The Conservative Women Radicalizing Amish Literature

On a chilly morning this past January, the writer Lucinda J. Kinsinger strapped her baby daughter into her car seat and drove two-plus hours from her home in rural Oakland, Maryland, to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. She was headed to a day-long women writers’ gathering at a private residence, where the atmosphere ended up being part networking event, part craft workshop, part casual mom hang (a trio of babies sat gumming toys for the duration). All clad in floor-length dresses, the 15 or so women present talked about topics that would be familiar to most writer moms, such as sticking to deadlines when domestic duties called and how to nurture a love of writing and reading in their children. But then they asked one another a question perhaps less expected: If writing was such a meaningful part of their lives, why did they avoid the topic with their church friends?

The women are all members of Conservative Anabaptist churches, and they’re part of a growing network of professional female writers intent on enhancing the quality of Plain Anabaptist literature. In Christian terminology, Plain refers to Anabaptist sects like Conservative Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amish. The groups share roots in Radical Reformation-era Switzerland, a period rife with religious movements whose leaders claimed Martin Luther hadn’t gone far enough in his efforts to revolutionize Christianity. The word Anabaptist is derived from their founding belief that only baptisms performed on adults were legitimate, a deeply heretical position at the time. Today, Plain Anabaptists have many beliefs in common, including pacifism, strictly defined gender roles, a “plain” style of dress, and a wariness of individualism and technology. But because each church is self-governing, there’s a wider array of practice than outsiders might readily pick up on. For example, some Mennonite churches leave technology usage up to members’ discretion while others explicitly disallow unfiltered internet or social media. And some Amish churches might permit laptops for work purposes, but not smartphones. (TV is verboten across the spectrum of Conservative Anabaptism.)

Historically, Anabaptist literature has largely consisted of “idealized Sunday-school stories,” as Kinsinger put it to me. A high degree of cultural conformity, plus a desire to maintain a wholesome image, means there’s typically been little room for storytelling that doesn’t reflect positively on the collective. There is a sense “that writing is just a little bit of a suspicious pursuit, and you shouldn’t do it unless you have a really good reason and you write something that’s maybe specifically evangelistic, about Jesus, about your Christian life,” Dorcas Smucker, a former newspaper columnist from near Harrisburg, Oregon, told me over Zoom. “If you can maybe prove that it really blessed somebody, then okay.”

But a new crop of ambitious Plain women writers like Kinsinger is striving to create a literary canon that shows true Plain life, warts and all. Smucker is compiling her seventh book of personal essays based on the columns she wrote for The Register-Guard, which cover both the mundane––like berry picking with her family––and weightier topics like a relative’s death by suicide. (The death happened generations ago, but “my aunt was very upset at me,” Smucker told me of that essay’s original publishing.) Shari Zook is a blogger and the author of a memoir that deals with marital conflict, depression, and crises of faith; she has also written openly about her husband’s struggle with pornography and his resulting suspension from church leadership. The author of a book about recurrent miscarriages, Stephanie J. Leinbach, maintained a blog about the challenges of parenting a child with severe epilepsy––or did, until her Mennonite church sent out guidance forbidding social media, prompting her to shut her site down. (She continues to email her work to subscribers, which is seen as less public.) Meanwhile, the memoirist and food writer Sherry Gore does something many might find surprising from a religious woman who wears a bonnet and an apron: She posts selfies to Instagram.

These women are deeply committed to their religious values, but they sometimes struggle to reconcile them with their professional aspirations. They’re a part of a community that believes that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission” and that they cannot “assume authority over a man,” as it says in 1 Timothy, but they also want to be a public voice. They strive to live simply and to not set themselves apart from the group, in accordance with what they view as New Testament commands, but they write about themselves and engage in self-promotion to get their work noticed. In a culture where large families are the norm, day care is virtually unheard-of, and the standards for domesticity are high, they pursue a career that requires spending long stretches of quiet time alone.

