The road that runs through the main village of Berlin, Ohio, only about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, is called "Amish Country Byway" for its unusual number of non-automotive travelers. And it's true that driving down it, you'll have to slow down for the horse-drawn buggies that clog the right lane. But those seeking the "real" Amish experience in downtown Berlin might be disappointed. It's more Disney than devout: a playground for tourists full of ersatz Amish "schnuck" (Pennsylvania Dutch for "cute") stores selling woven baskets and postcards of bucolic farm scenes.
You only see the true Holmes County, which is home to the largest population of Amish-Mennonites in the world, when you turn off Route 62 and venture into the rolling green hills interrupted periodically by tiny towns with names like Charm and Big Prairie. You'll likely lose service on your cell phone just as the manure smell starts to permeate the air. On my visit last summer, I saw Amish people — groups of children sporting round straw hats, the young women in their distinctive long dresses — spilling out of family barns, where church services are held, in the distance. The Amish don't have any spiritual attachment to a geographical location, the way Jews have to Jerusalem or Mormons to Salt Lake City; this spot, along with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is probably the closest they come to an idea of God's Country.
Earlier that morning, I was introduced to Alex Samuelson, a baby-faced 31-year-old member of the Beachy Amish-Mennonite faith who, along with his wife Rebecca, would be my guide for the day. Alex suggested that he might be better equipped to drive and he was right: He glided along the twisting back roads and gave me an orientation to the area not even the all-knowing Siri could have provided (especially considering the spotty service). As a Beachy Amish-Mennonite, Alex is permitted to drive — the church is what Alex calls "car-type" — but adheres to prohibitions against television, popular music and limitations on the internet. (These prohibitions vary somewhat from congregation to congregation, although certain restrictions — like not owning televisions — are uniform throughout Beachy society.) Like all Mennonite and Amish groups, Beachy doctrine is firmly Anabaptist, which means that they don't accept infant or childhood baptisms. They also believe in keeping themselves separate from the world, which is one motivation behind their Plain garb, although it's worth noting that the style of dress also differs between congregations.
I have arranged to meet the couple because they offer insight into one of the rarest religious experiences in America: They are established converts to an Amish-Mennonite group. It is not immediately apparent that they were not born into the culture. Alex and Rebecca look, to be simple about it, like your average Amish couple: Alex has the stereotypical facial hair of an Amish man (beard, but no mustache, a prohibition which harkens back to the days when mustaches were associated with the military) and Rebecca wears an ankle length cotton-polyester dress, her hair in a neat bun underneath her white gauze cap. Alex is an expert in Plain life because he spent years adapting to it, but also because he has a doctorate in rural sociology, and so spends much of his time studying his adopted culture, or "thinking about Plain People," as he puts it. (He relaxes, I'll learn later, by tending to his many aquariums.) Because of his work, he's accustomed to interviewing others about their religious identification, which meant that frequently during the drive, the conversation swerved toward my conversion to Orthodox Judaism. When the ball came back to my court, I asked Alex what it felt like when he first attended a Mennonite church when he was 18, after a year of nurturing a fascination with the culture. "It's like walking into a room full of celebrities," he said. "You've thought about these people for so long, and they just feel so inaccessible and remote and just, here you are! They're all around you!"
Reverent, giddy, almost lustful: It's the way you'd expect a teenage girl to talk about her favorite pop star, and yet it's a tone I've come to expect among a certain group of people when you invoke the name of the Amish. Before the internet, these "wishful Amish" wrote emotional missives to newspaper editors in areas with large Plain populations; one man I spoke to, who publishes a series of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania guidebooks, composed a form letter so as to minimize the time he spent replying to such requests. Now, the wishful Amish have dedicated internet forums (ironically) on which they write with the feverishness of the unrequited lover about their long-held hope to get close to the aloof objects of their spiritual desire.
Many say they've wanted to become Amish for "as long as [they] could remember," though most of them say they have only seen Amish people on a few occasions and don't know much, if anything at all, about Amish theology. Some talk about wanting to find an Amish partner; others, about the fear they won't be accepted into the community because they are single parents, or divorced, or have tattoos or once dabbled in drugs. Many are hesitant that they won't be able to fully adjust and so wonder if it might be possible to stay with an Amish family for a week or two, just to try out the lifestyle. Although a few commenters say they've taken the initiative to make their own lives more Plain — given up television, say, or started to dress more modestly — most of them appear to be banking on integration into the community to transform them, like alcoholics who decide to wait until detox before examining the deeper motivations behind their drinking.
