Bergholz Community: Don’t Call Us A Cult

It’s been some time since we’ve covered the Bergholz beard-cutters, though pieces of news have been trickling out here and there.  The trial of the 16 defendants in the case is fast approaching, with proceedings set to begin August 27.

The accused have sought certain allowances in the lead-up to the trial.  The latest objection is over language used to describe the group:

Members of a fringe Amish group charged with committing hate crimes against fellow Amish have requested that certain words, including “cult,” ‘’splinter” and “rogue,” be banned from their upcoming trial in U.S. District Court, according to court documents filed Monday (Aug. 13).

Words and labels can sway opinions.  Terms like “cult” and “sect” are heavily-charged.  We hear them and think of things like Waco, Jonestown, and Heaven’s Gate.

Beyond Bergholz, you’ll see words like “sect” and “splinter group” used to describe “regular” Amish as well.  I can usually guess the writer’s sympathies when I see these terms, particularly in newspaper headlines.

I can understand why the Bergholz legal team may wish to ban these terms, as language can influence (though I honestly don’t know how much this would affect views in this already heavily-publicized case).   I don’t have background in law so don’t know how common such a request is, or how likely it is to be granted.

However it does bring to mind the larger question of how language influences our thinking, and in what cases it may be justified to regulate it.

Get the Amish in your inbox

Join 15,000 email subscribers. No spam. 100% free

    Join the Amish America Patreon for bonus videos & more!

    Similar Posts

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


    1. Ed

      Good post. If we were so inclined we could call almost any denomination — even christianity itself — a “cult” so the label is not very useful.

      But it is clear that some groups are abusive, to their own members and/or to outsiders. It is the abusive behavior, rather than the faith itself, that should be curtailed.

      1. deb from long island

        If Ed thinks Christianity is a cult I did not get that from his post. I guess because he singled out Christainity and not mormons or muslims it was taken that way. As a Christian, I have been accused of being in a cult myself by family members who do not understand a regenerated heart. While nothing sinister has occurred, it certainly seems strange to them that I am not the girl I used to be. And they should know because they know me a long time. The fruit of my life hurts no one yet my Christianity is labeled a cult all because I now follow Jesus Christ and His Word.

        Clearly the fruit of the above group is vile and therefore speaks volumes to the accurate use of the word cult in this case. I do not think the exclusion of this word and words like it well help their case one bit. deb <

      2. tiffany rangier

        to ed

        I agree…some outsiders are not treated fairly.i have seen thatin a few churches.

      3. Adam

        Keep in mind, the world “cult” is not always offensive. I think what most people mean when they say “cult” is “new religious movement”. The term itself can just refer to religion or religious practices in general.

    2. Lance


      Now all us Christians are ‘cultists’ in Ed’s view.

      Wow, Ed, don’t know what to say to that. Really don’t.

    3. Don't call them a cult

      Since I live in Holmes Co., where some of the crimes occurred, I have been following this case very closely. In fact, I know some of the victims. In truth, the entire community is a victim. To call the Bergholz clan anything but a cult would be inappropriate given their behavior, alleged or witnessed. By their own actions and statements, they cannot and should not be considered “real” Amish. They broke away to follow the teachings and leadership of one dominate male, which I believe in and of itself, qualifies the group as a cult. It is no wonder they do not want any reference to the word. Truth is not in their best interest.

      1. Defining "cult"

        If you look the word up, there are a number of definitions of cult out there, some quite broad. Here’s a narrower one which I found in Oxford:

        a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister

        I think most people think along those lines when they hear the word “cult”. You could probably expand this characterization to include ideas like the controlling leader and so on.

        I believe this group, particularly if some of the more egregious allegation are true, would fit most people’s ideas of what a cult is. I’m curious how the legal side will handle that language though.

        I do hope the community is doing better with time Bruce.

    4. Teresa B.

      Lance, I think you misinterpreted Ed’s quote. He was attempting to draw a comparison, in using the word “cult”. Nowhere did he say he believed Christians are a cult.

      1. Are the Amish a "cult"?

        Not to insert words, but that’s how I read Ed’s comment too.

        And I do think those not favorably inclined to Christianity are guilty of using the cult label on bigger and more accepted groups at times.

        For example, would we call the Amish a “cult”? You could argue they come close to fitting the Oxford dictionary definition I posted above (“a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister”). Obviously most people’s idea of “cult” takes in more than that. Plus the Amish are favorably viewed by most of society, another reason most generally don’t use the negative cult label.

