Donald Kraybill: Beard-cutters not Amish

In an article in the latest Mennonite World Review, Donald Kraybill, who served as expert witness in the trial, had this comment on Sam Mullet’s group: “I call them a clan, and I do not consider them Amish at all.”  More:

In September, Kraybill gave five hours of testimony in a crowded courtroom. He visited the Bergholz area last year and interviewed about 15 people, including victims, Amish leaders involved with Mullet and members of Mullet’s group — a group Kraybill hadn’t heard of before the story broke in 2011.

His research revealed a group Amish in name only.

“They discontinued church services about two years before the beard cuttings,” Kraybill said. “They discarded the New Testament and [put] their focus on the Old Testament. I have evidence of illustrations comparing Sam to the prophets like Elijah.”

Kraybill notes the group routinely violated key articles of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a 1632 document used by all Amish congregations, which rejects revenge and the use of force.

I wrote that Ohio Amish I asked this past week about the sentencing responded positively.  I’ve repeatedly heard Amish describe the Bergholz people as a cult.  There are a number of unsavory rumors about other things Mullet was up to floating around.

All the above must have played into the Amish response to this case.  An English friend made the point that each of the 14 letter writers who asked for strong sentencing probably represented 1000 Amish people.

I don’t know how much of the 15-year sentence represented punishment for the crime and how much was an attempt to prevent further harm.  Regardless of the answer to that question the MWR article summarizes well the fear of further danger from Sam Mullet, and the ways in which his group strayed from what it has traditionally meant to be Amish.

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    1. Dayna

      forgiveness for the others

      I am hoping that by Sam Mullet being in prison, that the rest of his group will flee back to the real amish. A lot of cult leaders brainwash their members and that is what he has done. with him out of the picture, maybe most of them will return to amish ways and receive true forgiveness.

    2. Eli S.

      Saying they are not real Amish brings us to the question what is a real Amish? Crossing the border into the US without photo ID is permitted provided you are Amish. That is based entirely on appearance. How else can anyone prove they are Amish? Who is authorized to extend or remove membership?

      1. Ed

        You have a good point, in that “is someone really Amish” might be an interesting theological debate but should be irrelevant in a court case, just like “is she Jewish” or “are they really Catholics” would be irrelevant questions in the provision of government services.

        By the way, I’m not so sure crossing the U.S. / Canada border is permitted without an ID for Amish. Is there really such a policy, if so could you link to it? Perhaps some border officials have used their discretion to allow some to cross without ID, but I don’t know that there is an actual policy stating that much.

        1. I think the question was pertinent to this case as it related to the “this is a bona fide Amish religious disciplinary practice” argument in defense of the beard cutters. If much of what they do and believe does not align with accepted Amish practice then that hurts that argument as well (not to mention there was apparently little to no evidence of this ever happening before among Amish).

        2. Eli S.

          I have had conversations with my sisters and brothers who have crossed the border with only a birth certificate as they object to photos of themselves. The only possible proof of being Amish is language and dress. Mullet has them both.

          1. Defining Amish

            I’m not sure I’m understanding correctly Eli, but if that is how you are defining Amish I think that’s an especially low bar. Anyone who speaks PA Dutch could put on Amish clothes and fit that definition. Even I could if I just learned the language.

            As for Mullet and who is authorized to determine who is Amish, I think with such a laterally-organized group there has to be an element of majority rules. If no one recognizes you and 300 bishops get together to decree against you, that is a pretty strong sign. There is also a long history of what it means to be Amish to judge against.

            Maybe you are referring to how the border guards are/were gauging a person’s status as Amish. I don’t know much about how this stands currently, though I had heard this had gotten more restrictive.

            1. Ed

              Good point Erik, that with the Amish recognition comes laterally from other congregations and members, and not from above as in more structured churches with formal hierarchies.

              Regarding boarder crossings, border officials have quite a bit of discretion, as I understand, to let someone pass on or to stop and question or inspect someone further. I’m glad to hear that they are using such discretion wisely, and ultimately I think security is enhanced when border officials are enabled to use such discretion rather than requiring them to adhere strictly a set of regulations.

            2. Eli S.

              This is an interesting subject to debate. Also remember that many living in Bergholz did not participate in the beard cutting, they too would not be considered Amish simply by association with Mullet. Is that fair?
              As for crossing the border, perhaps if you were to travel by bus with a load heading for a wedding in Canada, then get back behind in line and watch they are handled. Not wanting to rile homeland security, but you would no doubt find it interesting.

              1. I don’t know if the question is so much about fairness as it is simply how to describe these people…with the fairness question I think we go in quite a different direction into discussion of how much those under the sway of a powerful leader are themselves to blame. Actually we touched on that a bit already, a tough question:


                I do agree this is interesting to discuss. By the way I don’t know if you saw it but I shared a bit in today’s post with some regulations via the Amtrak website concerning entry to Canada for Amish and Mennonites. As you said, it looks like a birth certificate is enough, plus IRS form 4029.

    3. Al in Ky.

      Thanks for sharing this information, Erik. I have found that
      the Mennonite World Review occasionally has information not found
      elsewhere about Amish and other Plain groups. I would think
      Kraybill’s perspective might prove helpful to persons who staff
      Amish/Mennonite Visitors/Information Centers in places like
      Berlin, Shipshewana, Lancaster as visitors may want to know if
      there are other Amish like the Bergholz group.

