Last Christmas, I went to visit family in my home state of Ohio but found myself waiting in line at the local gas station. It was a long line and getting longer. As it grew, more people took a half step out of line to have a peek at what was going on. What was the hold up? It was a pair of Amish gentlemen. One of them set down an arm full of snacks and the other placed several drinks on the counter. There was only one cashier that night but she was plenty capable of handling some snacks and drinks. So what was the problem? Well, the drinks were alcoholic. And the Amish customers had no state identification. This made it difficult for the cashier to check his ID after he dropped his $100 bill on the counter. The Amish crew’s driver offered his driver’s license for the purchase but the cashier couldn’t use it.
I grew up in Morrow County, Ohio, which hosts a growing Amish population. It wasn’t strange to run into Amish folks at the grocery store or pass a buggy on the road; they might be drinking a pop or smoking the occasional cigarette. I had moved past seeing my Amish neighbors as other-worldly. But I have to admit that I was surprised by the liquor and the whole situation. When I looked around at the meandering line behind me, I knew I was not alone. The waiting customers’ faces displayed a mix of annoyance and amusement. Not unlike the way many “English” locals viewed the Amish in general.
Maybe I was still “othering” Amish folks but the whole thing felt like a comedy of contradictions. I would expect other contractors to take the edge off on a Friday night with some Twisted Teas and Smirnoff. Or maybe a six pack of beer. But an Amish guy? A man whose commitment to faith and family was so strong he had to hitch a ride to work? A quick Google search informed me that some orders of Amish communities allow alcohol consumption. And even without a Google search, I can figure that folks do things others in their community may frown upon. My own Quaker tradition has historically encouraged “teetotalers” but there are many of us who enjoy a glass of wine or microbrew from time to time.
Even without Google and Quakerism, I should’ve known better. I spent most of my childhood years in Morrow County, Ohio, but my story actually began two counties to the east, in Holmes County—the home of what is arguably the largest Amish population in the world (the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is similarly large). Nearly half of the county’s population is Amish; some project it could surpass the non-Amish population in the county within the next decade. Locals throughout the state refer to the region as “Amish country.” We lived in Holmes County because my dad worked there with the Farm Service Agency, a county government agency under the Department of Agriculture.
When my family returns to visit Holmes County today, after having lived elsewhere for about thirty years, they find a very different “Amish country.” Sure, the buggies and beards and horse manure on the streets are still the same. Some of the same cheese factories and restaurants remain. But the region has experienced significant growth, leveraging its heritage and culture to start antique stores, museums, restaurants, inns, agritourism, food stores, craft furniture shops, delis, bookstores, bicycle shops, quilt barns, lumber yards, backyard barn sales, and even a hotel-theatre-restaurant entertainment center for Amish-inspired plays and clean comedy shows. This industry injects millions of dollars in the regional economy. It’s not your parents’ Amish country anymore. At least, it’s not my parents’ Amish country.
Every year, tens of millions of people swarm to Amish country to shop the stores, eat the food, and drive the countryside. They seem to be drawn there for the same reasons I was surprised by the Anabaptist alcohol. They are seeking a sense of wholesomeness, peace, and simplicity that they don’t experience in their everyday lives and see the Amish as the preservation society for those values.
In her book Selling the Amish, researcher Susan Trollinger submits that the tourist industry of Amish country is ultimately selling nostalgia. It allows us to find comfort in the reminder of how things used to be, or find hope in seeing how things could be again. “It seems to me,” she concludes, “that as long as we have eyes to see the Amish as strange, they will ask us whether we have the courage or the creativity or the vision or the faith to embrace a future that we have not yet seen and in which we become . . . truly strange ourselves.” We are drawn to Amish country because we see the Amish as what the King James Bible calls a “peculiar people,” and we receive from them an invitation to become peculiar ourselves.
Occasionally, when I’m passing around a buggy or driving past an Amish farmstead with drying clothes flapping in the wind across the clothesline, I ponder a possibility. If we were ever hit by the apocalyptic future some claim is coming—be they global warming prophets or end-times preachers—would we end up knocking on the doors of Amish houses, begging for help.
