Book Revew: Growing Up Amish

Growing Up AmishI had seen Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler recommended by a number of people, so when it came through on sale for the Kindle app, I snagged it.

I’ve been somewhat dismayed at the rosy fascination in Christian circles for the Amish, resulting in a multitude of Amish fiction. I suppose there is an air of mystery about them that always piques curiosity. I understand admiration for their work ethic. I know some long for simpler times with less technology and wonder if the Amish might be on to something. I would have no qualms about someone living without electricity and modern conveniences because they felt it would benefit their family time or the ecology. But I do have a problem with deeming anything modern as “worldly” and condemning people to hell over such arbitrary practices as wearing a mustache, having rubber tires on a buggy, varying any degree on dress or hair styles, etc. “Legalism” is such an overused buzzword in Christendom today, but the extreme legalism of the Amish is seemingly overlooked.

Ira Wagler’s memoir strips away the romanticism and gives us a clearer view. He grew up in a prominent Amish family and community in Canada, the ninth of eleven children of a man well-known in Amish circles for his writing. As he grew into his teen years, he felt more and more constricted and constrained, “stuck in a stifling, hostile culture consisting of myriad complex rules and restrictions…arcane laws based on tradition…not to mention the drama, dictatorial decrees, the strife among so-called brothers, and the seemingly endless turmoil that resulted.” At age seventeen he left in the middle of the night and traveled by bus to work for a man who had once visited his father’s farm.

He enjoyed the freedom, but he missed his family and the stability of life at home, plus, after long days of hard work, he wasn’t really getting ahead financially. So he decided to move back home. His family and church accepted him, but the old conflicts rose to the surface again:

And therein lies the paradox that would haunt me for almost ten years: the tug-of-war between two worlds. A world of freedom versus a world of stability and family. A world of dreams versus a world of tradition. And wherever I resided at any given moment, trudging through the tough slog of daily life, the world I had left called me back from the one I inhabited. It was a brutal thing in so many ways, and I seemed helpless to combat it. Torn emotionally, moving back and forth, always following the siren’s call to lush and distant fields of peace that seemed so real but, like shimmering mirages in the desert, always faded away when I approached them.

He ended up leaving home five times altogether, always returning again until the last time, at age 26. People encouraged him to “decide to do what’s right, and then do it,” and assured him that once he just settled down, everything would be ok. He tried hard to make it work, even being baptized and joining the church. But “A mental choice, absent a real heart change, is no choice at all. We couldn’t force ourselves to be something we were not. That just couldn’t happen. And it didn’t.”

Believing that “The Amish way provided my only chance of salvation,” and that if he permanently left the fold, he would end up in hell, still couldn’t provide motive enough to stay, though it grieved him.

Personally, he “probably always believed there was a God, a sort of dark and frowning force. I just didn’t believe in him, to the extent that I thought he could or would make an actual difference in my life. I tried to believe, in my heart. But I couldn’t, in my head. I’d heard about him all my life. But if he was everything the preachers claimed he was, he sure had a strange way of hiding himself from people like me.”

Depressed and desperate, in a “mental trench of darkness from which I could see no way out,” he felt he had no choice but to finally leave the Amish for good. But then ” a sliver of light” came to him. Most of the praying he had ever seen in the Amish community was scripted, but he “decided he could simply talk to God. Ask for his help. Not by reading from a little black book, but by talking to him, man to man. Or man to God.” So he did, merely asking for the desire to do what was right.

Less than a month later, he met and almost instantly meshed with an English man who had joined the Amish, yet was a true believer.

He explained that there was no human penance for my sins. No way I could ever atone for all the things I had done. But…there was someone else who could atone. Who could wipe the past away and give new life. Heal all the wounds — my own and those I had inflicted on so many others through the years…

By quietly showing me Christ’s love, my friend had led me to the Source of that love. For the first time, I truly grasped that Christ had died for me — suffered, bled, and died–and that I could be his through faith. I was amazed at how simple it was. Why had it all seemed so hard, so impossible before?

