The Amish in the Market: Competing against the Odds?


1Religion matters in the United States. In sharp contrast to European societies, religion continues to be relevant in various social arenas. The United States thus challenges the once dominant prediction in sociology that religion would decline in modern societies, i.e. the assumption that the more modern a society is, the less religious it becomes (Bruce 151; Pollack 42). Critics of the secularization theory reject the narrative of religious decline. One school of thought in particular, the interdisciplinary economics of religion, claims that as a platform of exchange, the modern market can even strengthen conservative religious communities and promote their growth. Originating in North American sociology about 30 years ago, the economics-of-religion approach has become fashionable in social sciences (Stark and Finke 193; Stark 259). Proponents of the approach argue that religion continues to play an important role in modern societies in two ways: first, religious ethics influence peoples’ economic choices in the market—such as investment strategies, consumption, and professional choices—and second, the growth or decline of religious organizations is subject to market principles at work in the religious economy as a whole. Among others, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argue in The Churching of America that freedom of religion in the postcolonial era allowed churches and sects to compete for members Finke and Stark). As competition is good for business, so goes the overall argument, it creates a diversified, vibrant, and large religious economy in the United States.

2The Amish are a highly visible part of the American religious mosaic and pose a striking contrast with secularization theory’s assumptions about the decline of religion in modern societies. Amish communities have grown massively in demographic terms, and many Amish businesses are thriving (Kraybill and Nolt; Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt). It is striking how well the Amish adapted to fundamental changes in their social, economic, and cultural environment while confronted with numerous constraints on technology, education, and employment options. Despite their prominence in contemporary popular culture and academic research, the Amish have largely been absent from the economics-of-religion debate. As Theron Schlabach, an eminent scholar in Anabaptist history, commented in his literature review on Mennonite and Amish historiography in America, “[s]urprisingly few authors […] have investigated the influence of market forces on individual and group behaviors” (61).

3This article picks up on Schlabach’s critique and connects the economics-of-religion debate with Anabaptist Studies. I will demonstrate that the Amish have succeeded in integrating into the market economy despite being heavily constrained by church rules. At the same time, I will show the limits of an economic approach in analyzing the growth and decline of religious communities. I will sketch Amish economic history as a story of rather successful market integration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, I will present the Amish church as a religious organization that is subject to market forces in the religious economy. In conclusion, I will critically assess the economics-of-religion approach and discuss its application to Amish history. I will argue that Amish history supports the premise that religion can influence economic development in modern competitive markets. However, the market model fails to fully explain the growth of Amish communities.

Religion and Economic Development: Amish Market Integration

4Mainstream economics define the market as a platform for the exchange of goods and services between a buyer and a seller. In cases of multiple buyers and sellers, economists speak of competitive markets. Most economists have long neglected religion as a force that shapes markets (Kuran 769). Recent research has criticized this neglect and argued that religion can have a major impact on how modern markets are structured and that buyers and sellers can be influenced by their religious beliefs (Nee and Swedberg 5). Particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crises, the debate on ethics and economic decision-making has gained new momentum.

5The Amish are a prime example of how religious values shape attitudes towards the market and influence economic development (Halteman 250). They practice a strong work ethic and an ascetic lifestyle that conforms in many ways to Max Weber’s description of Protestantism in his essays collected in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. As E. Wayne Nafziger shows, Mennonite values stress the relationship between prosperity and righteousness, attitudes towards wealth and a hard work ethic (Nafziger 266). As Jean Séguy has shown, Anabaptists developed into proficient and innovative farmers in Eastern France and the Palatinate in the 17th and 18th centuries. Contrary to the widespread popular image and to erroneous scholarly assertions, they were not self-sufficient but sold their surpluses and developed an early form of capitalist farming (Séguy 200). As opposed to Weber’s Protestants, however, the Amish did not transform their Anabaptist religious ethics into a driving force of modern industrial capitalism. As a matter of fact, Amish ethics denied them many modern production techniques in farming and manufacturing. From an economics perspective, one might expect that the impact of industrialization—such as technological progress, mechanization, urbanization—would negatively impact the ability of the Amish to compete in a rapidly modernizing economy. Instead, Amish market integration increased in the course of industrialization.

