Amish Religion

A recent reader of my blog asked if I was going to tell about some inventing which I once did for my employer while working in the big city. His request took me back quite a few years and caused me to do some thinking about a slice of my life previously left mostly undocumented.

Actually, the summer and fall of 1965 was a time that was very ‘seminal’ for me. Looking back, it is remarkable how certain periods of a person’s life more powerfully impacted the future and formed the basis for a whole lifetime’s worth of ideas, sentiments and activities. From the indistinct milky ooze of scattered experiences sometimes a substance is formed, bones grow in the womb, an entire new person emerges. Nineteen-sixty-five was such a time for me.

In the fall of 1965, a Buchanan County, Iowa, public school official and truant officer felt compelled to do his job. He had an entire county’s worth of citizens who ignored the fact that the state of Iowa required children to be formally educated in a school staffed with state certified teachers. As an appointed official, he apparently felt compelled to use the force of law and bring those Amish parents to heel. They could no longer snub their collective noses at his demands; enough was enough.

As the school season advanced there was all that messiness; there were arguments with lawyers, sheriff deputies and school officials; there were fines and imprisonments; and there were dramatic scenes in the newspapers and on the airwaves that awakened the conscience of an entire nation. Among those scenes we get a glimpse of Sarah Swartz, my dad’s first cousin, on her knees with her arms around a man’s legs and begging him not to put her three children on that school bus. In another, a newspaperman snaps a photo of Amish boys looking back over their shoulders as they fled across the field. Stepping up to lead the opposition forces was Dan Borntreger; a brother to my paternal grandfather.

While great-uncle Dan was defending the Amish-ness of his community, I was in Des Moines and, step-by-step, loosing the last vestiges of mine. With a conscientious-objectors military classification in my billfold, I had been assigned to two years of public service as an orderly in the X-Ray department at Iowa Methodist Hospital. I lived away from home, I rented a sleeping room on the 1100 block of 7th street; I drove a little blue Mercury Comet, and attended an Assembly of God church. I still dressed quite plainly, wore my old haircut and started wearing a necktie only after a buddy honored me by asking that I usher at his wedding. (I actually had no idea how liberating it could be to tie something around your neck.) While I was learning how to interact with my new social environment I also maintained contact with my, sometimes-on sometimes-off, Amish girl friend.

Like Johnie-Five in Short Circuit, my vacuous mind demanded ‘input.’ I read voraciously. I signed up for a night class in Freshman English at Drake University; I wrote term papers; and, (most significantly,) learned how to use a public library. “You mean there are entire buildings filled with literally thousands of books where people can go and freely select from its precious trove?”

About six months into my two-year stint at IMH, my boss offered me the job of darkroom technician. It seems that the old geezer who had previously done the job had a habit of somehow becoming progressively inebriated as each day advanced. After discovering where he had stashed his bottle, my boss had to let him go. Was this ever a boon to my mind! What is the magic that takes place inside a dark box that allows some Silver Halide crystals to become ‘fixed’ while allowing others to be washed from the gelatinous surface of film? I had to know. Not unlike my predecessor, I also had an addiction. My habit was satisfied during the afternoon work lull by grabbing the technical X-Ray training manuals the students in the department left lying around, and reading.

In short order I understood the concept of E over IR; I learned about, conductance and resistance; I started becoming familiar with amplifiers, rectifiers, Farads, Ohms, Photo-Fluorescence, radiation half-life and Roentgens. When that year’s students took their finals in X-Ray technology, I asked the instructor for a copy of the test. Without ever attending one of their classes, I scored a C+. A ‘life work’ die was cast, a train was on the tracks and all the stops were out.

The hospital sent me to a four-day training course to understand and maintain the big processing machine that I had been feeding film to. One of the first things I realized upon my return from school was that rinse water flowed continuously through the machine all the time, even when it was idle. Could a timer be inserted in the wiring to turn off the rinse water valve as soon as no film was in the machine? With encouragement from my supervisor, I bought a timer and had it installed per my schematic. The results were beautiful and saved the hospital many hundreds of gallons of water during the life of the machine. My second invention is a little harder to explain.

Methodist Hospital was on the cutting edge of imaging carotid artery blockages by taking a series of exposures as opaque media flowed through the critical area. The challenge in doing this successfully was to rotate the patient so that the equally opaque bone structure in the neck did not block out the desired view of the arteries. I was given an article in a medical journal which showed how some doctors in Europe had developed a work-around for overcoming this problem. They compensated with a procedure done in the darkroom and called their method ‘subtraction technique.’ Would I take the article, my boss wanted to know, and see if I could imitate their procedure. The result was a fun ride involving a shadow box, a light dimmer, a timer, a variety of film types and weeks of experimentation. Subtraction Technique is now done on a routine basis with a computer in a modern X-Ray department. When I left Methodist Hospital the following spring, we were the only hospital in America known to be using the method and the doctors loved it.

