THORNDIKE, Maine — With rain in the forecast, hay on the ground and high stakes in front of him, Kenneth Copp was racing the clock.
The Thorndike furniture-maker and farmer was beginning to feel desperate about his chances of getting the first hay cutting inside his barn before the predicted rains came. His horses will eat hay from the bales all winter, and he can’t afford to purchase supplemental hay if his crop is lost to mildew and rot. So the wiry 57-year-old rolled up the sleeves of his thin cotton shirt, adjusted the turquoise sweat band beneath his straw hat and got to work on the huge task ahead of him — alone.
“I always think of Monty Python’s song: Always look on the bright side of life,” he said, wryly, his shirt drenched in sweat as he moved heavy hay bales off his horse-drawn wagon, a hard job to do by himself. “I just try to go nice and slow and not have a heart attack.”
Getting farm work done didn’t used to be so difficult. Copp spent decades in old-order Mennonite and Amish communities, living according to the word of God. He married young and fathered 10 children. In those days, a big job like getting the haying in would have been quick work. His sons and his brothers from the community would have pitched in, muscling the bales from fields to hayloft together. But Copp gave up that help, and more, when he left the church five years ago. Now, the self-described “Amish atheist” seems to walk a thin line between two worlds.
He still dresses like an Amish farmer, still uses his horses for transportation and power, still eats from his garden, still uses an ice house and still tries to live simply. But he also owns and drives a Honda Element, uses a cell phone and reads whatever he wants. He can have a beer or a glass of wine, can vote in elections and can have a relationship that’s based on equality and not male dominance. Most of all, though, he can think freely, no longer bound by the laws and words printed in the Bible, the words which by the end of his time in the church felt to him like a prison of superstition.
“The only way to have freedom of religion is to have freedom from religion as well,” Copp said.
Beginning of the journey
Copp was not born into an Amish or old-order Mennonite family, but instead was raised in Virginia in the Pentecostal faith. Although he went to public school and his father worked for the National Park Service, he was attracted to hard-line religious thinking.
“That was the seedbed of fundamentalism,” he said.
When one of his elder brothers joined a Mennonite group, he grew interested in joining them, too. Copp, not yet 18 at that time, had begun to feel that Pentecostals didn’t take the Bible seriously enough.
“People made too many excuses,” he said.
He felt the Mennonites his brother had joined in Wisconsin were more committed to their faith and to the Bible. His father gave him permission to leave home and join the group, but after a time Copp decided he didn’t care for that church. He traveled around the country for two years, attending various Mennonite churches, and then settled on a church in northern New York state.
Both Amish and Mennonites are members of Christian Anabaptist denominations. Anabaptist beliefs are based on the mission and ministry of Jesus, and early adherents faced religious persecution from Roman Catholic and Protestant states in Europe. Many were forced to flee to more tolerant places. Today, there are more than two million Anabaptists around the world. They run the gamut from “plain people,” such as the Amish, who wear plain clothes, attend church in plain buildings and eschew certain forms of technology, to groups that blend in seamlessly with the 21st century and do not have special clothes or technology requirements.
Copp threw himself into his new community, which is where he met his wife and where he became a dedicated religious convert.
“I was the type of person you wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to on the bus,” he said, only half-jokingly. “I wasn’t overly pushy. Just earnest.”
After about nine years, he and his wife moved to Tennessee, where they were part of a different Mennonite congregation. Their family grew as they continued a kind of peripatetic journey through several churches in other states, including Virginia and Missouri. Over the years, they were drawn to ever-stricter churches. In Virginia, they destroyed their drivers licenses, bought a horse and buggy and learned “Pennsylvania Deutsch,” the German dialect spoken by many Amish and old-order Mennonite communities. In Missouri, they were successful farmers, growing juicy watermelon in the hot, muggy summers and giving up even more of their worldly ways.
About eight years ago, fed up with the hot weather in Missouri and with some trouble in the church, the family loaded tractor trailers with their farm machinery, buggies, wagons and other household goods, which many Amish and old-order Mennonite do when they move. They traveled north to Maine to join the Waldo County Amish community.
In Maine, he fully intended to become a member of the Amish church. Instead, he started a totally different kind of journey — this one away from religion altogether.
Fall from grace, and towards science
Maybe the end began for him back in Missouri, when Copp and his wife went to get passport pictures taken. Passport pictures are one of the few exceptions to the general old-order Mennonite and Amish rule against photography, because members do travel to other church settlements overseas, and Copp struck up a friendship with the photographer.
“I was a person who was always concerned with other people’s spiritual welfare,” he said, adding that he probed to find out what his new friend believed about God. “He was a great guy. And he said ‘I just don’t believe in anything.’ Well, how could an atheist, a person who in my book was going to hell, be so kind and nice?”
