Unser Leit – A Review by Gerald J. Mast

Unser Leit…The Story of the Amish. Volumes I and II. By Leroy Beachy. Millersburg, Oh: Goodly Heritage Books, 2011.

In April 2011, I published a short article about Leroy Beachy’s just released book, Unser Leit. Gerald J. Mast, a Professor of Communication at Bluffton University, recently wrote an excellent, detailed review of Leroy’s book, which I have published here. Gerald is the author of Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling. He grew up in Holmes County Ohio and received degrees from Malone University and the University of Pittsburgh.

This review by Gerald first appeared in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 86 (April, 2012), 265-269 and is reprinted here with permission. This MQR journal was founded by Harold S. Bender and the Mennonite Historical Society and has been published continually since 1927. The website for the journal is: www.goshen.edu/mqr

This two-volume history of the Amish by Leroy Beachy, a genealogist from Holmes County, Ohio is a remarkable achievement, generously fulfilling a vision for family history as church history described by Ernst Correll in the January 1928 issue of this journal. Correll called for genealogical research that goes beyond names and dates to recall the “immediate setting of the generations in their cultural backgrounds.” Correll believed that “Mennonite families were the crux and core of the history of the Mennonite Church,” a view clearly shared by Leroy Beachy. In Unser Leit…The Story of the Amish, Beachy provides an account of Amish families that places their traumas and triumphs at the center of Amish-Mennonite history. In so doing, Beachy’s work contributes significantly to Amish and Anabaptist studies in at least five distinctive ways, although some of these contributions will no doubt be contested.

First, these volumes tell the story of Amish immigration from Europe to the North American continent in a way that is both comprehensive in scope and focused in detail. While many Amish-Mennonite family histories in recent decades have provided a fully documented accounting of the social and cultural pasts inhabited by the ancestors, Beachy’s book offers an unprecedented integration of historical data concerning nearly all the known Amish immigrants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of this information had circulated in individual family histories, in collections of letters, and in the oral traditions of stories passed down, but is now organized and summarized in a coherent grand narrative for the first time in this work.

Already in 1986, the wealth of names, dates, and locations that had been gathered through a century of Amish-Mennonite genealogy research into specific family lines was brought together conveniently by Hugh Gingerich and Rachel Kreider in Amish and Amish-Mennonite Genealogies, now in its third edition. Beachy expands on (and at times revises) the statistical data found in the Gingerich/Kreider volume to bring into view the historical settings, life choices, and spiritual commitments of the Amish people across the centuries.

The result is a very different kind of history of the Amish than is found in the broad historical overviews or localized sociological analyses common to the dominant scholarship. Beachy’s history focuses instead on the details of particular Amish family stories without losing sight of the broader horizons of the Amish movement in its varied European and North American settings. The effect reminds one of an impressionist painting: close up one can easily see the artistry and beauty of the brushstroke while from a distance the shapes and colors add up to a breathtaking landscape.

Second, Beachy retells the story of Amish beginnings in a way that will surely be new to many of his readers, even though researchers have known the basic outlines of this revisionist account for some time. The traditional story of Amish origins, especially as told by mid-century Mennonite historians, emphasized the intransigence of the Swiss Anabaptist leader Jakob Amman over polity issues like shunning and footwashing, his hasty banning of those members of the Reistian party who opposed Amman’s position, and the inflexible conservatism of Amman and his group. The 1955 article in The Mennonite Encyclopedia on the “Amish Division” summarizes this traditional perspective by stating that “the Amish party was a deviation from the main body,” and that “Amman and his party represent a rigidly conservative point of view which insisted upon sharp discipline and inflexible adherence to certain practices.”

