The Plain People
By Beverly Hicks Burch
*This article is a revised and updated version I wrote for The Heartbeat, (Feb 1992) the guild newsletter for The Heart of Dixie Quilters Guild in Birmingham, AL where I was guild founder and served as guild President for several years. I was also the establishing editor and publisher of the guild newsletter, The Heartbeat.
This revision will begin a two part series on Amish quilts and the Amish people.
For many years I’ve held a special place in my heart for Amish Quilts. I’ve even made reproduction versions of my own. I don’t recall how or when I first discovered this wonderful world of bright, bold colors juxtaposed with black, made up of geometric designs and patterns and all done with solid…not patterned, mostly 100% cotton fabric or sometimes wool.
I might have overheard a quilter talking about a trip she took to Amish country as if it were a mystical pilgrimage to Mecca. For many quilters, it is. I had a chance to have such an experience when I spent time in Lancaster, PA in 1994. It is a time I will never forget.
But, who knows, my affections for Amish quilts may have started before then…
What attracted me to Amish quilts? It could have been the colors…the designs and of course in many cases the excellent workmanship. The solid bold colors splash across the quilts not unlike colors in abstract paintings or modern art.
The fact that such bold colors and statements come from a group of people often labeled the “plain people” or “plain folk” is astonishing. Maybe it is the contrast of the people and their quilt that has teased my curiosity and interest. Examining these bright, bold textile “paintings” lead me to ask one question…”Who are the Amish?” I discovered the answer goes back several hundred years.
The historical roots of the Amish go back to the Reformation Movement that swept Europe in the 16th century as former Catholic priest Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church. Like Luther, the Amish believed in a break from the Catholic Church, but unlike Luther they wanted the break to be deeper and more severe and as a result were part of the Radical Reformation. The people seeking to form the early Amish faith felt the break from the Catholic Church should see people returning to the simplicity of faith the early Christians had.
They believed in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith: the Creation, Redemption, Resurrection, etc. But, they also had a strong belief in purity, modesty, separation from the world, separation of church and state, etc. Since the Amish did not believe in infant baptism and instead in voluntary adult baptism they were part of the Anabaptists movement.
The Anabaptists were sought out and persecuted by the Catholic Church and the Reformers. The Anabaptists beliefs were considered heresy and during the Holy Inquisition the Anabaptists were persecuted with the same vigor the church persecuted witches and Jews. Many Anabaptist were tortured or killed, and the State Church banned the Anabaptist movement.
Originally, the Anabaptists were educated, urban people, but under persecution they were forced to spread out to rural areas. Faced with such harsh persecution and many times penalties such as double taxation, they would migrate from one country after another throughout Europe seeking relief from persecution. Mostly it was to no avail.
Zurich, Switzerland is recognized as the birthplace of the Anabaptist Movement. On Jan. 21, 1525 the first group took turn baptizing each other in Zurich. They called themselves The Brethren. Eventually a man named Menno Simons emerges as their leader and they became known as Mennonites in recognition of Simons.
In 1693 a Mennonite elder named Jacob Amman became dissatisfied with the Mennonites and decided to form his own sect. Amman believed the Mennonites had become too “worldly”. In addition, he wanted to establish a practice called “shunning”. Shunning is a method of punishment used to ostracize transgressors of the faith. Followers of Amman’s sect became known as the Amish.
The Amish also experienced tremendous difficulty in Europe. They eventually immigrated to the United States in pursuit of religious freedom. Although the Amish can be found in at least 20 states, the greatest concentration of Amish communities in the US are in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. A smattering of communities can be found in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Florida.
Although the Amish are considered more backward, simple or plain and the Mennonites were and are seen as more accelerated or advanced, both groups have many similarities, especially in Scriptural doctrine and belief.
The most notable differences are one of practice. As a result, you see many different sub-groups, or denominations, within the two main groups of Anabaptist…the Mennonites and Amish. The basic divisions fall into two categories: the “Old Orders” and the more Modern Orders.
It is among the Old Orders (in both the Amish and Mennonite) that you will find the people we, the “English” (the outsiders) would consider the stereotypical “Amish”. The people with the horse drawn, black buggies, men in black lapel-less suits and straw hats, women in long sleeved dresses, capes and bonnets. In the Old Orders the emphasis is on simple and modest.
But, even here you will find a difference in practice. For instance, buggy shape and color varies regionally. Some men wear beards, others don’t. Some wear buttons, others don’t. To some, a zipper is considered vain.
Formal education in the Old Order usually terminates after the eighth grade. Most occupations are agrarian. Some of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen were Amish farms. Also, being Amish doesn’t necessarily mean being poor.
Family life is very important and families are usually very large. Life centers around the family, church and faith. The Old Order of both the Mennonites and Amish tend to shun electricity and most modern conveniences. They will use traditional machines for farm work such as plow and in some cases they will use gas powered machines and generators for their homes and farms. Some in the Old Order will ride in an automobile of an “English” friend if need be, say if they need to go to a near by phone to make a call. On the whole, they prefer not to socialize with the “English” as they call the outside world…or us.
If you travel through or visit Amish country I would offer a couple of things for consideration. First, remember the Amish do not like to be photographed unless you have asked for their specific permission. Secondly, when around and near them, do not treat them like circus freaks or oddities. They’re human beings like the rest of us and deserve to be treated with respect. Don’t talk about them as if they can’t hear you. When you’re visiting their area, you’re in their home…be respectful!
The most modern groups and Orders are not so strict in some of their practices. Electricity isn’t as readily shunned by the modern orders. People of the Modern Orders tend to seek higher education and among the Modern Order it’s not uncommon to find educators, lawyers and other professionals.
But, even the Modern Order is full of paradox. For example, the Beachy Amish use electricity, phones, cars, tractors, etc. Their manner of dress though is very conservative, the very traditional Amish dress with one exception…they use zippers! I can remember in my travel through Pennsylvania Dutch country seeing an Amish car with a bumper painted black to symbolize “separation from worldliness”. I guess there’s more than one way to throw off the shackle of worldliness and a black bumper is as good as any way…
Traditionally the church services of the groups were conducted in German…or Deutsch…and that is where we get the name Pennsylvania “Dutch” Country. Actually, the descendants who live there now are mostly fluent in English.
On October 2, 2006 a man named Charles Carl Roberts IV went to a little Old Order Amish community in Lancaster County, PA and perpetrated a terrible thing.
On that day Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse with a 9mm gun and took hostage 10 innocent Amish children…all little girls. When the ordeal was over Roberts had killed five of the girls execution style by shooting them in the head. The girl’s ages ranged from age 6 to 13. No one knows why Roberts did these monstrous things against the little innocent girls. There is no excuse.
Beyond your grief, how would you have reacted? How did the aggrieved Amish community react? Some communities would have rioted and started burning in the streets. But, the Amish? With forgiveness. Even in their loss and grief they reached out to the family of Charles Roberts…to his father and his widow. They understood the shame, humiliation, loss and devastation the Roberts family felt knowing one of their own had committed such an awful act…and the Amish community reached out to that family with love, forgiveness and understanding…and healing.
So, my friends that is a very brief history and background concerning the Amish people. Just remember this. The “plain people” have a history full of persecution, twists, complexities and nuances. That combined with their spirit, and their wonderful quilts can teach us at least one thing – never…ever underestimate, undervalue or take for granted something or someone labeled as “simple” or “plain”.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7
© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.