In Maine, Copp was allowed to have a phone in a shed situated away from his home, just like the other Amish people here. And sometimes he would go to the phone shed to call his friend in Missouri, and the two would have friendly debates.
“We got on the subject of evolution, and every time I argued with him, he’d turn it right around,” Copp recalled.
Then his friend posed a stumper of a question: Who created the creator?
“And that was a question I couldn’t answer,” Copp said. “That’s what got me thinking. I began to realize I really didn’t have a good argument for creation.”
He started to look into science, learning basic concepts he can’t remember studying in public school, such as what a hypothesis is and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. After reading about Darwin, the strict creationism taught and believed in the church began to seem, well, not very believable to him. Copp was humbled by what he was learning, and also keenly aware that he was pushing the envelope too much for his community. Although the Maine group allowed more critical thinking than he had been used to in other churches, it didn’t allow as much as he was starting to need. His wife and children also were not on board with his newfound zeal for science and rational thought.
“I was treading in shark-infested waters. The things I was thinking about were absolutely heretical. You cannot believe in evolution,” he said. “I began to reevaluate my faith. And the problem with me was that I couldn’t stop once I started.”
Copp’s fall from faith became a big problem, in both his family and his community. He left the church, and then was shunned, or put “in the ban,” as he calls it. He is still in the ban today. Shunning is the use of social exclusion to enforce Amish church rules, and means that Amish church members cannot eat at the same table with you, do business with you or receive anything from you. It was lonely, he said.
“You feel that cutoff. You feel disassociated and unloved by your family,” Copp said. “Right in the home, every day at every meal, there had to be shunning. That was very difficult. It put a real strain on my marriage.”
Eventually, his wife packed up and left, taking the five children who were still living at home with her. Their older children were grown and on their own already. One of them, a daughter, is married to a man in the Amish community in Maine, but sees her father only occasionally. For all intents and purposes, Copp was on his own, living near a community of people he said would probably greatly prefer that he would move away, too.
“I think a lot of the Amish would wish me out of here. I’m such a thorn in their flesh,” he said.
The Amish Atheist is here to stay
But Copp doesn’t want to leave. He loves his farm, his horses and the recently renovated woodshop where he makes the fine chairs, tables and other furniture he sells at his home business, Locust Grove Woodworks. He likes selling goat’s milk and eggs to people in Waldo County. He loves the green field that has given him hay for all these years and the relationship he has with a local woman who is not connected to the Amish, who he describes as a very understanding person who is not religious, either. He remains married to his wife, who now lives in Pennsylvania, but is estranged from her. Copp describes their situation as an uneasy standoff, adding that pursuing divorce is made complicated by both their family economic dynamics and by his wife’s religion.
“When you’re married, you’re married for life,” he said of the group’s views on matrimony.
So he just keeps to his new status quo on his farm, figuring out ways to live here balanced on the edge of both worlds. Working the farm by himself is hard, and at times Copp has to ask for help. He has found that despite the shunning, his Amish neighbors often have a hard time just watching him struggle.
“They’re officially not supposed to help me, but their humanistic neighborliness kind of wins out in the end,” he said.
That’s what happened with his hay. The morning of the predicted rain, a couple of Amish men came to his field with their horse-drawn wagon and helped him bring in the remaining bales of hay. Copp, who would like to be able to return the help in kind, appreciates it.
“I like the work ethic that the Amish have. It’s very good. They teach basic honesty, and they have a structured society that cares for people,” he said. “That is something I definitely miss … I miss the community. I miss it a lot.”
Now, apart from the Amish community, he is worried about things he didn’t worry about before, such as paying for health insurance and what he will do when he is older and can no longer work for his living. The Amish and the Mennonite groups he had previously belonged to do not subscribe to health insurance, instead digging deep into their pockets to help out when someone in the church has a big hospital bill. They help church members who don’t even live in their own communities, Copp said.
“When there’s a certain need, a deacon will stand up and say we received a letter from Michigan about a brother and sister who had a car-buggy accident,” he said, giving an example. “The offering box sits in a dark corner of the church, and maybe each family can give as much as $100. There are no insurance premiums. That’s still something I have trouble with, subscribing to insurance.”
Amish also do not pay into Social Security because they do not take it, instead taking care of their own elders. Copp will not receive much from that critical safety net after he retires.
“And I could use it,” he said ruefully.
These days, even though he makes most of his money from his furniture, he has been spending more time farming than woodworking. Copp is dreaming of finding an apprentice, or maybe someone of means who will buy his farm and let him live on it until he dies. In the meantime, he is busy learning, farming, woodworking and writing. He also dreams of finding an editor to help him with the book he is working on about his journey from Amish to atheist.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said of the many changes that have happened in his life in the last five years. “Nothing comes without a price. But the price of living free in my mind is worth it all.”