The gift to be simple

An MU professor has spent decades delving into the religion, lives and beliefs of the Mennonite community.
Sunday, June 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Before Joel Hartman was born, his mother left a Pennsylvania Plain Mennonite community in Lancaster County. As a child, young Joel always pondered the reason behind it.

“I could never get her to articulate why she decided to leave,” Hartman said, recalling how he tried to solve the mystery by asking indirect questions.

“She evaded the part of the question that would have answered what was in the back of my mind,” said Hartman, who is now an emeritus associate professor with the school of rural sociology at MU. “In the back of my mind, I wanted to know why she had this very negative attitude towards Mennonite culture.”

This childish curiosity soon turned into a passion for the 74-year-old Hartman, who has been studying the Amish and Plain Mennonite communities for about half a century. Intrigued by his mother’s silence, his studies led him to work for a research institute, the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center, from 1949 to 1954. He was managing editor of their publications and helped gather fieldwork.

Formal membership in the community, he said, takes place at the end of adolescence and occurs when a person submits to baptism. Baptism is the ritual when a person takes a vow to be faithful to the rules of the community for the rest of their life. His mother never submitted to baptism.

Hartman said his interest lay not only in understanding the culture, but also in how and why the Amish adapted to changes in mainstream society. The Amish are a branch of the Plain Mennonite community. Plain Mennonites believe in the same basic theology as other Mennonite branches. However, their way of practicing the religion is different.

He came to MU in 1968 and has taught a course on the Amish community since the early 1970s.

The Amish in Missouri

There are 16 Amish communities in Missouri, and the larger settlements include Jamesport, Clark and Seymour. The “Plain People,” as they are commonly known, drive horses and buggies, do not have electricity in their homes and follow a literal interpretation of the Bible and an unwritten set of rules called the Ordnung.

Hartman said there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Amish living in Missouri and around 180,000 to 200,000 in the United States.

Their lives evolve slowly as they examine change carefully before accepting it, he said, and this resistance to change has baffled many people who do not understand that humility, community and simplicity are central motifs in the Amish community.

Even after his mother left the community, Hartman still remained close to his roots. As a child, he would spend two to three weeks each summer with his Plain Mennonite grandparents and learned to speak Pennsylvania Dutch.

Hartman acknowledged his childhood experiences proved useful later in life when he was frequently called upon to act as a liaison between many organizations and the “Plain People.”

Since 1995, he has helped Charlotte Phillips and other geneticists at MU who have been working on genetic problems within the Plain Mennonite community. The team tests for the Maple Syrup urine disease in newborns so that intervention therapies can be put in place early to help infected children.

Infants in the Horning and Groffdale Mennonite communities run an extremely high risk of MSUD due to their large families and inter-marriage patterns. These babies can’t break down protein into amino acids so that it can be absorbed into the blood stream and will suffer neurological damage if left untreated.

MSUD is rare in the general population, occurring in an estimated one in 250,000 births. In the two Mennonite communities however, the incidence is one in 150.

Phillips said Hartman bridged the cultural differences between the researchers and the community and helped them be more culturally sensitive. “He’s contributed a tremendous amount to the state of Missouri,” Phillips said.

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, he worked with the Regional Hemophilia Center in Mid-Missouri to provide counseling for the Amish about AIDS and HIV. He helped clear their misconceptions and informed them about the risk of the spread of HIV through contaminated blood.

Twelve years ago, Hartman also worked with public health workers to try to get the Amish vaccinated against polio.

When a few cases surfaced in Clark, the state health department faced the difficulty of persuading the Amish community to get vaccinated against the disease. The Amish have always been resistant toward accepting modern medicine.

Hartman stepped in and helped the department establish a proper protocol to deal with the Amish. “You can’t use American modern logic and rationale,” Hartman said. “You have to get out the American cultural box.”

Qualities of the ‘Plain People’

There are several admirable qualities of the Amish, Hartman said. They are characteristics that were more common half a century ago than today. For example, he said, Amish families are self-sufficient, even in winter.

The Amish woman, Hartman said, doesn’t go to the store for her provisions. She keeps a big garden and would preserve her vegetables and fruits for the winter.

“Few people have gardens,” he said, “and the few that have gardens, its sort of a hobby. They don’t have a big garden and then sit down and preserve all their food for their use in winter.”

Another admirable trait, Hartman said, is the close-knit nature of Amish families.

The simple task of gathering for a meal today would be difficult for families in mainstream America, but for the Amish, he said, it is one of their top priorities.

“You can have your activities (in the day), but you had to be there, everyone in the family has to be there for that meal.”

Overall, Hartman said, there are many admirable things about the Amish that are impractical in our world.

“There are a lot of things that will be nice, but in a very practical way I don’t think it would fit modern society,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to go back to that, it would be nice if you could, but it wouldn’t work. It would be out of sync with the rest of the world.”


In the years he has studied the Amish, Hartman said he has come across several misconceptions regarding the community.

“Many people believe the Amish are uneducated and only have elementary school education,” he said. “In many cases, it’s just as good if not better than public elementary education.”

People often believe the Amish don’t pay taxes, Hartman said, which is a false assumption, as the Amish pay the same taxes as everyone else.

Hartman said he tries to clear up these misunderstandings through his lessons.

Despite all his accomplishments, Hartman is humble.

Although he can remember medical statistics from 10 years ago, he can never remember the awards he has received.

Hartman acknowledged “those things are nice when they come along,” but to him the biggest rewards are intangible.

The “great deal of satisfaction” he gets out of helping people, and the strong friendships he has made while studying the Amish mean more to him than awards.

All in the family

Even after his mother turned her back on the community, she still retained certain aspects of the culture.

“She was considered conservative in mainstream society,” Hartman said.

After his mother died in 1991, Hartman and his sisters spent some time reminiscing about their childhood. As he thought about his mother, Hartman said, he realized how he had never heard his mother complain. This, he said, was gelassenheit, which means resigned submission, one of the aspects of Mennonite mentality.

“You never regret anything that has happened. You never pick up the cards you have in the game of life and say, ‘Oh, I wish I had gotten other cards,’” he said, “You take the cards you have and you play the game to the best of your ability.”

This same attitude has defined his life.

“As with most of my life, I wouldn’t give up anything, I wouldn’t change anything. Because what I am today is a result of all these experiences.”

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.