Amish Joking

The Amish jokes presented here by Ervin Beck represent folklore that has been passed on by oral tradition, that is, from person to person in informal settings, usually in small groups, by word of mouth. Most of these jokes had not been written down until they were transcribed from tape recordings for this essay. Some of the jokes can be documented as having been in circulation for hundreds of years. Before they were applied to Amish people, some of the items have circulated in other groups (who tell them about non-Amish ethnic groups) or as general moron jokes . The meanings of the jokes can be best understood in the context of their actual oral telling in intimate groups; but here they are analyzed in terms of the larger Mennonite culture that tends to perpetuate—and enjoy—such stereotyping of a rival cultural group. The jokes illustrate folklorists’ claims that the predominant folk narrative forms circulating in contemporary American culture are short joking stories and legends, i.e., stories believed to be true.

Mennonites have an ambivalent attitude toward the Amish, who are the near relatives of Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites through shared history, culture and religious values. On the one hand, Mennonites admire the way the Amish remain steadfast to many Anabaptist principles that Mennonites themselves have compromised over the past decades. On the other hand, Mennonites want to separate themselves from these "backward" people with whom they are too often confused by the rest of the world. In that ambivalence, Mennonites resemble American culture at large, as interpreted by David Weaver-Zercher in his book The Amish in the American Imagination ( Johns Hopkins 2001), which shows how Americans at times idealize the Amish for preserving traditional values and at other times ridicule them for their cultural lag.

One sign of this ambivalence is that Mennonites sometimes tell stories that ridicule the Amish and sometimes tell stories that defend, or even idealize, them. The first set of stories below, “Amish Slurs,” satirize the Amish. The second set, “The Amish Joke Back,” defend the Amish.

A. Amish Slurs

Old Tales

Three old stories from Pennsylvania-German culture persist in storytelling about the Amish today. They establish the point that many humorous stories about the Amish are “Dumb Dutchman” survivals that have been inherited by the Amish because they are the last obvious unassimilated representatives of German-American immigrant culture. The first story depicts a surprisingly noncommittal church leader:

The deacon was supposed to deal with church conflicts, at least at the early stages, and they were having problems in their church. And the one party came to the deacon's house and gave their side of the story. And he said, "Ja, ja, ja. Du est recht [You have a point. You are right.] ." And then they left. After a while the other side—their people—came and they told him their side of the story. And his response was the same: "Ja, ja, ja. Du est recht."And his wife had been around all this time, of course, and after the second one left, why, she said, "John, you talk the same to both sides. They both came. They gave you their side of the story, and you kept telling each side that they were right. They can't both be right." He said, "Ja, Mommy. Du est a recht! [You are right, too!] ."

The other two stories show Amish husbands and wives in more overt conflict:

This was told at Little Eden Camp [Onekema, Michigan] in front of the snack shop. It was told by Jesse Short, a bishop, and he got it from Roy Otto, a bishop from Springs, Pennsylvania. They all understood Pennsylvania Dutch so it made it more realistic. . . . This happened in Pennsylvania. This Amish lady's husband was very sick. And so she went over to the neighbors to call the doctor. The doctor in this rural community could also speak Pennsylvania Dutch. And he came to the house, to the door, and knocked. She went to the door and she said: "Come on, Doctor. Doctor, John is aller krank. He's very sick." He came in, looked him over. And they had him propped up on an easy chair and he didn't look very well to the doctor. He went over, took his pulse. He said, "What! John ist todt! John is dead!" And his wife said, "John!" But John wasn't dead. And so John said, "Ich bin nicht todt." And his wife said, "John, sie stille! Be quiet, John. The doctor knows more than you do!"

An Amish bridegroom was driving his new bride away from the wedding ceremony in the horsedrawn buggy. When the horse began to act up, he lashed it with the whip severely. "That's one!" he said. His new wife protested mildly his harsh treatment of the horse. Farther down the road, the horse acted up again. He whipped it even harder. "That's two!" he said. His wife protested again. Farther down the road, the horse really acted up. The Amishman got out his pistol and shot the horse dead. "That's three!" he said. Then his wife soundly berated him for his cruelty and brutality. She really jawed him out. Turning to her, he said, "That's one!" This story is a Mennonite version of the very common folktale type known as "The Taming of the Shrew."

