The Amish settlements in Indiana form a patchwork quilt of differing histories, beliefs, and cultures that are stitched together into a dynamic pattern by common, fundamental beliefs. Since the Amish are well known for making beautiful quilts, Thomas J. Meyers and Steven M. Nolt use this patchwork analogy in their new book quite convincingly.
An Amish Patchwork: Indiana’s Old Orders in the Modern World was published a few months ago by the Quarry Press, an imprint of Indiana University Press. While a different book from the same publisher late last year covers the history of the Amish of Shipshewana, Indiana, this work discusses a range of contemporary issues relating to all of the Old Order peoples of that state.
The book provides a good overview for the general reader who is curious to learn more about the Indiana Amish communities. While some of the overviews repeat material in works by John Hostetler and Donald Kraybill, the book is quite unique with its focus on the Hoosier State. Best of all, it is well-written.
A physically modest volume—perhaps consciously imitating the Amish themselves—the book defines “Old Order” as people who use horses and buggies for transportation on public roads. The theme of the work is that, despite the many differences among the Amish church districts in Indiana, there is a stitch-work of beliefs that is common to—and essential to—all of them. They believe, for instance, that individuals should find their meaning in life within their community of believers, and that the church and the secular world are very clearly distinct. Integral to that belief is the conviction that church members should rely on each other rather than on the broader society. And while they vary widely as to which technological devices they will use, they all believe that traditional wisdom is more important than new approaches, changes, or innovations.
Differences among the Amish settlements are also noticeable in their differing Ordnung, the order or rules that they follow. These differing Ordnung tend to be most noticeable in the ways the different communities accept technology. As the book points out quite effectively, “the burden of proof is always on change.” Rules even vary from one district to another in the same settlement. For instance, in the northeastern Indiana Elkhart-LaGrange Settlement, most of the districts allow their members to own and use bicycles, but some do not.
A number of chapters describe how these differences have developed out of their varied histories. To this day, many settlements maintain stronger senses of identification with the settlements from which their ancestors emigrated generations ago than with other Amish settlements nearby. Cultural gaps between the Hoosier settlements may be reflected in different styles and colors of buggies and clothing that are quite noticeable, though often puzzling, to outsiders.
Readers will find various passages in the book quite interesting, such as a discussion of the two German language dialects spoken by the Indiana Amish—the Swiss-speaking Amish and the Pennsylvania German speaking Amish. The former originally came from German-speaking Switzerland, the latter from the German-speaking Pennsylvania settlements (or from other settlements derived from those in Pennsylvania). These two dialects of German are mutually unintelligible to the Amish themselves.
Some differences between the practices of the Amish in Indiana and those in other states emerge. For instance, the authors mention (page 73) the “weekly patterns of worship,” a striking contrast to the more general Amish practices described by Hostetler (1993 page 210) of bi-weekly “preaching services.” The authors could have highlighted differences such as those between Indiana and other states more clearly.
In a chapter on Amish relations with surrounding communities, the authors point out that only a portion of the tourist dollars spent in Elkhart and LaGrange Counties are directly tied to the Amish themselves. Most tourists spend their money on shopping, though there is an indirect Amish tie-in. Since most visitors to Northern Indiana are convinced that the Amish make good products, they associate quality with their shopping experiences generally in the area, especially if objects are labeled “made by the Amish.” The chapter also discusses the opposition of some highly conservative Amish to the use of Slow Moving Vehicle triangles on their buggies. Apparently those opponents are quietly condemned by many of the other Amish in the state because of their obstinateness.
The Indiana Amish are increasingly finding work off the farm. In the large Amish settlements of Northern Indiana, only 12 to 26 percent of the men aged 35 to 64 are farmers. Most have non-farm occupations such as factory work, employment in shops, or work as carpenters. With men off to work for the day—or sometimes for longer periods of time—the Amish women have had to take more responsibility for managing their homes and raising the children. Interestingly, though, fewer young people are leaving the church from those homes than from the traditional, farm-based homes.
Many other sections could be cited, but the conclusion is clear: this well written book is designed for tourists and residents of Indiana, and for anyone with an interest in learning more about the Amish.
Meyers, Thomas J. and Steven M. Nolt. 2005. An Amish Patchwork: Indiana’s Old Orders in the Modern World. Bloomington: Quarry Books, an Imprint of Indiana University Press.