Amish Mutual Aid during the Great Depression and what it implies for Modern Capitalism

This post revisits the theme of Anabaptist economics that I addressed in my last most on the moral economy of the Hutterite community. I now turn to Amish mutual aid as a functional equivalent to public welfare and commercial insurance/credit during the Great Depression.

On December 16 in 1939, the Baltimore Afro-American, a prominent newspaper, published a brief note regarding the imminent foundation of an Amish settlement in southern Maryland. It noted the religious, “cult”-like character of this Anabaptist group and went on to comment that

The most interesting thing about them [the Amish], however, is the success they have had all through this depression in solving their economic problems. They have good homes, money in the banks, and have religiously spurned State or Federal relief. They have been able to eke out their comfortable livelihood by tilling the soil. Since this matter of getting farmers off relief and government help is one of the New Deal headaches, the Federal farm authorities might find it profitable to do some of their investigating on Amish farms. Maybe they will find some method more simple and less involved than plowing in and limitation of production. Maybe, too, they will run across a procedure that the average farmer can use.1

Baltimore African-American, Dec. 16, 1939.

At this time, the Great Depression had run its course for a decade, bringing economic havoc and social destitution to all capitalist societies. In the United States, African-Americans were particularly hit hard by the Depression’s onslaught on an already racist and highly unequal economy.2 The Afro-American’s readership thus in all likelihood was interested in the fate of the marginal Amish group. After all, while not being exposed to systemic racism, the Amish still represented an unusual model of economic organization that differed substantially from the overall farming population that had transitioned towards a mechanized, commercial and business-oriented agriculture in the preceding decades. What, if any, were these “procedures” that would have been applicable to “the average farmer”?

Before providing a tentative answer to this question, it is important to note a couple of things. First, there was no such thing as “the average farmer.” Rural communities faced different challenges depending on geographic location and other factors. The Depression, for example, had a different impact on owners, tenant-farmers and sharecroppers. Moreover, the systemic racism clearly favored white farmers, with consequences particularly for African-Americans in the southern states.

Second, the Amish were not as unscathed by the Great Depression as the Baltimore Afro-American made it seem. Contemporary sources, as well as later memoirs, provide ample evidence that the Amish were hit hard by depleted prices for agricultural goods, debt and environmental problems caused by dust storms and droughts. In 1971, the Amish periodical “Family Life” published two issues that sections on “Amish life in the Great Depression.”3 The stories by several Amishmen to some degree resemble the experience of hardship by non-Anabaptists as collected in the oral histories by Studs Terkel.4

Yet, these memoirs also show an underlying narrative that in fact for the Amish, the Depression was not as bad as it could have been. This voice is exemplified by one Jonathan Zook from Lancaster County who wrote that

[A]s far as the depression was concerned, we as a family never felt the hardship that many did. I had two boys just out of school and willing workers which I think was a great help to take us through the depression. And I never came to the place that I could not go to the bank and borrow all the money that we needed. [. . .] We were able to meet our interest and taxes [. . . ] and my good wife could always get enough together to feed the family of 8 at that time.5

Family Life, August 1971.

This overall narrative that “it could have been worse” is confirmed by the most prominent contemporary expert on the Amish, Walter Kollmorgen. His 1942 report on “Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania” was part of the Rural Life Studies program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics. This study program was established in 1939 to conduct field research on six rural communities to assess “the quality of rural life” based on a number of factors, including social, economic, cultural and environmental factors.6 Kollmorgen’s analyses has been considered the most important piece of scholarship on the Amish of his time, and possible the starting point of Amish Studies as a scholarly discipline.7 His results showed that the Amish were easily the most stable of all communities in the Rural Life Study. Mirroring Jonathan Zook’s emic assessment, Kollmorgen contended that the Lancaster Amish largely evaded the most negative effects of the Great Depression

Not surprisingly, Kollmorgen’s study results mentioned the likely suspects of why the Amish weathered the economic turmoil relatively well. These included superior farming expertise such as soil conservation and a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency.

