Ira Wagler: Growing Up Amish

Ira Wagler
Book Review: Growing Up Amish
A Memoir by Ira Wagler
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2011
Paperback, 288 pages

No cars. No electricity. No telephones.

Horse-drawn buggies for transportation and to power farming implements.

Long-flowing, home-sewn dresses and head coverings with chin strings for the women and girls. Homemade trousers with no belt loops and no zipper for the men and boys; pants held up by suspenders. Beards but no mustaches for the married men.

And the bishop’s word is law.

This was the Old Order Amish community of Aylmer, Ontario into which Ira Wagler was born in 1961. He was one of eleven children, four of whom—including him—would leave the church. Two brothers and a sister left while the family was in Aylmer. Such leavings were an embarrassment to parents, reflecting on their abilities and methods of raising children. To escape the embarrassment and to keep the family Amish, his parents moved the family to an Amish community in Bloomfield, Iowa.

A note under his pillow
In Growing Up Amish, Wagler writes clearly, simply, and convincingly of the struggles he faced with the rules and restrictions of Amish life. Those who did not question what they were told were called drones. Those with a “speck of spirit” longed for worldly things.

“Think about it. You are in a box—a comfortable box, but a pretty confining one. You wonder what’s outside. You peek out a bit now and then, and peer around. But deep down, you know that if you step outside that box, you are speeding directly down the highway to hell and could arrive at any instant. Boom, just like that.”

He stepped outside the box at age seventeen when he left home, early in the morning before sunrise, leaving a note under his pillow. Young Amish often left like that. He worked farms and construction in Kansas, Montana, Indiana, the Dakotas, Florida, and Ontario; took up smoking cigarettes, hard drinking, and running around with “English” women. He was excommunicated from the Order and later reinstated after confessing his sins—specifically, one at a time—before a board of elders.

“I’d done a lot of bad stuff, possibly even committed the unpardonable sin. Blasphemed the Holy Spirit, that horrendous act about which Amish preachers often thundered at great length and warned against. None had ever, as far as I could remember, defined that unpardonable sin. What it meant to blaspheme the Spirit. But it probably applied to me and the things I’d done. Who could tell?”

Trying to fit in
Wagler returned home and left again numerous times. During one home period he attempted to settle permanently into the Amish life. He and a brother-in-law bought out the farming business of Wagler’s father and he became engaged to a woman he knew for many years. But, with little interest in farming operations and his restless spirit tearing at him, he broke off the engagement and turned over the farm to his partner.

“Behind me lay a long and bitter trail, littered with the remains of so many broken dreams, some of which were my own, but mostly those of others.”

At age twenty-six he left the idealistic and sheltered life of the Amish church for good. He remains a Christian.

“Even though they no longer claim me as one of their own, I deeply respect the people connected to me by blood or background—the Amish. Their culture and their faith. With all their flaws. And all their strengths. They will always be a part of me.”

His heartwarming, bestselling memoir of trying to define himself apart from his upbringing is a rollercoaster of emotions: pure, personal, honest, dark, humorous, picturesque, joyful, sad, frustrating, enlightening, depressing, and courageous.

He has no regrets for the road he chose.

Wagler is an attorney and is general manager of a pole building supply company in Pennsylvania. He blogs at Read an interview with him at

Photo by Evonda Braswell.

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1 comment:

  1. This book is a great look at the Amish. However, I believe the message I it is clear. We all need to take a look at our lives and ask if we are where God wants us. If not then maybe we need to talk with him to find out where he wants us to be. I do find it funny when I think about how they try to separate themselves from the English. When we get to heaven Go is not going to separate us, say, "You Baptist over there and You Amish over here. We who have found salvation through Jesus blood are all God's children and he has prepared a home for us in heaven, together.