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When Steven Nolt visualizes the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies he sees a connecting point where departments and disciplines from across the Elizabethtown College campus come together for programming. He also sees a link to the campus community, where media, churches and researchers meet, work and explore.Academia can have a reputation as a world unto itself,” Nolt said. “The Young Center broadens that connection from campus to the community.”
Nolt, the Center’s new senior scholar, moved from Goshen, Indiana, to Lancaster County this summer. In July, he took on his new duties after shifting office space with Donald Kraybill in a somewhat informal passing of the torch.
Nolt and Kraybill have worked together in some capacity for almost three decades. His initial memory of E-town was of “the ribbon cutting of the Musser chemistry building,” attended in 1983 with his dad, a chemistry teacher at Ephrata (Pennsylvania) Area High School. It was research that first connected Nolt to the Young Center more than 25 years ago.
Back then, he was hired to assist Kraybill with Amish business research, conducting fieldwork and interviews. In spring 1997, the historian was back as a Connelly Fellow and Visiting Instructor and, a dozen years after that, he was the College’s Snowden Fellow.
With his appointment as senior scholar his journey comes full circle.
He is the foremost Amish and Mennonite historian in North America. Period.” — Donald Kraybill
Though Nolt—husband to Rachel and father to Lydia and Esther—has spent half his life in the Midwest, he grew up near Elizabethtown. During the summers of junior high and high school, Nolt volunteered at Hans Herr House, the oldest homestead in Lancaster County and a local historical destination. This experience, he said, fueled his interest in history and, the close proximity of Amish neighbors, nudged him, he believes, toward an interest in Anabaptist groups.
“If you look at my career on paper, it looks well planned out,” said Nolt. “The study of Amish is prominent on my resume.” Though, he said, this aligning of the stars was mostly circumstantial.
In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Nolt worked at The People’s Place Visitor Center book store, answering questions tourists had about Amish life. Kraybill, Young Center director, at the time, stopped by and invited Nolt to join his research team.
“I got a grant for an Amish business project,” Kraybill said. “Due to the funding, I could employ him. I was impressed with his savvy, his research skills, his natural ability to understand Amish culture.”
And, for Nolt, the work was “fascinating.” He was in the Amish communities, talking with farmers and business owners, when he realized his interest in the group centered on its work within the greater society and the “matter-of-factness” about life, occupation and duty.
Nolt attended Goshen (Indiana) College, graduating in 1990. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from University of Notre Dame, where his interests fell in areas of U.S. immigration, ethnic history and American religious history.
In 1999, Nolt began teaching and researching at Goshen, and, to date, he has written or co-written 14 books and numerous book chapters and journals. “I was always interested in Mennonite history, especially the Mennonites and Amish during the Civil War and the Mennonites and slavery and the civil rights movement, especially in the tidewater areas of Virginia,” he said.
In addition to being senior scholar at E-town, Nolt is professor of 19th-century U.S. history and editor of the Young Center Book Series, published for the past decade through Johns Hopkins University Press.
“He’s is well-grounded and a prolific scholar in his studies,” said Jeff Bach, Young Center director, who first met Nolt when he came to Elizabethtown as Snowden Lecturer.
Bach views the senior scholar as an excellent balance for the Young Center. It is said that Nolt has more knowledge of the history of Mennonite groups and of contemporary Mennonites, and Kraybill is more knowledgeable about the Amish.
As a matter of fact, Kraybill and Nolt have collaborated on four major books and a number of journals in those subjects. “I’ve worked with him 25 years or more,” said Kraybill of his successor. “I am delighted that he was able to take the position. He is the foremost Amish and Mennonite historian in North America. Period.”
Kraybill, who said he “felt at peace with his decision to retire” is contributing decades of his research to the College’s Hess Archives. “I have an enormous amount of work to inventory and research to prepare for other scholars,” he said of his continued involvement as emeritus.
For the future of the Young Center, Nolt sees—especially with the upcoming expansion—an even greater resource for the community. Since he began studying the Amish, the population doubled in size—about 34,000 in the region—and, because they are spread across so many different areas, it makes it difficult to generalize about their customs. Certain standards for one group might not work for another depending on the diversity of the area. This makes for a bit of a culture clash.
One area hard hit is healthcare. “We can be a resource for healthcare and human service professionals who work with Amish clients” Nolt said, solidly reaffirming his vision of the Young Center as a place of connection.