ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — Ironically, the first group convicted for religiously motivated violence under the U.S. Hate Crime Prevention Act was Amish. Or claimed to be.
“This is a sad, sad bizarre story,” Amish scholar Donald Kraybill told hundreds of listeners who gathered Oct. 21 at Elizabethtown College.
“While the ‘good Amish’ in Nickel Mines readily forgave the shooter and his family, the ‘bad Amish’ of Bergholz showered vengeance on their own people,” writes Kraybill in his new book, Renegade Amish.
Nine Amish victims — eight men and one woman — were left disfigured, bloody and bruised from Amish-on-Amish attacks inspired by Bishop Sam Mullet, who, as Kraybill says, exacted retaliation and revenge on those “critical of his autocratic decision-making.”
Kraybill served as an expert witness for the FBI during a 10-day trial in 2012 with 20 lawyers that ended in 87 guilty verdicts.
Charges of conspiracy, lying, obstruction and hate crimes sent 16 Amish to prison with sentences ranging from one to 15 years. Mullet received the maximum sentence of 15 years.
The hate-crime convictions were eventually reversed by the Cincinnati Appellate Court. The majority opinion said the judge should have asked the jury: “Was religion a primary motivation?” rather than “Was religion a significant motivation?” On Oct. 10, the U.S. Department of Justice petitioned the Appellate Court for a full review of the case.
Kraybill described Mullet as a strong-minded, opinionated and conservative person who despised modern trends and held tightly to old customs. Kraybill believes Mullet’s theology is disturbed and distorted.
When people began questioning Mullet’s ways, he embarked on a campaign of terror.
Mullet’s knee-jerk reaction to disagreement was to excommunicate. Because the Bergholz clan practiced strict shunning, ex-members were unable to join other groups until they confessed their wrongdoings to Mullet. But 300 Amish leaders exempted Mullet’s victims, allowing ex-members to unite with other Amish churches without confession.
This was a pivotal point, when Mullet’s power was eviscerated.
He responded with a message in the form of a drawing. In it he was compared to Elijah, the true prophet of God, while the 300 ministers were likened to the false prophets of Baal.
Mullet rejected the Christocentrism of Anabaptism. He loved the Old Testament’s violent narratives. But in Amish culture, the New Testament, especially the Gospels, has always been central.
One way Mullet taught his people lessons in obedience was by quoting the Old Testament.
“He wanted to go back to the Old Testament, to the time of Abraham,” one member said, “because God spoke directly to people through the prophets, men could have multiple wives and use physical punishment.”
‘Purity’ and violence
Apart from violence, the most non-Amish aspects of Bergholz were Mullet’s rituals of purity. The first was beard cutting.
“Tuesday night I opened the door unsuspectingly and terror walked in,” said Barb Miller, describing the night her husband, Marty, was pulled out of bed at 10:30 and forcibly held down as Amish men grabbed and cut off his beard, leaving him bloody and razor-burned.
Beard cutting, Kraybill said, is an act of shaming. It struck at the heart of Amish identity and caused public embarrassment.
He said the motivation for these attacks was simple: revenge on critics.
After the attacks, Amish families, many unaccustomed to locking their doors, began locking them. Kraybill said bishops confessed privately that they armed themselves with pepper spray.
Mullet’s group also established Amish jails, as they liked to call it, where people were confined in animal pens — some by force, others by choice. Some were incarcerated for “bad thoughts.”
Mullet had an Amish carpenter fashion a wooden paddle to spank disobedient adults. Spanking was a public spectacle as adults took turns hitting each other at public gatherings. When questioned, Mullet misquoted Proverbs: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Mullet claimed right intentions for his actions. Spanking, cages and cutting were acts of love, he said. He also looked to the First Amendment for exoneration. Claiming his actions were religious, he wanted the government to stay out.
Judge Dan Aaron Polster was not persuaded. In addition to terrorizing and disfiguring their victims, the defendants “trampled on the Constitution” and the First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom, Polster said. He said Mullet did not act out of compassion.
Are they Amish?
Kraybill questions the Amish-ness of this group. But he doesn’t label them a cult either. Instead, he said, they have cult-like features. Though they retained many practices of Amish life, they discarded core principles like worship, prayer, nonviolence and the primacy of the Gospels.
“They are not Amish in any traditional sense of the term,” Kraybill said.
Amish don’t paddle, use violence or place folks in chicken cages. Amish don’t torture.
The court also questioned the group’s Amish identity, defining them as people who “purported to practice the Amish religion.”
During the lecture, Ben Riehl, an Amish man, labeled the Bergholz people “fake Amish.”
“Once they stopped using the New Testament and stopped calling themselves Christians, they ceased to be Amish,” he said.
Riehl said the Amish of Lancaster County do not consider them Amish.
Kraybill’s book lists 25 reasons the group is not Amish.
One Amish man said, “Our strengths of obedience and respect for authority were turned into weaknesses.”