Book review: ‘Breakaway Amish’

Jun 20, 2016 by

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As a distinct religious and social group, the Amish have grown used to having their lives reported and interpreted by outsiders. Scholars study them. Novelists and “reality” television shows tell stories about them. Tourists observe them. Many admire them as models of simple virtue. The word “Amish” has become an adjective for high quality in food, carpentry and quilts.

"Breakaway Amish"

“Breakaway Amish”

In contrast to this sterling reputation, Breakaway Amish reveals seemingly out-of-character happenings in a small Amish community. It is written by a person who, until recently, was a part of that community. It is an inside story of what some have called an Amish cult.

The story gains credibility with an endorsement by Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist who has specialized in studies of the Amish and who wrote of these same incidents in Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes and the Trial of the Berg­holz Barbers. In the foreword to Mast’s book, Kraybill says: “I’m grateful that Johnny had the courage and conviction to tell the truth. . . . No one has ever done this before. It was not easy for him. It’s not a pleasant story with a happy ending. But it is an important story.”

The details are astonishing and are all related to the control that Bishop Sam Mullett — the author’s grandfather — had over a small Amish community in southern Ohio. Some people began to leave, and a gathering of Amish bishops investigated and agreed that those who left would be permitted to join other Amish communities — a variation on the common practice. All the other Amish communities cut ties with this one. But Amish polity evidently did not permit these bishops to discipline Mullett.

The serious problems began with Mullett calling upon the members of his community to write down their sins. Most attempted to comply. But Mullett perceived that some of the men were not comfortable writing all their sins, so he offered an alternative: “Give me some money, and it will pay for your sins.” He used the money to buy horses. Mullett also arranged for the author to leave his parents and move in with Mullett’s family, where he lived between the ages of 17 and 21.

Disciplinary actions proceeded apace. Seven or eight men were identified as greater sinners and sometimes “punished by making them go live in a chicken coop or in the stables. When they lived in the chicken coop, they ate food from the scraps thrown to the chickens.”

Eventually, hair- and beard-cutting began: “Someone suggested that one way to make things right with God would be for more people to cut their hair and beards. By humbling ourselves and cutting our hair, we could be cleansed of our sins. Such haircuts would be symbols, a kind of cleansing humiliation as well as a fresh start.”

The author explains the power of the bishop: “Our beliefs as Amish people meant that Sam, as the church bishop, had a lot of power over our eternal souls.” But the bishop’s abuse of power unleashed other enmities among some of the members. Also, the author discovered his grandfather in bed with a daughter-in-law.

When Mullett’s followers begun forcibly cutting the beards of people outside of their community, the police got involved. Mullett and more than a dozen others were arrested and charged with hate crimes.

Although Mast had cut his father’s hair, he withdrew from the cutting in time to avoid being charged. Instead he became a witness for the prosecution. It took the jury five days to decide the case. The result of the trial was a 15-year sentence for the bishop and lesser sentences for 15 others. In the summer of 2014 an appeals court threw out the hate-crime convictions, and in March 2015 a judge reduced Mullett’s sentence to 10 years and nine months.

The author asks: “Was cutting someone’s beard and hair worth a prison sentence? Maybe not if you put it that simply. But there wasn’t anything simple about it, and it was more than that, somehow. There was a humiliation. And the revenge.”

Mast finally decided to leave the Amish after his girlfriend rejected him. Outside he found Clara Hostetler, who had also left the Amish. They married and now have a child. But his parents, who stayed with the Bergholz Amish community, will not see them. At the time of writing, the author and his wife avoided church of any kind, but now that they have a daughter, church is not out of the question.

When people hear the word “Amish” they are likely to think of the story from Nickel Mines, Pa., where a demented milk-truck driver invaded an Amish school and shot 10 girls. The Amish willingness to forgive made worldwide news. The Bergholz Amish story is an aberration. We can ask why someone in the community did not stand up and lead a rebellion against such ridiculous orders. We would expect that in other communities there would have been checks and balances to come into play before the police and the FBI arrived.

We know bizarre things happen in many groups. The discipline of errant clergy is often most complicated. The apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians recited a number of his Jewish ancestors’ transgressions. Then he wrote, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).

Daniel Hertzler, of Scottdale, Pa., is a former editor of Gospel Herald.

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