Late writer and Ohio farmer Gene Logsdon had a similar idea. In At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream, a book largely about “Amish economics,” Logsdon states: “Sustainable farms are to today’s headlong rush toward global destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.” Maybe these Amish farms and networks of families are holding the world together while the rest of us throw off the old ways for our own pathways to destruction.
When everything else is rising and falling, coming and going, heading to hell in a handbasket, at least there will always be this remnant of faithful, stable saints nestled in the hills. Thank goodness some things—and some people—never change.
The only problem is, it’s not true. It’s partly true, perhaps. But it’s far from the full story. The truth is, the Amish have had to adapt and innovate and negotiate the changing world. The truth is, the Amish are a people of imagination. Perhaps not “imagination” as popularly conceived but imagination nevertheless. And maybe imagination as we need to learn it. In case we do get that apocalypse after all. Or even if we just want to live a full and flourishing life among our neighbors.
A little history is helpful. In his book, Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits, sociologist Donald Kraybill tells a fascinating story about how Amish communities, particularly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, navigated a significant transition away from exclusive reliance on the small, family farms. Since their separation from other Anabaptist groups and exile into rural regions in the late 17th century, Amish faith and practice has been centered on the family farm. Farming keeps Amish families connected to creation and provides a way for them to remain both tight-knit and separated from the harmful influences of the world. Their conviction about the importance of farming was so central that non-farmers were barred from ordination and church leadership.
When economic forces made a farm-based community nearly impossible for a growing number of families, they had to get creative. But when some Amish districts began permitting men to leave the farm to work in factories, it created trouble. Fathers lost quality time with their families and had difficulty getting time off for Amish holidays. Their benefit packages disconnected them from the communal system of mutual aid and shared labor. Some even got involved in betting pools and other behaviors that violated Amish ethics. Church leaders feared that this factory work was drawing people away from the core relationships of farm, family, and faith; one even commented, “The lunch pail is the biggest threat to our way of life.”
Since factory work did not provide the kind of solution in which the Amish could get ahead financially without leaving behind their core values, they had to consider other options. Kraybill notes that they were left with seven options: 1) migration; 2) subdivision of farms; 3) purchase of additional farmland; 4) use of artificial birth control; 5) non-Amish employment; 6) higher education; 7) microenterprises. The first six solutions were tried and found wanting; though any of them may be used in pockets of Amish populations, they did not provide the satisfactory outcome needed to maintain both ethical integrity and economic sustainability.
It was the seventh option—starting and expanding microenterprises—that won the day. In the 1980s, when the farm crisis reached its peak, many Amish businesses still grew exponentially. Small shops and cottage industries sprang up as Amish business owners found ways to maintain kinship ties, moral values, and communal solidarity while using entrepreneurial tools to grow their businesses. Sociologically, the Amish navigated the tension between cultural restraints and cultural resources so that they could reach an acceptable cultural revision that allowed them to move forward in a positive way.
The prosperity of today’s Holmes County, Ohio is an anomaly to most outsiders. It exists as a kind of alternative economy. Job growth, population, and median household income have been on a path of upward growth when other rural counties in Ohio continue to bleed. How? The county has no major highway or rail system and is almost two hours from a large city or major university. No huge company moved in.
Amish prosperity grew from within, and the English folks around them benefited as well. The Old World values of solidarity, community, and mutual aid are central to this microeconomy’s success, as is the spirit of entrepreneurship. The combination of strong social ethics and entrepreneurial energy seem to be the secret to their surprising success. In the end, it was a robust practice of imagination that enabled the Amish to survive and thrive.
Most of us still look at the Amish like those us waiting in line at the gas station—a combination of amusement and annoyance. They are quaint and we visit them to get our nostalgic hit for the season. But they damage the roads with their buggies and cover the streets with horse manure while “not paying taxes.” But if we let go of our tendency to idealize or infantilize, we have a lot to learn from Amish folks. They have a lot to teach us about imagination.