Beachy dismantles this Mennonite-centered perspective on Amish beginnings by highlighting the distinctive regional and temporal origins of the original Zuricher Swiss Brethren and their refugee communities, the old Emmentaler Anabaptist communities established as Anabaptism spread to Aargau, Basel, and Bern, and the Oberländer converts who formed Anabaptist congregations in the seventeenth century as the result of a renewal movement arising from refugee Zuricher communities. According to Beachy’s account, the emergence of the Amish was rooted in cultural and spiritual differences between the older and savvier Emmentaler communities and the newer and more scrupulous Oberländer congregations that eventually became known as Amish. So far Beachy is largely on ground established during the past several decades by academic historians of European Anabaptism like John D. Roth and Robert Baecher and reflected in more recent popular accounts of Amish history by Steve Nolt, Donald Kraybill, and others.

However, Beachy goes further. He claims that the Oberländer congregations were founded through the preaching of a little known Zuricher evangelist named Ulrich Müller, and that Müller’s teachings about truth-telling and adherence to Dutch Mennonite doctrine gave the Oberländer churches the distinctive spiritual and cultural qualities that remained with them as they migrated from the Oberland to Alsace and the Palatinate in response to persecution. Moreover, when Jakob Amman came onto the scene, he was merely confirming amidst controversy the particular spiritual stance that had already been established by Ulrich Müller and embodied in the spiritual rigor of the Oberländer congregations. Thus, according to Beachy, Müller should be seen as the real founder of the Amish, not Jakob Amman, and Amish beginnings should be dated twenty years earlier than the normally given date of 1693, since Müller’s evangelistic campaigns in the Bernese Oberland began bearing fruit around 1673. On the other hand, the actual division between the Reistians and the Amish should be dated 1694, since that is the date in which Hans Reist excommunicated all those who accepted Amman’s teachings.

Beachy’s close reading of the Letters of the Amish Division reveals Emmantaler leader Hans Reist to be a greater obstacle to reconciliation than Jakob Amman, even if Reist did not initiate the quarrel. Beachy argues, somewhat persuasively, that Reist’s blanket excommunication of all of Amman’s group was more reckless and harsh than Amman’s excommunication of seven leaders who had been unwilling to support Amman’s confessional stance or his threat to excommunicate all who were unwilling to share his stance, a threat that was never actually carried out.

Beachy presents a strong case for the influence of Ulrich Müller in building the Oberländer congregations, but his conclusion that Müller was the real founder of the Amish seems overdrawn since he presents no evidence that Müller intended to establish a separate new Anabaptist fellowship or that such an independent group arose from Müller’s labors. Much of Beachy’s narration of the events leading up to the “Swiss Brethren division” (as Beachy prefers to call the Amish division) actually reinforce the long standing assumption that the Oberländer churches saw themselves as part of the same fellowship together with the Emmentalers and Zurichers. If they had at one time not been the same people, why did they experience such agony over separating? In an effort to rehabilitate Jakob Amman’s image, Beachy recalls the many efforts to heal the rift that Amman had helped to create, including Amman’s self-excommunication letter of 1700 in which he confesses to having “grievously erred.” But all of this seems to strengthen the conventional understanding that it was not until the traumatic confrontation between Hans Reist and Jakob Amman that the Amish first emerge, even if reluctantly, as a distinctive fellowship.

A third contribution of Unser Leit is to provide an orderly and reasonably well-documented narrative of the Holmes County Amish community from its beginnings to the year 2000. It is astonishing that no one has yet written a book length professional history of this community—the largest Amish settlement in the world—and that the first detailed sociological study of the community, by Charles Hurst and David McConnell, was not published until 2010. Any future scholarship on Holmes County and conservative Anabaptism will need to consider Beachy’s account of not only the main streams of Amish and Mennonite life in this community, but also the numerous eddies and ditches of non-conference and post-denominational Anabaptism that crowd the spiritual landscape of Eastern Holmes County.

The effect of this focus on Holmes County, of course, is to undermine the comprehensive perspective that is promised in the book’s title and exemplified in the fairly inclusive narrative of Amish migrations to various regions of North America found in the first volume. However, this focus on Holmes County can be justified both because the Holmes County story has not been carefully told with this amount of detail elsewhere and also because most of the other major Amish settlements already have their published histories.

