Plain People of Pennsylvania

Emily Wiley and Michael Sedon, Research Unplugged intern
November 13, 2006
black and white two kids standing
Penn State University Archives

Four-year-old John Hostetler (right) with his brother, Jacob, in 1923.

They are our neighbors, but how much do we know about the lifestyles and traditions of the Commonwealth's Anabaptist citizens? The Research Unplugged series joined WPSU's Common Ground Lobby Talks last week for a special event about the complex cultures of the Old Order Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren.

Five expert panelists participated in the lively conversation, which provided a historical context and a more accurate portrait of these often romanticized and misunderstood communities.

"We can divide the Anabaptists into assimilated members and plain members," explained Donald Kraybill, professor and senior fellow of The Young Center at Elizabethtown College, to over 150 interested attendees who gathered in the lobby of the Outreach Building for the discussion. "The term 'Anabaptist' originated in 16th century Protestant Germany and means twice-baptized," noted Kraybill. "And there are several distinct groups considered to be descendants of the Anabaptists." He added that the Amish can be identified by their plain appearance, while half of the Mennonite population dress in modern clothing. "And 95 percent of the Brethren folks belong to an assimilated group," Kraybill said. "You wouldn't recognize them by their clothing."

Panelist Stephen Scott, an author and administrative assistant in the Young Center, is an active member of the Old Order River Brethren community. His long white beard and simple black garments represented the five percent of Brethren who are unassimilated. "The River Brethren, one of many Pennsylvania German religious groups, organized as a church along the Susquehanna River around 1780," Scott said.

"German immigrants came to this country in search of religious freedom and economic stability," Kraybill added.

According to Kraybill, there are about 237,000 Anabaptists living in Pennsylvania today. "That's about 27 percent of the group's total population across the nation."

The American Anabaptists developed a dialect of the German language called Pennsylvania German. "Most people don't know that the Amish are trilingual," said panelist Richard Page, Penn State professor of German and linguistics. "They speak Pennsylvania German at home, German during church services, and they learn English in school."

Panelist Julia Kasdorf, poet and associate professor of English at Penn State, explained the difficulty of conveying abstract ideas in the Pennsylvania German tongue, but also expressed her admiration for those who continue to speak the unwritten language. Growing up in a small, conservative Mennonite community in Mifflin County, Kasdorf spent Sunday afternoons under the kitchen table listening to the conversations of her family members. Much of her early writing draws upon these memories. She shared with the attentive audience several poems from her first book, Sleeping Preacher. In one, "Song of Enough," her awakening narrator "for the first time wondered what you could think if all you spoke was a language with words enough for cooking, and farm work, and gossip."

Americans who live near plain societies have a better understanding of the culture than those who are geographically removed, said David Weaver-Zercher, panelist and associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College. "I discovered surprise and disappointment from some people when they learned that the Amish shop at Wal-Mart," he smiled. "But in Lancaster County, you find special parking spaces for horses and buggies." Weaver-Zercher, who grew up in Indiana with Amish neighbors, said about his studies, "I often tell people, I don't study the Amish; I study the rest of us."

In the book, Writing the Amish, Weaver-Zercher and several colleagues, including Kraybill, recount the work of John A. Hostetler, who pioneered the study of Amish culture beginning in the early 1950s. Born into an Old Order Amish family, Hostetler wrote extensively on the culture and helped shape the perceptions of the Amish throughout American history. Hostetler earned his Ph.D. at Penn State in 1953, and his collected writings and materials are housed in the Penn State University Archives.

One of Hostetler's most important contributions to the Amish community occurred in 1972 when he testified in favor of allowing Amish children to be released from formal schooling after the eighth grade. Kraybill acknowledged that his educated audience might find it difficult to understand such a decision, but said that basic reading, writing, and arithmetic have served the people well. "They learn entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity without the baggage of higher education," he joked.

Weaver-Zercher explained the importance of roadside stands and small businesses to the financial well-being of the plain people. Contemporary customers provide income for their Old Order neighbors by purchasing hand-crafted furniture, quilts, and farm produce. "But some tourists trespass onto Amish land for photographs and glimpses into their secretive lives," he said. "The relationship between the societies is not a perfect one."

Last month, the devastating shooting that occurred in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in southeastern Pennsylvania attracted international interest in Amish culture and offered a small glance into their intriguing world. Kraybill, who was interviewed by national media following the event, was often asked to comment on the community's response to the tragedy. "The practice of forgiveness is at the root of Amish values," he said. "The Amish reached out to the family of the gunman and offered their prayers and forgiveness. It's inspiring."

Page agreed. "The plain people view life differently. They value community over individualism," he said. "And we can all learn something from their simple faith."

Donald Kraybill, Ph.D., is distinguished professor and senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. He can be reached at Stephen Scott is administrative assistant to the director of the Young Center and can be reached at Richard Page, Ph.D., is associate professor of German and Linguistics at Penn State. His email is Julia Kasdorf, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Penn State. Her email is David Weaver-Zercher, Ph.D., is associate professor of American Religious History and chair of the department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Messiah College. He can be reached at

Last Updated November 13, 2006