Introduction: Exploring Plain Anabaptist Societies

1According to the Young Center for Anabaptist Studies, the Amish dot the North American landscape in 31 states and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Since their population doubles roughly every 20 years—due to an average of five or more children per family and a retention rate of over 80 percent—they are expected to reach one million members by 2050 (Guarino). In order to preserve their rural way of life and their small settlements as strategies for survival, Anabaptist societies have had to push beyond the confines of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states to both find adequate land for expansion and create new areas of employment. These developments have resulted in a shift from largely agrarian communities to a more diversified landscape, including a greater number of cottage industries and businesses run by Amish men and women.

2Whereas the Amish population in Canada originates to a certain degree from disenchanted pacifists who left the US in the 1960s, the Mennonite settlements in Canada have flourished since the late 18th century. Unlike the Amish, roughly half of the Canadian Mennonites have migrated to urban areas. Due to their migration patterns and their wide-spread representation in popular culture and literature, the Amish and Mennonites are literally on the move, making their presence felt across the two countries.

3The overarching aim of these conference proceedings is threefold: first, to initiate contemporary discourses on lesser known Anabaptist topics, such as Amish-Mennonite vacationers; second, to explore the impact of plain societies on mainstream culture and religion; and third, to consider future developments in Plain People cultures [see especially the video of the panel discussion].

4David Gilland’s provocative article entitled, “Anabaptist Influences on American Religious Pluralism,” seeks to correct two prevalent academic misconceptions about Anabaptist beliefs, institutions, and practices. Not only does he challenge the view that the Anabaptist movement originates from the Magisterial Protestant Reformation, he also contests current understandings of divine grace. Instead of viewing Anabaptist thought and belief as marginal phenomena in American culture, Gilland situates Anabaptist traditions in the center of American religious pluralism.

5In his essayistic case study, “The Amish in the Market: Competing against the Odds,” Martin Lutz focuses on the intersection between religion, economics, and history, by exploring two methodological perspectives: first, the religious influence on Amish economies in the 19th and 20th centuries and second, the relationship between market principles and Amish demographic growth. His economics-of-religion approach questions the validity of applying the market model of religious economy to the Amish. Although the Amish do not fully make use of every technological advancement or profit-making strategy available, they are nonetheless, as Lutz points out, quite successful in adapting to changing market conditions while still retaining their core religious values and identities.

6In “Keepers at Home? Amish Women and Entrepreneurship,” Karen M. Johnson-Weiner observes that Old Order Amish women are taking a more active role in entrepreneurial activities both inside and outside their homes, thereby expanding the diversity of Amish societies. At the same time, Johnson-Weiner’s qualitative research analyzes the effects of entrepreneurship on the Amish construction of gender. Instead of adapting themselves to practices of the outside business world, Amish women make the outside business world fit their culturally and religiously constructed role as their husbands’ helpmeets. Although Lutz and Johnson-Weiner approach the topic of the Amish in the market from different fields and time periods, their findings complement each other in that both point to the priority of the religious belief system over economic expansion.

7Martin Kuester and Julia Michael provide a diachronic overview of Mennonite prairie fiction in English from its inception until the 21st century in their essay, “From Plain People to Plains People: Mennonite Literature from the Canadian Prairies.” While the authors start out with canonized Mennonite literature focusing on religion, community, and sameness, the second part of their informative study examines a younger generation of Mennonite writers and their take on fragmented identities. Two of the most innovative voices, Lynette D’anna and Wes Funk, go against the grain of traditional Mennonite narratives by directly addressing sexuality and queerness. Thus moving beyond specific Mennonite topics, these “separatists” have—now more than ever—become an integral part of North American culture.

8In her study, “Towards ‘New Memoir’: Ira Wagler’s Ex-Amish Life Narrative Growing Up Amish, Sabrina Völz—who coined the term “ex-Amish memoir”—argues that Wagler’s New York Times bestseller stretches the boundaries of conventional memoir writing and anticipates some of the characteristics of Patrick Madden’s concept of ‘new’ memoir. Moreover, she examines the memoirist’s long struggle with his identity construction and the culture of his birth. Finally, Völz shows that Wagler’s writing style has been deeply influenced by the Amish principle of Gelassenheit and the virtue of humility.

9Nowhere is the continued fascination with the Amish more apparent than in the ever-expanding tourism industry. In fact, over 19 million tourists come to Amish Country each year, amounting to more than two billion dollars for the local economy (Trollinger 141). Although the vacations of Amish-Mennonites are not part of mass tourism, they nevertheless play a significant role in their Christian walk-of-life. As Cory and Jennifer Anderson show in their essay, “Sanctifying Leisure: International Tourism among America’s Amish-Mennonites,” tourism for these groups reflects the value of evangelical outreach. In contrast to the more conservative Amish societies that do not engage in proselytizing, the Amish-Mennonites are called to missionize others and participate in voluntary work as well as humanitarian aid, even in their leisure time. With an ironic wink of the eye, the authors point out that most vacationers actually prefer idyllic places and warmer, more exotic climates to comply with their religious calling.

10The concluding panel discussion, “The Future of the Plain People,” centers on issues as diverse as organic farming, solar energy, Amish reality programs, pets, and the status of women unable to bear children. Moreover, panelists Donald Kraybill, Susan Trollinger, and Ira Wagler talk with moderator Maria Moss about supplementary teaching material on the Amish, including the television film Amish Grace: The Inspirational True Story of Forgiveness (2010) based on the West Nickel Mines School shooting at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006.

Works Cited

 “Amish Population Profile 2016.” Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College. June 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.

Guarino, Mark. “For Amish, fastest-growing faith group in US, life is changing.” The Christian Science Monitor. 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Trollinger, Susan. Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. Print.

White, Sylvie, and Teena Booth. Amish Grace: The Inspirational True Story of Forgiveness. Dir. Gregg Champion. Beverly Hills: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 2010. Film.


Sabrina Völz is a post-doctoral lecturer and researcher in North American Studies at Leuphana University Lüneburg. She has served in various functions at Syracuse University, Gettysburg College, and The Pennsylvania State University where she received her Ph.D. Her teaching and research interests include German American history and culture, North American ethnic literatures as well as creative non-fiction. Her current project on Amish Studies began with an interview of Ira Wagler on his memoir Growing Up Amish in Lancaster County in 2012 and blossomed into the interdisciplinary conference on the Plain People in July 2015. Her article on Saloma Miller Furlong’s ex-Amish serial memoirs appeared in 2016.
Maria Moss received her doctoral degree in one of her life-long passions—Native American Studies—from the University of Hamburg in 1993 and her post-doctoral degree in neo-realist American literature from the Free University Berlin in 2006. She has been teaching North American Studies at Leuphana University Lüneburg since 2007. In addition to numerous publications on Native issues, she has recently branched out into the fields of animal ethics and Critical Animal Studies. The following articles are evidence of her latest interests: “A Whale of a Problem: Indigenous Tradition vs. Ecological Taboo,” “‘Their deaths are not elegant’: Animals in Margaret Atwood’s Writings,” and the forthcoming, “From Within Fur and Feathers: Animals in Native Life and Literature.” Her other fields of teaching and research include creative writing, Canadian Studies, and environmental literature.

Suggested Citation

Völz, Sabrina, and Maria Moss. “Introduction: Exploring Plain Anabaptist Societies.” American Studies Journal 63 (2017). Web. 19 Jul. 2024. DOI 10.18422/63-01.


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