Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Amish Beard (In Praise of Art Gish)

Arthur G. Gish became influential in my life nearly forty years ago, so I am writing this to praise his life and work—and partly to talk about his beard.
Gish was born on August 15, 1939, in Lancaster County, Penn., where many Amish people live. As a youth he became a member of the Church of the Brethren (CoB) and graduated from Bethany Theological Seminary, a CoB school in Richmond, IN. Gish’s first book was titled The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970). That book was written when he was about thirty years old and very much involved in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement.
Gish’s next books were Beyond the Rat Race (1973) and Living in Christian Community (1979). “Simple Gifts,” the old Shaker hymn that begins, “It’s a gift to be simple, / It’s a gift to be free,” appears at the top of the very first page of text in the former. (Those same words are also quoted at the beginning of “Enough Is Enough,” the sixth chapter of Jim Wallis’ new book, Rediscovering Values, which will be discussed on October 13 at the Vital Conversations meeting at Antioch Public Library.)
In his first book, Gish contrasts the political “new left,” which was very active in the late 1960s, with Christian radicalism, especially as seen in the Anabaptists. I had long been a “fan” of the Swiss Brethren of the sixteenth century and others in that pacifist tradition, but I became even more enthusiastic about them after reading Gish’s book.
At the beginning of the chapter on Anabaptism, Gish writes,
The beard of the protester gave me a new appreciation for my Anabaptist grandfather’s beard. His beard symbolizes for him something very similar to what the beard means for the protester. When I asked my grandfather why he grew a beard his reply was that it was to show that he was different from the world. The beard of the protester is to demonstrate that he is not a part of the establishment. My own beard is a conscious attempt to bring together these two radical perspectives (p. 49).
Even though he was not Amish, Gish had an "Amish beard" which he kept to the end of his life, as you can see from the fairly recent picture on the left. And even though I have never been, or had any relatives who have been, Amish, I have worn a similar beard since 1972—and I made the decision to grow an “Amish beard" partly because of reading what Gish said about his beard.
Just two or three weeks ago I heard the sad news that Art Gish had died earlier this year in a farm accident. For decades he had lived and worked on his farm in Ohio growing organic food. But in July the tractor he was driving turned over and caught fire, and he died in that tragic accident.
Thank you for allowing me to share these few words in memory of, and in praise of, Art Gish (and his Amish beard).


  1. I now know the story of your beard and respect it all the more. Thank you for sharing the life and influence of Art Gish with us, your Thinking Friends.

  2. I am happy to finally know the story behind your beard, Dad! Since I was only two when you started wearing an "Amish beard," I never knew the details of why you started to wear it that way -- it just seemed "normal" to me.

  3. As someone with a not-quite Amish style beard, I have to confess that mine is more of a happening than a statement. Since I started it in college in the 70s, I guess there was still an implicit statement. Of course, nowadays, even the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has a beard!

    I have always had an awkward relationship with all the great goings on of the 60s, I was still in junior high and high school when much of it happened. I saw the 60s on television more than I lived it. Yet I was close enough that I remember it. I am impressed with those who found a clear voice from the experience. It sounds like Art Gish was such a person.

    We sometimes are berated on this blog for a lack of a strong female viewpoint. I am not sure how this subject, despite its charms, is going to help us with THAT subject. Perhaps it is time for a round on women in ministry. Or, on why men are so bad at listening to women, especially when we need to! Maybe we could start by remembering Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace," back in the days when Christian rock just happened, without needing to be in a niche market!

  4. In the original article, I wrote that Art Gish was born into an Amish home and later became a member of the Church of the Brethren. Just today I had the following correction by Peggy Gish, Art's wife, and have subsequently corrected the article. Here is what Peggy kindly posted on Facebook:

    "Art didn't grow up Amish. He grew up in a Church of the Brethren family and became a member as a youth. He did often talk about his beard as being an "Amish beard," wore Amish hats, and had close relationships with Amish. But this doesn't take away from what else you wrote about his life and motivation for wearing an Anabaptist beard. At the time of his death, we still did not have internet at our home and he had never been on Facebook, choices I made more recently."