Plain People and the Refinement of America
by Steve Nolt
Two Old German Baptist Brethren couples from near Delphi in
Carroll County, Indiana were visiting in Daviess County. They
were in town, poking around in stores much as any other tourist
or visitor would do, when an "English" man approached
them. Are you Amish? he asked. "No, they
replied politely, We're Brethren. Before they could
explain more, the man furrowed his brow, turned and walked away
toward his wife who had waited at a distance. In a voice easily
heard by those around and tinged with annoyance, the man announced,
They say they're not Amishbut they are!
Let us admit that the inquiring tourist had good reason to
be confused. There are a host of different Plain groups
todayand more being formed all the time. A conservative
Mennonite reader joked to author Steve Scott that Scotts
1996 book, An Introduction to Old Order and Conservative Mennonite
Groups1, should have been published
as a loose-leaf binder so that pages could be added and taken
out with the same rapidity and regularity that its contents change.
The Plain People is in many ways a loose label,
and one that is often batted about without much specificity or
care. What do we mean by plainness? I think there
is a very general sense among latter-day Anabaptists of what
this means, but what is the larger historical and religious context
out of which people came to be called "plain"? We might
also ask, who are we talking about when we use the term plain?
How might we make sense of the various groups that such a heading
assumes, and how can we think about their relationships with
one another? I will suggest some ways to begin thinking about
How do we understand plainness?
There are a variety of Anabaptist groups that are termed plain.
Numerous books include the term plain people in their
titles without explanation. An Amish-affiliated commercial paper
published in Pennsylvania is called Plain Communities Business
Exchange. A Beachy Amish congregation in Newport, Maine calls
itself Plain Christian Fellowship. An Indiana Old Order Mennonite
in conversation refers to other plain people without
being very specific about whom he has in mind. Perhaps there
is a belief that we know plain when we see itat
least in terms of dress, and many people assume that dress suggests
other things about its wearers lifestyle.
But what is the historical context out of which we have come
to call some people plain? Some of the roots are
obviously biblical or stem from aspects of European Anabaptist
tradition. There are passages in the New Testamentfrom
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Jamesto avoid costly ornament in
favor of a spirit of contentment. Certain streams of sixteenth-century
Anabaptism, from both the Swiss and the Dutch, picked up on the
idea of self-denial in ways that promoted simplicity of life.
For example, the 1591 Concept of Cologne condemned
the fashions of dress [that] resemble more the ways of
the world than they do the way of Christian humility. Without
establishing exact guidelines, the document enjoined everyone
to be content with . . . simple clothing.2
Without diminishing these biblical and specifically Anabaptist
roots and impulses, we must acknowledge that the situation here
in America was, at least at first, more complex. Non-ostentation
was a broadly-shared value in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. Plainness was actually something of a virtue among
political republicans in the American colonies and the young
Despite their establishment of race-based, hereditary slavery,
colonial European Americans held a remarkably common bias against
aristocracy and old-style social class distinctions. In a literal
sense the aristocracy did not replicate itself in America. On
the eve of the Revolution there was only one titled person among
the permanent residents of the coloniesVirginias
Lord Fairfax. The Revolution itself gave new impetus to the idea
of simplicity and the glorification of common things. American
republicans showed their patriotism by rejecting the showiness
and superfluous waste of Old World princes and nobles. A practical,
frontier-style impulse animated their desire to strip away excess,
as well as an ideological desire to show that America could do
more with less.
John Adams (1735-1826), for example, as a leader in the Continental
Congress, first Vice President, and second President of the United
States, thought it frivolous to paint ones barn. It was
a waste of money, not to mention a poor example to his neighbors.
As a leader Adams needed to model restraint and simplicity, and
so cautioned his wife Abigail (1744-1818), who managed the home
and farm business, against paint and all expensive ornaments
on farm buildings.3
In early American society there were, of course, people of
the better sort. But they were clergy or people with
more education or status derived from well-regarded ancestry,
not people who had more money or more things, or who lived on
a scale much different from their neighbors. Indeed, having an
assortment of worldly accoutrements or frittering away ones
time with dances and card-playing was often a sure sign that
one was not among the better sort.
In many popular religious settings, as well, simplicity was
a mark of godliness. Adherents of the rapidly-rising Methodist
movement looked to their founder John Wesley (1703-1791), who
strenuously counseled plainness in all aspects of life. Protestant
evangelicals from Methodists to Baptists to United Brethren all
condemned ostentation, and many detailed in their discipline
books how to stay within acceptable limits. In 1818 the Evangelical
Association, for example, resolved that none of our ministers
be allowed to wear gloves during the Summer, nor to use silver-plated
bridle bits or stirrups, or loaded whips, and in no case to adorn
their person with large watch keys.4
In addition to this general cultural tendency, most late eighteenth-
and early nineteenth-century Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren
also lived in a more immediate environment that further reinforced
support for simplicity. Pennsylvania Germans of all stripesof
whom Anabaptist groups were one small piecestood apart
notably in their customs and seemingly old-fashioned dress. In
1797 the Polish nobleman Julian Niemcewicz (1758-1841) arrived
in Frederick, Maryland, and observed that while even the oldest
German inhabitant he met was born in America, nevertheless
by dress and way of life it is easy to recognize them as Germans
and even to place them as Germans of the 16th century.