Amid all this heady stuff a ‘young man’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love.’

I took a couple days vacation and drove to Arkansas. The girl in question was approaching the end of a similar two-year voluntary service assignment at a nursing home. Would she be willing, I wanted to know, to get past the sticking point, move to Des Moines and start putting the final plans in place for a life together. On the way back, euphoric over the trip and weary over the drive, I flipped on the radio.

“This is WHO Radio and this is Farm Forum with your hosts Lee Cline and Duane Ellet.”

Caller #1: “I want to know why they don’t leave those Amish alone. It is terrible how they are being treated.”

Caller #2: “I’ll tell you why they don’t leave them alone. They’ve left them alone too long and its time to straighten them up.”

On and on, Minute by minute, mile by mile, the litany went on. Suddenly it seemed as though I might also have some small part to contribute to the conversation. Look here is phoneage, can any forbid dialing an 800 number?

The operator heard my name, made earnest inquiry about my family lineage, alerted the hosts and moved my connection to the top of the call queue. For the rest of the show, sitting at a payphone near a busy intersection in northern Missouri, I was the honored guest of WHO Radio. All subsequent callers were patched through to me. Heady stuff!

When I got back to work the next morning, my boss had a couple of surprises waiting for me. For the first one, I was instructed to call Lee Cline in his office. Mr. Cline said that their switchboard was swamped after the previous day’s show with callers who wished to talk to me. Would I be willing to be a guest in their studio? A short time later I was given a tour of the WHO facilities and then brought in as the featured guest. Partway through the show my boss sprang his second surprise. He called into the show and explained about the things I had invented. Back at the hospital, I was met by the Administrator and a reporter from the Des Moines Register and Tribune. I was presented with a check and I told my story to the press.

The invitations came fast. For the next several months I was kept quite busy. I spoke in churches, schools and various organizations. The activity, perhaps, offset some of the pain. The girl never came to Des Moines. The next time I heard from her, it was from northern Indiana; from the far side of the ‘sticking point.’

When I consider the last forty-three years, that short slice of my life has undoubtedly influenced me more than any other similar period. Forever free from a shackling social relationship I now sought the life partner that God had ordained for me; my command of language was pointed toward continual improvement; and my ability to develop my electrical skills and use them in my employment has served me and my family well for quite a few years. I thank God for the things I was permitted to learn during my one brief moment in the sun.

This week’s Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs edition is Lob Song, a translation of a sixteenth century Amish hymn. Lob Song (Praise Song) was traditionally sang as the second hymn at every Amish worship service. It was written by Leonard Clock, a Mennonite minister from southern Germany. An old song book claims that Clock wrote “over 400 worthwhile and edifying songs.”


Last week marked the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. As a tribute to him, I sang the last verse of Lob Song at his funeral. The Amish tune I used, although extremely slow by modern standards, was not, however, the ‘Slow’ tune. If I remember right, Dad used to claim that Lob Song, sang properly and using the ‘slow tune’ took twenty-two minutes. (Actually I’m second-guessing myself and wondering if he said “twenty-seven minutes.”) Amish hymns achieve this feat by singing each syllable as though it were the line of a song.


The following translation is from Songs Of The Ausbund Vol. I, Song 131.


O God Father we praise you

And your goodness exalt,

Which you, O Lord so graciously

Have manifested to us anew,

And have brought us together, Lord,

To admonish us through Your Word,

Grant us grace to this


Open the mouth, Lord, of your servants,

Moreover grant them wisdom

That they might rightly speak your word,

Which ministers to a godly life

And is useful to your glory,

Give us hunger for such nourishment,

That is our desire.


Give our hearts understanding as well

Enlightenment here on earth,

That your word be engrained in us,

That we may become godly

And live in righteousness,

Heeding Your Word at all times,

So man remains undeceived.


Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom alone,

And the power altogether.

We praise you in the assembly,

Giving thanks to your name,

And beseech you from the depths of our hearts

That you would be with us at this hour

Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Last week I copied the new Pew Forum survey about religion and public life to this blog. (See below.) The ‘landmark’ survey catches a lot of attention because it confirms the ‘diversity’ and ‘fluidity’ of current religious affiliation in the U.S. The survey catches my attention because, I too am one of the ‘fluid’ ones. When the small fellowship that we had been a part of dissolved last year, it marked the last in a long line of church disassociations for us.


When I read the blogsphere, I am amazed how often writers will see this fluidity as a good thing. The argument seems plausible: If Christians are not having a fulfilling and meaningful church relationship, let them move on to some other Christian venue. The reasoning sounds a lot like that which a young married couple might use: “If we’re not happy, should we be forced to spend the rest of our lives together?” My own experience notwithstanding, this sort of argument, at the least, leaves me wondering.


