The Retention of Young People by the Quakers and the Amish

Damon D. Hickey

Note: An earlier version of this paper was delivered to the North Carolina Friends Historical Society in Greensboro on November 10, 2007. It is still very much a work in progress. It lays out several questions about the retention of young people by the Quakers (Friends) and the Amish, presents the methodological challenges these questions pose, and suggests some answers.

This paper is a small tribute to one of my exemplars and mentors in Quaker history. Larry Ingle’s work on the Hicksites is well-known and stands as the most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date. His book about George Fox is a similarly path-breaking work. But beyond his own contributions to the field of Quaker history, Larry has done much to encourage other Quaker historians and archivists to investigate questions that need and deserve their attention. Through his work with the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists, he has encouraged many to persist in their work  and to set high standards for it. A better professional friend who both walks the walk and talks the talk would be hard to find. I feel honored to have been asked to contribute to his Festschrift [Keeping Us Honest, Stirring The Pot, Kimo Press 2011]. I am also indebted to my Wooster colleague, David McConnell, for his perceptive and helpful comments on this paper.

When we moved from Guilford College in North Carolina to the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1991, we did more than change colleges and locales. We moved from a Quaker community to the edge of the largest Amish community in the world. The two groups are very different. For the most part, Friends are no longer a distinctive religious minority who dress and speak differently, consistently adhere to plainness and nonviolence, and disown members who overstep the boundaries of the religious community. The Amish, on the other hand, are just such a community. But popular confusion of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” with the commercial image of the Quaker Oats man, in his dark suit and broad-brimmed hat, has led many to conflate them. The fact that Friends were also, once upon a time, a distinctive religious minority who dressed and spoke differently, adhered to plainness and nonviolence, and disowned members who overstepped the boundaries of the religious community points to an underlying similarity. So the question naturally arises, why did the Friends change while the Amish did not? Or, to put the matter slightly differently, why did the Amish succeed in retaining both their young people and their religious culture, while the Friends could do the former (with mixed results) only at the expense of the latter?

There are some pockets of “neo-Conservative” Friends today who have returned intentionally to some of the ways of early- nineteenth-century Friends, finding themselves very much at home among conservative Mennonites and Amish. But these Friends have yet to demonstrate their religious culture’s staying power, and anyway do not represent an unbroken tradition in the way the Amish do. Rather, they have consciously modified the Conservative Quaker way of life of the late twentieth century to make it more like that of a century or more before, overlaid with a modern neo- Luddite coloring. It remains a matter of historical fact that Quakerism failed to preserve its traditional religious culture, even if some elements of that culture survived and others have been rediscovered and modified. (For a discussion of an effort to reestablish traditional Quakerism in Randolph County, North Carolina, during the first half of the twentieth century, see “The Cross of Plainness: A Century of Conservative Quakerism in North Carolina,” by Damon D. Hickey, The Southern Friend XXVII (2005): 7–42. For a perspective on neo-Conservative Quakerism, see A Plain Life, by Scott Savage, New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.)

The disappearance of traditional Quaker culture (roughly speaking, the culture of American Quakers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) was closely linked to the departure of Quaker youth. As Quaker young people (and some of their elders) left their communities throughout the nineteenth century, through either outright defection or disownment for violating the Quaker “Discipline” (rule of conduct, roughly parallel to the Amish Ordnung), these communities either relaxed their Discipline in order to hold on to their members or refused to bend and died out. Even the Conservative Quaker communities that survived modified their Discipline to allow some practices they had previously prohibited, including marriage to non-Friends. So, while these communities changed less rapidly than those in other Quaker affiliations (many of which became nearly indistinguishable from evangelical Christian churches), they became gradually less distinctive than they had been in the early nineteenth century.

On the other hand, the Amish, whose culture has changed in some ways–as in the movement from farming to micro- industries and “lunch-pail” jobs away from home, and the widespread use of new technologies such as cell phones–have remained fundamentally a non-urban, non-automotive, wireless culture that is endogamous, preserves strict limits on clothing styles and technology, and uses a distinctive language (“Pennsylvania German” or Deitsch) within the community. For all Amish, formal education is limited to the eighth grade, mostly in Amish parochial schools. Humility, obedience, community, and cooperation are encouraged, and individualism, ambition, and competition are not. Nonviolent non-resistance is the norm in relation to the state, but military service is prohibited. Only adults are baptized, and until one has been baptized, he or she is not officially “Amish.” Beginning about the age of sixteen, unbaptized young people enjoy a period of “running around” (Rumspringa), usually with other Amish young people but free from both parental and church supervision. Eventually they must decide for themselves whether to accept baptism and “join church.” In the meantime, they may remain within their families, but once having joined church, they may not leave or violate the Ordnung without incurring the Bann, or shunning, in which they are cut off from communication with both church and family. (See The Riddle of Amish Culture, revised ed., by Donald B. Kraybill, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001; Growing up Amish: The Teenage Years, by Richard A. Stevick, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007; and An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community, by Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. The latter, by two of my colleagues at the College of Wooster, deals with the Ohio Amish community.)

