Marion G. Bontrager grew up in the west Clinton Old Order Amish Church district five miles east of Goshen, Indiana. In 1834 his great grandfather came as a very young child with his family in a covered wagon from Somerset County, Pennsylvania to LaGrange County, Indiana.
Evie Yoder Miller captures and embodies many core religious values of the Amish church and people in the time and geographical setting of her novel. The structure and style of the book takes us into the interior of the Amish characters, a task that is very difficult for a non-initiated person to do. But she does capture the "silence and few words" value, especially of Amish men. Franey says of her father's motto: "Think twice before you speak once." (232) The men critique the women who tend to talk too much.
Amish marriages are rather functional and unromantic. The more liberal an Amish couple is, the more feelings are expressed between husband and wife and between parents and children. The faith depicted in Eyes at the Window is a lived rather than verbal faith. The faith of Amish folk is intertwined and lived out in the interdependence of land, persons, animals, and generations. That would still be true of the farm Amish today who structure life more by the sun, days and nights, months, moon phases, and seasons than by digital time.
Miller develops the universal themes of self-identity, inclusion, exclusion, injustice, suffering, family relationships, culture and subculture, conflict, guilt, grace, and deception in the Amish religious culture. The struggles and suffering of frontier life, many untimely deaths and remarriages, are not uniquely Amish or even religious though they take on religious meanings in the Amish faith. The author frequently and authentically portrays how the Amish live with a strong eschatology, a sense of judgment and eternity.
The Amish in Eyes at the Window tell stories to their children to teach values. (199) There is the universal questioning of why events happen and what life and death mean. Questions about human guilt and God's judgment come through strongly. A kind of Deuteronomistic view of life echoes the complaint of the Psalmist, "Why do the wicked prosper?" Isaac Joder struggles with the question of why those who are not faithful to the church prosper financially. (127)
The high view of the church as the Body of Christ (nigh unto Roman Catholic) and spiritual community is the foundation and stage on which the drama unfolds. Salvation and church membership are synonymous. Salvation is corporate and personal, never individual and private. The sense of mutual support and accountability is an important plank in the stage. Other planks in the stage are "Gelassenheit," accountability, the church as a disciplined community, integrity, introspection, judgment, grace, tradition and change, church leadership, and "Ordnung" as a power greater than any member or ministers.
The author depicts Amish mothers as more nurturing, gracious, and forgiving toward the children while the fathers are more distant, stern disciplinarians who mete out punishment. While the mother may not agree, she submits to the father's leadership, especially in front of the children.
The oldest child is expected to set an example for the younger ones spiritually and personally and help teach them. Isaac Joder says to himself, "How I must ensure my big boys' obedience so my young ones will follow as well." (176) Sociological studies show that when the oldest or older children leave the Amish church the younger ones will more likely leave also.
Miller's portrayal of the practice of bundling (which did not always mean sexual intercourse) and frequent pre-marital sexual relations is an authentic representation of the Amish at that time. The devout bishop John M. reflects on his sexual indiscretions with his wife when they were dating. (320-21) Eliza debates her husband, Yost, about bundling. He argues for leniency using tradition and the curious argument, "If death were God's punishment for this so-called sin of bundling, we Amish would have died out a long time ago." (286) The Amish preached against bundling in the past and today, although the rule is not strictly enforced by parents. If pregnancy occurs, the offenders make confession and the couple usually marries without life-long stigma. When the bishop asked whether the prospective bride was a virgin, he did not necessarily mean that a "no" answer would stop the publishing of the intent to marry. It would simply mean a rather matter-of-fact confession and then moving on.
The traditional folk healing method of "brauching" was and is still a controversial issue in the Amish community. Persons were identified with the gift of healing that usually involved the simple laying on of hands and praying for healing. I personally experienced the simple "brauching" as a child by a neighbor by the name of Bender. I got well soon after. Was it because of what he did? The more superstitious ceremonies of "powwowing" were and are more controversial and generally are not practiced today.
