Most of us were raised to embrace our individuality and the differences that make us unique from one another. This sense of personal freedom, combined with a desire and need for financial security, is the foundation of living in contemporary society. But among the aspiring doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers and a multitude of professions are three groups of people who live among us, yet remain isolated from the modern world in which we live.
The Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites share many basic beliefs. They are all descendants of the Anabaptists, a group founded in the 16th century in central Europe who rejected infant baptism and the allegiance between church and state. Persecuted for their beliefs, they fled Europe in the 1800s under the invitation and protection of William Penn, migrating to Pennsylvania [Amish], the Dakota Territory (Hutterites) and Canada (Mennonites). While each group had its own leader, they share many commonalities: a strict form of pacifism, a dialect of Low German, a rejection of modernization, birth control and higher education, a practice of shunning as a form of punishment, a belief in communalism, and above all, an unshakable faith in family and God.
The Hutterites are the most self-contained group, living in colonies of 35 to 100 people predominantly in the plains of Montana, Washington and Minnesota. Both Kristin Capp and Laura Wilson spent several years visiting and photographing specific families, gaining friendships and a trust from people who believe the camera "... makes unto thyself a graven image." Through images of people working and resting within the vast landscape in which they reside, we witness a quiet confidence by which they exist, gaining a greater understanding of an isolated people. While Hutterites adapt to technology when necessary [they use farm machinery], they ban T.V., radio, owning a vehicle, dancing, divorce, makeup and jewelry. All property and income is communal and all meals are eaten together, although men and women sit on separate sides of the room. While women are not allowed to vote, they are instrumental in the cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing and child rearing, and dress in simple flower patterned dresses. Men raise livestock, make furniture, build barns, assist in child rearing and wear black hats, jackets and pants. Because the Hutterites do not pay wages (they do pay taxes), they are among the most profitable agriculture operators in the Plains.
Among the three groups, the Amish lead the most rigid, uncluttered life, dressing and maintaining a lifestyle aligned with the 19th century. Unlike the Hutterites, they are not separatists, living in suburban neighborhoods and working outside the Amish community. George Tice spent decades photographing the Amish, revealing a people proud of their white washed houses and pristine farms, who maintain their own schools and prefer mules or horse buggies to automobiles. While small infractions do occur -- use of an electric drill or wearing sneakers -- the Amish have maintained a life devoted to faith, family and farming, owning some of the best land in Pennsylvania. While they are against all mechanical appliances, houses have running water pumped by water or windmills, and car rides are accepted from their Mennonite neighbors. They do not have church buildings and believe that worship and daily life are inseparable. With more than 150,000 in the U.S. and 3300 or more in Canada, the Amish are the most proliferating of the three groups.
Closely aligned with the Amish are the Old Colony Mennonites, who settled in both Pennsylvania and Ontario, among other places. By 1922, ten percent of the Canadian population headed for Mexico, where land was cheaper and opportunity seemed greater. Today, thirty percent of them are landless and economically marginalized, unable to prosper like the Amish or Hutterites. While there is no unifying hierarchy, Mennonite churches have evolved independently, as have colleges and high schools. But unlike their brethren, Mennonites began modernizing in the 1960s, driving cars, using electricity and working for wages in the outside world. Ontario photographer Larry Towell spent ten years documenting the Old Colony Mennonites who first appeared in his backyard looking for work. Through his images we see a people who struggle with issues of hunger and poverty, not unlike many people outside the Anabaptist culture.
While Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites aspire to stay true to their cultural foundation, not all colonies or families have remained pure to modernization. Cell phones and bicycles can be seen among the Amish and musical instruments can be heard from within the Hutterite homes. While this way of life may not be ideal, there is an overwhelming sense of achievement, a profound respect for the family and a quiet pride that emanates from these groups. As we strive for more money and greater personal triumph, we should pause to look at others among us whose lives are different from ours.