Review of 20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites by Merle and Phyllis Good

Nowadays, the first place many people turn to for basic information about a topic that they know very little about is Wikipedia. I am a big fan of Wikipedia myself, and one may wonder whether it has entirely superseded slim volumes like the one under review here: 20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites by Merle and Phyllis Good. I do not think so. Wikipedia has a firm policy of adopting a “neutral point of view” (NPOV), and while a NPOV has many merits, I believe that for topics such as politics and religion, one often gets a better picture of what is really going on from accounts that are not strictly neutral. 20 Most Asked Questions is written by sympathetic insiders and thus provides perspectives not directly available from a neutral account.

After reading the book, I discovered that someone had already written a summary of it, including the twenty questions, and posted it online. However, that summary was not written by Merle and Phyllis Good themselves and it sometimes has a slant that I do not think the Goods would approve of, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. If the questions interest you, I would strongly recommend purchasing the book rather than trusting that summary of the answers.

Furthermore, there are several important things missing from that summary. One small but important point that is mentioned right at the beginning of the book is that it is more helpful to distinguish between “Old Order” and “modern” groups than it is to distinguish between “Amish” and “Mennonite” groups. This is in keeping with the fact that for Christian churches in general, it is often more informative to learn how “conservative” or “liberal” it is than what denomination it belongs to.

A second point is that throughout the book, the authors strive not only to provide factual information, but also to explain what is appealing about the Amish/Mennonite faith and way of life. For example, in answering the question about “backwardness,” the authors invite us to imagine a typical American family (the Smiths) with a daughter Nancy, and a typical Amish family (the Fishers).

If any of us were to list the five most important things in life—for anyone—what would they be? A sense of meaning. A feeling of personal fulfillment. Having people who really care about us. Having basic necessities—food, shelter, health. And contentment and peace. Do the Smiths really have a better grip on the essentials of life than the Fishers do?

Does the average modern “progressive” American have a more profound sense of fulfillment and meaning than the Fishers? Do the Smiths actually spend more time with the people who love them than the Fishers do? Is community-centered Amish education truly inferior to Nancy’s progressive school? Is the food from the Fishers’ garden less healthy than from the urban supermarket? Do their horses pollute the earth and the air more than the Oldsmobile and its unquenchable demand for gasoline, macadam roads, and parking lots? Will Nancy inherit a better world than the Fisher children?

Thirdly, towards the end of the book there are some useful tables of information: a glossary, a bibliography, and a chart listing the memberships of the various Amish and Mennonite groups. I found it surprising to see how quickly some of the groups, particularly the Old Order groups, are growing.

Fourthly, there are numerous black-and-white photos throughout the book that greatly enhance the text and make the book a pleasure to read.

There are a couple of minor changes that I would personally recommend if the book is ever revised. The biggest one in my opinion is that there is almost no mention of the Pennsylvania Dutch language/dialect, other than a casual mention of bilingualism in the discussion of education. I would think that this unique language would almost merit being treated as a question in its own right. My other suggestion is that some further historical information about the various subdivisions would be helpful. For example, the Beachy Amish are mentioned several times but their origin is not explained. Similarly, many readers will be left confused about the relationship between Brethren churches and Amish/Mennonite churches, and will wonder about the relationship between the Anabaptist movement and the more familiar Baptist churches that are so common in America today. These, however, are minor blemishes on an otherwise excellent and sensitively written book about an often misunderstood branch of the Christian church.

Posted June 2013

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