1. The Amish defy political and cultural categories. Living among them helped us shape our life in a way guided by faith, not by general societal expectations. For us, a fascinating part of the Amish journey was seeing how the people of this faith are both extremely conservative and extremely liberal all at the same time.
On the conservative side: They hold onto a give-no-ground stance on abortion and divorce. They advocate extremely modest dress. They reject offensive lyrics in popular music. They reject government involvement in citizens’ lives to the point of refusing government services like Social Security payments or unemployment benefits — benefits most of them pay into and are entitled to. They are entrepreneurial, with many having their own businesses. They advocate fiscal austerity.
On the liberal side, the Amish refuse to fight in wars. They gather to build houses for one another, donating their labor. They support one another in business in a socialist-like way (more on that in a second). They agree as a community that nobody should be getting rich while others in the community are poor. And while Amish communities emphasize the conservative principals of fiscal austerity, they do so with what most Americans would view as a completely unacceptable socialistic intrusion into family life: In our community, a panel of church members reviews any family’s purchase decision of more than $10,000. While somehow this way of life defies general society expectations, boundaries and rules, it all makes sense, all achieves unity, all achieves singularity under the teachings of Jesus, to honor God and care for our brothers and sisters.
2. Community is essential. When we left general society, we were seeking a community of faith where we could immerse in a shared sense of the Bible, a shared set of values, and shared life goals. We wanted to live where our interaction with faith was not just a Sunday-morning service and a Wednesday-evening Bible study, but instead a moment-by-moment part of our lives. Living among the Amish gave us that. When we gather with community members in a field to cut hay for horse feed, in a kitchen to can applesauce for the year, at a home site to build a barn, or even as we watch buggies pass our home on their way to school, each moment of that life, that work, that togetherness is an expression of our faith. We do not feel the separation of church and life that we felt when we were part of general society, even though we attended fine churches.
We found that being part of a strong, tight community fulfilled a deep human need, a need that God created in us. Jesus speaks of our need to be part of a community, but our secular philosophers do so as well. As Wendell Berry said, “We have thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.” We lived the truth of that statement.
3. Capitalism can and should be done in a more humane way. It should focus foremost on supporting families and community versus enriching individuals.
Though the Amish would reject the term “entrepreneurial” as a prideful notion to avoid, the Amish launch many businesses and have a very high start-up survival rate. Sociologist Donald Kraybill, who has studied the Amish extensively, found 95 percent of new Amish businesses were still going after five years — far higher than in general society. But we found that the Amish achieve that remarkable capitalistic success in part by using principles that could be viewed as socialistic.
For one, the Amish help one another — even competitors — to a surprising degree. A tomato farmer might teach another farmer to grow tomatoes, and then they’d sell opposite one another in the same farm market. When we first became Amish, we bought a pallet business from an Amish man, and at the closing of the deal, the seller, whom I did not know prior to the business deal, realized that I did not have enough money to purchase the initial lumber I would need. He simply said, “I will just leave $10,000 in the checking account that you can use and you can pay me back when you are able.” In the view of American commerce, that was a ridiculously risky unsecured loan with nothing signed, no paperwork of any kind. In the language of our Amish community, that was brotherhood.
In many cases, when companies do have employees, there are built-in ways for workers to earn an ownership stake — sweat equity — so they can share in the profits. The community has a realistic understanding that a family needs a certain amount of money to lead a healthy life. Obviously there are exceptions to all of this, but in the Amish communities where we have lived, that generally means the owner of the company makes less than would be the case in general society, and the workers make more. The Amish see this as another expression of Jesus’ teachings of community of faith.
4. Education can happen outside a schoolroom.
My wife and I both went to college. Our broader family is highly educated. My wife’s brother is a chief financial officer at a university. My brother’s wife is a genetics researcher with a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nearly all of our siblings and their children have college degrees. So when my wife and I announced we were joining a culture that ended formal schooling upon completion of eighth grade, it caused much tension within our family. Education was the single most controversial aspect of our becoming Amish. And while it’s true that our children have only an eighth-grade education formally, as adults they are constant readers and constant learners, and when viewed by a broader measure of “Are our children successful in life?” the answer is yes.
When arguing the 1972 Supreme Court case that allowed the Amish to leave school after eighth grade, the lawyer William Ball built his argument with testimony from a county welfare agent, a sheriff and a school administrator, asking questions like, “Are any Amish on welfare?” No. “Are any Amish breaking the law?” No. “Are any Amish a problem in school?” No. The point the attorney was making is that we need to assess the success of Amish education from a more holistic vantage point.
Our eldest son is part owner of a metal fabrication company. Our second-oldest son is running a truss-building company. Our third son works at an orphanage in Ecuador. Our fourth son is learning to run a lumberyard. Our daughter is a teacher. Our youngest son is just now 18, and his career will take shape later. My wife and I feel God did not make us to sit in classroom chairs for 13 years and learn mostly from books. Life is more complex than that.
Final note about education. When my brother-in-law, the chief financial officer, was visiting recently, he asked to see the books of the truss-building business that our son runs, and I could just see him working to get his mind around the fact that my son, who never had formal schooling, was running a company of this scale with such a skill for organization and accounting. We are not saying everybody should stop schooling in eighth grade. That approach is part of the Amish faith, and they have a system of support built around that. But we do feel American education can learn from the Amish’s more whole-brain way of learning.
5. There were aspects of Amish life that weren’t for us. Ultimately, we left the horse-and-buggy Amish and transitioned to an Amish-Mennonite church, which is based on the same statement of faith as our Amish church but differs in some ways culturally. We drive cars now and are not so separate from general society. A main reason we made that transition was the language barrier. The Amish culture speaks Pennsylvania German, a language my wife and I were never able to learn — we felt like expats in Amish nation. And despite a willingness on the part of our churches to provide translation during church and community members’ willingness to speak English to us when visiting, the language difference felt like a screen between us and the depth of spiritual experience we sought.
Also, the horse-and-buggy Amish are strongly devoted to being separate from society, but we felt a desire to share our message of faith with a broader world, and the Amish-Mennonite church we joined is more open to that sharing. This essay is part of our desire to share.
6. It’s not easy becoming a horseman in middle age. You can ask our children for the details.
Bill Moser is a lifelong friend of writer Jeff Smith. The two recently collaborated on a book about the journey of Moser and his wife, Tricia, called “Becoming Amish.” It was released last week.