Miller authentically represents the Amish view of the church, which some Anabaptist scholars argue was the most foundational principle of 16th century Anabaptism. The Christian life is corporate. Jonas says, "I must teach them to strive against the modern push toward individualism." (309) On the positive side, John M. Joder says, "The church was my safe haven, whether I was in Pennsylvania or Ohio . . . I knew I was loved as a child of God." (389) The argument against buying property insurance was simply, "if one has a loss, the rest of the church will come help rebuild." (374)
On the question of the church as a dynamic corporate group versus individualism, Bishop Isaac Joder remembers the conversation with his brother Jacob and his father who had moved to Ohio and had become more liberal with the "Ordnung." Jacob says, "Everyone is his own authority here. No one need listen; we are too busy to keep check on another's soul." Jacob and Isaac's father (a minister) did not challenge the statement. Whereupon Isaac says to himself, "I grant that some independence may be necessary for survival. But when the individual spirit sets people up as their own final word, that portends deep trouble . . . . But Jacob and father. I would not have believed it." (179)
Church discipline is a sober and heavy thing for the Amish church, especially for the ministers. Excommunication is even more severe. Then follows the severe discipline of shunning. The author catches the sadness of excommunication. Young Isaac Yoder leads the service. "Tears come to my eye. . . . But it leaves such sorrow to take action against one of our number. Many members shed tears, like unto a funeral. The gravity causes us all to look to ourselves." (126)
Various characters in the book debate excommunication, and especially shunning. In actual Amish life, not all Amish held to shunning in the nineteenth century or today. Many do for only a short period of time. And some secretly never shun as did Anna, Reuben's wife, and some Ohio neighbors.
While Amish individuals usually go along with church discipline, there is often private doubt. Yost's wife Eliza whose baby was murdered doubts excommunication and shunning because she is not totally sure about Reuben's (Yost's brother's) guilt. She says, "I do not like the way Brother Isaac (Joder-preacher) stares at me. I fear he knows my doubts. When he preaches of peace and contentment that come to those who adhere to the teachings of the church, he looks directly at me." (147) It takes courage to dissent in the Amish church then and now. It no doubt has and can lead to "group think" as it did in case of seeing Reuben as the guilty one.
About shunning Eliza says, "I can not help feeling sorrow for Reuben. How can we expect to win him back if we never eat with him or have business dealings? And what if he is not a heretic?" (147) Then she debates with herself, "If only he showed some sign of sorrow. . . . And then when he would not withdraw we had no choice but to expel him. . . . When the Church is despoiled and no longer pure, we must put the bad from us. As Brother Isaac says, the Church must be kept blameless, else we will not be fit as the spotless bride of Christ." (148)
Eliza continues, "But what if we have done more ill to Reuben than was done by him? What if this ordinance to shun may be the wrong 'beschluss'? I cannot forget the day Reuben's soul was released from the church's grasp. . . . But on that Sunday all we could do was weep for Reuben's soul. In truth I wept for us all." (148-9) The author depicts correctly that there would be weeping and grieving at an excommunication event. It is a time for self-examination, not a time of joy. Parents would especially feel a heavy responsibility toward God and the church for a wayward child.
In my own case, some uncles and aunts shunned me after I left the Amish church. Most did not and those in the near community did so only for a brief period of time.
Reuben's personality, his attitudes, and his more liberal individualistic thinking had already marginalized him in the family and church, all of which made him the believable suspect by the family and the church. Seeking to defend his innocence, Reuben says, "Evidence! What evidence? . . . There is no evidence against me. There is only the blind dislike of some in my family." (102) The author effectively depicts the intertwining of family and church systems. That was true then and would be true today in the Amish church.
One could see an Amish church made up of concentric circles with the more conservative, compliant, and obedient in the inner circles and the more liberal, less compliant on the edge in the outer circle. The roles people play in their families would likely also be the role they would play in the church.
Amish churches and communities have their social stratification based on a variety of qualities. Usually families determined the individual's social "place." Wealth, success, intellect, giftedness, and physical beauty all played into that stratification. In my experience, we even valued some churches above others. I grew up in a more liberal Amish church community that saw themselves above some other Amish churches. And we probably were a bit more sophisticated.
