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John Hostetler Bears Witness to Amish Culture and Calls the Movie Witness 'a Mockery'

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The blockbuster movie Witness, starring Harrison Ford, has brought the plain-living, privacy-seeking Amish into the spotlight and piqued an interest in their ultraconservative ways. A recognized authority is John A. Hostetler, 66, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Temple University and the author of Amish Society (The Johns Hopkins University Press). Raised Amish, Hostetler, father of three children, lives with his wife, Beulah, in Willow Grove, Pa. He talked to Assistant Editor Dawn Clayton about Amish beliefs and customs, and the depiction in Witness of their traditional way of life.

Who are the Amish?

The Amish people came to this country as early as 1727 from Switzerland and South Germany. They refused to baptize their infants, believing church membership should be voluntary and decided upon at adulthood. Three similar Protestant groups survive from this period: the Amish, the Mennonites and the Hutterites. All hold in common the belief that a separate community on earth, practicing simplicity, humility and submission to each other—and emphasizing love—is a necessary prologue to the heavenly community after death.

How did they get their name?

From Jacob Amman, an elder in a Mennonite group, who felt that morals were too lax and simplicity wasn’t being observed. He instituted orthodox reforms, and the Amish split off from the more liberal Mennonites in 1693.

How many Amish are there?

There are about 600 congregations, or roughly about 95,000. They are located in some 20 states, with Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana accounting for perhaps 75 percent of the Amish.

What are some basic tenets?

To them the ethical teachings of the New Testament with respect to living in peace with each other are very important. They do not draw Social Security benefits from the government, partly because they believe that their community should not be dependent upon the outside secular world.

How often do Amish hold services?

Every other Sunday. Farms take turns having the service. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. The Amish still speak a dialect called Pennsylvania-German. They also speak English, but the Bible for them is in German and the services are all in German.

What about machines?

They’re not guided by the machine. They’re guided more by the importance of the community. They prefer to farm the land if at all possible. The soil for the Amish people has a very spiritual significance. They feel their first duty is to take care of it, keep it in good fertility—to be good stewards.

What is the family’s role?

The family is central. There is a very traditional division of roles, much as it was in rural society 100 years ago. If you get a divorce, you are automatically excluded from the community. The average family has seven children, but 22 percent have 10 or more.

How do the Amish educate their children?

They train children for stability and continuity in a social community, not for professions that would lead them outside the life of the Amish people. They maintain one-room schools and use the old McGuffey Readers because modern books have too much about TV and sex education and are biased toward science. In 1972 the Supreme Court, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, said that the states must refrain from forcing the Amish to go beyond eighth grade, when their schooling stops.

How do the Amish view movies and TV?

Their attitude is that these things belong to the world and would be very disruptive to their community. No radios. No electricity. They have Maytag washers with gasoline motors. There have been small changes.

Didn’t you leave the Amish because you wanted an education?

Yes. My parents were very disappointed that I didn’t stay to take over the farm, but I had a compelling feeling that I should prepare myself educationally. Therefore, when I became 18, I chose not to be baptized. Instead, I joined a Mennonite congregation that allowed high school and college.

What is your family’s religion today?

My two older sisters, Lizzie and Sylvia, are Amish. Two younger sisters, Barbara and Mary, are Mennonite, as are my wife, daughters and myself.

Is it easy to spot the Amish?

If you drive through Amish country and you see a horse and buggy on the road and the man has whiskers, you can be sure he’s Amish and probably married. If you see a woman who has a large bonnet that comes down over the shoulders, she is Amish. For Sunday dress an Amish man would wear a dark suit that has hooks and eyes but no buttons, which are considered ostentatious for both men and women. He would feel uncomfortable without a hat outside the house. Women make their clothing from traditional patterns. Dresses of dark blue or even purple come almost to the ankle and are topped with an apron of the same kind of material.

And quilts?

Dealers from all over regularly visit Amish communities to buy the beautiful geometric-patterned quilts.

What is shunning?

If someone commits sinful or obstreperous behavior, he is talked to and admonished by a minister or a deacon three times. If he refuses to take the advice, then the congregation meets and formally votes to excommunicate that person. He’s then shunned, which means not eating at the same table with other members, although you can do good to that person as well as admonish him to admit his error and be forgiven. If he repents and openly addresses the community, he may be allowed to rejoin.

Did you like the movie Witness?

I was disappointed that the movie was made in the first place. The filmmakers did not ask the Amish; they did not discuss it with them. I didn’t enjoy the film very much because I was too overpowered by the violence. The movie represents very immoral behavior—unlikely behavior—created just for entertainment.

What was the Amish reaction to the making of the movie?

That it was a psychological invasion. They look at it as a kind of mockery.

Will the Amish see it?

No. Moviegoing is a worldly thing.

What was wrong in the movie?

For one thing, it’s very unlikely that a policeman would have been given cover in an Amish home. If he had a wound, they would have called on Mennonite neighbors, gotten a doctor and taken him to the hospital.

What are the major threats to the Amish?

One would be stagnation from the inside, a decay of leadership. Amish people also have genetic problems due to interbreeding. In Lancaster County, Pa. there are quite a number of six-finger dwarfs. The external problems would be the enticement to consumerism, wanting to have the things the outside world has. Around 12 percent of the young Amish forsake the religion. But I think the Amish will continue to exist. I suspect that they will live in very different locations, more remote areas of the world, in order to survive.