    4. Erin

      I just visited with an Old Order Mennonite hog farmer in Northern MN and another customer brought up Lebanon Levi. This farmer thought we were talking about Sam Mullet and he said he was a “Criminal!” Once we actually figured out whom the other was talking about, I told him about the sentencing (he hadn’t heard what the punishment was) and I told him 15 years in prison. He said “Good! He should have that!” He had no idea who Lebanon Levi was and had never even heard of him! Just thought it was neat to get his perspective.

      1. Erin, interesting. I still haven’t come across a plain person who has said the sentence was too much.

    5. Don Curtis

      Mark's take on this

      Mark says that technically, nobody is really Amish until they have been baptized into and become a member in good standinig of a recognized Amish church. Children are of Amish parents but even in obituaries they are not listed as being Amish. Their parents are listed as being members of an Amish church but the children are not. As far as the Bergholtz group they can call themselves anything they want but they are not recognized by any other Amish church as Amish. They have been excommunicated, expelled, etc. They may dress Amish. Look Amish. But to all the other Amish churches they are no longer Amish. They are no longer in fellowship with any other Amish church. If they were to go to another Amish church and seek to join they would have to go through proving just like somebody coming from the English world wanting to join the Amish. How they are dressed has nothing to do with them being Amish. If an Amish man dressed up as a priest or if an Amish woman dressed up as a nun would that make them Roman Catholic? No, it wouldn’t. They have not been recognized by the Roman Catholic church as Catholic. Well, the Bergholtz folks aren’t Amish, anymore. They are excommunicated and under the ban and meidung. All of them. There is no other recognized Amish church that accepts them as members in good standing of a recognized Amish church. It takes more to be Amish than looking that way or driving a buggy.

    6. Eli S.

      The way I see it, no matter how we answer the question, be it you or me, there always are loose ends. I simply shows how involved and complex this case is. I can say that I have considered them (Mullet and sons) a cult from the time I first heard about his way of governing. I feel for and pray for those who are there through no fault of their own.

    7. Attis

      Mullet is quintessentially Amish

      The formation of the Amish church and community is rooted in the deep objections its founder, Jakob Ammon, had to the slow and steady deviation by his fellow Anabaptist radicals from the founding principles of Anabaptism. His introduction of strict discipline (including Meidung) and other existential reforms were designed to save his brothers and sisters from cultural and religious assimilation into the first two branches of Protestantism. Those are precisely the same reasons for the formation of the strict Bergholz Amish District Church. Bishop Sam Mullet is a modern Jakob Ammon, a profoundly Amish leader deeply disconcerted with the growing assimilation of the Amish into larger American culture and, as a result, their eventual disappearance. The federal case against these devout Amish Americans is nothing less than a witch hunt. Kraybill should be ashamed of himself for participating in this witch hunt and echoing the demonization Bishop Mullet. Who is he to declare anyone as not being Amish, particularly a quintessential Amish leader like Bishop Samuel Mullet?

      1. Don Curtis

        Sam Mullet

        Well, Attis, I read your comment to my son, Mark. He wasn’t impressed to say he least. He said that if you think that Sam Mullet is a God fearing, profound Amish leader then you are sadly misinformed or delusional. Sam Mullet is a cult leader. His teachings are unscriptural and against Amish beliefs. One of the key teachings of the Amish church is nonresistance. This means living in peace with your fellow men and being willing to take the short end or the stick in order to live in peace. It does not mean sending your followers out to break into other people’s homes to assault and humiliate them. The Amish teach the sanctity of marriage. It does not teach that the bishop gets to take young brides to bed first to “counsel them.” Church discipline is to be Scriptural which does not include locking people in chicken coops. Only the Amish can declare that any person or church is no longer Amish by excommunicating them. The Bergholtz group have been excommunicated and shunned by all other Amish no matter what level of Amish they are. They were excommunicated not becasuse of how conservative they were but because their beliefs and practices were way off the charts of being acceptable behavior. Sam Mullet and his followers are in jail not because they are so consservative but because their behaviors went so far over the linen of bizarre that finally the English authorities had to step in to curb them.

    8. Linda

      I find it interesting or ironic that both the Amish outside of Bergholz and those inside Bergholz, think the other side should be more Amish and less “hypocritical.” The Amish outside of Bergholz think the Mullets should have regular church services, and be more forgiving and Christ-like. On the other hand, those at Bergholz had a “vision of a more “pure” Amish community” and “want to be among the most conservative of the Amish. They don’t want battery-powered boom boxes in buggies or any display of worldliness,” and want “to stay removed from what they describe as rampant drinking, smoking, use of musical instruments, premarital sex and other sins of nearby Amish.” (quoting from news media sources)

    9. Dale D.

      very interesting

      I believe what the Mullet (Cult) did was wrong! However, In Anabaptist history there has been split after split after split over faith and beliefs. “I am better than you and you are not really a Mennonite or Amish or whatever.” There are those who would say all Amish are cults. In my opinion, there is a lot of control and anger/bitterness issues within the Amish. The bishop in the Amish church has a lot of control of what the beliefs are with that district. So there is a lot of varience as to what Amish believe. They are not a high church where the denomination tells the bishops what to believe and it is passed down.

      I believe the Mullet Amish are a Amish Cult. They are Amish but have strayed. this is always a possibility when someone has a much control over the church they are leading!

      I know Donald personally and respect him highly!

      I have Amish blood in me back several generations. Those Amish became Mennonites. So I am a Mennonite.

      Dale D.