In the face of such tension, loose constellations of support have formed. The women email or WhatsApp one another, promote one another’s work on their blogs, and meet up at writers’ groups in Anabaptist strongholds across the Midwest or at the annual Christian Light Writers and Artists’ Conference, in Virginia (a sample seminar title from this year’s conference: “Turning Life Experiences Into Stories”). They commiserate when others in the community chide them for spending their time on something so untraditional or dismiss their writing as a hobby, or when projects don’t come to fruition. “We email each other all the time, checking on, like, ‘How are you doing after that post blew up in your face? How are you doing in your church situation?’” Zook told me. “There’s a whole bunch of encouragement and joy that is happening behind the scenes.”

Professional Plain women writers are not an entirely new phenomenon. Smucker remembers her mother reading books by Christmas Carol Kauffman and Clara Bernice Miller, both of whom wrote lightly fictionalized stories about their Plain upbringings. Kauffman’s and Miller’s works are predecessors of Amish fiction, a popular romance subgenre often pejoratively dubbed “bonnet rippers” because the covers invariably feature a young female model wearing a gauze head covering and a wistful gaze. Often marketed toward middle-aged evangelical female readers, the stereotypical bonnet romance features a chaste courting scenario between two Plain teenagers; sometimes, the protagonist finds herself tempted by the trappings of mainstream culture, perhaps in the figure of an intriguing “English” stranger, as the non-Amish are called, but rarely does she ever flee the Amish entirely.

But few popular writers of Amish fiction are Plain themselves, and this newer generation of Plain writers is almost universal in its dismissal of the genre, which is “written by people who do not know the culture,” Smucker said. The Amish writer and artist Amy Schlabach told me over the phone that she worries that the genre simultaneously demonizes the Amish (by focusing too much on things like shunning) and fetishizes them. Once, Schlabach saw an ad in her local paper for a book talk given by the non-Plain author Shelley Shepard Gray and decided to attend, because she’d recently enjoyed Gray’s series set in Gilded Age Chicago. She hadn’t realized Gray also wrote Amish fiction. At the event, Schlabach struck up a conversation with a non-Plain fan of Amish fiction, who began waxing poetic about how “romantic” it was to do laundry with a Maytag wringer washer. “I was like, It’s just laundry!

The Plain women writers of today are not content to churn out the same old evangelizing, moralistic stories. Their role models are thinkers like Dickens, Steinbeck, and Austen––hardly salacious by 21st-century standards, but containing far more conflict than your average Amish romance novel or inspirational Christian text. And they view literature as a tool to broaden one’s mind (college attendance is uncommon, particularly for women, but it’s becoming slightly more accepted in certain Mennonite circles; it’s still rare for an Amish person to attend school beyond the eighth grade). Growing up in a Mennonite household, Leinbach recalls being able to “disappear” inside a story. “I wanted to make magic for other people in the same way that I found magic between the covers of my favorite books,” she told me. Many of these women dream of writing the Great American Anabaptist Novel, even if that means depicting flawed characters or posing questions that aren’t neatly answered by scripture. “I’ve been talking for years about writing Mennonite fiction,” Smucker, who was raised in an Amish family and married into a Mennonite one, told me. “Not only because I want to develop that skill, but because if I’m going to fuss and rant about Amish fiction, I really ought to provide an alternative.”

Providing that alternative, though, can be complicated. These women recognize that there are some practical advantages to being Plain writers, such as having a ready-made audience of voracious, Netflix-less book buyers. “With marketing, it’s wonderful because there’s such a network,” Smucker said. “If I published a new book, I have no trouble getting the word out in the Mennonite world, because there’s just connections everywhere.” But though it’s easy to reach others like them, many of these women strive for a broad, diverse readership. “I wish I could get a book accepted by a non-Mennonite publisher or press,” Leinbach told me, mostly because she craves a more rigorous editing process. In Kinsinger’s memoir Anything But Simple, she writes of an aspiration somewhat at odds with simplicity: “to be listed on the New York Times bestseller list, to be placed in anthologies and translated into Portuguese, to be discussed in colleges 120 years from now.”