The other thing that catches my attention is the word “community.” Maybe it is because I’m watching for it, but it seems to pop up at the drop of a catchphrase. I told Marlene the other day that “they had better not talk ‘community’ to me: After you have lived Old Order Amish you can definitely say ‘been there, done that.’”


I am not arguing for a return to my Amish roots but a little bit of community, a little bit of permanence, a little bit of home, would go a long way. Aren’t our associations with brothers and sisters in the faith, one of the things that God has ‘joined together,’ things that should not be severed? I am not arguing for a formal religion of works, ruled by demigods and hemmed in by fears, but couldn’t we somehow say ‘I do’ and mean it for the rest of our lives?


Will I go through the rest of my church experience having ‘no abiding’ place? It seems that with each successive church disassociation the wound gets deeper. Is this spiritual nomad lifestyle somehow in God’s intent? If I had my druthers, I sure would like to, for once-and-for-all, come home.

One of the blogs that I read is by “Brother Maynard.” He has a weekly feature that I like. He calls it “Hymns of my Youth,” where he gives a short statement about why a hymn is important to him and then gives the words of the hymn. I am not sure if this will also be a weekly feature for me but would at least like to share one that meant a lot to me.

Shortly after our family left the Older Order Amish, I was introduced to “Open the wells of Salvation.” It is one of more than 2000 hymns written by Elisha Hoffman; it is an earnest prayer of dedication and commitment, and is number 339 in my Church and Sunday School Hymnal that we used in the Mennonite Church in Hannibal, Missouri.

As an early adolescent, I memorized all the words and sang them lustily as I walked from place to place on our 66 acres in in Pike County Missouri. The words moved me deeply then; they still do today.

Open The Wells Of Salvation

Lord, I am fondly, earnestly longing
Into Thy holy likeness to grow;
Thirsting for more and deeper communion,
Yearning Thy love more fully to know.


Open the wells of grace and salvation,
Pour the rich streams deep into my heart;
Cleanse and refine my thought and affection,
Seal me and make me pure as Thou art.

Dead to the world would I be, O Father!
Dead unto sin, alive unto Thee;
Crucify all the earthly within me,
Emptied of sin and self may I be.


I would be Thine, and serve Thee forever,
Filled with Thy Spirit, lost in Thy love;
Come to my heart, Lord, come with anointing,
Showers of grace send down from above.


Elisha Albright Hoffman 1839-1929


We had another one of those Iowa Winter Mornings this morning; temp. at minus 11, wind chill at minus twenty eight. It’s the kind of winter that makes some older people stop in the post office lobby and talk about it. Like the fellow yesterday.


My neighbor yesterday was recalling the winter on thirty-six. (more…)

(Note: My brother and sister-in-law have been working as missionaries in Mexico for more than a quarter of a century. When Esther read my previous memoirs on this site, she suggested my sharing about my first visit to that country. Glad to oblige. JJB)

My Earliest Memory (more…)



Well, time marches on, and life is full of surprises. It’s now nineteen-fifty eight; ten years after we got to Missouri; and we are about to receive our biggest surprise of the decade. Pike County is about to issue us a notice of eviction. (more…)


What happens now? Where do we go from here? What is the proper thing to do for people who look very Amish, and yet aren’t? Where will we worship this Sunday? So many questions: So many new ideas: So many things to learn and consider. (more…)

The Chainsaw Story – Concluded


Just around the corner, southeast of our place, we had some non-Amish neighbors. An older couple; Earnest and Bertha Goodman: They were living on some kind of retirement income and Earnest would sometimes supplement their resources by coming around and saying “Hey Jakie, what can I do for you?” Dad would give him a little bit to help around the place and Earnest could go to town, take in a picture show, and buy a little “chewin tobakker.” (more…)



Having already mentioned the chainsaw story, the story of my past would not be complete without relating it here also.  It seems incredible to me how fast a “Land of Promise” can turn into a land of bitterness, pain and disillusionment. (more…)



The first three and a half years of my schooling were spent at an Amish school. Both of the schools I attended were more than three miles from where I lived. (more…)



Isolation and cheap land were both abundant in Pike County Missouri when the Amish established yet another community there in the late forties. We were among the first to arrive and were joined at approximately the same time by Mom’s brother Moses Schrock, Dad’s sister Anna Hochstetler, Dad’s cousin Fannie B. Borntreger, along with their families, and quite a few others of our relatives and acquaintances. (more…)



In nineteen-fourteen some Amish from Kalona, Iowa founded a new community one hundred miles north of there in Buchanan County. The original Amish settlers drove their cattle there on foot. Soon many others would join them. They came from all over. Many came by “immigrant car” on the railroad, to places like Hazelton, Fairbank, and a ghost town of sorts once known as Bryantsburg. (more…)


Several years ago I started assembling a book of family history for the benefit of my children. Starting today, I intend to serialize some of it here for your enjoyment. The first section follows. (more…)