What happens to young Amish people who ignore the normal requirements of their society about ending their schooling after the eighth grade and decide to get more education? Are they vilified by their families and their churches? To find out, Paul W. Nisly, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, surveyed a group of former Amish church members who had gotten at least a bachelor’s degree. He wanted to see how and why they had come to their decisions and what had happened as a result.
Nisley admits at the outset of his article that he had come from an Old Order Amish background himself, but he doesn’t make anything further of his own experience. Instead, he sent out a questionnaire to 81 people, from whom he received 66 responses, 61 of which were eligible for further examination. Of those, 45 were from men and 16 from women. His respondents came from Kansas, Indiana, and seven other states. Out of the 61 people, 25 had come from Old Order Amish backgrounds, 26 from Beachy Amish churches, and 10 from both groups. He gives breakdowns of the numbers who had different levels of education beyond a B.A., and the types of fields they had gone into.
Among the reasons the former Amish people gave for going to college, 23 indicated they had gotten an education primarily for intellectual curiosity and the love of learning. Others replied that they were motivated by a calling to provide service, by role modeling from a family member, by a personal sense of aptitude or giftedness, or by a need to expand their horizons. One person, presumably a man, indicated that he “loved school, excelled in this, was driven from deep inside with a curiosity for learning, and excelling, and it sure beat hauling manure with a four-pronged pitchfork” (p.66).
Reactions by family members of the respondents to their decisions to get more education were surprising. Many families had been positive, though not all: the families of 5 were quite negative; 6 were initially negative but became supportive; 12 were neutral or passive; 20 were supportive but concerned; and 15 were quite supportive. Reactions by the local church leaders, however, tended to be more negative than those from the families—their concerns that the young people might ultimately leave the Amish communities were certainly valid.
While a number of factors led the individuals to make their decisions to leave the Amish church (either at the time of going to college or later), the most frequently cited one was an unhappiness with the rules and cultural practices of their churches. Some of the reasons that these people cited to Nisley were positive—such as a desire to live abroad, or a desire for larger experiences in their lives—but others were negative, such as a dissatisfaction with the rules of the church or with the situation in the local church congregation. Frequently, the decisions were made due to several factors.
Surprisingly, the process was not as traumatic as one might have expected. Over half of Nisley’s respondents answered that the process of leaving their church had been gradual and not really difficult, while six more said that the process, while sudden, had not been painful. Only 21 responded that the process had been painful to them. Although the responses were mixed, over half had few regrets later in life about their choices. Twenty three replied that they had basically positive feelings and 10 more were at peace with their decisions.
Many of the respondents indicated they had joined a Mennonite church, which had become a very important part of their lives, though some still felt some nostalgia for the church of their birth. While recognizing that the Mennonites provide a home for them, some felt that group could never replace the church that they had grown up in. One person commented, “I have found a Mennonite church that I like and go to. I would not say that it ‘replaces’ my home community, though. The community I grew up in had interlocking webs of blood, agriculture, and beliefs that I think would be very hard to reproduce in an urban setting” (p.73).
Most of the respondents believed they had benefited from their Amish backgrounds. Essential values they felt they had learned from the Amish included a strong work ethic, personal integrity, honesty, high ethical standards, and a consistent faith in God. One person responded to Nisley, “perhaps the single most important gift given to me by my parents was a clear and unshakeable sense that I was loved and accepted” (p.75).
While 26 respondents strongly, or at least to some extent, admitted they had absorbed the prevailing American drive to succeed, over half (34) were not obsessed with success and questioned its value. Apparently, the fundamental Amish values persisted in those people. Of course, some of the respondents had negative reactions to their Amish heritage.
The concluding comments of the respondents varied, just as the answers to the specific questions had. One person wrote, “I treasure my heritage and the rich life it has given me,” but another answered, “the highlight of leaving the Amish sect is that it was the avenue of my becoming a Christian” (p.77).
Nisley’s article examines both the positive reactions and the negative opinions about Amish society held by people who got higher educations and left the society. While those people might have been expected to hold negative views on their former group, the opposite is clearly the case. The fascination of this article is that so many of the former Amish people are quite positive about their heritage. Many of them treasure their backgrounds, even if they couldn’t remain and would not go back.
Nisley, Paul W. 2006. “Community and Formerly-Amish Professionals: An Introductory Survey and Reflective Study.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80(1): 61-82