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New book by Canton author explores how Amish thriving in modern world

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CANTON — Exploring how the Amish culture has not only survived, but thrived, in a society dominated by cellphones, the Internet and other technology is the focus of a new book co-written by a Canton woman.

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor at SUNY Potsdam who resides at 56 Goodrich St., has spent the past three decades studying Amish communities in the north country and other states. She has written two previous books on the Amish and Mennonites.

The new 500-page hardcover book is titled simply “The Amish,” and was written by Ms. Johnson-Weiner and two other professors who are considered Amish experts, Donald B. Kraybill of Elizabethtown (Pa.) College and Steven M. Nolt of Goshen (Ind.) College.

“The other books I wrote were specialized,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “This is really the most comprehensive book about the Amish. This captures the diversity in the Amish world. We know there are 40 different affiliations in the Amish community.”

The book is designed for college classes as well as any reader interested in learning how Amish families continue to practice a 19th-century lifestyle in a hyper-modernized world that’s constantly evolving. It’s divided into 22 chapters and features graphs, statistics and a few black and white photographs.

The authors attempt to demonstrate the wide variations among Amish people, based largely on how conservative or progressive they are in accepting “modernisms” such as cellphones and computers.

The north country’s Amish settlements are among the most conservative, including the Swartzentrubers in the Heuvelton area and the Norfolk group in the northwestern side of St. Lawrence County.

For instance, very progressive Amish groups in Lancaster County, Pa., allow their members to use smartphones and grow vegetables in hydroponic gardens. Some are allowed to work in restaurants, hotels and other “worldly” employment sites.

“At the other extreme, you have Amish who won’t even talk on a telephone unless it’s an emergency,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “We explore those differences.”

Faced with decisions about technology, Amish church groups are constantly negotiating the boundaries for their individual groups, according to the book.

Placing restrictions on what’s allowed helps the Amish adhere to their tradition of remaining distinct and separate from the dominant modern society.

“Nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to drive a horse and buggy and you can’t have a car, but there’s an appreciation that having a horse and buggy keeps you separate from the world and keeps you focused on the community,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “Living unconnected to the electrical grid also reinforces your community.”

Although they live in the midst of a high-tech society, the Amish population in North America has swelled from roughly 6,000 people in 1900 to nearly 275,000 in 2012, according to the book. With Amish families typically having many children, the population is expected to double every 20 years.

That growth is reflected in the north country, where Amish families from crowded settlements in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states continue to move in search of inexpensive land and limited interference from government.

Families that move to Northern New York may want to leave communities that have become too progressive elsewhere.

“They see that once modernisms come in, they threaten the church,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “In coming to New York state, the Amish have made a conservative choice to keep the agrarian lifestyle the focus of their community.”

Published by John Hopkins University Press, the book is available at various places including Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and St. Lawrence University’s Brewer Bookstore. It also can be purchased online at Amazon.com.

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