The thread that runs through all the testimonies is one of dissatisfaction — at times, near disgust — with modern society. "As I see it, the world at large is doomed," writes a single mother of five on the informational site Amish America. One word is consistently invoked to describe Amish life: "perfect."
The wishful Amish will do what most obsessed people do these days: they'll Google around a lot, devouring whatever articles or listicles they can get their hands on. During this self-directed study, many will come across the website Alex founded back in 2005, when he was attending college in his home state of Virginia. (He's currently employed as an adjunct professor of rural sociology at a local university.) Alex built his site in order to provide access to rare documents related to Anabaptist history and culture he had discovered in his campus library (titles include "Amish-Mennonite Barns in Madison County, Ohio: The Persistence of Traditional Form Elements" and "Caesar and the Meidung [shunning].")
"Then I began getting out-of-the-blue requests from people who were interested in visiting a church, so after a while it was more directed toward an informative website," he says.
Amish conversion is extremely uncommon, which makes sense: who actually wants to give up modern convenience for more than a week or so? For those who have made the leap, the lived experience of conversion deviates greatly from the fantasies moving across web pages every day; it's harder, crueler, slower than the hopeful could imagine. It's also not a static state; for most converts, the emergence of a perfect Amish self never truly occurs.
But we couldn't get too deep into a discussion of conversion yet, because Alex began turning the car into the parking lot of the converted elementary school building where his congregation holds services every week. We were late for church.
Born in 1984 in Loudon County, Virginia, a verdant area long favored by vintners at the base of the Blue Mountain, Alex was raised in a nominally Christian family. His dad owned his own exterior housing repair business; the family lived on 10 acres in an old Victorian home, and attended church on Christmas and Easter some years, but otherwise didn't talk much about religion. His family, which included his younger sister, was a mostly happy one, although beset by what Alex calls the "typical American plagues": sibling rivalry, discord between his mother and father, his father drinking too much. To the latter, Alex was especially sensitive.
In second grade, Alex began to experience what he now refers to as "God's early promptings," although he didn't see them that way at the time. He developed an instinctual aversion to designer clothing, particularly shirts with garish logos on the chests. "I felt like it sold me out to something else I didn't want to sell myself out to," he said, as I mentally compare this to my unholy childhood yearning for Adidas Sambas. His friends were starting to swear and share "bad ideas" on the playground, and Alex briefly dabbled, but then decided foul language was unequivocally wrong, so he vowed to clean his up.
No voice from the heavens, beseeching him to recognize Jesus. No 49 days spent under a fig tree, contemplating the nature of meaning. No vision of God's Kingdom as a rural compound full of happy celibates. No, Alex's awakening was gradual, and in those early days, inconsistent. He didn't, in other words, connect his distaste for cursing and Polo Ralph Lauren shirts to a burgeoning religiosity, nor did he feel any paralyzing guilt at abandoning his children's Bible in favor of his DOS video games. But his curiosity about religious life was strong enough that when his younger sister's bus driver, whom the girl had befriended, offered to take the two children to his Southern Baptist Church one Sunday, Alex agreed. Alex's sister lost interest after a few Sunday school classes, but Alex, then 13, was hooked. Every Sunday, he'd grab one of the free doughnuts and then head to Sunday school. A year later, he was baptized.
As a teenager, he was involved in school theater, history club, and Civil War reenactment. Eventually, he took a job that took his love of costuming — a core difference between Amish and other Christians — to a new level. The summer before his senior year in high school, he worked at Harpers Ferry National Park, a historical village located where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. At Harpers Ferry, Alex dressed in period garb (he had two costumes, one an 1860s shopkeeper and the other a Union Army private) and gave tours to groups of visitors, including families of Conservative Mennonites. "I started to become obsessed with their appearance," he remembers. "My friends learned this and they would tell me when Mennonites appeared and I would go on break, grab a root beer and find them and just kind of be near them." When he tells me this, I remember how I used to similarly side up to Hasidim on the New York City subway in my pre-conversion days, hoping that sheer proximity would allow me to glean some spiritual energy from them.
Around that time, he was simultaneously examining the practices of the Baptist Church to which he belonged, mostly because he felt that no one there could answer the questions he had about certain Biblical mandates, or perhaps they didn't care enough to ask those questions themselves, which was worse. For example, he found himself particularly struck by a passage in Corinthians that states a woman should have her head covered when praying.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
Alex thought the teaching was pretty clear, and was unmoved when his pastor told him it was antiquated convention. What was the point of believing something if there was nothing you could do to actually show it? What had become of modesty or manners between genders, of embodying the values you espoused, otherwise known as "bearing witness," in Plain terminology? Such precepts were valued in Victorian times, and in the pre-Civil War South of Harper's Ferry.