The book ends with his final departure from the Amish at the age of 26. There’s a short epilogue at the end, but I would have liked to have learned more how about he finally adjusted to the outside world in the twenty years since he left, how his relationships with his family were since the final break, what kind of career he finally chose, etc.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, not only for the view into what it was like to grow up Amish, but also to marvel again at how God draws people to Himself.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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18 thoughts on “Book Revew: Growing Up Amish

  1. This is on my tbr list. I’ve read a couple of books written by some who have left the Hutterite colonies, which are similar to the Amish. We have large communities of them around us and it is interesting to see their perspectives to what really goes on. I’ve also known a few who personally who have left the colony. This book seems to differ in that he didn’t just come out into the “free” world but truly found freedom in Christ. Looking forward to getting to this book.

  2. I too have felt dismay at the idolizing of the Amish, even by born-again Christians. My dad grew up in Amish country in Ohio and my brother still farms there. I have had some dealings myself with the Amish over the years and the ones I’ve known have been very kind people. One dear family came to my mother’s viewing though they never knew her, only knew her son. I just finished reading PLAIN FAITH, about an Amish couple who left the religion after they became true Christians. The book left me feeling like the Amish are a cross between Catholicism and extreme fundamentalism. Works, works, works. Rules, rules, rules. The church is more important than the Bible. In fact this couple left the Amish mainly because they were shunned for studying the Bible and praying with Englishers and then trying to get their Amish congregation to study and pray together. It is considered prideful to pray from your heart, rather than from the Amish prayerbook. We should not be idolizing these people or romanticizing their lifestyle, but praying for them and trying to love them to Christ.

  3. Barbara, thank you so much for putting into words my feelings when it comes to people overlooking the works salvation of the Amish and holding them up, at times, almost to the point of idolizing them. I will definitely be purchasing this book! Thank you so much for sharing.

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  5. This sounds like a wonderful book and well worth reading.

    I find it interesting that he learns the gospel through an Englisher who had joined the Amish. I agree with your concerns regarding Amish legalism and the idolizing of the Amish in today’s Christian culture – but I also have a hard time when I hear people talk of such and such a denomination that holds to orthodox Christianity being proclaimed as “not really Christian.” It’s not that I think having an orthodox statement of faith means that you know the gospel – it’s that I have known many true believers who have been excluded by others because they came to (true) faith in a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, you-name-it church. How wonderful it is when believers choose neither to idolize or to demonize other faith traditions, but instead to affirm the truth and expose the lies in every tradition (including their own) and to lovingly share the gospel with everyone, regardless of their faith tradition (or lack thereof).

    Not that I feel like you were demonizing the Amish – it’s just that the English/Amish man who shared the gospel with Ira (along with some of the conversations in my Bible study this morning) made me think of that.

    • I wouldn’t call the Amish religion orthodox Christianity, as I wouldn’t call any works-based denomination orthodox. Ira’s friend seems to be an anomaly. What he told Ira was not anything he had heard in all his years growing up. When Ira did believe on Christ as Savior, he says he wanted to tell people, but he couldn’t because the Amish “would view my experience with grave suspicion,” and his bishop would “launch an inquisition.” I don’t know how or why Ira’s friend got into the Amish in the first place.

      In Beverly Lewis’s earliest books about the Amish, it was similar in that when someone came to faith in Christ, they left the Amish community for the Mennonites, as Ira did. In one or two of her later books, some who became believers chose to stay and try to be a quiet influence and testimony in their community. And in most of her most recent books, the plots take place among Amish communities that are primarily Christian, yet she doesn’t really deal with the legalistic aspect. From what I have read, like many denominations, different Amish groups vary greatly in their particulars.

      When I first started attending a Bible-teaching church, the pastor we had at the time was one who preached strongly against “liberal” churches and groups. The organization which watered some of the first seeds of truth in my heart was one of the ones he preached against, so I didn’t say much about it while I was there. 🙂 As a new Christian, I could see some of the issues he pointed out, yet I puzzled over it in that I heard truth there as well. My very first church experiences were in a Lutheran church, and though I later felt they were wrong in a couple of areas, they did give me a good foundation of the fundamentals. But they spoke of “having faith” in a very nebulous way. It wasn’t until getting involved with this organization (Campus Crusade for Christ) and then later in an independent Baptist church that I came to understand how I as an individual could come to Christ in personal repentance and faith.