6One example for the Amish response to growing market opportunities in the late 19th century is the Deer Creek Mills Dairy Association in Eastern Iowa. Members of an Amish Mennonite community founded the operation on March 16, 1895, and divided the initial capital stock of $1,000 into 20 shares of $50 each (Deer Creek). The firm operated a creamery with the primary business of manufacturing of butter and other milk products. Similar to the Deer Creek Mills Dairy Association, also Steven M. Nolt’s study on an Amish distillery in the Iowa frontier economy in the 1860s (56) shows a growing engagement of Amish business in the second half of the 19th century that was clearly intended to cater to market demands.

7While some entrepreneurs seized on new opportunities in business, the overwhelming Amish occupation continued to be farming well into the 20th century. Amish farmers also responded to changing marking conditions. During the Civil War, they started planting wheat as a major cash crop in Pennsylvania when wheat prices were high (Kollmorgen 34). After the Civil War, tobacco replaced wheat as wheat prices fell. By the 1920s, Lancaster County accounted for more than 90 percent of the tobacco harvest in Pennsylvania. On the one hand, factors such as the growing railroad network, provided new opportunities for rural farmers to connect to wider regional, national, and—via steamship—increasingly global markets. The massive growth of the Amish and general US population and increasing land prices, on the other hand, pushed the Amish to generate new sources of income in order to buy farm land.

8In a groundbreaking anthropological study of the Amish in Lancaster County published in 1942, Walter Kollmorgen outlines Amish market integration. His work was funded by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics as part of a wider sociological fieldwork program during the New Deal era (Kollmorgen; Bridger et al.). The study’s goal was a comparative analysis of social stability in a sample of six groups across the United States, with the Amish representing the most stable community. While Kollmorgen’s primary focus of interest was social structure, the highly readable study also touches on the Amish economy, explicitly stressing the commercial nature of Amish farming. In the first half of the 20th century, Amish farmers had increasingly turned to profitable cash crops, and by 1940, poultry and dairy products had become additional sources of income. Kollmorgen summarizes that as “commercialization was extended and intensified, self-sufficiency declined. Today the Amish farmers’ production and consumption are closely tied up with the market economy” (47).

9While Kollmorgen documents an astonishing success story of economic development, Amish market integration faced many obstacles as competitiveness was severely constrained by church rules. Probably the most visible sign of those regulations is the complicated Amish relation to modern technology. For instance, an 1865 Amish church rule from Ohio states that “luxurious vehicles according to the world’s pride and vanity are not to be allowed” (McGrath 36). Amish views on modern technology and “worldly vanity” also meant that the use of tractors and other farming equipment has been and continues to be banned in Amish communities. In 1977, the state of Indiana introduced new farming regulations for health reasons, requiring dairy farmers to cool fresh milk to 50 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours. The new rules necessitated investments in modern farm equipment which the Amish church had banned, threatening the economic basis of many Amish farmers in Indiana. As one Amish farmer put it in an interview, the machinery was “not in line with our religious beliefs or our living plain and simple” (Stuart). Religious principles, the traditional lifestyle, and potential conflict with church authorities mattered more than economic benefits. How did the Amish compensate for the competitive disadvantage resulting from technological and other restrictions imposed by church rules? Family labor and communal resources, expertise in farming, and the occupation of economic niches played a major role (Reschly 46). Generally speaking, the Amish have proven to be highly skillful in adapting new technologies to meet church requirements. For example, while some Amish groups completely ban the use of tanks to chill milk, others permit the technology provided that the tanks are run by batteries and not via the electric grid (Kraybill 49). Such technical ingenuity allows the Amish to adjust to changing market conditions and growing competitive pressure. This practice has contributed to thriving Amish dairy farming in the United States despite the increasing concentration of production in mega-dairy operations (Cross 16).