While one might expect that the Amish retention rate would have declined, as their young people tried to keep from falling even farther “behind” in a world of ever-increasing complexity, technology, and consumerism, the opposite seems to have been the case. Furthermore, among the different Amish affiliations, the stricter, more conservative ones, which have tried harder to maintain their cultural boundaries, have had the higher retention rates. In Ohio in 2005, for example, the very conservative Andy Weaver Amish retained 97% of their children, whereas the Old Order (less conservative) retained 86%, and the New Order (still less conservative) retained 60%. The average retention rate for all groups was an impressive 83%. With the high number of Amish births, the total population has grown at a rate that is among the highest of any religious group in the nation (Hurst and McConnell, 13, 80).

The question of how the Amish have succeeded in retaining both their young people and their cultural distinctiveness is largely sociological and anthropological, whereas the question of why the Friends failed is historical. We can study living Amish communities, interview Amish people, and gather statistics about them. We can ask precisely the sorts of questions we want to ask, look at different patterns of community norms and control, and correlate those patterns with retention rates. We cannot do that with individual Friends or Quaker communities that ceased to exist or modified or abandoned their cultural distinctiveness long ago. There are few studies of the precise causes of attrition in early nineteenth-century Quaker meetings (religious communities), and even fewer studies comparing communities in different locales and of different affiliations (such as Hicksite, Gurneyite Orthodox, Wilburite Orthodox, and Evangelical). We cannot go into their homes and schools to examine in detail their child-rearing practices, pedagogy, approach to technology, or interaction with non-Friends. There are so many questions we might like to answer but cannot. And there are others that we will not be able to answer until more scholarly groundwork has been laid. (See The Quaker Family in Colonial America: A Portrait of the Society of Friends, by J. William Frost, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973; The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748–1783, by Jack D. Marietta, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984; and Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation, by H. Larry Ingle, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.)

Even with the Amish, there are questions that cannot be answered conclusively, because there are too many factors involved and no way to control for them. For example, how important to Amish retention is the limitation of Amish education to eight grades? If Amish children had more formal education that would prepare them better to make a life outside the Amish community, would they be less likely to join the church? We can certainly ask Amish people that question, but even they cannot know the answer for certain since they did not have that option themselves. And we cannot compare them with a control group of high-school-educated Amish to see whether their retention rate is different because there is no such control group in the real world.

Given these methodological limitations, we can  still suggest tentative answers to the following questions:

  1. Why have Amish retention rates increased?
  2. Why have Amish retention rates remained higher among those groups that have changed less?
  3. Why did Quaker retention rates decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the point where meetings survived only by relaxing their strictness and modifying or abandoning their cultural distinctiveness?

The question of why Amish retention rates have increased is a historical question about social change, and, therefore, partly historical and partly sociological. American culture has grown more consumer-oriented, urban, globally networked, individualistic, and technologically complex. By contrast, Amish society has remained a horse-and-buggy religious culture largely cut off from global communication and severely limited technologically. The national shift to a service-based economy dependent upon a highly-educated workforce has left most of the Amish, with their eighth-grade education, stuck in agriculture and specialized manufacturing (where they have succeeded thus far). The gulf that exists between the mainstream and Amish cultures has grown wider, not narrower. As a result, individual Amish who leave their communities are less and less equipped to make their way within the dominant culture. Leaving the Amish is a much bigger leap than it used to be.

Likewise, the very things that have always made the Amish suspicious and afraid of the culture of the “world” have become more exaggerated. School teachers may no longer lead their classes in prayer. Government regulation of individual and business life has increased. Abortion has become legal. Homosexuality has gained greater acceptance. Sexual practices have become more liberal. Commerce takes place on the Christian Sabbath. Divorce rates have risen. Pornography has become readily available on the Internet. Drug use has increased. Grown children have left their communities in greater numbers. Higher education is widespread. Individualism, competition, and ambition are praised and rewarded. Although cars, computers, and popular music may appeal to young Amish who are running around before joining the church, their appeal cannot hide the increasing threat that the dominant culture poses to the religious-based values formed in them throughout their childhood. In short, the world is becoming not only a place where it is ever-harder for someone brought up Amish to survive outside the Amish culture, but also one that seems more and more antithetical to basic Amish moral, religious, and social values. Seen in that light, it is hardly surprising that more and more Amish young people are joining the church and returning to the refuge of the Amish community.

