Joseph W. Miller and a Case for Reframing Amish Compulsory Education

Regina Wenger

In stark black and white, a photographer captures three Amish men clad in their dark hats and plain coats as they ascend the marble Supreme Court steps. It is a study in contrasts. The photographer snapped this picture during the 1972 proceedings of Wisconsin v. Yoder—a case involving the Amish and compulsory education. The Court unanimously ruled that education laws stood in violation of the Amish parents’ First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion. Wisconsin v. Yoder stands as a landmark ruling on religious liberty. But is religious freedom the only reason these fathers found themselves in this peculiar place?

Fair Use (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Though religious liberty may be the reason provided when Yoder and company walked up those stairs, it would be a mistake to believe that the Court’s explanation is the only one. Since the 1910s, the Amish have endured fines and jail in an effort to educate their children. In reality, the steps these men took to the Supreme Court mark only the last stage in a civil dispute between the Amish and the government regarding education. One might assume, alongside the Court, that religious freedom—however amorphous the concept—serves as the primary lens through which to interpret Amish educational practices. However, I think that to more accurately understand Yoder, and conflicts about the Amish and compulsory education more broadly, the issue needs reorienting within earlier twentieth-century educational contests over state and parental authority. An examination of one of the earliest incidents of the Amish violating compulsory education laws illustrates this necessary context.

It’s 1915. Just southeast of Cleveland is the village off Middlefield, Ohio. East of the village, in the Hayes Corner district, sat the farm of Joseph W. Miller. He, his wife Salome, and their children formed part of the Old Order Amish community that settled in Middlefield around 1886.1 The Miller children, like many of their peers, attended school as often as the weather and farm work allowed. But that situation was changing.

Beginning in the 1890s, governments in the State of Ohio and across the country increased their oversight of public education. These top-down pressures blended with local interests to radically transform American public education. Through efforts like reforming rural schools and combating child labor through compulsory education laws, professional and lay reformers turned to public education to edify the state and society. “In the process,” observes historian Tracy Steffes, “they defined children’s education and welfare as a public interest that transcended the family and community and justified new state interventions.”2 Joseph W. Miller, and other parents like him, grappled with deteriorating parental rights over their children’s education.

In 1900, Middlefield Township, where the Miller children attended, contained eight school districts: one in the village and the others in the surrounding area.3 This organizational structure underwent a massive overhaul in 1914, when Ohio consolidated its school system, specifying core content and eliminating a majority of its one-room schoolhouses.4 Geauga County, and thus Middlefield Township, quickly complied with the new structure.5 For the first time, pupils needed to show competency in particular subjects and attend school regularly. The 1915-1916 school year would be different than any before.

Ohio law required that schoolchildren know “reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography, and arithmetic.”6 Yet the previous spring, Miller had heard something from his oldest daughter Mary that troubled him greatly. She had said that, in geography, she had been taught that the earth was round. Based on Revelation 7:1,7 Miller believed the earth was flat. He determined that, since Mary was 12, she did not need more schooling, especially since what she was learning conflicted with biblical teachings. So in the fall of 1915, when Miller sent his four school-age children off to school, Mary stayed home.

On October 14, 1915, Fred B. Hamilton, the Middlefield truancy officer, arrested Miller for failing to send Mary to school, and as a result, preventing her from taking the state content exam. Earlier that day, Hamilton deposed himself before the justice of the peace E.H. Brigden, stating:

On or about the 14th day of October 1915, at the County of Geauga aforesaid, one Joseph Miller, being then and there the parent, to-wit:- the father of one Mary Miller a minor between the age of eight and sixteen years of age, who [h]ad not passed a satisfactory 7th grade test in studies enumerated in section No. 7762 General Code, failed to cause said minor to attend public, private, or parochial school altho [sp] said Joseph Miller had been given notice by a truant office[r] as provided by law.8

As a result of Fred Hamilton’s testimony, Justice Brigden issued a warrant for Joseph Miller’s arrest. With Miller now in custody, Hamilton appeared before Justice Brigden, who “convicted, fined, and dismissed” Miller.9 However, the brevity with which Justice Brigden processed Miller obscures deeper issues at work.

