The Amish by Steven M. Nolt

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The AmishThe Amish: A Concise Introduction
by Steven M. Nolt
Johns Hopkins University Press, 52 pp., paper $16.95

In this brief but thoughtful book, Nolt leads his readers through the thicket of scholarship on Amish life to provide a concise introduction to America’s most distinctive religious community. He starts at the right place, delineating eight myths about the Amish that his book eventually addresses. The nine chapters, each running about 15 pages, unfold in a predictable but effective manner, moving from demographic information, history and basic cultural mores to more specific chapters about church, family, schooling, work and technology. Nolt concludes the main part of his book with two chapters that extend beyond the Amish per se to the place of the Amish in North American society, the first pertaining to Amish interactions with non-Amish institutions, such as government, and the second regarding outsiders’ fascination with the Amish as expressed through tourist enterprises, romance novels and reality television.

There is much to like about this book, which should become the industry standard for introducing students to Amish life. Nolt writes crisply and clearly, but not at the expense of analysis. The book’s tables and maps are easy to navigate, and the photographs are well-chosen to illustrate larger points. In fact, the corpus of 30 photographs helps to counter one of the myths Nolt seeks to challenge, namely that all Amish are farmers. A two-page appendix that compares the Amish to “related groups” and a four-page bibliography for further reading bring the book to a suitable conclusion.

Any book that seeks to summarize contemporary Amish life in just over 100 pages will necessarily leave some things out, but it is hard to quibble with Nolt’s decision-making in this regard. There is much to learn (and unlearn) about Amish life; this book is the best place to start.

David Weaver-Zercher
Messiah College