I’ve been particularly interested in what other rural and small-town folks can learn from their Amish neighbors, which I explore in my book, Recovering Abundance: Twelve Practices for Small Town Leaders. I think country folks can learn a lot from imagining a future together that uses our heritage and values to innovate and incubate new ideas. Rural or not, I think we can all gain insights about imagination from Amish. I’ve been influenced by distributist economic theory, so I support the development of more locally-based, family-supported microbusinesses like the ones they have developed. The particular form this imaginative revision takes, however, is not the point.
Instead, I’d like to consider how the Amish provide an alternative, and perhaps more grounded and sustainable, practice of imagination. As imagination is commonly conceived, the Amish may be the least imaginative people on the planet. But we’ve debunked that myth already. So let’s look at how Amish imagination contrasts with popular understandings of imagination.
The first way Amish imagination differs from common conceptions is that Amish imagination is communal not individualistic. For many, imagination is all about individual expression. It is how we separate ourselves from the herd and express our unique personality. Imaginative people are creatives or geniuses; they are important because they aren’t limited to by what their family or community or country thinks is possible or valuable. And there is some truth in this. We need people who step outside their systems and practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination.” We imagine what our lives and communities would be like if we reimagined them in light of God’s dream for the world. But the Amish remind us that imagination is not a solo sport; it works best when practiced in relationship. We need the wisdom, experience, and ownership of our community to start something new and make it sure it can be sustained. They also challenge our blind spots and speak up when our imagination becomes more about individual self-expression than communal integrity and social justice.
Secondly, Amish imagination is different because it is placed not boundless. In America, we love boundless imagination that transcends any limits imposed by local culture or particular relationships. Our minds have been shaped by manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. Nationalism has again gained traction in our national discourse. Big visions are compelling and can energize us to do amazing things. The Amish have had their own big visions of faithfulness and flourishing in the past, or they wouldn’t have settled into their current communities in the first place. But truly sustainable and meaningful imaginative praxis is what Wendell Berry calls “imagination in place.” We learn about our place and its people, we root ourselves locally and deepen our connections through long-term relationships, we walk the land and work the land. We become “placed people” and out of that affectionate, intimate knowledge we imagine what our place could become. Amish innovation flows from their rooted relationship to particular places and their strong social bonds to one another. Their imagination is nourished by community and place-attachment. It is bounded, and they can say with the Psalmist: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”
And thirdly, Amish imagination is faith-based not value-free. Popular versions of imagination require that we set aside our values and belief systems to enter a fanciful universe like Disney World. Only then can we really create new things and envision new horizons. While rigid religious ideologies can certainly squelch imagination, a completely value-free imagination also causes trouble. At best, it opens our range of possibilities so wide that we feel lost and overwhelmed. At worst, it allows our imagination to stray far beyond the range of any moral standard. Colonialism is about unbounded imagination and value-free vision. We imagine something, we want it, we take it. But the ethical and communal boundaries of Amish imagination paradoxically create a freedom that encourages innovation. Most Amish folks would concur with G.K. Chesterton’s statement that “doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”
We are constantly bombarded by “wars and rumors of wars” and news of global warming and climate catastrophe. Talk of increasing polarization, election fraud, and the demise of democracy have become cliché. Plagues, droughts, and severe weather events abound. And closer to home we face betrayal, burnout, divorce, money problems. But thankfully, as Tennyson wrote, “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” We need a new world, and anything new requires imagination. I agree with Indiana author and conservationist Scott Russell Sanders, who wrote: “The path to healing begins from acts of imagination.”
So mark out a garden and get to tilling. Set up a canvas and get to painting. Move into a neighborhood and get to dreaming. Choose a good church and get to praying. Make a friend and get to talking. Buy a house and get to renovating. Your membership matters. Your presence makes a difference. Your acts of faithful imagination are healing your corner of creation.
Our world is too broken and too beautiful to settle for shallow imagination, captive to consumerism and colonialism. Let’s learn from the Amish. Talk to your neighbors, inhabit your place, walk in the truth, and you’ll find yourself dreaming and scheming with the One who makes all things new.