Instead of British-style bonnets, women wore large white
hats without crowns like huge flat plates while men sported
long, wide linen trousers.5
Pennsylvania German custom stressed simplicity and reflected
the lingering memory of traditional German laws guarding against
lavish clothing.6 Piety and plain
dress were associated with the memory of saintly Pennsylvania
Germans of all religious persuasions. One North German immigrant
Lutheran pastor, John Uhlhorn (1794-1834), who arrived in the
New World wearing earrings, quickly learned that such stylishness
permitted in Hamburg would never be countenanced by Germans in
Maryland.7 Simple clothing and humble
demeanor was how people described the likes of Lutheran pastor
John William Heim (1782-1849).8 Then,
too, many Pennsylvania Germans were skeptical of higher education
and church institutions, seeing them as examples of excess and
pride. In such an environment, simplicity in church and home
and personal life was a variation on an American theme.
Between 1790 and 1850, however, there was a remarkable cultural
shift in the United States which affected not only how people
lived, but how they thought about how they lived. Americans began
to aspire to live in a style that they often called refined.
In his book The Refinement of America historian Richard
Bushman recounts how by about 1850 gentility had
triumphed in America.9 Being respectable
came to mean something other than plain and simple.
In an ironic way, the fact that white America was relatively
free from social class and rank distinctions meant that suddenly,
the possibility was open for anyone to be an aristocrat. In a
society that prized both equality and liberty, the race was on
to the top of the social ladder, now open to all comers. Unlike
John Adams and others who saw America as a place where freedom
demanded restraint, increasing numbers of people saw freedom
as the means to fulfill aspirations of gentility unhindered.
Exacting guidebooks appeared (based on Renaissance-era Italian
nobility manuals) which instructed one on how to talk, walk,
eat, laugh, and write a letter like a gentleman or a ladyinstruction
on everything but how to work, which was not a genteel thing
to do. Of course genteel activities demanded genteel surroundings,
such as houses with carpets, mirrors, and display objects such
as dishes which one did not use but had only for show.
Ordinary people worked long and hard to give the appearance of
not working at all. Refined people read novels, had more clothes
than they could wear, and found creative ways to demonstrate
that they possessed excess wealth.
The social experiment in refinement was in many ways a success.
Refinement actually suppressed class. Vaudeville showmen began
to refer to everyone in the audience as Ladies and gentlemen
. . . . Anyone, it turned out, could be a lady or a gentlemanterms
which a century before had been reserved for a select few.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we find Amishman David
Beilers complaints about finery during this era. In 1862
Beiler (1786-1871) was writing in the wake of refinements
triumph, and his complaints about fine shoes, new household gadgets,
and the like spoke to its success.10
The world in which Beiler had been born had changed in the course
of several decades, and left his interest in simple things suddenly
on the defensive. It is also no surprise that the tensions which
would eventually produce Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren Old Order
movements emerged in the years following 1860.
It is here, in the aftermath of the refinement of America
that we discover the emergence of plainness. Even
though simplicity was an old element in the collective Mennonite,
Brethren, and Amish resistance to the world, it emerged
in a new way in the shadow of popular refinement. The whole idea
of non-ostentation now seemed out-of-date and even out-of-place
in America. Neighboring Pennsylvania Germans were slow to pick
up on the message of refinement and gentility, but they, too,
by the end of the nineteenth century had acquired at least a
domesticated form of it.
If this were simply the story of economic wealth and opportunity
gone to seed, it would be interesting enough, but the changes
that refined gentility brought were much deeper, affecting even
how people thought about religionthinking which in turn
cemented the triumph of refinement.
At one time Protestant evangelicals had been some of the strongest
supporters of simplicity. They had also long insisted that conversion
and the new birth resulted in new Christians tossing off the
frivolities of the world as they devoted themselves to Christ.
For example, converts might be expected to discard fancy jewelry,
fine hats, or attendance at dances as a mark of their conversion.
Not coincidentally, the things they abandoned were exactly the
sorts of things associated with gentility, and many evangelicals
disciplined or excommunicated members who slid back into such
habits, often condemning gentility as an unscriptural class distinction.
But now everyone was a lady or a gentleman through a process
that promised uplift and betterment, not a new class war. Clergy
preached gentility as the opposite of rudeness and vulgarity;
refinement was almost shorthand for the fruits of the Spirit.
