In 2003, one new romance novel with an Amish theme was published. This year at least 86 are being released. Five of the top 10 best sellers on a recent list of Christian fiction were Amish titles, and the novels regularly hit mainstream best-seller lists. The top three authors of Amish romance novels—Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall and Wanda Brunstetter—have sold among them more than 24 million books.
Dubbed "bonnet rippers" by journalists who have suggested that the books are a kind of "Fifty Shades of Grey" for church ladies, Amish romance novels are written and read mostly, but not exclusively, by evangelical Christian women. "Getting Dirty in Dutch Country" is how a headline in Bloomberg Businessweek described the genre.
But evangelical erotica this is not. The stories feature suitors whose suspenders stay put. "The longer he stood so close to her, the stronger the need to kiss her lips became," writes Ms. Woodsmall of her hero's thoughts in "When the Heart Cries." "But he was afraid she might not appreciate that move."
Readers of Amish fiction are looking not for racy stories, but for romances in which the trinity of modesty, chastity and fidelity reign. While the books often feature a female protagonist that falls in love with a man outside of her community, the relationship always remains sweetly romantic.
Most Amish novels combine a human romance or two with a divine love story. These two romances often fuse, as in these lines from Ms. Brunstetter's "The Hope Chest": "He leaned down to kiss her, and Rachel felt as if she were a bird—floating, soaring high above the clouds—reveling in God's glory and hoping continuously in Him." Many loyal readers of Amish fiction say their experience of the genre resembles devotional reading as much as it does entertainment, and they hold up the Amish as exemplars of a faithful Christian life.
Although there are Amish mystery novels, Amish science fiction, and even several Amish vampire series ("The Amish Bloodsuckers Trilogy," for example), the plots for most Amish novels concern matters such as family conflicts, a young woman's questions about whether to join the church, disconcerting overtures from a non-Amish man, and so on. Farming, gardening, canning, quilting, making harnesses, courting in the buggy and visiting on the porch constitute characters' main activities.
Bits of Pennsylvania German dialect—"He's a gut mann, your Isaiah," says one character in Kathleen Fuller's "What the Heart Sees"—give the prose an antiquated aura. The rural setting, flavored with age-old practices and phrases, make Amish novels feel to readers like historical fiction, even if the books are set in the 21st century.
Amish fiction joins Ancestry.com, "Downton Abbey," heirloom tomatoes and vintage clothing in depositing us gently in the past without requiring us to loosen the vice grip on our iPhones. In what French theorist Gilles Lipovetsky has called our "hypermodern times," characterized by a high velocity of technological and social change, many people become enamored of things perceived as old, or having a direct connection to history. Ironically, given that the genre's allure is its rootedness in the simple life, Amish fiction owes its enormous success in part to the speed of hypermodern publishing. More than 150 self-published Amish e-books have been put out since 2010.
But the idea that we celebrate what seems to come from the faded past might suggest that the Amish themselves are waning. Quite the opposite.
The Amish are one of the fastest-growing religious groups in North America, ballooning from about 6,000 people in the early 20th century to nearly 300,000 today. According to a 2012 study from Ohio State University, a new Amish settlement is founded every 3.5 weeks, and the number of Amish people doubles every 21 years. Clearly, the Amish are a people of the future at least as much as they are of the past.
Yet the fact remains that many in this era of rapid innovation, longing for the reassurance of objects and experiences that link them to history, turn with special affection to the Amish. Evangelical women may have been the first to embrace Amish themes. But the success of TV shows like "Amish Mafia" and "Breaking Amish," and the growing Amish tourism industry suggest a much broader audience. In 2013, religious subcultures like the Amish—with their communal memory, centuries-old traditions and visible emblems of faith—remain as tantalizing as your great-grandmother's bread recipe that no one thought to write down.
Ms. Weaver-Zercher is the author of "Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).