Looking at the section violation with which Justice Brigden charged Miller provides a key into the case. Ohio first passed a compulsory education law in 1877, seeking to ensure that minors attended school for at least part of the year.10 Then, due to increased concern for child labor, Ohio passed an amended law in 1890.11 When states passed these laws, they fell into two categories, one being “laws regulating schooling and the curriculum,” which “proscribed” types of education, like private education, or “prescribed” the specifics of education, such as content areas to be taught.12

The 1910 General Code of Ohio contains a whole chapter on compulsory education, listing twenty-two sections of code. Justice Brigden indicted Joseph Miller for infringing upon Section 7762, which states that “All parents, guardians and other persons who have care of children, shall instruct them, or cause them to be instructed in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography and arithmetic.”13 However, the next section of code stipulated that children attend school for a specific numbers of weeks.14 Thus, by charging Miller with disobeying Section 7762 instead of Section 7763, Justice Brigden framed the case as one regarding curricular content, rather than simple truancy. It was because Mary failed the state content exam that her father faced charges. Still, for the next month Miller refused to send Mary to school. So, on November 13, he again found himself at a hearing in Justice Brigden’s court.15 The State prosecutor, Hubert O. Bostwick presented his evidence against Miller, who was found guilty and fined $20.16

Over the next several months, Miller found himself party in a series of motions, trials, and appeals over his daughter’s education. Two lawyers took Miller’s case, navigating it from the Township level, to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas, and finally the state’s Court of Appeals. It generated interest from the Amish and “English” community alike.17 However, the trail on Miller’s case goes cold after April 7, 1916, with one exception. An undated journal entry from the Ohio Court of Appeals says the following:

Upon consideration thereof the Court finds that there was an error in the proceedings below in that the Justice of the Peace and the Court of Common Pleas failed to find that the complaint therein as filed did not constitute an offence against the laws of Ohio.

The judgment of the Court of Common Pleas and of the Justice of the Peace is reversed and the plaintiff in error, Joseph Miller is discharged.

Reversing the earlier decisions, a three-judge panel reviewed the evidence and ruled in Miller’s favor.18 I wonder, if he had lost, whether Miller might have taken his case one more level to the Supreme Court of Ohio?

Folder noting the information regarding Miller’s appeal to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas. The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives.

In pursuing legal recourse to prevent Ohio from mandating his daughter attend school and learn content that violated his beliefs, Joseph W. Miller mirrored the concerns of many other parents, though his identity as an Amishman infused his approach with particularities. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists parents also contested the state’s power to abolish private education and set medical requirements for schoolchildren.19 The question of parental control of education remained very much in flux during the time of Miller’s trials.20

Ohio ruled on the constitutionality of compulsory education in the 1890 case Ohio v. Patrick F. Quigley, citing the logic of parens patriae, thus using parental neglect as the instrument to supersede parental authority in favor of the state best insuring the child’s welfare.21 By 1903, courts favored asserting the police powers of the Fourteenth Amendment as a method to curb parental control of education.22 This resulted in a blank check for state governments to dictate all aspects of educational policy.23 Though Miller eventually achieved a legal victory in 1916, the State of Ohio continued to consolidate and control education. Only in 1922 did the Supreme Court’s decision in Meyer v. Nebraska finally put a check on unlimited state control.

Miller’s identity as an Amishman imbued him with a particular worldview and educational philosophy, but in his attempt to preserve these ideals, he skirted the bounds of Amish tradition and discipline. As summarized by Steven Nolt, the Amish hold a premodern, communal worldview that stands in stark contrast to our own.24 The most basic unit in a community is the family, so the maintenance of the Amish way of life begins at home. According to Amishman Joseph Stoll, the Amish believe that the responsibility to educate children belongs to parents, not state-run schools.25 However, as historian Albert Keim stated,

“Consolidation appeared to the Amish as a major threat because it often ushered in new curricula and, in their view, faulty pedagogical methods…”26 While throughout the nineteenth century pubic education proved relatively compatible with Amish educational philosophy, by the early twentieth century that was no longer the case. This transition likely accounted for the mixed reports of Miller’s motivations for keeping Mary at home. One article cited the need for farm labor, the other religious reasons.27 Miller and other Amish joined their neighbors in asserting parental rights in education, but soon state power created a profound cultural shift that eventually overwhelmed most opposition. Nevertheless, Amish religious beliefs enabled their persistent challenge of the state’s authority.

Even as he stood firmly within the Amish tradition, Miller’s actions during his trial transgressed normative behaviors within Amish communities. First, he accepted legal counsel to argue his case. It’s important to remember that the Amish, for reasons of faith, preferred not to hire attorneys. To do so would be participating in the “violence of the court system,” an objectionable practice in Amish communities.28 Though in later legal cases involving compulsory education some Amish hired attorneys, considering Miller’s case falls at the beginning of Amish struggles over education, to have lawyers present appears to be unprecedented behavior. Second, Miller chose to appeal his case multiple times. Typical Amish practice would have Miller accepting the decision of the court and moving on with his life. After all, he viewed himself as a subject rather than a citizen of the United States.29 Yet, in exceptional circumstances, if obedience violates the Amish faith, then resistance is justified.30 Miller and his community likely deemed this relatively new conflict over compulsory education as exceptional. Unknowingly, Miller and other early Amish opponents of compulsory education laid the groundwork for contesting the practice that would eventually carry them in the 1970s all the way to the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s 1972 decision in Yoder to view Amish noncompliance with compulsory education a matter of religious freedom is important, to use that as the only lens for understanding the conflict remains problematic. Doing so divorces the topic from its origins in an issue—parental control of education—not exclusive to Amish religious belief. Occurring within a period of educational transition, the negotiation of state versus parental rights was contested for all Americans regardless of religious affiliation. Centering parental rights as important to understanding Amish compulsory education also offers a possible explanation for why appeal to the First Amendment became their chosen recourse in Yoder. The most notable Supreme Court jurisprudence asserting parental rights in education—Myers v. Nebraska (1922) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)—concerned matters of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. However, the precedents established by both cases did not alleviate the conflict the Amish had with the state once compulsory education became entrenched in American public education. Instead, framing the matter as a First Amendment issue from which an assertion of parental rights emerged made for a viable constitutional case. Joseph W. Miller’s dispute with Middlefield Township over his daughter’s attendance and required content knowledge situates contests over Amish compulsory education as not only a matter of religious freedom, but also as an issue originating from the conflict over state and parental rights at the beginning of the twentieth century.


1. Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992), 192. This group of Amish emigrants came from a larger community located Holmes County, Ohio. Frederick Stewart Buchanan, “The Old Paths: A Study of the Amish Response to Public Schooling in Ohio,” University Microfilms, Inc. (Ann Arbor, 1967), 7. A newspaper article lists the Millers’ residence as Hayes Corners. Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Amish May Build Own School since Court Fines One Geauga County Members of Religious Sect,” December 12, 1915: 1, 4.

2. Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012), 2.

3. “Middlefield Township: Geauga County, 1900.” Historic Map Works.com. Stranahan, H. B. and Company. 1900. http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/20303/Middlefield+Township/Geauga+County+1900/Ohio (accessed April 27, 2015). Rick Seyer, History of the Village, 2014, http://www.middlefieldohio.com/our-community/history.

4. Buchanan, “The Old Paths,” 33.

5. Buchanan, 35.

6. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code of the State of Ohio Being an Act to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes Ohio Passed (Columbus: HeinOnline, 1910), Section 7762, 1643.

7. “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” King James Version.

8. Deposition transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, [undated].

9./a> Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

10. Steven Provasnik, “Judicial Activism and the Origins of Parental Choice: The Court’s Role in the Institutionalization of Compulsory Education in the United States, 1891-1925,” History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 311-47, 320.

11. Provasnik, 319-20.

12. Provasnik, 314-15.

13. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7762, 1643.

14. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7763, 1643. This amounts to a period of 120 days, 60 days shorter than the contemporary requirement of 180 days.

15. Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

16. U.S. Census Bureau,Year: 1910; Census Place: Chardon, Geauga, Ohio; Roll: T624_1185; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0056; FHL microfilm: 1375198. Hearing Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

17. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 18, 1915: 2. “Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record, December 17, 1915.Criminal Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 19, 1915, 2. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.

18. Donald R. Ford, “A Brief History Appellate Review in Ohio and the Eleventh District Court of Appeals,” Court of Appeals in Ohio Eleventh Appellate District, Supreme Court of Ohio, January 2007, http://www.11thcourt.co.trumbull.oh.us/pdfs/11th%20District%20Court%20History.pdf, 22, 24.

19. Steffes, 142.

20.Provasnik, 328.

21. Provasnik, 330.

22. Provasnik, 336.

23. Provasnik, 337.

24. “1) That ideas expressed in words are brighter and truer than ideas which take their form in personal and community life 2) That people who accept the ideas of the eighteenth century’s so-called Age of Reason are the “enlightened” ones of the world 3) That the individual is the supreme unit, individual rights the most sacred rights, and human life the richest when individuals are most autonomous.” Nolt, 196, citing the work of Theron Schlabach.

25. Joseph Stoll, “Who Shall Educate Our Children?,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 16-42 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 18.

26. Albert N. Keim, “From Erlanbach to New Glarus,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 1-15 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 14.

27. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.“Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record.

28. Nolt, 231. In general, Amish try to avoid all legal entanglements. They will not sue, and the community, not the courts, sorts out quarrels between Amish members. See: Paton Yoder, “The Amish View of the State,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 23-42 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 36-38.

29. Donald B. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 3-20 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 14. Yoder, 37.

30. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” 14. Yoder, 37.

1 thought on “Joseph W. Miller and a Case for Reframing Amish Compulsory Education

  1. Formal schooling is a continuation of the socialization process into the years of later childhood and beyond. It seems to me that a key question of the relationship between home and school boils down to, “what world are we preparing/socializing our children for?” When we assume that the world of home and society is congruent, there is no conflict. The less we see that there is congruence between between the world of the home and the world of the ‘world’ (notice the language there…) the wider the conflict between home and school and the more ‘religious freedom’ comes into the picture – the ‘freedom’ to socialize and educate children for a more private world than for the world of society at large.

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