Amish society is overtly patriarchal, especially in that women are given no public leadership roles in the church. But the patriarchy is more respectful of woman than is shown in that brutal story. Patriarchy is more gently satirized in the following story, where the humor depends on the Amish woman pronouncing "Christ" not as in "Jesus Christ" but as in the man's name "Chris."

This Amish woman walked into the bookstore and she saw this motto on the wall there: "Christ Is the Head of This House." She walked up to the cashier and asked, very cautiously: "Do you have any sign like that that says, 'Jake Is the Head of This House'?"

Peculiar Customs

Most Amish stories make fun of the many ways in which they reject mainstream material culture and go their own way regarding costume, transportation and modern technology. Two stories are based on the fact that adult male members of the church are expected to let their beards grow untrimmed. (However, they shave off their mustaches, presumably because mustaches were required in Napoleon's army.)

An Amishman had such a long, flowing beard. And someone who was not Amish asked him, "When you sleep at night, do you put the beard under the covers or on top of the covers?" It never occurred to him to think about that before! So that night when he went to bed, he put his beard under the covers, and it didn't seem right. And out of the covers, and it didn't seem right. And this went on all night and the poor man got no sleep.

Did you hear about the Amish lady that was having such a dream! Sort of a funny one, or difficult one. She was having breakfast and eating shredded wheat. She had an awful time getting rid of this shredded wheat. And finally she woke up and here she was chewing on her husband's beard!

Although the Amish today tend to build their own new houses, in a distinctive style, earlier they more frequently bought pre-existing houses and altered them to fit their peculiar needs. In such situations, electric wiring had to be removed.

An electrician in the Fort Wayne-Grabill area was asked by an Amishman to come and unhook the electricity at a house that he had purchased in the Grabill area. The electrician said he would be there to do what is necessary. "But," he said, "you're going to have to call the I and M [Indiana and Michigan utilities company] and tell them to unhook the juice. . . .” So the Amishman went next door and he called the power company and said, "I bought a property," and he named where it was, and he said, "Come and unhook the juice." And the company said, "Sure, we'll be there, such and such a time." The day arrived. They didn't come. So the Amishman went back to the neighbor, called the company again, and said, "I asked you one time to come and unhook the juice." Sure, we'll be there. The time came. The power company didn't appear and the Amishman was quite upset. He called them a third time and said, "I asked you to come and unhook the power and you haven't done it, so," he said, "I'm going to go and take all the light bulbs out and let the juice run out!"

Although the Amish still do not use electricity in their homes, the technological ignorance of that Amish man is belied today by Amish workers in home construction and manufactured housing plants who are expert electricians.

Using horse and buggy for transportation instead of automobiles is probably the most striking Amish characteristic in their public image for Americans. Four stories derive from Amish horse culture. The first refers to recent state government regulations saying that their buggies need to bear bright red reflective warning signs on the back side. Some conservative Amish groups vigorously resisted the requirement as being too flashy, too attention-getting, hence too prideful. But most Amish have accepted red reflectors.

My sister in the Middlebury[Indiana] area actually heard an Amish lady bemoaning the fact that they had to paint the sign on the back of their buggy bright red. If they could only paint it black, it would be so much nicer!

The second story uses the horse to comment on the difficulty of attaining the Amish goal of gelassenheit , meaning yieldedness, or humility.

One Amishman found himself feeling too proud of the fine horse he owned. So he sold it and bought an old nag instead. Then he found himself being proud of his humility. (The story recalls one on the similar problem of humility in Mennonite culture that uses clothing rather than horses as a measure of humility: Driving home after church, the Mennonite man turned to his wife and said, "I think we were the plainest that was there today.")

