Trish's Reviews > Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish

Plain Secrets by Joe Mackall
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Aug 07, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction
Read from August 01 to 06, 2010

Joe Mackall has written a personal account of the Swartzentruber Amish based on his friendship with a particular family, the Shetlers, who belong to this type of Amish group. Mackall tries to be objective showing many aspects of Swartzentruber Amish life without passing judgment, but there is definitely a bias based on his friendship with them. He is reluctant to show them in any type of light that might offend them, he treads lightly. Even so, what I came away with is they are basically a cult. I am sure Mackall would be appalled that this is my take-away from this book, but honestly the more he revealed about this group the more it sounded like a cult; total and blind faith in one person (their bishop), total adherence to the Ordnung (Amish rule book), limited education (up to 8th grade only), patriarchal system, no personal identity (i.e. everyone must dress the same), a closed community (outsiders are kept at a cordial distance and anyone who leaves the community is shunned formally or informally if they have not yet been baptized).

I certainly know more about the Amish in general and specifically about the Swartzentruber Amish, the most conservative of the already conservative Amish, than I did before reading this book, however it brings to mind more questions than it answers. There seem to be so many contradictions in their rules. Here are some examples: Why can they wear rubber boots but not have rubber tires on their buggies? Why are they allowed to buy candy bars and potato chips at the local Wal-Mart when the idea is they are supposed to be in this world but not of this world? Wal-Mart and junk food are the epitome of American Consumerism. Why does the Lodi group of the Swartzentruber Amish get to use gas powered engines as long as they are connected to a belt? It’s still a gas powered engine-so who came up with that exception and why, and why on only some appliances and power tools? One of the problems with this book is the author does not explain any of this. I’m not sure if he just never tried to find out, or if he asked the Shetlers and they didn’t know, as was the case when he asked them why they are not allowed to have upholstered furniture; they just shrugged and smiled. He was the one that had to tell them historical things about their own religion such as when it was formed and where and why they have two communions a year; things you would think that Samuel Shetler, a minister in his district, would know. This seems to indicate absolute blind faith in their religion and their way of life. So not only are they only formally educated up to the eighth grade, they’re not even knowledgeable about the history of their own religion. Do they have no intellectual curiosity?

Another idea that crossed my mind while reading this was about creativity. Are they not allowed to do anything creative other than maybe woodwork. Are they allowed to paint (other than the barn or the house), write creatively (other than their newsy letters to family and friends), and since they can’t listen to music I’m pretty sure playing a musical instrument is out. Are these activities considered too focused on the individual, or are they considered too frivolous and not pleasing to God? Or perhaps they can do some of these activities but Mackall never mentions them.

Mackall did accomplish one thing he set out to do, and that was to unveil the Swartzentruber Amish and the mystery that surrounds them. In this respect he accomplishes his goal. However he had also said he didn’t want to romanticize them, but in fact he waxes on throughout the book about how much fuller and richer their lives are than modern American’s lives. He is such good friends with the Shetler’s he makes excuses and justifies anything that their religion forbids or is a tenant of their faith. He even shames himself at questioning to himself their dangerous buggy riding. The things he does point out as contradictory or clearly wrong he does not press with the Shetlers, and he puts many of these items within his text as a small parenthetical remark. As he did with telling the reader they are not allowed to listen to music, perhaps hoping we would miss that? He portrays the mother, Mary, and her children as barefoot and always happy and laughing, thrilled with their life. Is he implying ignorance is bliss?

I do not deny there are benefits to a simpler and more sustainable life, but their version means having only an 8th grade education, not being allowed creative expression or appreciation of the arts, not being taught or encouraged to be a critical thinker, and becoming a sheeple (someone who unquestioningly follows the herd); this price is too high for me.
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message 1: by Saloma (new)

Saloma Miller Trish, you bring up some good issues. I grew up Amish in Ohio (Old Order) and some of the questions you raise are not clear to anyone who grows up Amish either. A "good" Amish person will follow the rules and traditions without
The "cult" question. So many people have asked me this at my book talks, and I always say that the difference in my opinion, between a cult and a culture is the 400 years of tradition. Most often cults are here today and gone tomorrow. That, however, does not mean it is any easier to leave a culture than a cult... quite the contrary in the Amish. When you have been taught from the time you can understand the concept that because you were born Amish, God wanted you to stay Amish, and if you leave all hope or your salvation will be lost... that is quite something to deal with if you are tempted to leave. If you joined a cult and believed in this as an adult, you have much more of a chance to question the beliefs than if you were taught these things as a young child.

The price was indeed too high for me. You might like to read my memoir “Why I Left the Amish,”
visit my blog
or my website:

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