Kollmorgen addressed another factor throughout his report: communal mutual aid. This form of intra-Anabaptist support extended to loans on no or low interest, non-monetary aid, care, and general support for the needy. While Kollmorgen does not provide a quantitative assessment of his observation – for example, the sums involved in this communal process of sharing financial resources – his overarching assessment leads me to assume that mutual aid was perhaps was the most important ingredient to Amish resilience during the Great Depression. He considered it an informal “program of brotherly love and mutual aid”8 that rested on solid Anabaptist principles and continued to operate in a capitalist environment. In particular, Kollmorgen noted the financial impact of this “program” that provided a form of communal economic empowerment:

The practice of eschewing investments outside of the community and loaning available money at low interest rates to members of the church has served to give these people a rural credit system enjoyed by few farmers elsewhere. The significance of this practice cannot be overestimated. The salutary features of the program are obvious (1) no money is borrowed unless it is necessary (2) when money is borrowed the interest rate is low (3) there are no foreclosures, (4) bank failures and business failures do not disturb the community greatly, (5) investment sharks cannot plunder these people, and (6) interest earnings remain in the community.9

Walter M. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community.

In this quote, Kollmorgen also indicated the comparative aspect in arguing that “few other farmers” had access to a similar form of mutual financial aid in a communal context. This comparative assessment becomes even clearer when comparing Kollmorgen’s study results to the other five cases in the Rural Life Study program, something that still lacks systematic assessment in the scholarly literature. Access to credit or non-monetary aid was considered a key problem across the board of the other case analysists. The case of Harmony, Georgia, with its large African-American population in particular highlighted the credit problem, something that the Baltimore Afro-American’s readership without doubt was quite familiar with.

What, if any, are insights to be drawn from Amish mutual aid during the Great Depression not just for “the average farmer” but in general for the common good in a capitalist economy? While Amish mutual aid is group-specific and unique in the sense that it is engrained in the Anabaptist notion of Koinonia, similar institutions in the form or mutual credit and mutual insurance are found in other contexts. In fact, research on and public debates about mutual aid have vastly increased in the recent decade or so.10 After the 2008 financial crisis, mutual aid has become a prominent theme in debates on how to alleviate social consequences of an economic downturn and to promote the common good.

In her contribution to The Nation periodical from December 2020 titled “Mutual aid can’t do it alone”,11 the political scientist Joanna Wuest criticizes this renewed focus on mutual aid. She pointedly refers to the gradual dismantling of public welfare in the United States under a neoliberal agenda so that “[o]ur country is coming to resemble a long-sought libertarian fantasy, with only atomized acts of compassion for those left out.” She calls for a much stronger role of the welfare state in providing comprehensive assistance to the needy.

From a European perspective, Wuest’s, demands for universal public welfare appear perfectly sound, reasonable and far from radical. After all, most European societies enjoy relatively universal public health insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement insurance, and more. Yet, it seems increasingly unlikely that the United States will soon – or ever – return to the path of public welfare expansion as tentatively established during the New Deal.

The case of Amish mutual aid during the Great Depression thus might hold some important lessons for promoting welfare on a communal level. This is not to say that an Amish institution should be taken as a fit-for-all model, let alone be idealized. In order to participate in Amish mutual aid during the 1930s, one had to subordinate oneself under the very strict regulations of the church, its religious tenets and underlying power structure. Such a rigid system of subordinance would not work for left-leaning communes, ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ groups. At the same time, the Amish example shows how mutual aid provided an effective functional equivalent to public welfare and commercial credit at a time when the majority of Americans suffered from a lack of both.