A man bought a horse from an Amishman, assuming that the integrity of the Amish faith guaranteed a high quality horse. Upon receiving and inspecting the horse, he found that it was an inferior animal. So he went back to the Amishman and asked if he could borrow his plain-cut coat. "Why?" asked the Amishman. "Because I want to sell a horse," the man replied.

Over at Shipshewana [Indiana] there was an Amishman who was a prominent man in the church. Someone asked him whether he thought the time would come when the Amish would have cars. And he said, "Yeah," he thinks the time will come. But he's afraid it won't come quick enough for him!

More Peculiaities

Like "Yoder" in Swiss-German Mennonite culture, "Stoltzfus" is one of the most typical Amish family names in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Have you heard of the Stoltzfus Factory? These people went to Pennsylvania for the first time and they went around, were driving down the road there, and there was just Stoltzfus on the mailbox. They went around the next corner, and there's another Stoltzfus! Turned the other corner, and there's a Stoltzfus! Turned another corner and there's a Stoltzfus! And finally they turned another corner and then they saw why: There was a "Stoltzfus Factory."

The manufacture of house trailers, recreational vehicles and manufactured housing is a major part of the economy in north-central Indiana, site of the nation's third-largest Amish community. Many Amish men now work in such factories. A common saying is that Goshen (or Wakarusa or Middlebury or Nappanee) is the only place in the world where you can jaywalk across a downtown street and be hit by a house. The following story imagines an even larger house on the road:

A couple of years ago out east of town here, there was an Amish family that got a house trailer—a double-wide. And they put a basement under it. Someone was talking about this—that these people got a house trailer with a basement under it. And this one woman said that she wishes she could see that thing go down the road with a basement under it!

B. The Amish Joke Back

Ideally, in a discussion of stories that show Amish people in a positive light, or gaining the upper hand in a debate, all of the examples should come from the Amish themselves in order to show how they define themselves, positively, through traditional narratives. Unfortunately, that is not the case. That would require recording their stories as told in their native language, Pennsylvania German. Although I have Amish friends, I do not speak their German dialect. Consequently, I cannot "pick up" stories from natural conversational flow, and it would be awkward, if not impossible, to arrange for story-telling sessions with Amish narrators, around a tape-recorder.

Most of the stories below come from the same Mennonite informants whose stories satirizing the Amish appear above--which suggests that Mennonites identify themselves with Amish as often as they dissociate themselves from them.

The stories here that probably come closest to revealing Amish self-perceptions are taken from the published writings of William R. McGrath, who converted to the Beachy Amish (Amish-Mennonite) faith. He became an ordained minister in 1956 and attracted a following of Beachy and Old Order Amish who were interested in missions and herbal medicine. Eventually he led a colony of believers to Costa Rica and, most recently, became a missionary to Ireland. His defense of the Amish community (including himself) resulted in a number of pithy stories included in his book, Amish Folk Remedies for Plain and Fancy Ailments (Minerva, Ohio, 1984), which appealed to Amish readers. The source is often referred to below. Several stories are also reprinted from Elmer L. Smith's Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore (1960), which includes non-Amish variants of some of the stories that McGrath offers as Amish narratives. The other stories come from oral performances by Mennonites that I tape-recorded.

The Smart Dutchman

As a man with a college education, McGrath is well aware that the Amish today suffer from the old American stereotype of being the "Dumb Dutchman." He explicitly recognizes the association in two brief accounts. In the second one, he accepts the Amish as fitting into the generic category of "Dutch," but he illustrates the smartness of a Dutch—here perhaps meaning Amish--waitress. In the first story, dumbness is not denied, but smartness is found in the Amish boy's witty response. Both show that the Dutch, including the Amish, are smarter than their critics. Indeed, in almost all of the stories borrowed from McGrath below, smart, witty retorts create the appeal of the pithy narratives.