What’s more, writing rarely pays well, and can pull you away from your family even when your home life is your material. “It’s been a lot harder than I thought it would be to juggle everything with a baby,” said Kinsinger, who, in addition to her three published works (two memoirs, one children’s book), develops creative-writing curriculums for Christian Light, a religious publisher and homeschooling resource, and writes a column for Anabaptist World. She and the other women I spoke with cut corners to make sure they have time for both writing and housework. They outsource their sewing, or buy produce rather than grow it all themselves, or ditch cloth diapers for disposable ones. In some cases, their choices have elicited judgment specifically from other homemakers. “The times that I’ve been criticized for writing came from women,” Leinbach said. But she, like many of the other women I spoke with, has learned to tune out most of the communal disapproval, whether explicit or inferred. “I have decided that when it comes to what people think about my writing, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m answerable to God and to my husband for how I use my time,” she said. “And if both of them are happy with me, then it doesn’t matter what other people think.”

A number of Conservative Mennonite and Amish leaders––who are all laymen, chosen by lot––recognize the tension in being Plain and pursuing writing. “It has more to do with the tone of the writing,” Henry Schlabach, an Amish minister from Wayne County, Ohio, said. (Amy Schlabach, his sister-in-law, translated his responses from Pennsylvania Dutch.) “Are they sharing personal experiences or promoting themselves?” Ryan Jarmon, a minister at a Conservative Mennonite church in Coleman, Michigan, expanded on this in an email: “Anabaptists strive to be practical, humble people. They generally have a strong work ethic and value excellence in what they do. However, there is a feeling that success in writing or singing (really the only common artistic forms in our communities) can lead to pride,” a serious infraction.

Jarmon also wondered about the subject matter of the new work coming out. “There has been an increase of personal ‘tell-all’ stories about neglect or abuse of various sorts,” he wrote. “While some feel there is value in opening up and sharing these experiences in a discreet manner, these books are generally quite controversial. We acknowledge that we have our flaws, but we prefer positive and encouraging writing rather than muckraking expose.” None of the men who weighed in thought there was any particular issue in being a woman writer.

Regardless of whether there’s a consensus on the theological gender-specific issues with writing, Conservative Anabaptist women writers still face unique work-life barriers. Maybe it would be easier for them if they were part of the mainstream; they could hire a housekeeper, boast about their accomplishments online guilt-free, or write about anything they please, no matter how transgressive. But these women don’t want to escape; their whole lives are bound up with their communities. “My people are so rich and warm,” Kinsinger said. “I love them so much.” Broadly speaking, they view many of their restrictions as grounded in wisdom rather than unnecessarily onerous. “There’s so much out there that people are really slaves to,” Amy Schlabach said. “It’s really freeing to not be under those obligations.” Even Leinbach is sanguine about having to give up blogging because of the social-media ban: “Doesn’t make it easy,” she said. “But I’m okay with it. I don’t hold any resentment.”

From the outside, the dilemma of Plain communities might seem like the parable of the little Dutch boy: If they don’t keep that finger firmly plugged in the dike, their society will be inundated and destroyed by modernity, whether the subtle creep of American individualism or the more overt one of technology. But Plain people have been navigating these tensions––between public and private, sacred and profane, analog and high-tech, personal desires and communal ones––for centuries. In the future, further shifts will undoubtedly occur. The range of acceptable subjects for writing might widen slightly, and the wariness of social media might lessen. But like the Dutch boy, they will continue to restrict themselves so as to prevent catastrophe, even if that sometimes involves sacrifice, because they value their way of life too much. The water will still come in, of course––it always does––just in a trickle, not a flood.

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