaGrange County was the constant pressure on them to buy the so-called “Liberty Bonds.” The Amish realized, of course, that by buying the bonds they would really be lending money to the government to wage war, which they strongly opposed. The bond campaigns, according to law, were supposed to be voluntary, but in fact pressure on the Amish to participate grew quite intense. Advertisements in the newspaper admonished everyone to support our troops overseas.
Citizens of Indiana counties competed to exceed the quotas that the state established for each county. However, in the first Liberty Bond drive, LaGrange County only raised $70,350 toward their quota of $214,000. The patriotic citizens outside the nonresistant churches resented the stigma of living in a county that was branded as unpatriotic.
Pratt carries the story of Amish nonresistance—their belief in accepting quite literally Jesus’ injunction to not resist evil—forward through World War II and the post-war period. Federal law established a draft for World War II that allowed for alternative service programs for the nonresistant faiths, and numerous Shipshewana Amish served in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps that the pacifist churches established. Pratt interviewed 15 Indiana men who had served in the CPS camps, plus two of their wives, and she effectively weaves their stories, along with her analysis of the results, into the history.
During the post-war period, patterns of alternative service changed for drafted Amish men. Instead of being assigned to group camps, they were given individual assignments such as working in hospitals in distant cities. Their isolated upbringing, however, did not prepare these men for the challenges of city life. This alarmed Amish leaders, who organized a meeting with Amish bishops from Ohio and Pennsylvania in December 1966. They formed an Old Order Amish Steering Committee to work with the U.S. Selective Service on a compromise that they all could accept. The drafted men, as a result, were allowed to serve their alternative service assignments by working on their own farms.
Pratt emphasizes that one of the most significant results of the Shipshewana Amish experience in the 20 th century, particularly their refusal to support violence, was that they became more convinced than ever of the need to maintain boundaries between themselves and the general population. She concludes her interesting book with the observation that the Amish of Shipshewana are not firmly committed to LaGrange County, to Indiana, or even to the United States. They are firmly committed to their Amish faith and culture. If another country existed where they could form comparable farming settlements, they could move and take their Amish culture with them, leaving the American one behind.
Yesterday morning, Shipshewana awoke to a couple inches of fresh snow. Every twig was encased in ice and snow, glinting in the rising sun on the highway east out of Shipshewana, promising a brighter day and symbolizing to the departing traveler the need to come back and investigate more carefully the uniqueness of this Amish settlement. Until that return visit, books like this one by Pratt provide an excellent introduction to the Amish history, culture and experience of Northern Indiana.
Pratt, Dorothy O. 2004. Shipshewana: An Indiana Amish Community. Bloomington, IN: Quarry Books (an imprint of Indiana University Press).