Dumb Dutch? Many stories are told about the supposedly "dumb Dutch." What appears to the public to be "dumb" may often be a kind of a shrewd peasant logic. An Amish proverb says, "We get too soon old and too late smart." An Amish boy tried to explain the backwardness of his brother to the teacher by saying, "It ain't he can't learn, it's just he doesn't remember anything he learns." A tourist complained about the chicken being tough in a Dutch restaurant and the Dutch waitress replied: "It's tougher when there's none." (p. 73)

The story that circulates most widely in Mennonite circles and defends the Amish against dumbness is the following:

A New York tourist was traveling west on Route 340 near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, when he noticed an elderly Amishman pumping water just in front of his barn. He stopped his car and called to the Amishman, "Could you tell me how to get to route 30?" The Amishman pretended he didn't hear and kept on pumping water. Again the tourist called louder, "I'm lost. Could you please tell me how to get to Route 30?" The Amishman kept on pumping. Rather angrily the tourist yelled, "I knew you Amish were dumb, but I didn't know you were so dumb." The Amishman stopped pumping and replied, "I may be dumb, but at least I ain't lost."

The narrator thinks "this rather humorous incident took place near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, several years ago." However, the wide, generic circulation of the tale shows that it is a traditional story, and probably even one told long ago about Pennsylvania Dutch people in general and more recently localized with the Amish. Does the Amish reply about his not being "lost" also have spiritual implications?

The Amish and Other Groups

In Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Elmer L. Smith included two stories that compare the Amish to other religious groups. The first story probably vindicates the Amish as a practical, rural people, even though it implicitly criticizes them for lacking the spiritual and moral values of the other two groups. The second story also seems to vindicate the conservative Amishman, whose "motion" supersedes and cancels out all of the previous three:

A story is told that reflects the interest an Amishman takes in his herd, and at the same time the shrewdness of the Amish as compared to other farmers. A Quaker, a Hutterite and an Amish farmer were given two cows each. The Quaker gave one of his cows to a less fortunate neighbor; the Hutterite turned his two cows over to the elders of his communal group, who in turn gave him some of the milk; while the Amishman kept one cow and traded the other one for a bull. (Smith 19)

The Amish people favor the maintenance of the one-room school with all its traditions of the past. Most communities have abandoned the one-room school in favor of consolidated schools. The story is told of a meeting of a local school board in Lancaster County at which time discussion was centered on building a new school to replace the old one-room school. The board was composed of an Amishman, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Presbyterian. The following motions were made [and passed?] in successive order: Catholic: "I move we build a new school house." Methodist: "I make a second move that we build the new school on the same ground where the old school is." Presbyterian: "I make a third move that we use the material from the present school to help build the new one." Amishman: "I make a fourth move that we stay right in the old school house until the new one is completed." (Smith 19)

The logic of the stories requires that, for the nonce, we disregard the fact that the Amish and the Hutterites have never settled close to each other and that an Amishman would probably not serve on a public school board.

Defending Peculiar Customs

A number of stories replicate the encounter of the tourist-outsider with Amish people and show the Amish defending their odd practices with witty retorts:

One Amishman was pointed at by an obese tourist lady who said: "Look at the odd man!" Returning her look, he saw her paint, powder, artificial hairstyle, gaudy clothes and bulging shorts, and could not resist replying: "It wonders me who is really the ODD ONE!" (McGrath 71-72)

Another tourist is reported to have said to an Amishman, "I once grew a beard like yours, but when I saw how terrible I looked, I shaved it off!" The Amishman coolly replied: "I used to have a face like yours, too, and when I saw how terrible it looked, I grew a beard." (McGrath 72; Smith 19)

The Amish are curious about television, rock music, radios and the drug culture, but they avoid all these things because they see the results are crime, juvenile delinquency, divorce, nervous breakdowns and social disorders. An Amishman was asked if he did not miss radio and television. He replied, "They are selling something I don't need: entertainment, multiplying your wants for things you don't need, and discontentment. It is not so much what you eat that makes you sick, but what is eating you because of what you are looking at and listening to. I don't envy you, I pity you." (McGrath 75)

Notice the blunt, aggressive put-downs that create the rather dark humor in these stories. Does that characterize the Amish sense of humor? Or is it a manifestation of McGrath, the preacher-prophet and Amish convert, who is reporting the stories? The latter possibility is found in a final story from McGrath that ends in a lesson from the Bible instead:

