Yo! Are You Amish?

Driving down Philadelphia’s South Street a few years ago, I was asked by a person who had pulled up next to me, “Are you ‘Ay-mish?'”

In spite of my long beard and straw hat, I thought the man should have known better: I was, after all, driving. And it was South Street, for heaven’s sake—the thoroughfare of “that’s where all the hippies meet” pop song fame.

It is a case of mistaken identity frequently made—both for me and for Quakerism itself. About the only similarity, though, is that the Amish continue to dress much the way their Quaker patrons in Pennsylvania used to dress.

In my concern for the state of modern Friends, however, I wonder whether we might benefit from borrowing a few pointers from our Anabaptist friends the way they borrowed our sartorial habits when they first arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1700s.

Problems for the Future of Friends

Here in North America, at least, prospects for the future of Friends seem bleak. Membership has fallen below 100,000 and shows a steady decline over the past several decades. There are a few bright spots, but uniformly across the various branches of Friends there is a concern for developing new leadership, difficulty in keeping our young people, and a feeling that Friends are not impacting the broader society. Furthermore, Quakers seem to have a real identity crisis. Who are we? Are we dry Baptists? Unitarian-Universalists with more inhibitions? A do-it-yourself religion? We don’t seem to know.

Some Sources of the Problems

There are many theories about why Quakerism has fallen on hard times, and I have my own pet ones. Primarily, I believe that Friends on both the liberal and evangelical ends of the spectrum have succumbed to what I call “tofu Quakerism.” Our Quaker faith has some substance to it, but has derived most of its flavor from whatever culture it happens to be stewing in at the time!

In the Midwest, where I grew up, and here in the South, where I now live, many Quakers have assimilated into the mainstream evangelical Protestantism dominant in the area—with a few forays into holiness and fundamentalist camps. During an eight-year sojourn among Friends in Philadelphia, I found that Quakers there had, by and large, adopted the liberal social, political, and religious norms around them.

With little other than a few quaint relics of our Quaker past to demarcate our distinctiveness, it is a challenge to attract or retain people. The religious communities from which we borrow our ideas and even culture can generally outdo us in being who they are! Why would people choose a poor copy of the real thing?

What the Amish Can Teach Us

Identity—Granted, we don’t want to exchange one “copy” for another, but I believe the Amish can offer us a few clues about how to address the issues besetting Friends. For one thing, they have a clear identity of who they are and what their history is. In the home of each Amish family are a Bible and a Martyrs Mirror, for example. The former supports a Christian identity, and the latter defines, by way of the suffering of earlier Anabaptists, the nonconformist role their ancestors played within that Christian community. I would be surprised if a majority of Quaker homes has an equivalent library of literature underscoring Friends’ particularity.

Are young (or even older!) Friends provided ways to gain a clear understanding of who we are in relation to the religious communities around us?

Community—From earliest childhood, through their own Amish schooling, and into adulthood and baptism into the faith, the Amish are taught that individualism must be muted in the context of the needs of the community. They can overdo it at times, but essentially the Anabaptist theology stresses submission to the community as a means of achieving individual spiritual growth.

Of late, Quakers have tended to overdo it on the other end of the continuum. Evangelicals stress “personal salvation” and often minimize the value of a denominationally specific religious community. Liberals stress “that of God in every one” and too often turn it from a statement of theology into a statement of anthropology: I am divine. In either case, the need for a community of Friends is lessened.

Have Friends turned our Testimony of Community on its ear and come to have an unbalanced preference for individualism?

Boundary markers—Hats, bonnets, horse-drawn buggies, lanterns, German, and other visible signs of Amish separation from the world help establish the boundaries of the community of faith and a definite identity. Do Friends have such boundary markers?

I contend that we do, although they have become less noticeable over the years. We no longer dress much differently from “the world” (non-Quakers wear Birkenstocks too!), and few use the plain speech of “thee” and “thou,” but we still have on-the-books distinctives such as the value of silence in worship to experience the Real Presence, honesty and integrity (including not taking oaths), simplicity, peace, and equality. Without a clear sense of who we are, as defined by these markers and their biblical and spiritual roots, we become indistinct and even more prone to becoming lost in the swamp of other ill-defined groups.

Do we educate ourselves and others on the outward and visible signs (testimonies) of the inward faith that animates us?

Negotiation with modernity—A notable aspect of Amish society is the ability to take new technologies and ideas, put them “on probation” to see how they affect core principles, and then make an informed decision about whether to adopt them. We modern Quakers are more prone to accept whatever new thing is coming down the pike, realizing only later that we should have been more careful in welcoming Trojan horses into our lives.

Friends have tools of discernment such as clearness committees and queries to help us slow down the process of too hastily adopting potentially unhelpful actions, ideas, and methods. But we are usually in too big of a rush to wait—or too wedded to our own agendas.

How may we more effectively use the collective wisdom of our heritage and our community to assure that we march into the future wisely?

The Quaker message still has power and authority. I have been amazed by the excitement with which students at a local Baptist seminary encounter Friends distinctives when I teach courses there on Quakerism. But I find that even the Quaker students at Guilford typically arrive with little understanding of Friends faith and practice other than vaguely defined cultural accretions. Friends have a great story to tell—but few, it seems, who can tell it!

In 1999 I traveled through Israel on my way to a visit in Ramallah, Palestine. When I told the security officials at the airport that I was making a religious visit, I was questioned long and hard about my reasons for coming. It was the countdown to the millennium, and they were leery of apocalyptic wackos! I was asked if I belonged to a religious cult. When I sought to describe Quakerism, my questioner’s face lit up, and she exclaimed, “Oh! Amish!”

It was my entrée into Israel. Perhaps by learning a bit more about the wisdom of Amish community and boundary maintenance, our entrée as Friends into the future may be more successful. We need to have a clear identity of who we are, a strong commitment to the family of Friends, a definite understanding of the boundaries that define us, and a willingness to slow down a bit, lest we outrun our Guide.

Max Carter

Max L. Carter, director of the Friends Center and campus ministry coordinator at Guilford College, is a member of New Garden Meeting in Greensboro, N.C. A recorded Friends minister, he teaches courses at Guilford on Quaker history, testimonies, spirituality, and intentional community.