If retention rates among the Amish have risen as their cultural distance from the dominant culture has increased, it is also not surprising that Amish retention rates are higher among those groups that have changed the least. The stricter the group, the greater the gap between its culture and the mainstream. If they leave, the young people from stricter groups are less prepared to succeed than those of more liberal affiliations, and they are more likely to view life in the larger society as spiritually dangerous. Paradoxically, parents in the stricter affiliations allow their young people greater freedom from supervision during their running- around time than do parents in less-strict groups.

Nevertheless, Amish youth in the stricter affiliations are taught that failure to return, join the church, and remain obedient will lead them literally straight to hell. Their choice is a stark one, between black and white. There are no fuzzy boundaries, no middle ground, no compromises, no shades of gray. Whereas young people reared in some Amish affiliations may eventually join other, less- strict churches (sometimes with the tacit approval of their families and “home” churches), those from the stricter affiliations who do leave are more likely to go “all the way” and not join any church. For them, the choice is all or nothing. In every way, the stakes are higher for young people of the stricter affiliations, and their defections are consequently fewer (Hurst and McConnell, 88). Thus, higher boundary maintenance, especially in combination with greater cultural distance from the dominant culture, appears to correlate with a higher retention rate.

Larry Ingle has taught us that the Quaker schism between the “Hicksites” and “Orthodox,” which began in Philadelphia in 1827, ostensibly over the preaching of Elias Hicks, was fundamentally a rural reform movement that challenged the leadership of urban Quakers, who were regarded as increasingly-worldly members of the economic and social elite. Clearly, there were significant differences between these groups over cultural distance and boundary issues. But the cultural distance between both Hicksites and Orthodox Quakers and their dominant culture was probably not as great as the cultural distance between most of the Amish and their dominant culture today. The Amish, for example, still use Deitsch, a form of German, among themselves, although they use English in school, in writing, and in dealing with non-Amish. Complicating matters further, they read the Bible and sing hymns in High German. But the Friends, who used to use the obsolete “thee” and “thy” when addressing individuals, especially other Friends, still spoke English, did not have to be bilingual (or trilingual), and were fully comprehensible to non-Quakers. Their in-group language distanced their culture from the dominant culture, but the distance was not as great as it is for the Amish, who maintain Deitsch as their primary language and relegate English to second-language status.

The different approaches by the Quakers and the Amish to maintaining cultural distance and boundaries may account in large measure for their different retention rates. But the Amish also employ several tools for retaining their young people and way of life that traditional Quakers lacked: running around, baptism, and shunning. Whereas the Amish baptize only believing adults who agree to submit to the church’s authority, the Quakers abandoned the “outward sacraments” of baptism and communion altogether. As a result, the children of Quaker parents were simply members by “birthright.” When birthright Friends reached the “age of accountability,” they did not have to decide to join their Friends meetings, and there was no rite of baptism or confirmation to mark their entry into the Quaker community since they had always been members. And because there was no period when Quaker young people were not under the authority of their Friends meetings, there was no opportunity for them to experiment with life in the “world” without the threat of disownment.

Still, disownment did not mean shunning, as excommunication does for the Amish. Many disowned Friends retained close ties with their Quaker communities. Once Friends had been disowned, they discovered that little had been lost, and a great deal of freedom had been gained. Amish young people, on the other hand, can enjoy the freedom of running around without the threat of excommunication and shunning. But once they have made the decision to be baptized and join the church, the likely consequences of their leaving or violating the Ordnung are serious indeed, including their permanent estrangement from family and friends and the threat of eternal damnation. In terms of retention, the Friends had it backward. They were strict when they needed to be lenient and lenient when then needed to be strict, forcing their young people to choose between conformity and disownment, but then imposing few sanctions on them if they chose disownment.

No one can say for certain how different retention would have been had the Friends let their young people sow their Quaker oats outside the Friends community before making a real, consequential, adult decision about whether to join the meeting and commit to its authority and strictures. Amish retention rates have risen as their differences from the “world” and their separation from it have increased. But Quaker culture was less different from the dominant culture then than Amish culture is now, and the Friends kept themselves less separate. So even if they had required a real adult commitment, their retention rate might not have risen significantly. But the Amish example suggests that, had the Quakers provided their young people with both a protected time for adolescent experimentation and the opportunity to make a formal adult commitment to the community, with serious consequences for changing their minds, they might have retained more of their young people and maintained more of their way of life.

Leave a comment