Elam Zook Transcript

 Via Elam Zook

Re-upping this. The argument I present here; that the Amish are caught in a non engagement trap that threatens their existence, is of greater significance than anything in the Anabaptist world since the Schleithiem  confession. 


Feel free to disagree, or what is colloquially known as, fight me. 


Here is the transcript of my remarks presented at The Amish Heritage Foundation’s inaugural conference. 

(Note) The historical references in the beginning of this essay are based on oral history, personal lived experience, and parts of the story arc we’re derived from “The History of the Amish” by Steven Nolt. 


The Old Order Amish are a twentieth century phenomenon that owes its identity and survival to social engineering by the state and academia.

My supporting arguments examine three factors that contributed to who the Amish are today. 


First is a late nineteenth century schism that continued to play out, up and into the twentieth century. 


Second is the 1972 Supreme Court case, Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which exempted the Amish from compulsory education requirements, and third is what I refer to as the curation of the Amish by academia.


The nexus and interplay of these factors serve as a catalyst to neuter Amish autonomy and set them up for an identity crisis, with all the ensuing predations and debauchery (seduction from duty) accompanying this condition.


In what was known as ‘the great schism,’ seventy five percent of the Amish, over the course of a generation or two, starting in the 1860s, shed there Amish identity and became Mennonites. Some of that majority group assimilated into the dominant culture through more mainstream churches, or with no religious affiliation at all.


The minority in this schism became what we now know as the Old Order Amish. At first, as this transition was taking place, there was an element of amicability between the two groups. This changed later, but on the minority side, an adherent could move from one group to the other and not be shunned by the group they had just left. 


Another characteristic of this schism was that the majority, while far from functioning as a united group, their stated objective was to seek unity across division. The minority’s inclination was to draw sharp distinctions in opposition to their change minded brethren. Almost from the beginning, the minority withdrew from any engagement that sought to process or transcend division.


This withdrawal from engagement is the authentic origins of what we now know as the Old Order Amish. This self selected non engagement, while it resembled the isolation experienced by their ancestors as a persecuted people, was in fact, a radical departure from the essence of Anabaptism. 


Anabaptism at its core, was the antithesis of non engagement.


Another defining characteristic of this schism was that it became a reoccurring issue on the minority’s side. Continuing through the 1920s and as late as 1960s, schism’s occurred where ordained leaders participated in breakaway movements that mimicked the issues and dynamics of the great schism a century earlier.


Over the course of this time period, the minority group’s identity became more and more reactionary to the breakaway groups. What ever the breakaway groups did, the minority group adopted the opposite position as a point of religious fealty. 

All of the early twentieth century technology restrictions adopted by the Amish had nothing to do with Anabaptism or fidelity to scripture, but were the result of a church squabble.


Much of what I’ve said so far is basic history, with a little commentary. What I’m going to describe next is one of those, ‘the emperor has no clothe’ issues. It’s right in front of everyone’s eyes. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one will say it.


That issue is the easily definable trajectory of human civilization. Philosophers write of, as humanity moved from accepting the arbitrary rule of kings to some form of representative self governance, our relationship with and our understanding of God changed too. 


Along with all the rest of humanity, the majority in the ‘great schism’ were going through that evaluation process. Given how central Amish faith is in everyday life, what they literally were doing was processing the issues and details of their lives with some modest applications of enlightenment principles.


Consequently though, what the minority ended up doing was the opposite. The people who became known as the Old Order Amish, enshrined stasis as a signifier of piety. Not because it had any relevance to Anabaptism or scripture, but because of their need to define themselves in opposition to their fellow believers. 


For an Amish adherent, engaging the issues and details of ones life, became a form of heresy.


As a temporary response to social upheaval, this was a normal, mostly benign, human response. As someone with the authority to speak to this issue, I’m one hundred percent certain that, had the Amish been left to their own devices, future generations would’ve addressed this stasis and moved on.


But instead of that natural evolutionary process taking place, Wisconsin vs. Yoder happened and short circuited Amish destiny.


Shawn Francis Peters, in his book, “The Yoder Case,” writes of an incident in the New Glarus Amish settlement, (the settlement where the Yoder case originated from) in which an Amish bakery ran afoul of zoning laws. 


