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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 99–101 

Book Review

Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers

Donald B. Kraybill. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 224 pages.

Reviewed by Gerald J. Maust

Throughout the fall of 2011 a strange and terrifying violence appeared among the Amish in Ohio: members of a dissenting Amish group living in Bergholz attacked other Amish with scissors, cutting off the hair and shearing the beards of their victims. The attacks were inspired, in part, by the increasingly fanatical leadership vision of a renegade Amish bishop by the name of Sam Mullett, who together with fifteen other Bergholz “barbers,” was eventually convicted and imprisoned for religiously motivated hate crimes. During the trial, the unusual practices of the Bergholz Amish were subjected to scrutiny and it became apparent that the hair-cutting attacks were rooted in broader patterns of physical and sexual abuse that had become routine patterns in the life the community. The abuses include the spanking of adult members of the community with wooden paddles, requiring church members to live for extended periods of time in a chicken coop, and extramarital sexual relations between Bergholz bishop Sam Mullett and numerous women in the community.

Kraybill’s book provides a compelling and illuminating account of the church conflicts leading up to the beard and hair cutting attacks, the investigation and prosecution of these crimes by local and federal law enforcement agencies, and the response of Amish leaders and communities to these remarkable events. In his writing, Kraybill employs the fast-paced and journalistic style of true crime while maintaining the integrity of a thoroughly documented academic book.

Throughout much of the book, Kraybill draws on his lifetime of research on Amish life and culture to give readers an appreciation for how these events were experienced within the life world of the Amish. He helps us understand why most Amish saw the Bergholz group as dangerous imposters, even though the Bergholz Amish were tied by family and tradition to the larger Amish community in Ohio. He is particularly {100} good at explaining how the Bergholzers interpreted the Bible to justify their extraordinary departures from Amish convention. He explains how the Bergholz Amish were increasingly drawn to the Old Book—the Old Testament—as the primary religious horizon of their community life, which led them to practice beard and hair cutting among themselves as practices of confession and purification. The Old Book focus, in Kraybill’s telling, led the Bergholz Amish to forget the message of the New Testament, especially the teachings of Jesus, which had long been the centerpiece of Amish religious teaching and worship. Instead, under the influence of their leader Sam Mullett, the Bergholz Amish cultivated an atmosphere of punishment and retribution that contributed eventually to the abandonment of traditional Amish worship services as well as to the seemingly vengeful and unprecedented assaults on the hair of Amish in other communities.

Kraybill makes a strong case that the Bergholz Amish are an exceptional group that do not reflect the practices and convictions of the broader Amish community. While he stops short of claiming that the Bergholzers are not Amish, he certainly invites readers to conclude, along with the broader Amish community, that they are not. This is the approach he reports taking during his expert testimony on behalf of the prosecution during the trial of the Bergholz Amish. And there is little doubt that the Bergholz Amish do in fact depart in quite troubling ways from the historic faith of the Amish. Moreover, their bishop was indeed a renegade bishop whose authority was rejected by the rest of the Amish bishops and ministers.

At the same time, this focus on how far removed the Bergholz Amish were from traditional Amish practices can serve to hide the ways in which the abusive practices of the Bergholz Amish may also make visible some of the problematic tendencies that are intrinsic to Amish culture—attractive and virtuous as this nonconformist and pacifist religious culture may be. For example, since Amish polity is so decisively congregational, other Amish leaders could do little to hold a clearly abusive leader accountable, beyond refusing to recognize his authority. And while Sam Mullett’s abuse of power and almost complete control over his community is clearly an extreme and unusual case of such abuse, it illustrates the vulnerability of Amish communities—especially isolated ones—to authoritarian and paranoid leadership. It is troubling how many Amish leaders were fully aware of the outrageous behavior of Sam Mullett and felt completely powerless to confront him and the abuses at Bergholz.

Finally, an exclusive emphasis on the exceptional aspects of Bergholz forgets the ways in which any patriarchally organized authoritarian {101} culture makes women especially vulnerable to the sexual predation of fathers and leaders. In all Amish communities, not just at Bergholz, girls and women are taught to yield to the spiritual headship of husbands, fathers, and bishops, making it very difficult to even acknowledge, much less confront, the abuse by powerful men in such communities. Of course, the problem of sexual abuse is not an exclusively Amish problem, but the problem can be especially difficult to challenge in communities that are separated from communication and transportation networks that provide knowledge, language, and resources for confronting such abuse.

It ought to be possible to acknowledge these and other troubling dimensions of Amish culture that are perhaps underlined by the extreme and shocking abuse at Bergholz without unduly tarnishing the Amish reputation or threatening the liberties that are granted to their communities. Amish communities, like all really existing human communities, have both strengths and weaknesses, the latter often frustratingly related to the former. From such a perspective it would be desirable to go farther than Kraybill’s analysis in order to attend to the ways in which Sam Mullett was not only a renegade from Amish orthodoxy, but also, to an important and frustrating extent, a product of it.

Gerald J. Mast
Professor of Communication
Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio

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