But in this era, in his world, who cared about these things? Only the Plain.
Up until that summer at Harpers Ferry, Alex's knowledge of the Amish was derived solely, like any '90s child, from the Weird Al Yankovic song "Amish Paradise," and from the few times his family drove by them while on their way to drop him off at summer camp in Northern Pennsylvania when he was a kid. But he entered his senior year of high school after the Harpers Ferry summer with the Plain people on his mind. He bought Twenty Most Asked Questions About the Amish and Mennonites and "hauled it around with [him] everywhere;" he'd occasionally wear button-down shirts and slacks to school and when other students would ask him if he had some sort of presentation that day, he'd cheerfully respond, "Nope, I'm just dressing Mennonite!" (His wife, too, began to sneak out of her house in Plain dress late in high school, much to her parents' chagrin. In college, she made her own dresses based on pictures of Amish women in a book she checked out of the campus library.) There were no Amish communities near where Alex lived, but a friend of a friend lived in the hills outside Charlottesville and told him there was a Mennonite Church down the road from her parents' house. One Sunday, he woke up early to drive two hours down to a church not far from Free Union, Virginia (population: 193) and attended his first Mennonite service.
Does love inevitably draw us further into our loved one's orbit, or can affection thrive from a distance? Can you admire something without eventually wanting to imitate or even become it? And if you do try to become it, can you ever really belong? Or do converts always feel a little like anthropologists, knowing that if things ever got too tribal for their tastes, they could dust off their old clothes and take up residence in their old lives?
These are the kinds of questions that arise when one hears the stories of religious conversion, especially when the conversion requires a complete overhaul of one's life. Many idolize the Amish world, but few actually infiltrate it. According to the 2013 book The Amish by scholars Donald Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven Nolt, only 75 people have joined an Amish church and stayed since 1950. One researcher estimates there may be as many as 150 to 200 converts living Plain lives today, though not all will stay Amish in the long run.
It's unlikely, in other words, that the wishful Amish writing blog posts about desperately wanting to become Plain will ever do much more than that, let alone seriously pursue conversion.
Still, an intrepid bunch of spiritual seekers manages to go the distance. There are a few "celebrities" among them, like David Luthy, a Notre Dame graduate who was on his way to join the priesthood when he decided to move to a settlement in Ontario and devote his life to documenting Amish history, or Marlene Miller, Holmes County resident and author of the memoir Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order, who married her husband while he was living outside the community. Miller, who has now been Amish for almost 50 years, raised 10 children in the church, but will still twirl a baton to amuse visitors. A convert's success can be aided by the openness of the community that he or she chooses to join, as some settlements, like those in Unity, Maine, or Oakland, Maryland, which is the oldest settlement in that state, are traditionally more welcoming to seekers who may show up there. Others, like the more established ones in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes, Wayne, and Guernsey Counties, in Ohio, are less likely to accept outsiders.
For 14 years, Jan Edwards, now in her late 60s and living near Columbus, did what many considered the impossible: She, an outsider, lived and worked amongst the Swartzentruber Amish. Whereas the Beachy Amish-Mennonites believe in proselytizing, using certain technologies to their advantage, and being generally congenial to strangers, the Swartzentruber Amish are more stereotypically xenophobic and hostile to change. They're wary of others to the point of chilliness, disdainful of "loud" colors, loathe to speak in English, and proud of their cultural and genetic impenetrability. What is different between Jan and Alex —what her "mistake" was, if one is inclined to view her Amish life as indeed a game that she could have "won" — is the element of faith, or, in Jan's case, the lack thereof.
Jan Edwards was living with her husband and three young children in her hometown of Akron when the race riots occurred in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, as had John and Bobby Kennedy; the nation was on edge, and Akron wasn't spared. One night, someone threw a Molotov cocktail threw the front window of Jan's grandparents' home, where they had lived for thirty years. They survived, but her grandfather's leg was badly burned. Her grandparents never returned to collect their belongings. After this, Jan and her husband decided it was time to get out.
"We moved to a country place. [It was] kind of exciting, like maybe we were going to go on a vacation or something."