While some Amish are gullible, as in any group of people, most are quite shrewd enough not to panic like many of their English neighbors. Watching a parade of protesters against nuclear war, an Amishman was asked, "Aren't you afraid of the Third World War?" He replied, "The Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars until the End, then Jesus will come. Only a fool would fear the wars and not fear God Who will judge all mankind." (McGrath 74)

Outsiders may not find humor here, but the Amish might, especially since the story characterizes the enquirer as a "fool," as do the more humorous stories that precede it. The possibility that blunt putdowns are relished by the Amish comes from a story told by a non-Amish informant about an incident he claimed to have observed. The fact that the put-down is not clearly relevant to the conversation that leads up to it suggests an interest in put-downs per se. But the woman's retort may equally be a vindication that the Amish indeed do not and should not "see things alike" other groups.

There was an Amish woman among the men and women waiting in a doctor's office in Nappanee [Indiana]. And one of the non-Amish men was discussing denominations and said, "Why can't they get together? Why can't they all see things alike?" And then another gentleman said, "If they did, you would never have gotten a wife." And [the first man] said, "I would have gotten her all right." And then the stately Amish grandma said, "If all the people would see alike, no one would have wanted you."

A story from real life shows a young Amish woman using the put down in a—to Mennonites—humorous way. It was told to me by the Mennonite man from Goshen, Indiana, who wore the shorts:

A young Amishman by the name of Wenger was doing his alternate [to military] service at the seminary here as custodian. His wife came to work at our house. But as is so often the case, I had to go pick her up out in the country where they lived. This one summer day I was wearing shorts—Bermuda shorts. Nevertheless, when we finally did get to Eighth Street, she asked me, "You're Mennonite, aren't you?” I said, "Yeah. Why did you ask?" "Well, because of those shorts that you're wearing. Is that really modest?" I said, "Oh, well, I'm just wearing those because it's so insufferably hot." "Well," she said, there are some places where it's a lot hotter!"

Other kinder, gentler stories told about Amish by Mennonites also defend, in their own way, Amish practices:

An Italian visitor, who grew weary of the long, drawn-out [Amish wedding] ceremony, said, "It takes you too long to tie the knot." To which his Amish friend replied, "But have you ever seen one of our knots come loose?"

Big Perry B. Miller from Topeka—he's dead and gone now; gone to his reward—was an Amishman that always had a lot of fun. He was a quick wit. He had a Beachy Amish man, who had a beard and a black hat, with a van, take a whole load [of Amish] out west. At the one place where they stopped for gas, the attendant at the gas station was pumping gas and Big Perry B. was standing there and [the attendant] looked in the van, stroked his chin a little and says, "Indiana!" And Perry says, "Yes." [The attendant] says, "Does everybody in Indiana have beards?" And Big Perry paused a little and he said, "No. The women don't."

An Amishman was brought before the judge and the court to testify as to the kind of car that was involved in a certain kind of accident. [The Amishman] was scratching his head and trying to remember whether it was a Pontiac or a Buick. The judge says, "Can't you tell the difference between these kinds of cars?" And [the Amishman] turned around and said to him, "No," he says. "Can you tell the difference between the different kinds of buggies you see on the road?"

The dumb outsider who gawks uncomprehendingly at Amish people is put in his place by one story:

A tourist from New York came to Lancaster County to look for the Amish. And he was frantically searching for them all over. So finally he asked one of the people, who happened to be a Mennonite. The Mennonite was rather protective of the Amish and also had a good sense of humor. He says, "Oh, you won't find any of the Amish now. It's their mating season."

The following story possibly derives from some Mennonites' insistence that you can tell an Amishman by his posture—bent slightly forward, walking in a rather lumbering gait, arms akimbo or clasping hands behind his back—which implies his rural background and hard work as a farmer. Here an Amishman embraces that identity in a self-deprecating way:

A family of Amishmen, visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo, were standing in front of the monkey and apes display [demonstrates posture: feet spread apart, arms hanging freely]. When they turned around, they discovered many people grouped behind them, staring at them. So the Amish father walked away, imitating the walk, posture, and movements of an ape, saying: "We just escaped from the cage."

