Amish Slurs

Chapter 4

Mennonites have an ambivalent attitude toward the Amish, who are the near relatives of Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites through shared history, ethnicity 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.

The result of this ambivalence is that Mennonites sometimes tell stories that ridicule the Amish and sometimes tell stories that defend, or idealize them. This first chapter of Amish stories will consist of stories that satirize the Amish, and the following chapter will present stories that defend the Amish. The two chapters were combined in “Amish Joking,” published in the July 15, 2009, issue of the online Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing.

Old Tales

Three old stories from Pennsylvania-German culture persist so much in storytelling about the Amish today that they will be used to open this chapter. They establish the point that many humorous stories about the Amish are survivals that have been inherited by the Amish as the last obvious representatives of that 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 [1894-1962]--a bishop [from Archbold, Ohio] and he got it from Roy Otto [1902-1992], 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 tale type known by folktale specialists 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, and Amish women tend to be very self-directed in domestic matters.

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," short for “Christian.”

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 in regard to 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.

Mennonite Jesus
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Mennonite Jesus

*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 [Indiana] 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 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 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!

Additional joking stories about the Amish appear in the dialect stories of Chapter 6 and the bawdy stories of Chapter 7.

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.