1. Baltimore African-American, “Note on Amish Farmers,” Dec. 16, 1939, p. 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

2. Rauchway provides an accessible first overview of this era in: Rauchway, Eric. The Great Depression & the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. Very short introductions 166. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

3. Amish Life in the Great Depression, Family Life periodical, July 1971 (pp. 18-21) and August 1971 (pp. 18-21). Historical Heritage Library collection, formerly Aylmer, Ontario.

4. Terkel, Studs, ed. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: New Press; Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2000.

5. Jonathan Zook, in: Family Life, August 1971, p. 21.

6. U.S. National Archives II, RG 83 Entry 34, American Farm Community Study.

7. Anderson, Cory. “Seventy-Five Years of Amish Studies, 1942 to 2017: A Critical Review of Scholarship Trends (With an Extensive Bibliography).” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 5, no. 1 (2019): 1–65.

8. Walter M. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community: The Old Order Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rural Life Studies 4 (Washington, D.C., 1942), 22

9. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community, 49–51. See also pp. 52-57.

10. See for example: van Leeuwen, Marco H. D. Mutual Insurance 1550-2015: From Guild Welfare and Friendly Societies to Contemporary Micro-Insurers. Palgrave studies in the history of finance. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

11. Wuest, Joana. “Mutual Aid Can’t Do It Alone.” The Nation, December 16, 2020.

Not so Utopian? The Moral Economy of Communal Property

Martin Lutz

Thomas More’s “little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” – more commonly known as just Utopia – imagined a society based on common property, with full equality, no poverty, and an abundance of daily necessities for all. First published in 1516, this fictitious tale outlined a seemingly perfect commonwealth, providing a stark contrast to contemporary economic inequality and social misery.1

(Utopia Thomas More (1518 November))

How could Utopia’s citizens achieve such a phenomenal economic performance leading to seemingly universal welfare? There was no idleness, for one, as everyone was expected to work and contribute to society’s well-being. As the character Raphael Hythloday explains to his puzzled listeners, “if they all were put to work—and useful work at that—you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough time to produce all the goods required for human needs and conveniences.”2 Moreover, Utopians did not pursue their own interest in their economic activity but tried to serve the general need. But it was especially the principle of common property that allowed the island to establish such a beneficial commonwealth. As Hythloday summarizes:

For elsewhere they always talk about the public good but they are concerned with their own private welfare; here [in Utopia], where there is no private property, everyone works seriously for the public good. And for good reason in both places, for elsewhere is there anyone who does not know that unless he looks out for his own personal interest he will die of hunger, no matter how flourishing the commonwealth may be; therefore necessity causes him to think he should watch out for his own good, not that of others, that is, of the people. On the other hand, here, where everything belongs to everyone, no one doubts that (as long as care is taken that the public storehouses are full) nothing whatever will be lacking to anyone for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is a pauper or a beggar there, and though no one has anything, all are rich.3

How utopian is such an economic world in the context of modern capitalism, an age usually associated with individual profit maximization, competitive markets, self-interest and greed? In other words, is it at all possible for the infamous homo economicus to break out from the real world to create something even vaguely similar to Thomas More’s Utopia?

A rare glimpse into the diary of a German traveler to the American and Canadian West in the years 1930-31 offers such an alternative perspective. It was in the midst of the Great Depression that hit Germany even harder then North America, inflicting political turmoil and contributing to the rise of the Nazi Party. The diary’s first entry dates from July 18, 1930, the day when German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg dissolved the Weimar Republic’s last parliamentary government. The following election campaign was marked by ever increasing unemployment rates, strong antisemitic and anti-democratic sentiment from the extremist left and right. In the September election, the Nazi party won a landslide victory, a key milestone on Hitler’s ascent to political power that he finally achieved in January 1933.

The lone German traveler, who sympathized with Christian socialism and who was a staunch pacifist, thus had much to ponder on his journey. With his home country in turmoil and witnessing the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on America, his final destination must have appeared to him like a true Utopia. Nestled in the South Dakota plains, the visitor experienced the vision of a small-scale society based on communal property. There, all able-bodied members worked, including women and older children, contributing to the community’s overall welfare.4 In this setting, the communities produced sufficiently to sustain their membership, and it seemed to serve their commonwealth well. The traveler’s diary does not report a single issue that plighted Depression-era America: neither starvation, homelessness, unemployment, nor social deprivation.