He writes;


“An agricultural department inspector ordered that the business be closed because it was operated out of rooms not devoted solely to baking. A disappointed Elizabeth Hershberger initially prepared to close the bakery. “The Bible says we have to be subject to our magistrates,” she explained. But when news of the state’s action spread, she received so much encouragement to defy the inspector’s order that she decided to keep baking.” (end quote)


In many ways, that last sentence defines everything you need to know about  the Amish-non Amish relationship. It certainly was a defining factor in the Yoder case.


In the interest of time, I’m going to stick with a couple broad points on the Yoder ruling. 


# 1, It never was about secular education being forced onto Amish children.


The first judge to hear the case on appeal, stayed the convictions, pointing out that, and I’m paraphrasing, “the Amish were legally free to create their own high schools.  There was no evidence introduced that education beyond the eighth grade was an article of faith and not merely a generally recognized practice. (End quote)


Of course there was no evidence introduced, because none existed. In fact, the early Anabaptists were extraordinarily well educated, for the era they lived in.


At the very first hearing for the Yoder defendants, the district attorney said he’d (quote)“be prone to dismiss the charges, if they made some arrangement with school officials for a workable vocational plan.” (End quote) 

Peters notes that, “such plans were in operation in other states.”


Peters also commented on the reasoning of the first stay. The judge wrote, “If the Amish operated their own parochial high schools, they might be able to maintain their treasured isolation-and with it their religious liberty- while still complying with the law.”

Peters followed that with, “Remarkably, many of the circuit court judge’s colleagues on the bench somehow failed to grasp this fairly obvious point as Yoder made its way through the courts.” (End quote)


The legal philosophy known as “judicial restraint,” is a concept based on the idea that the courts shouldn’t be viewed as having the magical, perfect answer for every situation. If options exist in which a dispute can be resolved apart from intervention by the court, the idea behind judicial restraint, is that the court has an obligation to not intervene. 

As I’ve illustrated, there were numerous avenues available in which the compulsory education dispute could be resolved, short of legal intervention.


At the heart of Amish willingness to pursue a legal remedy in New Glarus, was the fact that, deep pocketed non Amish actors were offering assistance. That assistance came with a price. The price was to surrender control of the Amish narrative. 


 Peters, on page 52,  “the chairman of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom wrote of how the members of the new organization committed themselves to zealously defending the Amish by telling their story......and providing legal defense.” (Emphasis added)


This telling of the Amish story by outsiders, brings me to my second broad point, which is,....while the Yoder ruling is hailed as a great religious freedom victory, a view that is almost universally accepted, for Amish children though, it had the absolute polar opposite effect.


What makes this dichotomy the single most relevant aspect of the Yoder ruling, is that it directly undermined the capacity of prospective Amish adherents to perform a core tenet of their faith, which is to make an informed choice as an adult to join the sacred community. 


For Amish children, the Yoder ruling essentially made the Amish church, a state sponsored church. It brought the Amish church full circle, in complete contravention of their Anabaptist heritage, to what amounts to infant baptism.


In his book, “The Riddle of Amish Culture,” Donald Kraybill assigns Amish motivation for being wary of secular education. 

He writes, “The intellectual climate-rational thought, critical thinking, scientific methods, symbolic abstractions-would breed impatience with the slow pace of Amish life and erode the authority of Amish tradition. Amish youth would learn to scrutinize their culture with an analytic coolness that would threaten the bishops’ power.” (End quote)


Isn’t what Kraybill describes here, precisely what the early Anabaptists were doing,.... threatening their bishops’ power? But of even greater significance, on what premise can the supposition that the state has an obligation to preserve the bishops’ power, be justified?


There’s actually a real life example that illustrates how nauseatingly contrived the premise undergirding the Yoder ruling is. The Old German Baptists, send their children to public schools and don’t dress them plain, prior to baptism, for the expressed purpose of preserving the integrity of adult baptism.


The fact that this issue was never considered by the courts at any point in the Yoder case, is irrefutable evidence that those advocating on behalf of the Amish, were much more interested in winning the case, than they were in keeping an eye on the best interests of the Amish.


