What Can Amish Values Teach Us?
Marlin Miller started a magazine unlike anything on newsstands today. Embracing traditional values and faith, it offers a light in modern times.
BY THALIA ZHAO
July 27, 2021
When most people think of the Amish, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not a magazine. But Marlin Miller isn’t most people.
Marlin is the publisher of Plain Values, a magazine that brings good news, stories of inspiring people doing good, and opportunities to make a difference to more than 300,000 readers nationwide, many of them Amish. The magazine’s content is designed to appeal to the entire family and is carefully curated to support the Amish way of life distant from modern amenities.
The Ohio-based magazine has grown and expanded, even now reaching non-Amish readers who appreciate its traditional values and biblical worldview amidst modern times—something Marlin never expected.
A little over 10 years ago, Plain Values hadn’t even been a thought in his mind.
It would take seven weeks in a NICU and a prayer before the idea even began to take shape.
The Beginnings of a Family
“Sometimes the Lord calls us with a gentle nudge. Other times his calling can feel like a rush of a sudden wind when things begin to whirl around us, seemingly out of nowhere.”
These are Lisa Miller’s opening words to an article published in the October 2020 edition of Plain Values. Lisa is Marlin’s wife and a full-time mother to the Millers’ four children. She and Marlin wrote this article together, titled “Our Story,” to recount the journey of how the Miller couple became the Miller family.
The calling she spoke of was the calling to adopt many children. Ever since she was a child herself, there was nothing more Lisa wanted than to create a home that would be a nurturing place for children who needed to be loved and valued. And in 2007, five years after she married Marlin, she knew that she finally had the foundation to support her lifelong dream.
“We filled out our adoption home study initially, and then two weeks after our adoption home study was approved, we were matched with our oldest son. He was about 3 1/2 years old and had been in several placements [before] he came to us,” said Lisa.
Though adoption came with its own set of challenges, it also came with its unique set of joys, which the Millers shared with their son each step of the way. In fact, they found their first adoption so rewarding that two years later, in 2009, Marlin and Lisa began to talk about adding another member to their family. It was hardly a few days after that conversation when the Millers received a fortuitous phone call asking if they would consider a daughter.
“She was matched with us before she was born. We knew she was going to have Down syndrome, and that she was going to need some surgeries,” Lisa said. “She was born early and was in the NICU for seven weeks. We almost lost her a few times.”
Fortunately, their daughter was able to come home at the end of those seven weeks to become the fourth member of the Miller family. After beginning her life with a tough fight for her own existence, she’s now 11 and full of energy.
But the medical bills from those seven weeks didn’t come cheap for the Millers. After the addition of their daughter, they sold the home they had built six years earlier and bought a small fixer-upper so they could be debt-free and so that Lisa could become a full-time mom. Moreover, they had to find some way to keep up with the financial costs of their new family.
“I very quickly began praying,” Marlin said. “‘OK, Lord, so you’re going to bring us these kids—and I knew well enough that our time in the hospital was expensive, so my prayer quickly became, ‘OK, Lord, please help me and show me how to provide for what’s coming.’”
A Solution Hidden in Plain Sight
Before long, Marlin found the answer to his prayer.
“I was a sales rep with a local newspaper [at the time.] And because I grew up Amish, I can talk Dutch, the language of the Amish community. Probably about 70 percent of my client base was Amish,” he said.
The Millers live in Ohio, which is the U.S. state with the second-highest Amish population, at more than 78,000, and boasts the highest number of Amish congregations in the nation. Though the Amish tend to shy away from modern technologies in favor of simple living, they do still interact with non-Amish—or “English”—as valued customers, partners, and friends.
In his dealings with his Amish clientele, Marlin began to notice a pattern: While Amish clients would often place ads in the paper he worked for, many times the product or services they advertised were only relevant to Amish buyers. However, since the newspaper priced ads based on total circulation, his Amish clients were forced to spend extra money to reach a population that didn’t care about what they were selling.