By mid-century, popular theology had subtly redefined conversion
as a movement from coarse thoughts and behavior to proper and
mannerly behavior. Instead of purging people of their genteel
trapping, conversion eliminated roughness and elevated peoples
spirits so that they could appreciate practical progress, betterment,
and good taste.11 The way mainstream
Americans talked and thought about religion and conversion was
forever changed, and those in Anabaptist circles who picked up
these cues could hardly help but absorb some of its effect.12
The story of plainness is, of course, more complicated than
the attention given it here. The refinement of America was also
linked to capitalism and the production of consumer goods by
people working so hard to buy them and demonstrate their gentility
that they never had time to use or enjoy them.
But whatever we think about the sort of paradoxical class
system that America has created in which refinement and improving
yourself relative to others promises equality, the makers of
refined America and its consumer culture were right about at
least one thing: we change ourselves by changing our environment.
The genteel-to-be believed that wall mirrors and carpets and
novels and imported broad-clothes would make them into people
their grandparents had been fundamentally unable to become. They
And at some level David Beiler knew that, too. He chose his
habits by choosing a surrounding community that practiced them.
If plainness continues to have meaningeven among those
who have adopted elements of American evangelical conversion
theologyit rests upon a commitment to being a church community
together. Refinement is really a value and goal of those who
are searching for a community in a fluid and undefined world.
Refinement and plainness have other dimensions, too. Our use
of time and priorities suggest the depth of simplicity in anyones
life. These are questions that even the historic plain
people face as they move into new types of jobs and other
settings, which consume significant amounts of their weeks. For
modern mainline Anabaptists the value of individual self-determination
limits the degree to which we can have a strong group identity
to counter the lures of consumerism and individual achievement,
which promise to tell us who we are in ways that mock simplicity.
E. Scott, An Introduction to Old Order and Conservative Mennonite
Groups (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1996).
2. Leonard Gross, trans., The
First Mennonite Merger: The Concept of Cologne, Mennonite
Yearbook, and Directory, 1990-1991 (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite
Publishing House), 9.
3. Adams quoted in Richard L. Bushman,
The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 246-47.
4. Sylvanus C. Breyfogel, ed.,
Landmarks of the Evangelical Association, Containing all the
Official Records of the Annual General Conferences . . . to the
Year 1840; . . . together with important Extracts from . . .
the General Conference from 1840 to the Present Time (Reading,
Pa.: Eagle Book Printers, 1888), 34.
5. Niemcewicz, Under Their Own
Vine and Fig Tree, 112. Although Niemcewicz was describing
the Lutheran and Reformed Pennsylvania Germans who populated
the area (there were no German sectarians there at the time),
one can still see elements of the costume he described among
the most traditional of Old Order Amish groupsthe so-called
Nebraska or white top Amish of Mifflin
and nearby Counties, Pennsylvaniawho have preserved several
eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvania German
clothing styles. See Frederick S. Weiser, The Clothing
of the 'White Top' Amish of Central Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania
Mennonite Heritage 21 (July 1998): 2-10.
6. John M. Vincent, Costume
and Conduct in the Laws of Basel, Bern, and Zurich, 1370-1800
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935), 1, 19,
37-39, 74-95, 133. German Reformed clergy feared the individualism
expressed through personal clothing choice, denouncing in 1786
the sad consequences of display in dress that threatened
community order and opening the possibility that a stranger
on Sundays, or festival days, cannot possibly tell whom he meets.Minutes
and Letters of the Coetus of the German Reformed Congregations
in Pennsylvania, 1747-1792 . . . . (Philadelphia: Reformed
Church Publication Board, 1903), 406.
7. John G. Morris, Fifty Years
in the Lutheran Ministry (Baltimore: James Young, 1878),
8. David H. Focht, Churches
Between the Mountains: A History of the Lutheran Congregations
in Perry County, Pennsylvania (Baltimore: T. Newton Kurtz,
9. Bushman, The Refinement of
10. [David Beiler], Memoirs
of an Amish Bishop, trans. and ed. by John Umble, Mennonite
Quarterly Review 22 (April 1948), 94-115.
11. Bushman, Refinement of America,
12. For Mennonites and Brethren
who did not chose the Old Order way, but who retained an ideal
of plainness nonetheless, the concept had to be redefined. Simplicity
became in many ways a refined plainness that did
not point one backwards, but in a practical and calculated way
justified and enhanced ones activist mission in the world.
That sort of nonconformity, it seems to me, is always harderthough
not impossibleto pass on. It is somehow linked to ideas
of betterment and improvement, and it is connected to the idea
of creating an identity more than retaining one.
I wonder if the restless nineteenth-century Americans who created
a new genteel identity in the name of equality have an echo among
converted individuals who promote plainness as a way to church
unity. In both cases, identities are assumed to be fluid. And
where such fluidity runs is always anyones guess.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October, 1999