The author also touches on the Amish view of other churches. John M. (Joder) asks his brother Joseph why he stays in the Amish church. Joseph says, "It is as good a way as any. There are those in the Amish church who say our faith is the only way to peace and happiness. That is where I disagree. . . . There are different ways to get from Pennsylvania to Ohio. . . . It is the way familiar to me, but it is not the only way." Joseph continues, "Why do I stay with the Amish? Because it is the way I know. . . . It is as good as any other. But it is no better." (253-4)
The brothers note that Joseph's view would not be the majority view. At that time the vast majority of the Amish would have viewed their way as the best way. Some would have said it is the only way. Today, unlike the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), few if any would say that it is the only way. As an Amish child I was not taught that Amish was the only way.
The "Ordnung" is the commonly agreed upon application of principles the Amish would base in Scripture, not unlike the Jewish Mishnah. The author has the wise old Bishop Isaac Joder say, "Our people do not understand the 'Ordnung'. . . . The 'Ordnung' must be lived by the Spirit, not by the letter alone. That is what I preach, but I am not certain the message soaks through. When we dwell in the spirit of the 'Ordnung,' we have peace and contentment, even a feeling of liberty." (327)
The "Ordnung" is a kind of "independent power out there" that both ministers and church have to deal with. It represents tradition and not merely the sum of the church's current thinking. The interplay of authority among ministers, and between the ministers and the church is an often subtle and delicate dance of authority. Ministers can be silenced by the will of the church, but members can be disciplined, even excommunicated by the recommendation of the ministers and affirmation of the church. The bishop leads the process, responsible to God, to fellow ministers and to the church.
More than one Amish bishop has broken mentally, even committed suicide, attempting to lead and keep peace amidst conflict among ministers, between ministers and the church, and within the church. The author captures the reality and process when Isaac Joder says "Some of our people misunderstand and think we bishops and ministers make the 'Ordnung.' That is not so. We only try to uphold the 'Ordnung.'" (328)
Isaac Joder says "The heaviness of tending men's souls sits on me like a thick sack. . . . We are to be a church of peace. Why then are we consumed with disharmony? I am not the man. I tell Sarah over and over. I am not the man." (124) One of the most repeated phrases I remember from the Amish church is "What a beautiful thing it is to have peace (Friede)." That refers more to peace with each other than with God.
The author describes well the powerful emotions of a service to choose a minister by lot. John M. Joder saw a shaft of light on the Ausbund he was to choose. The heaviness of being chosen is illustrated when the brother next to him "sighed, as if he had completed a day's work" when the lot did not fall on him. (319) Even the phrase the "lot fell on him" captures the responsibility coming from above and that it is heavy.
The shaking, trembling hands, the tears, the kneeling in prayer, clearing of throats, audible crying--all describe the intense emotions. The awesome responsibility of having been chosen by God changes John M.'s life and that of his wife and the entire family. John M. asks and receives his wife's support on the way home. Katharina says, "When we married, I knew this might happen." After the service John M. "walked alone to fetch the horse and wagon. I have never felt that alone." (319) I remember the relief we felt in our family when the lot did not fall on my father three times, two times in the Amish church and once in the Mennonite Church. We children wouldn't have to be so "good!"
I recall several "lot" services. When a child, we visited an Amish neighbor who had been chosen by lot. It was a solemn, sad and heavy time - like a wake. Several years ago a Beachy Amish Mennonite service of choosing a minister by lot was one of the most electric, charged meetings I have ever been in.