10In the 1960s and 70s, the US economy and society changed fundamentally (Stein). Due to increasing suburbanization, land prices soared in more densely populated areas such as Eastern Pennsylvania. Accelarating globalization, the oil price shock, de-industrialization, computerization, and changes in consumer culture have transformed the US economy as a whole. This transformation has created new market opportunities for the Amish. Donald Kraybill and Steven Nolt’s book on Amish enterprise highlights Amish business ingenuity and adaptability in a wide variety of sectors, such as tourism, manufacturing, organic farming, and construction. The authors document a massive increase in Amish enterprises in Lancaster county starting in the 1970s that far exceeded population growth and accelerated further in the 1980s (Kraybill and Nolt 37). Today, Amish integration into the market economy is continuing on an increasingly larger scale. Online shops now ship Amish furniture abroad, and tourist agencies brand Amish country as a destination for international travelers. Globalization also matters for Amish agriculture. When I was conducting archival research in Pennsylvania in 2011, I met an Amish man who kindly answered many questions about the Amish economy. He was very well informed about recent trends in the global economy. He knew, for instance, about the spectacular economic boom in China, the rise of a Chinese middle class, and its increasing appetite for meat. Growing demand for meat in China has had a great impact on the global food markets, which has also led to higher prices for Amish farmers in Lancaster County. The ability to adapt to changing market conditions is likely to become ever more important for the communities in the future. It is also likely that Amish religious ethics will continue to shape their engagement in the market.

Gaining Members in the Religious Economy: Amish Demographic Growth

11The Amish population has grown massively over the course of the 20th century from a few thousand in 1900 to about 300,000, including unbaptized children in 2015 (“Population by State”). As conversion to the Amish faith is rare, this development is almost entirely due to endogenous growth. High fertility alone, however, does not fully explain Amish population growth. Equally important is the question why a large proportion of the Amish youth decide to be baptized and become full members of the church. According to Anabaptist principles, baptism is a conscious decision of the individual which is usually made in young adulthood. So why does a surprisingly high proportion of Amish youth (in some communities more than 80 percent) choose to be baptized and become part of a conservative community in the face of other alternatives, for example by joining churches that do not impose such strict limits on individual lifestyle?[1]

12The economics-of-religion perspective applies the market concept to this question. The term “religious economy” refers to an open market where religious communities compete for members. In this model, religion is seen as a good like any other that can be produced by religious “firms” (i.e. churches, sects), and sold to “consumers” (i.e. believers). As in any other market, those religious communities thrive who can best adapt to market conditions. They even have a competitive advantage over lenient churches in the religious economy because strict rules strengthen communal discipline (Iannaccone). Amish rules mandate a peculiar lifestyle governing even small details of daily routine.

13The following example of the 1865 church rule prescribes specific restrictions on clothing and hairstyle. It bans both “gaily-colored, checked, striped, or flowered clothing made according to the fashions of the world” and “parting the hair of man or woman after the worldly styles” (McGrath 36). Rules were strictly upheld by church authorities, and an offender could face severe punishment. In extreme cases, church rules provided that “excommunication and shunning of all disobedient members shall be used without respect of persons, whether man or woman” (32). Similar rules govern Amish communities through the present day. As the congregations are small, social control is strong because it is relatively easy to screen members for compliance.

14Another example concerns the question why the Amish limit education to eight years when higher education is likely to result in enormous economic and social benefits. A recent study argues that higher education among the Amish has negative effects because it distorts the cohesion of the community (Wang 60). Amish individuals who strive for personal educational achievement are either forced to comply with the rules or face excommunication. By establishing such harsh codes of practice, the church has an effective screening mechanism that filters out unwelcome members, thus ensuring the homogeneity of the group. In sum, the Amish place communal homogeneity and conformity over individual educational achievement.

15In addition to sanctioning perceived negative individual behavior, the Amish are highly successful in building trust and organizing mutual aid among members. According to political scientist Francis Fukuyama, “trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community” (26). Joint prayer and religious rituals, strong kinship ties, ethnic tradition—such as language and culture—and cooperative solidarity within small-scale communities form the basis of Amish communal life and generate social capital (Tan 349). An episode in Ira Wagler’s bestselling memoir, Growing up Amish, highlights the cooperative culture in Amish communities. During the author’s youth in Iowa in 1982, one of his brothers had an accident that left him paralyzed. As Amish rules ban health insurance, the medical expenses proved to be a great financial burden on the family. An announcement in the Amish magazine, Family Life asking for financial aid, led to a great outpouring of financial support from hundreds of Amish readers. The voluntary contributions sufficed to pay for no less than $80,000 in medical expenses for Ira Wagler’s brother (Wagler 154). Thus, the Amish community is an effective provider not just of religious but also of social goods and services. The Amish provide a textbook example of how strict rules, the provision of social services, and absolute trust strengthen the cohesion of the community. This cohesion, in turn, helps explain high retention rates.