It does probably not to come to the surprise of this blog’s readers that the communities in question were the Hutterite Bruderhöfe, scattered across the Northern Plains in the United States and Canada. The traveler was Eberhard Arnold, who had experimented with communal living in the 1920s and founded the Rhön Bruderhof in 1926. His trip to America served the purpose of connecting the newly founded community in Germany to the historical Hutterite church. Being well versed in Anabaptist history and belief, Arnold enthusiastically wrote that “[u]p till today the complete communism in production and consumption of every single Bruderhof […] and also the absolute unity of faith of all 35 Bruderhöfe is as good as completely unshaken; one can almost say is preserved absolutely pure.”5 This “purity” of the Bruderhof community was firmly based on Anabaptist-Hutterite religious principles, in particular the central tenant to forgo individual property and to “have all things common” (Acts 4:32).

The Hutterite communal economics not only provides a seemingly stark contrast to its capitalist surroundings; it also exemplifies how moral values decisively shape economic thinking, institutions and practice. This is the core of the current scholarly debate on moral economy, an interdisciplinary field of research that has grown from humble beginnings to prominence in the last decades.6

In The Moral Economists,7 intellectual historian Tim Rogan places the debate’s origin to T.H. Tawney, a British economic historian who published the influential book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926. Tawney found much at fault with modern capitalism, and it is in the context of his fundamental moral critique that he referred to Thomas More’s Utopia. Tawney was no mere academic confined to his ivory tower. He engaged in workers’ education, sympathized with Christian socialism and was politically active. Likely Tawney never learned about the Hutterites; otherwise he surely would have been keenly interested in this form of Christian communism.

(Mennonite Church USA Archives @ Flickr Commons)

Other academics, however, took note of the Hutterite communal economy. One was historian Victor Peters who in the 1965 book All Things Common provided one of the first systematic analyses of the Hutterite economic way of life in the context of modern American capitalism. It is no coincidence that the book’s opener immediately refers to Thomas More’s Utopia, for Peters considered the Hutterite Bruderhof as

literally utopian, for it was Thomas More who wrote: “For what can be more rich than to live joyfully and tranquilly without any worry, not fearful for his own livelihood, nor vexed and troubled with his wife’s importunate complaints, not dreading poverty to his sons, nor anxious about his daughter’s dowry? But instead to be secure about the livelihood and happiness of their wives, children, grandchildren, and their posterity which they handsomely assume will be a long time.”8

And yet, not all seems to have been as ideal and idealistic in practice. Twenty-five years before Peters’ scholarly account, Eberhard Arnold admiringly wrote about the impressive agricultural operations he observed, including a “very large mill,” a “gigantic thresher” and “the most modern motors.” While this sophisticated (and likely quite expensive) modern equipment at first glance appeared to be highly beneficial for improving efficiency in production, a somewhat puzzled Arnold also noted a counter perspective. It was voiced by an elder at Rockport Bruderhof who did not praise the progress, but rather was worried about decay, lamenting “the no longer Hutterian school, the economic rationalization of the Bruderhöfe, the influence of the world and diminishing unity in the style of life and the waning influence of elders.”9

From Eberhard Arnold’s perspective, trying to find an escape from the troubled circumstances in Germany, his puzzlement seems understandable. At the same time, the Rockport elder’s concern is highly plausible from a more distant analytical viewpoint. By 1930, American Hutterites were far from isolated, even if their remote settlement location would appear to be. The Bruderhöfe were instead tightly connected with their environment, particularly in economic terms. Hutterites produced for the market and were in turn susceptible to volatile prices, took out loans, bought machinery, and in many other ways relied on exchange with the outside world.