Being a minister was heavy. Isaac Joder says "The church does not allow me not to know what to say." (179-80) Young Isaac Joder blames himself for families going to other more "lively" churches and some not attending anywhere at all. Isaac says, "And here I am, such poor, weak clay, appointed to stem the tide. Sarah tires of hearing my doubts . . . and says "The Lord called you; do not question His leading.'" Isaac continues, "She does not understand the burden . . . . My failure with Reuben hearkens back to my not wanting the Kiss. I knew all along it was not for me. But how could the Almighty make a mistake?" (128) (180, 186)
Humility and submission are core values in the Amish community; the more conservative the less individualism and more submission and corporate symbols of humility. The conservative Ohio minister Abraham Zug says, "Only pride would lead one to break with tradition." (433) Humility means one must adhere to the "Ordnung." Education is seen as a threat to submission to the church and "Ordnung." Zug continues, "Too much learning hinders a submissive spirit." (433)
John M. Joder, more liberal and flexible in his leadership, speaks of the spirit and not just the facts of submission. "I try to explain that it is not the beard that saves but submitting the will to the care of the church. . . . Tradition itself cannot give life. But neither can not living by tradition give life." (383)
Pride is humility's feared enemy. Creativity and beauty should not be valued and appreciated too much. Eliza hides a painting in the back of the Bible, not displayed. A mirror in one of the homes in Somerset County is suspect, not unlike the monastic tradition. One is a part of a group, not self-conscious. Polly says about her first daughter Marie, "I take pains not to mention her beauty, not even to Christian. Too often a beautiful child turns out to be a vain adult. . . . I do not want Marie to think more highly of herself than she ought." (162)
While "Gelassenheit" includes a yieldedness to Christ, it also has a dimension of external relationship to others. Franey compares ministers, "More 'Gelassenheit.' I would like a dose for Abraham (Zug). John M. (Yoder) makes humility sound appealing not a burden at all, but a joy to serve the brother in the Church." She quotes scripture, "'God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.' I cannot imagine Abraham saying that verse; he would mumble or botch it, somehow." (335)
Franey also describes a powerful sacramental kind of footwashing experience with the minister's wife as an experience of "Gelassenheit" (residing quietly in Christ). After the kiss and words of peace she describes their deeper relationship, "Katharina and I are sisters in the faith, a cord knotted tight with a towel of mercy. A holiness. I do not understand what happened but now when we greet each other we look deep again into each other's eyes." (336-7)
The author paints a poignant forefront image of grace on the dark background of strictness, isolation, and false accusation. The reader can but weep with Reuben as he hears words of acceptance and belief from Bishop John M. These words come from the Bishop before he knows of the confession by Jonas. That grace is further outlined by the courage of John M. who is already criticized for being too lenient on shunning. (457-462) Grace is not needed nor can be experienced where membership and discipline are not present. Amidst the devout strictness, grace bursts out with all the more power and brilliance. That experience is believable, and it continues to happen in the Amish church.
I remember the Amish preacher who refused to help a member of our family get their car through a snow bank with the comment that "you could have gotten through with a horse and buggy." Another Amish preacher heard about this and visited our family to see if that was actually true. This kindly preacher never treated us differently after we left the Amish church. As the author depicts, different Amish ministers express different spirits stemming partly from their personalities.
The character of Anna comes through as the true heroine who maintains her trust in God that some day the truth will come out and her innocent husband will be vindicated. She is the one who keeps Reuben looking to be reinstated in the Amish church. She goes to her grave without seeing her courage and steadfastness rewarded. Such a long-term loyalty to the Amish church in the face of the gross injustice is a stretch in the book! It was not likely to happen then, even less today. Typically an Amish Reuben would join another church or abandon faith altogether.
The early movement in Pennsylvania from Berks and Lancaster Counties westward often had to do with wars. "Consequences for not supporting the war effort." (176) The more conservative members moved westward in Pennsylvania.
Later the more liberal members often moved westward. Many Amish moved for cheaper land and economic opportunity. But others moved west from Pennsylvania for "less strictness" in the church. Ohio was more lax than Somerset County. The stronger, more aggressive, individualistic, adventuresome personalities moved westward. One of the ways to deal with being disciplined in the church was to move west. That was also the case with ministers. (179) With the geographical parish model of church, the Old Order Amish still move today because of church conflicts; some merely a number of miles, others many miles to other states, sometimes to help start new church communities.
The author has her Amish Mennonite church history correct in the description of the Wayne and Holmes County (Ohio) settlements, the differences between them along with the growing diversity among the Amish in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The Oak Grove church in Wayne County was the most change oriented. The Walnut Creek church was the more liberal in Holmes County. The impetus for change and ultimate division (1860-1880) came more from the newer communities in Ohio and westward though not nearly all of the Amish churches and leaders sided with the more liberal group that ultimately merged with the Mennonite Church.
Judged by my own experience of growing up Amish, Evie Yoder Miller has done a commendable job of accurately portraying Old Order Amish social and religious life.
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