(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert has been thinking about the Amish, the strength of their religious faith and their way of life.
(GILBERT) I’ve been as dumbfounded as the rest of the nation in my efforts to understand the recent school shootings in Pennsylvania.
The tragedy struck me hard because I grew up one county over from Lancaster County, the base of the Amish. Although she wasn’t Amish, my grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch. The common German heritage made many in the area feel not that far removed from the plain-living Amish.
A friend in Lancaster County wrote me in the days that followed the shootings. It was a tough week, she said, but amazing things evolved out of the tragedy. The broader community watched the Amish walk their faith, forgive the killer, and offer sympathy and assistance to the family of the killer. They even attended his funeral as a show of support to his widow and children. My friend said, “This past week all those funny-looking people dressed in black became real people to the rest of us. It isn’t often that we get to see faith in action.”
My friend is right. To most of us, the Amish are like surreal figures from some strange Hollywood movie set. Lost are the deep, historic roots of their culture.
The Amish were one of numerous dissident religious groups that emigrated to Pennsylvania in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. Pennsylvania – unlike most other North American colonies – welcomed dissenters. Quakers, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, Dunkers, and Amish flocked there.
The Amish are a branch of the Mennonites. They take their name from Jakob Amman, who in the sixteen hundreds led a contingent of Swiss Mennonites in a break from the main church. Ammann stressed purity of the sect: those not following doctrine should be shunned, for example. He taught that church members should dress in a uniform, plain manner: simple garb worn even today by the Amish.
To the Mennonite creed of nonviolence was added reluctance to adapt to new ways – which is why to this day most Amish farm – and don’t use tractors or drive cars. Those that compromise are sometimes called “black bumper Amish.” These Amish accept the convenience of cars, but they paint the bumpers black in order not to show off.
The Amish, as well as other Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania, clung to their German language, partly as a way of keeping separate from other colonists. The German word for German is “Deutsch.” The English pronounced it as “Dutch,” and so these new immigrants who spoke German became known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” They made up about a third of Pennsylvania’s population at the time of the American Revolution.
The Mennonites explained themselves to the Pennsylvania Assembly this way in 1775: “It is our principle to feed the hungry and give the thirsty drink; we have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s lives, but we find no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men’s lives are destroyed or hurt.”
As we contemplate the deaths at the West Nickel Mines school, it’s ironic to realize that two hundred and twenty-five years later, the Amish – and other Mennonites – still live by this creed.
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.