Steven Nolt, Elizabethtown College

Amish Entrepreneurship in a Global Economy
Steven Nolt


Fall 2017
Lecture Time: 
Friday, November 3, 2017 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm
Lecture Location: 
R0220 Ross School of Business
Introduced By: 
Bill Lovejoy


In recent decades, Amish society has undergone a dramatic shift away from farming. This significant economic transformation is perhaps the most consequential development since the group crossed the Atlantic nearly three centuries ago. Long committed to agriculture, Amish society had upheld a religiously-supported, separatist culture fitted to life on the land. A combination of population growth and changing agricultural economics produced a demographic squeeze that moved Amish households, rather quickly, into non-farming occupations. Although some men went to work in large, non-Amish-owned factories, the vast majority moved into entrepreneurship or took jobs in Amish-owned small businesses. The rise of Amish enterprise is striking both for its recent and rapid advance, and because the Amish have also retained many aspects of their traditional (“old order”) approach to life, including restricting many production and consumer technologies and limiting formal education to eighth grade. Nevertheless, Amish businesses have, for those most part thrived, though the demands of a competitive and expansive economy have also put pressure on, and sometimes changed, Amish society.

Studies of ethnic entrepreneurship have often identified ethnic resources for business success. This presentation will add to those models by discussing ethnic restraints on (such as limits on technology and formal education) in addition to ethnic resources, and will argue that restraints may actually become resources in a globalized economy. In the Amish case, at least, ethnic restraints can function as resources both internally, fostering community and business resilience, and externally, by creating a distinctive “brand.”

The presentation will also introduce, briefly, some of the major pressures and challenges that recent economic transformation has brought to Amish society, and some of the cultural adaptation and cultural resistance that such developments have engendered.

Note: Today there are approximately 320,000 Amish living in 530 communities (settlements) across thirty-one states and three provinces. These communities vary in size from fewer than 100 people to as many as 35,000. Michigan is home to more than forty of these settlements, which have a combined population of approximately 15,000.

Additional Notes

The author or coauthor of fourteen books on Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania German history and contemporary life, Steve Nolt is widely recognized for his scholarship on Anabaptist groups across North America. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame. He also serves as series editor for Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.