Simple, sophisticated

Jun 9, 2014 by

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In the summer of 1963, David Wagler and Joseph Stoll, two Amish farmers, were threshing oats in a field close to Aylmer, Ont. They reflected on the need for more literature that spoke to the interests and concerns of their Old Order community. So in January 1964, the two men joined with Jacob Eicher to establish Pathway Publishers. Now, 50 years later, Pathway has become one of the most successful publishing houses in the Anabaptist-Mennonite world.

Roth

Roth

In its early years, Pathway focused on developing readers for use in Amish grade schools. Pathway continues to sell thousands of copies of its readers — along with a host of other titles — not only to the Amish, but to a growing number of homeschool associations and others interested in a plain lifestyle.

In December 1967, Pathway published the first issue of Family Life, now one of the most widely read periodicals in Old Order Amish communities. The design and content of the 40-page magazine capture perfectly the spirit of the Old Order Amish. Each cover is adorned with a simple black-and-white line drawing, often featuring a scene from nature. The two-column text appears to be composed by typewriter. Most articles — written in clear prose — are anonymous or followed only by the author’s initials. Family Life’s tone is earnest and practical.

Each issue of Family Life opens with letters to the editor on topical themes (e.g., health food products; Obamacare; autism; chronic fatigue), comments on past stories, opinions regarding Amish faith and practice, and more. The editors then provide a short commentary in the “Staff Notes,” which is usually followed by an article or two on a theme related to Anabaptist or biblical principles. Most issues include a children’s section, several short stories and a popular feature called “Learning About Your Health,” in which a medical doctor, Robert Hess, responds to health-related queries. Sprinkled throughout are poems and often a quiz on topics like biblical facts, German vocabulary or English idioms. Each issue closes with pages of recipes and a devotional.

Newcomers to Family Life, who know the Amish only from a distance, may be surprised that every issue contains a significant amount of material — including poetry, short stories and letters to the editor — written by women. And Family Life does not shy away from addressing a host of complex issues in the Amish community such as depression, sexual abuse or the spiritual health of their young people. Equally surprising is the amount of literature featured. Modern readers might find the stories and poems to be overly didactic and moralistic, but they show clearly a subculture of gifted writers has emerged in the Amish community.

Readers are likely to be impressed by the depth of theological, sociological and historical insight evident in Family Life. The January issue includes a list of all the current Amish settlements in the U.S. and Canada. Frequently, David Luthy, a prolific Amish historian who maintains this list, contributes thoughtful essays on topics relevant to Amish history and identity. This spring, editor Joseph Stoll published a three-part series detailing the life of the Anabaptist hymn writer, Leenaert Clock, with footnote references to a host of primary sources.

Beneath the simple layout and straightforward prose, the editors of Family Life have created a sophisticated periodical that both reflects and challenges the community it serves.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.


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