“So the inspiration for the magazine was, what if we could purify that Amish mailing list or market?” said Marlin. “We could purify that market and go back to the Amish business[es] and say, ‘Hey listen, we have an advertising product [where] 100 percent of your money is going to bring [you] more value because it’s going to hit your entire market.’”
After putting all these pieces together, Marlin ran two pilot issues as a test with promising results. Through these results, the path forward suddenly became clear: He would make a magazine specifically for the Amish and other Plain people—Christian groups such as the Amish who live simple lives outside of the bustle and opulence of contemporary convenience—possibly the first ever.
“So I told [Lisa] that I think this idea is going to hold water,” said Marlin. “I think the bucket’s going to hold water but we have to retool it. We have to make the magazine a better product. And so we basically thought through and prayed through what the best [content to give] our readers is.”
Together, Lisa and Marlin came up with three pillars for the type of content that they wanted their new magazine to contain. The first two pillars of content drew from the Millers’ own experiences—they looked for content that would show the dignity of children with special needs, as well as content that would illustrate the beauty of adoption.
“One of the things that I told [Lisa] was that I really wanted to be a part of—big or small, it didn’t matter—but I wanted to be a part of an adoption of another child with Down syndrome or some special need,” said Marlin, “hopefully to be able to connect the child and the family.”
The third pillar for the magazine’s content was to highlight good works being done both at home and around the world, especially situations in which people trying to do good may need prayers, donations, or volunteer assistance.
“We wanted to [be] that connector between people who don’t have a smartphone [and the causes they care about],” said Marlin. “We want to share stories about that work that the Plain people could get behind.”
It was also important to Marlin that all the magazine’s content be presented through the lens of a biblical worldview.
“We knew that biblically-centered work would resonate with the Amish, for the most part, because that’s really how they try to live their lives,” he said.
Under the guidance of these content principles, Marlin officially established Just Plain Values in 2012 after quitting his job in sales. The publication was named after the Plain people and would be rebranded to become Plain Values in early 2020.
“It was kind of fun telling people that we were ‘Just Plain Values,’ and I’d have to add: no, that’s now simply, ‘Plain Values,’” said Marlin.
A Magazine for Good News
At first glance, Plain Values may not seem like a magazine for the Amish. In fact, with its chic geometric design and matte cover, it could easily be mistaken for an artbook or photography magazine. Each monthly issue is substantial, containing one or two in-depth feature articles along with a rotation of regular columns.
In line with their content pillars, the feature stories typically center around people who are making the world a better place in their own way—the February 2021 issue, for instance, spotlighted Wide Awake International, a nonprofit that brings “hope, dignity, and love to orphans with disabilities in Ukraine.”
As to how Plain Values finds all these stories of wonderful people and wonderful work to fill each issue, Marlin says that it’s really a matter of always being tuned in to what’s going on around him.
“I am always watching. [Lisa] is always watching,” he said. “I feel like we try to watch for news or work that is a little different or a little unique, and that we think our Amish readers would really enjoy learning about. So it’s this ongoing hunt, if you will.”
“Normally he’s sharing about a really incredible organization that is … the boots on the ground in their unique area,” Lisa added. “It’s such a joy to be able to share [these organizations] with people that normally wouldn’t find them, unless they were actually on the internet doing a search for something specific like that.”
Many of the columns in Plain Values have been curated to support different aspects of Plain living, from homesteading and recipes to outdoorsmanship and small-business news. One column for widows—written by a twice-widowed lady—helps them reconcile their loss and find strength. Children get a section of puzzles and games as well; a recent edition had a crossword with Dutch hints and English answers to help them practice their vocabulary.
“I know that the little kids will fight over [the magazine], and I’ve heard that people up into their 90s and even beyond read it cover to cover,” said Marlin. “They look forward to it every month.”
Interspersed throughout the magazine are donation cards and many opportunities to contribute to trustworthy charitable causes, both globally and locally. Each issue of Plain Values contains a piece titled “Prayers for the Nations,” which focuses on the ongoing humanitarian efforts in a specific nation, as well as the people who these efforts help. A “Funds and Benefits” section of each magazine also highlights fundraisers in the local community by families who may need financial assistance or prayers.
