On October 2, 2006, a 32-year-old milk truck driver named Charles Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot 10 young girls, killing five, before committing suicide as police officers stormed the school. Just hours after the shooting, Amish community members visited the gunman’s family to offer forgiveness. The events at Nickel Mines horrified the nation for the senseless brutality of the shootings and left many questioning and haunted by the victims’ startling response.
Filmed over the course of a year, The Amish answers many questions Americans have about this insular religious community. Their intense faith and strict adherence to 300-year-old traditions have by turn captivated and repelled, awed and irritated, inspired and confused America for more than a century. An extraordinarily intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life, the film questions why and how the Amish, an insistently closed and communal culture, have thrived within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth; explores how, despite their ingrained submissiveness, the Amish have successfully asserted themselves in resisting the encroachments of modern society and government; asks what our fascination with the Amish says about deep American values; and looks at what the future holds for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past.
With unprecedented access to the Amish built on patience and hard-won trust, the film is the first to deeply penetrate and explore this profoundly attention-averse group and includes the voices of those close to the murdered schoolgirls. Written and directed by David Belton and produced by Callie T. Wiser, The Amish premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on February 28 at 8 p.m. EST on witf. We'll also re-air this documentary on April 9 at 9 p.m.
Additionally, on February 27, two people involved in the making of The Amish will be guests on Radio Smart Talk at 9 a.m. EST.
“In our 23 years, with almost 300 films completed, this was the most difficult that we’ve ever made,” said Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. “We had a subject that was by its very nature against the idea of us getting close to them and making a film about them. But we cautiously and slowly built bonds of trust within the community. We had some key advisers who had worked with the Amish for decades whom they trusted; they reassured them that we were not going to do a superficial drive-by, ‘gotcha,’ program. We said, ‘We really want to understand who you are. And we want your voice to be in this film.’”
An offshoot of Anabaptist Christians, the Amish Church began more than 300 years ago in Europe. Anabaptists believed that one should join the church out of free will and be baptized – not as an infant – but as an adult. Adult baptism, however, was a capital offense at the time and thousands died as martyrs.
“That has really stayed in the DNA of Amish culture and Amish history,” says Donald B. Kraybill, author of several books on the Amish. “It’s not unlike slavery for African Americans. It’s not unlike the Holocaust for Jews. So there’s this sense of being a separated people, of being a minority people, of being cautious about what the outside world might do to you again.”
The first large group of Amish settled in Pennsylvania in the 1730s. While the greatest concentration of Amish can be found in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, they have since settled in 28 states as well as Canada. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the Amish flourished in the U.S., and much like their neighbors, the Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania Germans, lived on farms and traveled by horse and buggy.
But the Industrial Revolution brought the rise of the machine; rural people began to leave home and the farm to pursue factory work. Self-achievement and rugged individualism triumphed over cooperation and the needs of the community. America marveled at new technology and heralded the telephone as a miraculous invention – but not the Amish. If you could talk to your neighbor on the phone, why would you visit them? While everyone else embraced the future, the Amish held fast to life as it had been.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that Amish determination to remain apart from the rest of America provoked conflict with the state. New laws that extended the age for compulsory school attendance provoked outright rejection from many Amish. Schooling, they argued, was important as long as it was practical and applicable to life on the farm. Reading, writing and arithmetic were necessary but everything else was deemed superfluous. Amish parents worried that more education would make their children too individualistic, lose their values and want to move away. In the 1950s, they began to keep their children home after eighth grade. Court appearances and jail terms quickly followed for hundreds of recalcitrant Amish.
In 1972, after two decades of prosecution by the court, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of Amish parents to remove their children from public school after the eighth grade. The verdict came at a time when more and more Americans romanticized the one-room schoolhouse and public sentiment had swung to support the parents. No other group in America has achieved such an exemption.
The Amish have fought other legal battles in order to retain their way of life. In northern New York State, conservative Amish are currently fighting against such things as building codes that require the installation of smoke detectors. To the Amish, relying on manmade technology is not putting your faith in God. “If, heaven forbid, a fire comes, sweeps through the house and something terrible happens, the child will be in a better place, the people will be in a better place, they’ll be with God,” says Karen Johnson-Weiner, author of Train Up a Child: Old Order and Mennonite Schools. “Theirs is not an intellectual faith; it’s a lived faith in a very real way. Everything they do is guided by their Ordnung, by their beliefs. In a way, they’re always in church.”
While the Amish have been praised for their ability to forgive, they can be unforgiving to some of their own. Shunning, the practice of which split the church hundreds of years ago, is still practiced today and requires the Amish to turn their backs on their own children if they leave the church after being baptized.
Saloma Furlong, 20 years old when she left home, has experienced it. “I knew, sooner or later, Mom would call. And she did. She called one night to say, ‘We’re on our way to come and get you.’ She started speaking in the Amish language. She knew what she was doing. She was pulling me right back into the world I’d left. Something changed in me, where I couldn’t say no. The Amish life is not about saying no. It’s about going along.” As Saloma recounts in the film, she returned home but eventually left again and married the man she loved. Although she invited her family and friends from back home to the wedding, not one of them attended.
“If you decide to leave after joining and getting married, you will likely leave with your wife or husband and have a bit of support there,” said producer Callie Wiser. “But as a teenager who hasn’t joined church yet, you are on your own. Your family will likely not want you to come visit because you might be a bad influence on other siblings. There’s a lot of sadness in the kids who decide not to join the church. Some know their parents love them deep down, but there’s also a profound sense of rejection.”
In the course of the film, a number of Amish teens talk about the special rite of passage known as Rumspringa. For the first time in their lives, 16-year-olds are allowed to leave their families and hang out with their friends on the weekend. Betwixt and between parental authority and adulthood, previously plainly dressed look-alike teens begin to explore their identity within the tribe. Some teens leave for the wider world but others choose to remain, the bonds of family having been knit into their bones.
Today, there is tremendous pressure on the Amish culture as the outside world continues to encroach on their communities. And they have to find new ways to live with that outside world – or go elsewhere to escape it. Fifty years ago, nearly all Amish relied on farming for a living. Today, most Amish support themselves by working in Amish-owned small businesses or non-Amish shops and factories. Others have left their homes to pursue wide-open spaces – and cheaper land – out West.
One Amish worker in an RV factory in northern Indiana wonders what effect working in an ‘English’ factory will have on his community’s future. “We’re just doing things that we didn’t do 25-30 years ago,” he says. “And when that happens, you tend to panic a little bit. You have to wonder: Where are we going? What’s this going to lead to? Is this what we really want?”
Will the Amish continue to survive despite the pressures they face today? “I don’t know,” says one Amish man. “I just don’t go there. We’re just pilgrims and foreigners, just passing through. This life is just a speck in the sand, compared to eternity.”
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