      Part of contending for truth is exposing error – the epistles do both. Yet some do fixate on the error part, or consign every issue as equally important error, when there are variations of gravity (the error of misconstruing or denying the deity of Christ is vital, whereas dress and music standards can vary greatly, yet I’ve heard both preached with equal vehemence). I think some are going to be quite surprised at who in heaven is from what group – if we’ll even discuss such things there. It may be that the glory we will experience there will eclipse all of these other things. In the meantime, in the here and now, sometimes it’s hard to make the distinction between exposing error in the stand for truth vs. unnecessarily demonizing every group who has any variance with our own beliefs.

      On Tue, Jun 9, 2015 at 7:53 PM, Stray Thoughts wrote:

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      • Thanks for replying, Barbara – I don’t know terribly much about the official doctrines of the Amish, but when I refer to orthodoxy, I generally mean affirming the ecumenical creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Chalcedonian Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Nicene Creed). So, under my classification, I would consider Catholicism orthodox – even though the official doctrines of that church are contrary to the gospel (regarding justification by faith apart from works, for example).

        I agree that it is hard to “make the distinction between exposing error in the stand for truth vs. unnecessarily demonizing every group who has any variance with our own beliefs”. My tendency is to think that the term “Christian” has a historical and cultural definition into which the Amish, Catholic, etc. churches fit, even if they might not be Christian in the sense of being made up of born-again believers – so I call them Christian even as I challenge some of their fundamental assertions.

        On the other hand, while I’m not fond of telling Catholics that they should become a Christian (to which they reply, “Aren’t I one already?”), I do believe in telling them the gospel of grace by faith apart from works. I do believe in encouraging them to dig deeper into the Scripture and challenging their unscriptural beliefs. I do think that ultimately a believer who is growing in the word should (and most likely will) be seeking to fellowship in a church with like-minded believers.

        So maybe I’ve just been quibbling over particulars – but thanks for letting me get my thoughts out, and for challenging me through your friendship and blogging over the years.

        (I realize I’ve been talking mostly about Catholicism here, primarily because this is the general context in which I encounter this issue – I don’t know any Amish, but I know or have known plenty of Catholics with whom I’ve tried to share the gospel.)

        • I was thinking there were similarities with Catholicism as I was writing the above comment. I do think it is best when talking with individuals not to attack their group, belief system, etc., but to do as you said, “telling them the gospel of grace by faith apart from works” and “encouraging them to dig deeper into the Scripture and challenging their unscriptural beliefs.” I do have a couple of Catholic friends who read my blog sometimes, so I don’t usually mention Catholicism specifically. I think it would only offend them and make them defensive. When I’ve objected to something that seems to promote a Catholic slant, I’ve only referred to “works-based religions.”

          I do think there are Catholic, Amish, and others who are truly saved, and I think most of them, if they continued in the Scriptures, would see a need to pull out and join with like-minded believers. But I fear there are far more who only think they are Christians because they’re relying on the teachings of their church and their own rule-keeping rather than on Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. But sometimes that’s true of people in any kind of church.

          On Wed, Jun 10, 2015 at 10:46 AM, Stray Thoughts wrote:

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  6. interesting book review! We live in eastern Iowa, and the area where we live is seeing a large influx of Amish families moving into the area. (Another 10 families are looking to move here) You put into words something I have thought..especially about the legalistic aspect. What a nightmare it would be if I’d been born Amish. I know I would have also broken away because in a similar way, I walked away from a legalistic church that I had very strong ties with. 20 years later there is still a bruise. DM

    • Thanks for stopping by! Sometimes I hear people say when stressed that they want to run off and join the Amish, and I think, Are you kidding? Not only would it be a lot of hard work, but the legalistic atmosphere would be stifling.

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