Part Seven: A Final Look at the Amish Family
Traditional family values seem to have a better chance of surviving, as they have around the world, in rural farm settings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture examined several groups in its 1940 Rural Life Studies. Familism, or “the integration of the activities of individual family members for the welfare of the group as a whole,” was found to be an important dimension. Five characteristics of familism were found in the communities studied, one of which was the Amish of Lancaster.
The first of these characteristics was the feeling of belonging expressed by visits between family members. The Amish were noted for their frequent and sometimes long visits between siblings, parents, and children. Secondly, “the integration of individual activities for the achievement of family objectives is manifested more clearly in farming than in any other occupation.”
Thirdly, common interest in family property, and helping and supporting individuals in need, were especially observed among the Amish. The writer went so far as to say that “the closest approximation to the ideal construct of familism was in the Old Amish, where the family universally recognized its responsibility to give relief to needy members and to provide for aging parents.”
Fourth was rallying to support a family member in trouble. Finally, there was “concern for the perpetuation of the family as evidenced by helping an adult offspring in beginning and continuing an economic activity in line with family expectations, and in setting up a new household.”
In conclusion, the writers noted that “the highest valuation of familism was among the Amish. However, this is not typical of rural life today, but is a survival resulting from a combination of circumstances, of the characteristic situation in rural America a hundred years ago.”
In this last statement, an important point has been missed. The Amish have lived their peculiar way of life for three hundred years. They have weathered persecution, the pressures of modern life, technology, development, and tourism. They have adapted, changed, and survived. They are and are not the same people they used to be. But, as a booklet from the Amish publishing house Pathway states, “our everyday life cannot be separated from our religion.”
Their way of life and preservation of traditional values, whether conscious or not, cannot be called merely a “survival of the characteristic situation in rural America a hundred years ago.” It is rather the result of a commitment to their religion and way of life.
In Amish society the family, school, church, and community complement each other as an integrated whole. These same units in modern America seem at times to be at odds with each other, if not in the process of breaking down entirely. What children hear at home, in church, at school, in the community, and from the media are often wildly conflicting views of morality and success. Since even parents often can’t come to grips with today’s most complex issues, is it any surprise their children get confused and lost in the maze to adulthood?
The Amish were seen as radicals when their religion started. In America, they were sometimes viewed with suspicion due to their German background and pacifism in the World Wars. The 1950’s saw them as quaint curiosities in musicals like “Plain and Fancy.”
For some in the 1960’s, they represented an alternative lifestyle. Even foreigners found their ways fascinating during the energy crisis and turmoil of the 1970’s. In recent years, many Americans nostalgically saw in them a people who had held onto something they had lost, and now missed. People asked, “Have we rushed too quickly into the future without looking at what we have left behind?”
Now there is talk of “learning from the Amish,” and involvement by outsiders in their problems with state and local governments. No doubt the Amish find all this attention somewhat amusing, baffling, perhaps downright silly. Being not entirely “of the world,” some of them nevertheless take a great interest in its affairs, observing where the rest of the world might be headed. The Amish are more than a “survival;” they are a group, imperfect to be sure, who have given up some things to keep others, a people who live in this world while waiting for another. Many of us manage to survive, but to find meaning and direction in life is perhaps the greatest challenge. With so many new and difficult problems confronting modern society, we need to look to the family not only for the blame, but also for the answers.
It seems only fitting to let the Amish have the last word here. Once again, here are the words of one Amish writer from the pages of the Pathway magazine Family Life…
“Some families are just so many individuals with the same last name, living in the same house. They seem to lead separate lives, go their own ways, each independent of the other. Each is busy leading his own life. They lack the essential elements of a joyful family life—love, togetherness, loyalty, sharing. These sad little groups of lonely individuals are not families at all—they are failures. They are missing out on one of the greatest challenges on this earth—building a meaningful family relationship where work, possessions, and even feelings can be shared in love and trust. Published with permission from http://www.Amishcountrynews.com
Next Friday will be a post of my visit with Moses Stoltzfoos, the Amish hat maker.