“About a month ago, there was a pretty tragic accident [with] a pickup. The driver was driving three or four Amish in the back, they were on their way to a job, and I think somehow, he ran into the back of a parked semi,” said Marlin. “It actually killed the Amish guy in the front seat and really, really wounded everybody else in the back.”
The Amish man who had died was only 32, and left behind a wife and three children. Many community fundraisers were held for the community, and a request for help in Plain Values was put in. As a result, his widow received several substantial checks to support her family through this difficult time.
“It’s pretty common for someone to have cancer and come out of that situation [with] a half a million dollars in bills, and you know, they put on a fundraiser and they raise every dollar they need and more,” said Marlin. “[The Amish] are not the type of people to have wealth and not share with neighbors in need. They’re incredibly charitable people.”
A Demographic Like No Other
“I don’t want to say that it’s a caricature of the Amish market, but things like ‘Amish Mafia,’ those TV shows don’t do any services to the Amish in reality at all,” said Marlin. “Because they’re not like that.”
Since Amish people mostly interact within their own geographically clustered settlements, it can be difficult for the non-Amish to have an accurate understanding of what the Amish are truly like. During his years of working with the Amish, Marlin has been routinely impressed by not just their generosity, but also their incredible industriousness.
“The Amish have a work ethic like you just can’t imagine. They work like crazy to serve to the very best of their ability,” he said. “Because of that, there’s a lot of wealth [in the community].”
However, this sense of hustle is tempered by a selfless attitude that places others first.
“I think a lot of the folks in business that are Amish understand what Zig Ziglar used to say, ‘If I can serve them and I can help them, I’ll be taken care of.’” said Marlin. “The focus is on an outward, ‘How do I serve? How do I bring them the very best thing that we can?’ and they put their own needs on the back burner. They understand how that works.”
Because of these qualities, people of all different backgrounds usually love to do business with the Amish. While many Amish are farmers, some of them have occupations in construction, woodworking, leatherworking, shopkeeping, and other more traditional enterprises.
“On top of that, they’re doing it with an eighth-grade education, and they are brilliant businessmen,” said Marlin.
The Amish custom for education only goes up to the eighth grade; afterward, students graduate and begin building their own livelihoods. Although there are quite a few Amish parochial schools that go from kindergarten to eighth grade, the public school system in Ohio supports Amish students as well.
“We have a set of public schools under our district that are all Amish students. They’re all Amish, and their families wanted them to receive a public education,” said Lisa. “But they only go through the eighth grade and then they graduate.”
Before she became a full-time mother, Lisa was a teacher at one of these Amish public schools.
“When I first started, I was in the one school that didn’t have electricity,” she said. “I only had one little reading lamp and I had to hook it up to an RV battery. I would have to take the battery home and charge it up.”
“And of course, forget about air conditioning,” added Marlin.
“We had to put our lunches in a box on the radiator so that by lunchtime, they’d be warm,” said Lisa.
As for what’s taught to the students, Amish public schools still had to follow the overall curriculum set by the local school board. However, the schools themselves had the power to strike out certain parts of the curriculum that were not in line with Amish sensitivities.
“[The curriculum] went through an additional screening process. You had to be cautious about what content and books you were using,” said Lisa. “It was kind of that mindset across the board, to be mindful of their culture.”
This same mentality carries over to the editorial team at Plain Values as well. Sensitive topics, such as pregnancies and reproductive health, have to be navigated with the correct euphemisms and discretion. What’s more, different congregations of Amish sometimes have different attitudes toward just how much they should be separated or integrated with modern society, which means that creating content appropriate for all Amish readers is often a delicate task.
One difficult content decision happened relatively recently with the May and June issues of 2021. The feature articles of both issues were about labor trafficking and sex trafficking—a rare deviation from the magazine’s family-friendly credo.
“It’s only been in the last couple years that Amish families are allowing their kids to get smartphones,” said Marlin. “About three years ago, a guy called me up and said, ‘Hey, we are concerned.’ He was in a local government position in his county, and he was concerned, along with his own sheriff, with the Amish kids that were getting smartphones.”