Throughout the Yoder case, the rights of the children, was brought up numerous times, and even though legal precedent existed that established a child’s right to counsel in court, none was ever introduced.


Numerous times, judges worried about how Amish youth who left the closed community, would fair in the non Amish world without a high school education. It is telling that, in all of the deliberations, no concern was ever raised whether this turning away from education might be detrimental to the integrity and sustainability of Amish society.


Even though our judicial system is predicated on a prosecution and a defense, in the Yoder ruling, there was in fact no oppositional Amish voice present. The defense had an expert witness, but the prosecution didn’t. 


Are we to assume that all Amish were in lock step agreement with the idea of overseeing their own schools? My mother certainly wasn’t. I remember her voice dripping with contempt in reference to the subject. In a recent conversation with my now former wife, she mentioned her father’s adamant opposition.


Can a fair review of the Yoder ruling, come to any other conclusion, than that it was a profound betrayal of the highest ideals of both Amish and non Amish society. I don’t think so.


At the heart of this betrayal is the premise that, in this contest between the dueling interests present in the Yoder case, the best interests of the Amish would hold sway, without their representation being fully actualized. 


In other words, whatever conclusion they arrived at, to paraphrase a line from the movie, “Cousin Vinny,” there was no one there to contradict the veracity of their conclusions. Or if I may lapse into the vernacular of my profession, they just pulled it out of their butts, and not only did the court buy it, so did the Amish.


What the court and the Amish bought, was the idea that “compulsory education requirements will destroy Amish culture.” That is a direct quote from the defense’s expert witness, John Hostetler. 


As a sociologist who studied the Amish, and also was raised Amish, Hostetler’s testimony commanded influence. The problem though, even if Hostetler’s Amish heritage legitimized his advocacy for the Amish, he advocated one thing for the Amish while living the polar opposite in his own life.


In his book, “The Amish in the American Imagination,” David Weaver Zercher writes how Hostetler, as a proponent of Mennonite rural life, failed to align his personal life with his advocacy work. (quote) “Hostetler and many of his Mennonite rural life colleagues augmented the very situation they decried. By leaving their parents’ farms for college educations, and by pursuing the professions of America’s middle class, they contributed to the Mennonite migration from rural life as much as they stemmed it. Few epitomized this trend as clearly as Hostetler, who was born and reared in an Amish home and retired a full professor from Philadelphia’s Temple University.” (End quote)


In Hostetler’s world, education is good for me but bad for thee.


There is an inherent patronizing condescension in Hostetler’s position.


The great crisis in the work being done in academia on the Amish, is that, academia has become a participant in enabling and reinforcing Amish, “withdrawal from engagement.”

Supporting argument for this can be found in an essay authored by Professor Billig and myself. 

It’s titled, “The Functionalist Problem in Kraybill’s Riddle of Amish Culture,” and published in “The Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies.”


Donald Kraybill’s work admits that Amish education, “restricts consciousness,” and that church membership isn’t a real choice. But instead of honoring the ideals of the institution of higher learning, in which he enjoys an esteemed position, he brazenly portrays these direct contradictions to Anabaptism as benign, even going so far as suggesting that the illusion of choice is beneficial. 

P (186) and P (177) Riddle of Amish Culture


Amish leaders, with the help of the Supreme Court have bought into the idea that stasis, and ignorance for that matter, is a virtue, and Kraybill’s work functions as propaganda in support of their objectives.


With friends like this, who needs enemies?


The effect of what I’ve described, leaves the Amish on a shelf, behind glass. 


In terms of, where do we go from here? 

We need to take the Amish off the shelf and out from behind that glass. We need to play with them, even if it means they might get dirty. We need to hold them up side down and shake them, see what falls out. We need to walk around them and do the proverbial tire kick. 


If the Amish are to survive, non engagement needs to be recognized as the religious idolatry that it is. Education must not be synonymous with indoctrination. 


For example, the Quakers are a religious people with reasonably similar values as the Amish. Strong agrarian heritage. They cultivate keeping pop culture and the latest fashion at arms length. But they also founded, or are affiliated with three of the most prestigious universities in the country. 

It is possible to embrace education without losing ones identity and values.