Show traces family roots to story of Amish faithfulness

MC USA leader appears on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

May 9, 2016 by , and

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On many Sundays, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, can be found preaching or speaking at Mennonite churches, meetings, conventions or other gatherings.

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, talks with actress Katey Sagal on "Who Do You Think You Are?" Researching her family roots, Sagal learns about the Jacob Hoch­stetler family and an incident of nonresistance in 1757. — YouTube

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, talks with actress Katey Sagal on Who Do You Think You Are? Researching her family roots, Sagal learns about the Jacob Hoch­stetler family and an incident of nonresistance in 1757. — YouTube

But on a Sunday evening in April, Stutzman was one of several featured guests on the TLC television show Who Do You Think You Are? On the program he meets actor and singer Katey Sagal, known for her role on Married with Children from 1987 to 1997. In the April 17 edition of the TLC program, Sagal explores her family roots and learns about her Amish ancestors. The episode is available on YouTube.

Stutzman has written several books for Herald Press, the publishing arm of MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada. These include Jacob’s Choice and Joseph’s Dilemma, two historical novels in his “Return to Northkill” trilogy.

Stutzman’s work on the trilogy brought him to the attention of TLC researchers when they consulted David Weaver-Zer­cher, professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and author/editor of numerous publications on the Amish. Weaver-Zercher, who is married to Herald Press editor Valerie Weaver-Zercher, knew of Stutzman’s historical research for the novels and suggested TLC contact Stutzman.

Stutzman is one of a handful of Mennonite historians and researchers the TLC show could have turned to regarding the Amish family of Jacob Hoch­stetler. Hochstetler is considered a faith hero among the Amish and many Mennonites for refusing to use guns to defend his family during an attack in 1757. His wife, daughter and one son were killed in the attack and his home burned; Jacob and two sons were captured.

A researcher for the program first called Stutzman for a telephone interview last August, asking about his perspective on the meaning of Hochstetler’s response to the 1757 attack and what nonresistance means to Amish and Mennonites today.

After a Skype video interview with Stutzman in December, the producers invited him to appear on the program with a Hoch­stetler descendant whose identity they did not reveal to him at that time. He had never watched Who Do You Think You Are? but checked it out and was impressed.

Seventh cousins

When Stutzman learned who the show would revolve around, he did some searching online about Sagal.

“The producer only told me that Katey was my seventh cousin,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to meet her before the taping began.”

Thus Stutzman did not know Sagal’s political or religious leanings, “so I had no idea what her reaction would be to Jacob’s refusal to shoot at the Indians when Jacob’s family was under attack,” he said. In the program, Sagal is shown reading the historical description of the attack in the library in Reading, Pa.

Stutzman spent several hours with Sagal, about half of which was filmed.

“I had the pleasure of answering many of Sagal’s questions in some depth, but only a few minutes of the interview made the final cut,” he said.

In the program, Sagal notes that her parents, who lived in Hollywood, Calif., opposed the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s.

As Stutzman watched the segment on TV and learned more of Sagal’s family history, “I immediately thought of the Vietnam War as being the first major war in which conscientious objection by a diverse group [not just Anabaptist groups] played a major role in bringing the war to an end,” he said, noting it also served to move the church from the terminology of nonresistance toward nonviolence.

Stutzman said he was surprised by the openness of the producer and staff to learn about the Amish and Mennonite faith.

“Katey was very surprised to meet a distant cousin on the show,” he said. “She had no idea that she had so many relatives.”

Sagal was pleased to discover her ancestors were peace-loving people, and she expressed this on the show.

“She had never heard of a Mennonite and knew next to nothing about the Amish,” Stutzman said.

Stutzman was born into an Amish home in Kalona, Iowa, and spent most of his childhood in Hutchinson, Kan. Stutzman said he maintains a huge curiosity about the past, which is his strongest motivation for research. He has learned that “narrative captivates people’s interest in ways that essays cannot.” He is pondering what he will write after his work on the Northkill trilogy is finished.

Stutzman is grateful for the opportunity the show gave him.

“I consider it an honor to have been asked,” he said.


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