16The market perspective on religion could be applied in yet another way. The Amish are not a homogenous community but are comprised of many independent settlements and districts with far-reaching autonomy and no organizational center. Divisions are frequent and many splinter groups have been founded over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Due to rapid population growth, there is also an extensive Amish migration as young families seek affordable land for farming and start new settlements. As David Luthy has documented in an impressive survey, many Amish communities fail for a variety of reasons, be it economic difficulties, internal conflict, or lack of leadership. Members of a failed settlement either return to their place of origin or move on to another, more successful, community. The diversity and autonomy enable individual congregations to adapt to changes in their social, economic, political, and cultural environment. From a market perspective, the absence of centralized authority encourages competition and is greatly beneficial to the Amish community as a whole.


17Economics-of-religion scholars hold that the market provides an analytical tool to help explain economic development and the growth and decline of religious communities in modern society. The United States is presented as a paradigm in which a vibrant religious market fosters competition among religious communities. Religion clearly shapes the way the Amish engage in the economy, be it its influence on technology, educational and professional choices as well as employment. Combined with other factors—such as Pennsylvania German language, ethnic traditions, and kinship—religious beliefs shape Amish economic practices. At the same time, the Amish have been engaging in economic activities outside their communities since the early modern period. Even the evolving modern market in the 19th century with its increasing competitive pressure has not marginalized the Amish. Instead, Amish market integration has increased in the course of the 20th century, demonstrating Amish competitiveness in an advanced industrial economy. It is remarkable that farmers who do not use modern technological equipment can sell their products at market prices and still make a profit. That income, in turn, is vital to the Amish confronted with massive population growth, soaring land prices, and increased costs for those goods and services that the Amish do not produce themselves. Engagement in the wider economy, in other words, is a necessity for the Amish to survive in the modern world. They are therefore not only subject to changes in supply, demand and the legal and political environments, but also the impact of globalization.

18As I have demonstrated, scholars interested in American religion in particular might benefit from the economics-of-religion approach. At the same time, I contend that applying the market model of the “religious economy” to the Amish is problematic. First, it is based on the premise that religion is a commodity that can be traded on markets. While a conscious consumer might be able to compare prices and quality of ordinary products like pasta at a grocery store, the value of religion is neither measurable nor comparable (Bruce). Second, the premise that the believer is entirely free to choose his or her denominational affiliation is not plausible. Many believers are immersed in their religious beliefs from childhood on, a fact that certainly holds true for the Amish. As the large body of autobiographical literature by former Amish demonstrates, the “choice” to leave the community is extremely hard and painful and has major negative consequences for the ex-Amish. Third, the Amish do not pursue opportunities in a “religious economy.” They do not try to increase their market share by converting others and do not compete—at least not consciously∞against other denominations. Despite this criticism, the market perspective as a conceptual toolbox can open up comparative research perspectives between the Amish and other strict religious communities.

19Research on the Amish will not solve the controversy between secularization theorists and economics-of-religion scholars. They are a relatively small group and a rather specific case among contemporary religious communities. Nonetheless, I suggest that scholars in Anabaptist Studies become familiar with the debate, its theoretical premises, methodological approaches, and empirical findings. This approach has become sufficiently influential in challenging the once dominant secularization paradigm in the sociology of religion. Scholars need to engage in the debate in order to advance our understanding of religion in modern society. This matters not only to Anabaptist studies but—as much of the debate focuses on the United States—for research in American religion as a whole.


[1] For further details on retention rates among Amish youth, see Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt (162–63).

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Martin Lutz received his Ph.D. in history from University of Konstanz in 2009. In addition to his dissertation on Siemens and its Soviet business, he published a second book on Siemens corporate history in the 19th century with a focus on globalization. He has worked as a post-doctoral lecturer in Social and Economic History at Humboldt University’s Department of History since October 2012. His research interests include the influence of religion on economic decision-making, the history of globalization, business history, and neo-institutional theory. His current research project looks at the influence of religion and ethnicity on economic developments in the 19th and 20th centuries in Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite communities.

Suggested Citation

Lutz, Martin. “The Amish in the Market: Competing against the Odds?.” American Studies Journal 63 (2017). Web. 17 Nov. 2017. DOI 10.18422/63-03.


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