But life in Guernsey County, nearly 20 miles from the nearest shop, wasn't easy. Jan was learning to farm on the job, while her husband was still commuting to work a long distance from the homestead. Even with his income, they struggled to make ends meet. The Amish lived in close proximity and Jan started to stop in to buy eggs or honey. Contrary to popular conception, she found her Swartzentruber neighbors to be very warm. "The Amish were downright friendly. Probably because they were so starved for ... you know, like the old pioneers, they'd finally see somebody coming up the landing, and they'd throw open up the door. 'Come on in!' Even if it was a stranger, they just missed people. They just wanted to talk to somebody and exchange an idea or a thought. A howdy-do or something."
She and her husband were fascinated — envious, even — of the way in which the Amish seemed to have the living-off-the-land thing down pat. Whenever Jan would go to an Amish family's house, she would watch them closely: the way they cooked their food, the way they raised chickens, the way they chopped timber.
"You'd observe all that was going on, and take all that back with you when you go home and try to see if you'd learned anything," she said. "I guess we were copycats to an extent."
I went to meet Jan on a cold October Monday some months after my trip to Holmes County. Leading up to my visit, she hadn't seemed terribly enthusiastic about me stopping in — "This is a very busy household," she wrote in a letter — perhaps because she'd already told her story a few times, to a couple of local newspapers and on the PBS television series American Experience. But once I am there, drinking her freshly brewed coffee and enjoying some out-of-this-world strawberry crumble, she seems to enjoy being faced with some tough questions, and can, like Alex, talk about the appeal of Amish life without reducing it to a starry-eyed romanticism, or, in her case, leaning solely on bitterness or soppy nostalgia.
In person, Jan gives off a host of contradictory vibes: spry and world-weary, wise and undiscerning, forthcoming and guarded. Her house is dimly lit and decorated with the odd tchotchke; some of her paintings of Amish life — equal parts charming and eerie, like a lot of art brut — lean against the walls. She has a gaggle of grandkids and great-grandkids who spend a lot of time with her and wreak happy havoc on the place. But for now, she talks of her life with the Amish, and she sounds like she's been to war.
"I couldn't do it again, because I was there too long, maybe. I saw too much and heard too much. I became aware."
"It" was a slow progression into life with the Swartzentrubers, one that unfolded over the course of a decade, during which period the whole brood — Jan had six more children over the years there — began to dress Plainly, attend church services, and learn Pennsylvania Dutch, the lingua franca of the Old Order. Her children attended Amish schools, and the family participated in barn raisings, funerals and quilting circles. Eventually, she and her husband formally joined the church. Most of her children at this point were still too young to be baptized, as Amish don't usually accept a baptism before the age of 16.
Mostly, she joined because she feared that she would never be fully accepted as one of them unless she did. She did her best to tow the line and "reject everything that could be possibly rejected," like toasters and windows on her buggy and the news. She could chat in Pennsylvania Dutch to the ladies after church. "I had figured out how to grow everything and wash everything and do all the household and farm kind of things." She never used bright greens or deep purples in her quilt. She was in the very ordered zone. Besides, Jan had never seen the theological difference between herself and the Amish as a huge barrier — she and her husband were Methodist and Baptist, respectively, and "conservative, I guess" — so she didn't really consider joining an act of religious renunciation and/or rebirth. The Amish were Christian, and they didn't do "bad stuff," and that was common enough ground for her. Most of the Amish people she knew, particularly the women, couldn't point to the scriptural passages that were the basis for their customs; they just did as they had always done. But this resigned attitude didn't disturb Jan too much at the time.
"It's in the background, somewhere else. Because the day-to-day life is so engulfing. You're just trying to keep warm and get enough to eat and all the social interaction in a settlement," she says. "You're just totally busy from bedtime to bedtime ... it's not until way down the line that you think, 'Oh, hmm.'"
After she joined the church, she remained in the zone for only a year or so. Like a frog in a pot of boiling water, she realized that the heat had been turning up while she'd been distracted. Her older children were teenagers now and spending more times with their friends. They brought home tales of rebellion that are de rigueur for the secular world, but surprising in such a cloistered one: drinking, drugs, a little sexual experimentation. Jan and her husband hadn't ever considered that this happened in the Amish world; they thought maybe the other parents didn't know, and they should all get together and talk about how to solve the problem.
As even-keeled as she is in person, Jan had never really forsaken the independent part of herself that spoke out when she deemed it necessary. "Am I a feminist? I don't know that. I don't even know what a feminist is," she says. "But I have strong opinions. And would act on them." Whether that meant insisting she get the things she needed for the house — new plates from an auction sale, thread for darning, flour for baking — or informing on her sons' friends, she was prepared to do it.