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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

May 5, 2011 Event Flyer

The Two Worlds of the Pennsylvania Dutch

Presented by Don Yoder

2011 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Don Yoder

In driving through the rural areas of Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania - the area settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch — one cannot fail to sense the cultural differences between two opposite but related lifestyles. These are the "plain" world of the sects — the Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and other countercultural groups — and the world of the church people — the Lutherans and Reformed (now United Church of Christ), the leading groups of the German and Swiss Reformation of the 16th century. The Pennsylvania Dutch even have formal words in High German for these two components of their culture: Kirchenleute or "church people" and Sektenleute or sectarians. The plain world, particularly that of the Old Order Amish, has captured the attention of the nation and made Southeastern Pennsylvania one America's principal tourist destinations, since each year over five million tourists "invade" Lancaster County, alone, just to see the Amish.

But let's get the picture in proportion. The plain groups represent not more than twenty percent of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population, and the Amish no more than five percent. The great majority of the Pennsylvania Dutch population dress like other Americans and live like other Americans. The difference is their acceptance of the outside world and its culture. They are yea-sayers to the common culture, following Luther's teaching that the Christian should and can be a full practicing unit of the state.

The plain groups, following the sixteenth-century Anabaptist doctrine of nonconformity to the world, reject military service, the taking of oaths, and in some extreme cases, voting and officeholding. There are variations, of course, in the relation of the plain groups to the state. And as outward symbol of their nonconformity, the more conservative groups still reject fashion and dress in a simple manner.

The ministry of the two worlds is decidedly different. The more conservative plain groups, following New Testament precedent, choose their ministry by lot. Those chosen are usually untrained laymen, farmers in most cases, who once chosen have to preach in the German services of the sect. Formal education is minimal, since the Amish allow only eight years of schooling, with both high school and college education forbidden. How different the practices of the Lutheran and Reformed denominations, who have always insisted on university- and seminary-trained clergy who are coached in theology, preaching, and pastoral care. Many of these educated clergymen also made stellar contributions to society — for one example, the distinguished botanist Gotthelf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, 1780-1815, whose work was honored in Europe and America. His brother, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, became equally distinguished in politics: he became the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1789.

While these two very different lifestyles have existed side by side in Pennsylvania for three centuries, divided down the middle by religion, certain factors have united them into one Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Linguistically, they have always been one people; both worlds used and still use today the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, now a language of its own. Using our Dutch, a Lutheran can schwetz with an Amishman, and be understood both ways. Furthermore, both groups shared a rural, small-town culture created here in America, uniting cultural traits that they brought from Europe, principally the Rhineland and Switzerland, with ideas, customs and practices they borrowed here: from their British Isles neighbors, the English and Welsh Quakers and the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, from the Indians who were still here when Penn came, and even from black Americans, who were often skilled cooks in the towns and accomplished fiddlers at country dances. This wondrously mixed and creative hybrid culture included music, foodways, speech patterns, folk tales, handicrafts, farming methods, house and barn architecture, manuscript art (Fraktur) and other items. And this mixed, hybrid American culture formed in Southeastern Pennsylvania spread widely, influencing parts of the South and the Midwest, as well as Ontario and New Brunswick in Canada. The Dutch were on the move after the Revolution, and planted all their religious patterns and all the cultural baggage involved in being Pennsylvania Dutch wherever they settled.

Finally, in this culture the family and church were central, with additional institutions in the mill, the country store, the crossroads tavern (where the dances were often held), and the market town (such as Lancaster, Reading, York, Easton, Harrisburg, etc.), where the country folk delighted to gather for the spring and fall fairs, and for the weekly farmers' markets. Even today, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Pennsylvania has more farmers' markets than any other state.

Pennsylvania Dutch culture — this unique inheritance from the American past — is still here to study, to teach, and to enjoy. My word to all Pennsylvania Dutchmen is: Halt fescht was Du hoscht! Hold on firmly to what you have!

Don Yoder
University of Pennsylvania

Don Yoder is Professor Emeritus of Folklife Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught for thirty-one years (1965-1996), founding the first graduate Folklife Studies program in the nation. He has written widely on American religious movements, regional culture, folklife patterns of various ethnic groups, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch.

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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