The Current State of Amish Society: The Atlantic Monthly

by: Ben Nelson



The Amish, mostly know to the outside world as a humble, peace-loving, and community oriented people have had to confront some tough questions in the last few years. In June of 1998 two Amish boys, Abner Stoltzfus and Abner King Stoltzfus, were indicted on drug charges stemming from their involvement in the cocaine trade in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Murse 1). These young men were using cocaine and dealing it to their peers at "hoedowns," places where young Amish people gather to socialize and dance. These Amish boys became involved in the cocaine trade about five years before, after bringing members of the notorious motorcycle gang, the Pagans, to work for the roofing company the two boys owned (Murse 1). The shock that something as serious as the drug trade could affect even an Amish community has caused a great deal of interested people to examine this event more closely. I will examine this situation more closely in this article. I will ask some important questions. Specifically, how could something so contradictory to the Amish faith and values have happened and what circumstances may have made it easier for this to happen? Finally, I will attempt to answer those questions and bring some understanding to a situation that, at least on the surface, does not appear to make sense.

To understand the situation facing the Amish in Lancaster County, we must first understand what forces could have worked together to bring about such an unlikely event. Once force that contributed to this situation is the high degree of what the Amish call rowdyism. Rowdyism is a term for gang behavior among Amish young people (Hostetler 357). Rowdyism occurs in Amish youth groups and is a much bigger problem among the larger Amish settlements such as the ones in Ohio, Indiana, and Lancaster County. The two boys indicted in June were members of two different Amish youth groups. One boy was a member of a group named the Antiques and the other boy was a member of a group that call themselves the Crickets (Murse 1). These youth groups often participate in a range of behaviors that would be considered unacceptable to a parent or leaders of the church. It has long been known that at these gatherings young Amish people often consume alcohol (Hostetler 356). It was in this environment that the Stoltzfus boys introduced cocaine to the Amish youth.

Part of the reason why this behavior may be possible can be explained by the parenting style of many Amish parents. Amish parents generally tend to respect their children's right to privacy. A lot of Amish parents respect that right to privacy so much that they ignore a lot of the behavior in their children (Hostetler 357). Hostetler compares the parenting style of the Amish to the Chinese and what he calls other "high context" cultures in his book Amish Society. This is a parenting style that allows for a lot of leniency with children and rests on the belief that the strong culture will eventually bring the rebellious youth back to their senses (357). This kind of attitude toward adolescent rebellion may have perpetuated the problem in this particular situation. In an article written by Ernest Schreiber and Ed Klimuska published on June 24, 1998 titled "Parents were warned of growing problem in fall," a Lancaster County Bishop was quoted as saying, "This has been going on for some time, several years now," referring to the drug problem. Another bishop said "The past couple of years, we've been hearing more and more," also referring to the drug problem (1). These quotes are evidence that this drug problem in Lancaster County may have been partly the result of a few parents taking too much of a passive role in the supervision of their children's activities.

A third factor that may have contributed to the unfortunate events of a few summers ago is the incidence of what the Amish call the lunch pail threat. The lunch pail threat refers tot eh diminishing amount of farmland available to the Amish (Kraybill 192). The scarcity of farmland, which is forcing many Amish off the farm to find work, has been a problem since the 1970's (Kraybill 192). The Amish believe that this has threatened their way of life. Specifically, it has threatened it because first, it forces the father to be away from the home much more, which takes away some of his influence within the home. Second, there is the potential that working off the farm will have an affect on the Amish person's own values. Third, it could be a detriment to the community as a whole because factories do not work on the same schedule as the rest of the Amish community, thus making it harder for Amish factory workers to participate in community activities. And fourth, working off the farm allows Amish to receive benefits that they would otherwise receive from the community (Kraybill 193-94).

It appears that the lunch pail threat was a real threat in the case of the Stoltzfus boys. These boys worked outside of the Amish community, employing people of non-Amish backgrounds. They were obviously influenced by outside sources. As Donald Kraybill is quoted as saying about the two indicted boys in an article written by Ed Klimuska titled "What went wrong? Amish expert cited new 'business class,'" "They're interacting with the outside world. Overtime, these kinds of things are going to happen if there is enhanced exposure to the outside world" (1). The Pagan motorcycle gang probably would not have been able to get these Amish boys involved in dealing drugs if they would have been able to stay on the farm.

Those are some answers to the question of how and why this unfortunate event may have happened, but now I will try to give some answers as to the current "state of health" of Amish society and what the future implications of this may have for the future of the Lancaster Amish community.

This incident does tell us that the current state of Amish society is not one of perfection. There are many imperfections within Amish society. The larger settlements in particular have experienced a lot of problems with rowdy and rebellious youth. Parents and community leaders do have a hard time putting a stop to this rowdy behavior. It appears that rebellious youth is the biggest threat to the welfare of Amish society right now. At this point it does not seem that all Amish parents and leaders really know how to go about solving this problem. However, I think that this incident will have positive future implications for the Lancaster Amish community and other Amish communities around the nation.

First, I think that an attempt will be made to lessen the lunch pail threat. This is not a problem that can be solved easily. Nor is it a problem that can ever be totally solved, there is just not enough farmland to support the growing Amish population in the bigger settlements (Kraybill 194). However, Amish leaders can work to find alternative ways to employ Amish people. Maybe placing more restrictions on letting non-Amish people work for Amish businesses or finding work on other Amish farms are possibilities.

Second, and I believe more importantly, this will force many Amish parents to re-examine there parenting styles. An incident as serious as this may convince those Amish parents that often look the other way when their child is being rebellious to take a more active role in supervising their child's activities. As Donald Kraybill says, "I expect more bishops will encourage parents to be more careful with their young people, they will remind parents that they should be talking to their children more and warning them about the dangers of drugs" (3).

The unfortunate event of a few years ago has forced the Amish to re-evaluate some of the problems within their culture. It has shed light on the persistent problem of rowdyism among Amish youth. It has also served as a wake-up call to many Amish parents to take more control in the lives of their children. Finally, it has heightened the awareness that the lunch pail threat is a problem that is yet to be solved. Through these revelations the Amish can now start to turn some of these problems around. These are not problems that will cause Amish society to cease to exist, but are nevertheless problems that need to be dealt with. Even the Amish, whose culture and beliefs are grounded in centuries of tradition sometimes have to adapt to survive in changing times.