A smartphone offers a gateway to the colorful world of the internet, where people aren’t often who they say they are. For Amish children, who might only have limited exposure to the internet before their smartphones, this may come as an unpleasant surprise—and many times, as this government official told Marlin, it came as a lesson that Amish children learn only too late. Their innocence and naivete often make them easy targets for traffickers that are looking to groom young children into becoming labor or sex slaves.
“I spoke with probably about six or eight different Amish preachers, and bishops, and folks that I trust, and I would share what I was looking at and trying to pray through,” said Marlin. “Every single one of them said: ‘Marlin, you have to do it. If it makes a difference for one kid, you just have to do it.’”
In the end, responses to the two features were very positive, with parents being thankful that the magazine has provided valuable information to keep their children safe.
“It’s been received overwhelmingly [well],” said Marlin. “We have had people call in to share stories that they were sexually abused. And I don’t want to sound cliche here, but [it makes me feel that] our work actually means something to our readers.”
Looking to the Future
Now in its ninth year, Plain Values has had a bigger impact than either Marlin or Lisa had expected. One of the biggest successes was that the magazine has played an important role in several adoptions, fulfilling Marlin’s initial goal for the magazine.
“Just this last weekend, we met two families that adopted children because of Plain Values. They’re both Amish from Indiana, and they were in for a big adoption gathering, and we’ve wanted to meet them forever,” he said. “It was wonderful to be able to spend time with them.”
But the readers weren’t the only ones adopting—as the magazine was growing, the Miller family grew as well. The Millers joined the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network after adopting their daughter and soon brought home two more sons, both with Down syndrome. Their eldest son was also formally diagnosed with autism in his teenage years.
“Our oldest son, he did not have a diagnosis attached to him when he was placed with us at age 3 1/2—” she stopped mid-sentence. “Oh I’m sorry, it’s total chaos!”
As if on cue, the three younger Miller children ran into the room, interrupting Lisa. They spilled onto their parents’ laps, giggling all the while.
“We would love to help bring a new appreciation that kids who have special needs are not the ones we should be getting rid of,” said Marlin. “They’re the ones who bring spark and joy. They are what teaches us and show us that everybody [God] creates has value.”
To that end, the Millers launched their own nonprofit, Room to Bloom, in October 2020 to connect orphans with special needs to adoptive families and advocate for the dignity of people with special needs around the world. Plain Values is now owned by the nonprofit, and Plain Values readers have the ability to donate directly to Room to Bloom to help children in need. Over the past eight months, Room to Bloom has raised more than $200,000 for children with special needs.
“The impact that we’ve been able to make, that [God] has made through us, I should say, is more than what we would’ve ever seen [coming],” said Marlin.
And there looks to be even more to come. In the past few years, Marlin has seen a steady trend of non-Amish readers inquiring about—and subscribing to—Plain Values.
“When we started, I had no idea that anybody outside of the Amish community would ever want to get our magazine,” he said. “Now it’s been this ongoing thing that every month, we get a couple hundred people that email or call in saying, ‘Hey, I saw this magazine! How do I get this thing?’”
Though Marlin can’t point to any sort of demographic trait that these callers share, he says that these readers share a desire for media that emphasizes traditional values and a biblical worldview.
“I think if I had to pick something, the common thread would be that a lot of families that are coming to Plain Values are tired of not being able to trust the media that they see every day. And they’re tired of all the bad news, and they’re looking for encouragement,” he said.
As for the magazine’s future content direction, Marlin wants to encourage a return to moral living and emphasize family values.
“[I want] to encourage people all over to come back to a biblical worldview and understand that God built the family. He designed the family, and it is very much a signpost to himself,” he said. “And the role of the dad and the role of the mom, and the love that they share and then how they bring up the family inside of that—there’s just no better way to live! It’s how we were built to live.”
To learn more about Plain Values, visit PlainValues.com
Plain Values is a media partner of The Epoch Times.