Beachy’s account of the Amish in Holmes County privileges the conservative perspective of those who continue to claim an Amish identity. This means that the “liberal” Mennonite churches and other derivative churches who trace origins to the first Amish churches in the community are generally regarded as having either rejected or significantly “drifted” from their Amish roots. Yet, Beachy clearly assumes these churches to be part of his audience and usually maintains a complex posture of both lament and generosity for the pluralism that prevails in the community following “A Century of Division” (his title for the final chapter of the book).

At times Beachy’s conservative bias leads him to get the facts wrong. For example, he mistakenly claims that the “liberal” Mennonites allowed the conservative Doctrines of the Bible by Daniel Kauffman to go out of print (II:421). The 2011 Herald Press catalogue still includes Doctrines. He also claims that Walnut Creek Mennonite Church and Martins Creek Mennonite Church left the Eastern Amish Mennonite Conference in 1929 to affiliate with the Ohio Conference of the Mennonite Church. By then these two conferences had already merged, so such a move would not have been possible. One could list numerous other factual errors that weaken the quality of Beachy’s narrative, even if they do not necessarily undermine his primary claims.

To his credit, Beachy clearly spells out the spiritual reasoning behind his perspective. In fact, the eloquent defense of a conservative Anabaptist theological perspective should be seen as a fourth significant contribution of this book. Throughout the work, but especially in chapter 8, Beachy provides a reading of biblical and church history, as well as of major Christian and Anabaptist confessions and Ordnung, that largely vindicates choices made by Old Order and conservative Anabaptist communities. While Beachy acknowledges some of the excesses associated with “keeping order,” he is more concerned about the influence of Protestant individualism as found in Pietism and evangelicalism.

Beachy’s critique of Pietism largely follows the views of Robert Friedmann, who argued that European Pietism stressed an emotional personal experience that undermined the sober communal obedience of authentic Anabaptism. Friedmann’s views have been subject to significant critique in recent years, however. For example, a recent study of the Schwarzenau Brethren by Marcus Meier makes a convincing case that the atmosphere of spiritual awakening associated with Radical Pietism played a significant role in the renewal movements behind both Amish and Brethren beginnings, including Jakob Amman’s critique of established Swiss Anabaptism. One wonders how Beachy’s historical and theological analysis might have interacted with such discoveries.

In any event, Beachy stresses that the most faithful churches strike a coherent balance between spiritual experience and disciplined obedience. This balance, he recognizes, is difficult to achieve.
Amish communities like the one in Holmes County have produced little in the way of published spiritual and theological reflection; thus Beachy’s persuasive apology for a spiritually vital Amish form of obedience could have a lasting impact on Amish self-understanding; that is, if the work’s high price and exhausting size do not pose too great an obstacle to readership. Mennonite readers and academicians will also be helpfully challenged by an interpretation of Anabaptist history that assumes the Old Order path to be normative, rather than a “deviation.”

Finally, this two-volume set makes an important contribution to Amish-Mennonite culture as an attractive artifact of a reading culture. Beautifully illustrated by Beachy himself, Unser Leit stands out as a bibliophile’s delight. The pages are pleasingly designed, with the names of people mentioned in the body of the text listed in the margins, along with significant statements or elaborations from the body, and plenty of white space to make notes. Reference notes appear conveniently at the bottom of the page. Both volumes include thorough indexes of names, as well as somewhat less complete indexes of significant events. Among the useful reference tools are chronological lists of all the known Amish immigrants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with their ships of passage, ports of entry, and initial destinations. The books are bound in hardcover and packaged in an elegant slipcase. Handling and reading these volumes is a great pleasure, marred only by the numerous flaws in the text, including needless repetition of details, missing documentation, and awkward or incomplete sentences. One wishes that a legacy text such as this could have been subjected to the careful scrutiny of an experienced copy editor.

Still, no one has told the Amish story with more affection or provocation than Leroy Beachy. He has provided a usable past for twenty-first-century Amish communities and a controversial revision of that past for all students of Anabaptist history to consider and to debate.

Bluffton University GERALD J. MAST

Gerald’s webpage at Bluffton is: www.bluffton.edu/~mastg

For samples of Beachy’s illustrations or information on purchasing this book click UNSER LEIT.



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