It thus should not surprise us that Hutterites were confronted with beliefs, ideologies, and rationales that competed with or were in direct opposition to their own Anabaptist beliefs. How should a Hutterite discern the logic of economic growth, profit-maximization, expansion, and efficiency gains in a competitive environment? How could Hutterite moral values be compatible with the requirements of modern capitalism? And how would this eventually shape the seeming “purity” of the Bruderhof community that Arnold so greatly admired in the following decades? Answers to these questions, I am convinced, will not only enhance our understanding of Hutterites in the context of the modern world. It would also offer a viable contribution to the much wider debate on the relationship between moral values and the economy.

1. It is important to note, however, that Utopia was not without flaws, at least from a 21st century perspective. These include the institution of slavery, as well as imperial wars of aggression against the island’s neighbors. Katherine Hill recently addressed More’s Utopia in a different context in her post on this blog:

2. Thomas More, Utopia, with the assistance of Jerry Harp, and Clarence Miller, Second edition (New Haven, Conn, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 63.

3. More, Utopia, 129–30.

4. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 1973, Hist Mss I-447, Box 20, Goshen Archive, 6.

5. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

6. From the extensive current literature see for example: Ute Frevert, “Moral Economies, Present and Past: Social Practices and Intellectual Controversies,” in Moral Economies, ed. Ute Frevert et al., Geschichte und Gesellschaft Heft 026 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019); Norbert Götz, “’Moral Economy’: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects,” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no. 2 (2015); Andrew Sayer, “Approaching Moral Economy,” in The Moralization of the Markets, ed. Nico Stehr, Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler, first paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2010).

7 Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

8 Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 102–3 A few years before this book, Peters had already introduced this idea in an article to the Manitoba Pageant, 7 (1961), 1: A more recent contribution is by Thomas Nauerth in the Plough Quarterly magazine, published by Bruderhof’s Plough Publishing House, the

9 Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

What’s All in a Name: Kinship in the Nineteenth Century

Martin Lutz

As a Swabian from Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, I am frequently asked about my Anabaptist roots by Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites I encounter during archival field trips. Lutz is not an Anabaptist household name, compared to Hofer, Krehbiel or Janzen. There are a few Lutz’s among American Anabaptists though. For example, during my research I came across a Mennonite named Clarence Lutz from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. My father, from whom I inherited my last name, hailed from a small Franconian village in the region of Hohenlohe in northeastern Württemberg, not far from Anabaptist centers in the early modern period. But as far as I know, there are no direct Anabaptist connections in my family.

It would be another story to delve more into the question of why it seemed so unusual to American Anabaptists for an outsider would be interested in their history. Here, I will focus on a different topic: the role of kinship in modern societies.

Until recently, historiography held that kinship was a distinctly pre-modern form of social identity and organization. For the European context, this narrative suggested that kinship groups were a common, possibly dominant way of structuring social relationships in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Modernization processes such as the emergence of the modern state, the market and voluntary associations then gradually replaced kinship’s societal functions.

Social historians David Sabean, Simon Teuscher and others have convincingly argued against this perspective: Far from losing ground, kinship structures outlived the threshold to modernity in Western societies. Indeed, Sabean and Teuscher consider the nineteenth century as a “‘kinship-hot’ society, one where enormous energy was invested in maintaining and developing extensive, reliable, and well-articulated structures of exchange among connected families over many generations.”1

In my previous work, I have looked at the case of the Siemens entrepreneurial family2 where these patterns appear as an important element in shaping business strategy in the nineteenth century. The Siemens Stammbaum (family tree) and various family institutions have since then played a considerable role in tying the various branches of the vast kin group (and its wealth) together.3

 The front page of David Beiler’s “Vermahnung oder Andenken,” printed in 1928. Beiler was born in 1786, not “gestorben.”

