A Letter From the United States
A Trip Into the Past
IMAGINE how interesting it would be to take a trip to see how your ancestors lived. In a sense, we made such a trip. It took us from Switzerland to the United States of America. Most think of the United States as highly modern in every way, but our trip took us back two hundred years into the past. Let us tell you about it.
Because we speak the Swiss German dialect, we were invited to spend three months in the state of Indiana. Our goal was to share the good news of God’s Kingdom with Amish families who have kept the dialect of their ancestors. Hundreds of these families live in Indiana.
The Amish are descendants of a group of 17th-century Anabaptists. Their name derives from their leader, Jacob Amman, who lived in Switzerland. From their study of the Bible back then, these God-fearing people recognized that infant baptism and military service were wrong. Because of their stand, the government persecuted them. A few even paid for their religious convictions with their lives. Persecution continued to increase, and a number of them were forced to flee to other parts of Switzerland and to France. By the middle of the 19th century, thousands had fled to the United States. With them, they brought their culture and the Swiss German dialect.
When we visited these gentle people, they were astonished to find us at their door, speaking in their dialect! Picture the scene.
“How is it that you speak like us?” they ask in Swiss German.
“Because we come from Switzerland,” we reply.
“But you are not Amish!” They are puzzled.
Many doors swing open, and we get a glimpse of a lifestyle that seems to belong in the distant past. Instead of lightbulbs, there are oil lamps; instead of cars, horse and buggy; instead of running water, a well and windmill; instead of radios, singing.
What impresses us the most is the humility and modesty of those whom we are visiting. Many Amish make it a point to read the Bible daily, and they value and appreciate Bible discussions. This opens up the opportunity to have conversations about God’s purpose for mankind and for the earth.
Soon, word spreads that there are visitors from Switzerland in the area. Many request that we visit their relatives, which we gladly do. An invitation to visit an Amish school raises our level of excitement and anticipation. What awaits us?
We knock on the school door. The teacher opens it and immediately invites us into the classroom, where 38 pairs of curious eyes focus on four strangers. Eight classes are gathered in one room, the students ranging in age from 7 to 15. The girls are uniformly dressed in blue outfits and white caps; the boys wear black pants and dark-blue shirts. The room has a high ceiling. Three of the walls are painted marine blue, and on the front wall is a blackboard. Close by are a globe and some rolled-up world maps. In the corner is a large iron stove.
As we take our seats in front of the class, the children observe us with great curiosity. Each class is called up to the teacher’s desk and is questioned on yesterday’s homework assignment. We are pleasantly surprised when the teacher quizzes the children on a lesson about the Swiss Alps. The textbooks are rather old, and the teacher asks us if Switzerland is still as his books describe it. Do the cows still go up to the high meadows in the summertime, or is there still snow on the mountains? When we share our color photos of snowcapped peaks to complement the black-and-white ones in his textbook, he beams.
The teacher’s wife, who is his assistant, asks a frequently posed question, “Can you yodel?” We cannot. However, knowing how accomplished the Amish are at singing and yodeling, we ask that they sing a song for us. Our wish is granted, and we listen spellbound to this 40-voice choir. Next, the teacher sends the children out for recess.
The teacher’s wife now asks us to sing something for them. Forearmed with the texts of several folk songs in Swiss German, we agree. The word spreads on the playground, and in a flash, all the children are back in the classroom. Standing in front of the class, we do our best in singing for them.
Later, we are invited to eat a noon meal with an Amish family of 12. A long wooden table is loaded with good things to eat—mashed potatoes, ham, corn, bread, cheese, vegetables, pastries, and other desserts. Before the meal, each one says a silent prayer. As the dishes are passed, we chat about Switzerland, the country of their ancestors, and they tell us something of their life on the farm. The children whisper and giggle throughout the meal. When everyone is finished eating, there is a second prayer, and that is the signal that the children are allowed to leave the table—but not to play. Each one has an assignment in clearing the table and doing the dishes, which means first pumping the water and heating it.
While the children are washing the dishes, the parents invite us to join them in the living room. There is no sofa, but we seat ourselves in comfortable wooden rocking chairs. An old German Bible comes out of the cupboard, and as is common in Amish households, we are soon in an animated spiritual discussion. What is Jehovah God’s purpose for the earth and for mankind? What did Jesus mean when he said that the meek would inherit the earth? Does God really intend to torture wicked people in a fiery hell forever? Who is carrying out Jesus’ command to preach the good news to the entire inhabited earth? Discussing all these questions—and many more—with spiritually-minded people who have their Bible in hand brings joy to our hearts.
We now look back fondly on our trip into the past, which was so full of wonderful experiences. We hope and pray that these visits and conversations in Swiss German opened not only many doors but also many hearts to receive accurate knowledge of truth found in God’s Word, the Bible.