Story for Story Sake

Even William McGrath, preacher and prophet, appreciated an "Amish" story for its own sake, as shown by the two that follow. Notice, however, that the first one invokes a Bible verse for its justification.

Because the Bible says, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine," the Amish appreciate humor. One Amishman replied to a man who splashed mortar on him and asked if he was hurt. "No, I'm just mortified!" (McGrath 72; Smith 21)

A group of school boys tried to scare little Amos, an Amish boy. They jumped out at him with an imitation skeleton. He didn't bat an eyelash so they asked, "Aren't you afraid of spooks and skeletons?" Amos replied, "Why, there ain't no such thing as a ghost, and a skeleton is nothing but a stack of bones with the people scraped off.” (McGrath 74; Smith 26)

One story comes from an ex-Amish informant from the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and shows an Amish trickster vindicated in a conversation with his own minister:

The Amishman had flown to Israel. One Sunday morning he and his wife were asked to sit in front of the congregation. They were subjected to "counsel." The minister asked if it was true that they had flown to Israel—[flying in an airplane] is against the rules. "No," the Amishman said. He did not fly the plane. The pilot did. He was absolved of guilt.

Amish Values in Stories

Beyond the peculiar rules of conduct, two stories communicate some of the deeper values found in Amish culture. On the surface, the first one makes fun of the Amish work ethic, although it also implies awe in regard to their commitment to hard work. The second one, told by a young Mennonite man, affirms the redemptive effect of Amish pacifism and nonviolence:

It was reported that during World War II the government, which was rationing gasoline and shoes, wanted to put the Amish on an eight-hour day. They replied, "That's interesting. But what would we do after dinner?"

I've heard a story for a long time about a group of boys, probably from the Mennonite church, who wanted to play a trick on an Amishman. And so they took his buggy apart on Halloween night and reassembled it on the roof of his barn. And the Amishman woke up in the middle of the night and saw all this going on. And so he told his wife to get up and prepare a big meal. About daybreak these guys were coming off the roof of the barn and he was down there waiting on them. And he invited them in for breakfast, since they had been working so hard. And they went in and had this big breakfast and they felt so bad they went back out and disassembled it.

The student who told me this story told me he read it in Coals of Fire , a Mennonite inspirational book of stories by Elizabeth Bauman (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954). Not quite. But in Chapter 8, "The Mystery of the Thatch,” he might have read a European Mennonite variant on which it is based. Bauman tells the story of “Preacher Peter” in the Emmental of Switzerland who, with his wife, woke up one night to the sound of men removing the thatch from the roof of their house. Peter asked his wife to prepare a meal, to which he invited the thieves. Instead of eating, they replaced the thatch and left.

Although Bauman says that “the chief incidents in each story are true” (v), she actually borrowed the story from John Horsch’s book, The Principles of Nonresistance as Held by the Mennonites (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1939), and Horsch’s telling of it is based, in turn, on a variant found in J. Ellenberger’s Bilder aus dem Pilgerleben: Gesammelt in der Mennoniten-Gemeinde, 3 vols (Frankfurt A.M., 1880). Although the Library of Congress regards Ellenberger’s book as “fiction,” the thatch/buggy story is actually a legend (see Chapters 8-10), or a story believed to be true, that becomes altered according to the place and time of its telling.

In my student’s telling of the story, the Swiss preacher and his house become the Indiana Amishman and his buggy. In all cases, this humble story helps the Anabaptist community preserve one of its most cherished values, as embodied by the note Bauman attaches to her chapter: “Do good to them that hate you.” (Mt. 5:44). In the contemporary variant, the Mennonite community revises one of its old stories into a story about the Amish in order to preserve traditional Mennonite values. Giving to the Amish what was once Mennonite might reflect Mennonites’ implicit awareness of the slippage of traditional values in Mennonite communities and their better preservation in Amish culture.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.