It appears that similar notions of kinship evolved among the Amish and Mennonites in nineteenth century America. I recently took a closer look at David Beiler’s memoir “Eine Vermahnung oder Andenken” from around 1860.4 Beiler was a prominent Amish bishop who was involved in the formation of the Old Order congregations in the 1860s and 1870s. He might be most famous for his book Das wahre Christentum, and his memoirs offer a rare glimpse into the perception of change by an Amishman in the nineteenth century. Less prominent in the scholarly literature is the Familien-Chronik at the end of Beiler’s memoir where he gives a detailed account of his ancestors.

For his and his wife’s paternal and maternal ancestors, Beiler outlines the Herkunft (ancestry) and Geschlecht (lineage). For each line, there is one distinct progenitor (Stammvater) listed as the point of origin. For example, Beiler’s great-grandfather Jakob Beiler, a Swiss Anabaptist, immigrated to America in 1737. On his maternal side, the progenitor was Samuel König, also an immigrant. Whenever the information available to him allows it, Beiler then lists the number of sons and daughters in each household (Haushaltung), and how many lived long enough to found their own families. It is somewhat striking how Beiler’s Familien-Chronik resembles contemporary European efforts to document and construct familial ancestry. As with the Siemens Stammbaum, it represents an effort to build shared ancestry as an imagined community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s words.

The sociological and anthropological literature stresses the ongoing role of kinship relations among twentieth century Amish and other Anabaptist groups.5 The ubiquitous Mennonite “name game” certainly reveals the importance of ancestry even in the twenty-first century. Steven D. Reschly’s work on nineteenth century Amish demonstrates how these patterns were a crucial aspect in communal boundary maintenance and transmission of property across generations.6 This literature implies that the Amish kinship system is a rather specific form of social organization distinct from the majority society in the modernizing context of the United States and Canada.

The first page of the Familien-Chronik.

As part of my overall research agenda, I am interested in how social relationships shaped economic interaction in the nineteenth and twentieth century. While the Siemens industrialists and the Amish farmer David Beiler appear to be on the opposite ends of a spectrum, I am convinced that their joint reference to the kin group holds important lessons for economic and social historians. If we follow Sabean’s and Teuscher’s larger interpretation of kinship in the nineteenth century, it would appear that Beiler’s Familien-Chronik fits perfectly with these larger developments in the Western world. At least in Beiler’s case, American Anabaptists appear to be as “kinship-hot” – and indeed as “modern” – as the emerging bourgeois class in Central Europe.

1. David W. Sabean and Simon Teuscher, “Kinship in Europe: A New Approach to Long Term Development,” in Kinship in Europe: Approaches to Long-Term Developments (1300-1900), ed. David W. Sabean, Simon Teuscher and Jon Mathieu (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007); Chapter I, 13.

2. Martin Lutz, Carl von Siemens: Ein Leben zwischen Familie und Weltfirma, 1829-1906 (München: C.H. Beck, 2013).

3. Siemens-Familienstiftung and Werner Siemens-Stiftung, Stammbaum der Familie Siemens: Aus Anlaß der 600jährigen Wiederkehr des ersten urkundlichen Nachweises des Namens Siemens in Goslar, 1984 neu bearbeitet von Sigfrid von Weiher (München: Selbstverlag, 1985).

4. David Beiler, Eine Verwahrnung oder Andenken, 1862, II-MS-29, Eastern Mennonite University Archive.

5. In the older literature, John A. Hostetler stresses the small-scale and genealogical embeddedness of Amish society. John A. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 12 For more recent discussions see: Vlatka Škender, “Flesh, Freundschaft, and Fellowship: Towards a Holistic Model of the Amish Kinship System,” Journal of the Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 8, no. 1 (2020); John A. Cross, “Amish Surnames, Settlement Patterns, and Migration,” Names 51, 3-4 (2013).

6. Steven D. Reschly, The Amish on the Iowa Prairie, 1840 to 1910 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000), 119.