The rise of the “wishful Amish” and Anabaptist fandom

Although actually joining the Amish and other “plain” Anabaptist groups may be “one of the rarest religious experiences in America,” interest in these groups is growing, approaching almost a state of fandom on the Internet, reports the online magazine Atlas Obscura (March 29). The emergence of what author Kelsey Osgood refers to as “wishful Amish” is evident in their dedicated Internet forums “on which they write with the feverishness of the unrequited lover about their long-held desire to get close to the aloof objects of their spiritual desire. Many say they’ve wanted to become Amish for ‘as long as [they] could remember,’ though most of them say they have only seen Amish people on a few occasions, and don’t know much, if anything at all, about Amish theology.” Many of the wishful Amish never make the step of visiting, let alone converting, to the Amish, yet there is an “intrepid bunch of spiritual seekers who manage to go the distance.” Some of these converts have even become “celebrities” among the wishful bystanders, such as Marlene Miller, author of the memoir Called to Be Amish. Osgood adds that there are some Amish communities that are more receptive to converts than others; the settlements in Unity, Maine, and Oakland, Maryland, are traditionally more welcoming to seekers than the more established ones in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania and Holmes, Wayne, and Guernsey Counties in Ohio. Still, Osgood finds that the converts often feel like misfits in a culture of “effortless identity” honed by centuries of habit and devotion.

In the current issue of the Review of Religious Research (March), sociologist Cory Anderson looks more closely at these wishful Amish and other Anabaptist “seekers” and finds a range of factors drawing them. Anderson collected his data from seeker inquiries on a website about plain Anabaptists that he created, drawing together 1,074 responses. As for the demographics of the respondents, Anderson found young women to be the largest subgroup, as well as evangelicals (particularly Baptists and non-denominational Christians). Among the most common drawing points for the women was not so much domesticity but the Amish/Mennonite stress on femininity (as expressed in dress) and the high degree of “family control” given to couples who want to socialize their offspring effectively. Other appealing factors included Anabaptist conservatism and “primitivism,” as in regard to use of technology. Anderson notes that while the “fundamentalists” among the respondents may be viewing the Amish through their own Christian right perspective, most of the seekers value the strong sense of Christian devotion they see in this tradition. Anderson concludes that the Anabaptist seeker trend may point to something beyond nostalgia and wishful thinking; just as the Anabaptists drew a large wave of members in the early 1900s, a similar phenomenon fanned by tumultuous change may have emerged at the other end of the century.

(Atlas Obscura,; Review of Religious Research,