        That said you do sometimes see them described with that word, but the writer usually has an axe to grind.

        1. Lattice

          The more modern definitions of the word “cult” include words like “sinister,” however this was not always the case. I assume that “cult” gets its root/origin from the word “culture.” This complete definition is from my 1938 Webster’s Dictionary:
          n. a particular ritual or system of worship; a subject of special study; devoted or extravagant homage or adoration.

          I enjoy this old dictionary because I like to compare modern word uses to how they used to be spoken.

          Regarding using these type of words by the prosecution…Well, gee! That tactic is a lawyers favorite tool! It’s all about persuading a jury. This method is likely used in every case where there’s a jury present. Still, I don’t imagine they would have to rely on it in this particular case. They did what they did and it was completely illegal.

    5. Alice Mary

      Hmmm..what's in a name?

      Interesting topic.

      I wonder if, instead of “splinter group”, “cult”, etc., they’d object to being called “break-away Amish”, which, from reading the above replies so far, seems to more accurately describe them without (at least to me) sounding prejudiced.

      I saw a headline in the NY Times today about an “Amish Mennonite”—gotta get back to reading the whole story…

      Alice Mary

    6. Alice Mary


      In the NY Times article I mentioned in my previous post, it referred to the “Beachy Amish-Mennonite” group (interesting article about the pastor participating in an “abduction”) as a “sect.” I wonder if the “Bergholz beard-cutters” would object to that description?

      Alice Mary

    7. Virginia Compton

      Not in Waco!

      The Branch Davidian Assault was NOT, NEVER WAS, IN WACO! It was in a little town, Elk, Texas, that is 12 miles East of Waco. We got the bad press for it, becuse we were the closest large town, so the press seized on Waco as the culprit. Waco is a Christian town, that had no connection whatever to the Branch Davidians, except that the news media people overran Waco for boarding and eating, and had the nerve to blame Waco for the whole episode. We were as horrified here in Waco as every one else in the country when this took place.

      1. Thanks Virginia for explaining that. When these bad things happen, it’s too bad that any geographical area gets painted in a bad light, but that is the often the most convenient shorthand and what often gets used. If they called it the Elk cult or Elk massacre, those townspeople would be similarly besmirched.

        I also think the name was a convenient one for media: Waco is one letter removed from “wacko”, which would sort of fit the mood of the entire story.

        I say that not to imply anything bad about residents of Waco, which I’m sure is full of fine upstanding people. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the name itself even fed into the media psychology when initially choosing how to portray that story.

    8. naomi

      Well said Bruce, thats what I was thinking while reading the article. What else but a cult are you if you look up to a dominate male instead of to our Lord.

    9. humdinger

      Absolute power corrupts absolutely

    10. Galen


      Again Erik, great topic!

      I think some Christians might be considered or consider themselves cultists but it wouldn’t be fair to say ALL Christians are cultists. The term cult has a negative conotation and over time seemed to represent religious freedom. Other terms associated with a cult are negative such as converting, brainwashing, abuse, financial gain, mind control and usually somone being in a superior position and abusing that power.

      I think back to my growing up years with the Jimmy Swaggart movement and Jim and Tammy Bakker. Here are examples of “Christians” who climbed to a position of power and abused that power. There are people who will disagree with me and who follow these people’s belief today. Jimmy Swaggart was finally defrocked yet still retained some followers and formed a non-denominational ministry. Could he and his followers be considered a cult? I think so. These people rise to power, persuade people to send money, preach one thing yet hold themselves to different standards. I find this abusive in the sense that this gives Christians a bad rap. Anyone curious about Christianity would view these televangelists as negative and steer clear of the topic of God. (I only know this now, but as a child watching my relatives believe these “truths” and sending money… I didn’t know any better). I’ll go a step further and say they might not have all been bad if they were able to bring someone to God, but how many did they lose or cause to turn away from God?

      Now the Amish overall are not trying to convert you. They do have a person in positon of power, a Bishop, the Catholics have the Pope and Protestants their Minister.

      I’m not a psychologist or sociologist. But I think people probably join cults to become a part of something….to belong. And maybe they believe strongly about something. One could say our political parties (Dem/Rep)are a little “cult-ish” as they definitely have some negative behaviors toward one another.

      The Amish accused here were arrested because of their abusive behavior and not because they were Amish. If they want to start splitting hairs and making a case inside their case to distract from the truth, then that sounds rather political now doesn’t it?

      I own an old Volvo. Some say Volvo owners are cultists as they believe strongly in the product, will go to great lengths to defend and restore the auto….”once a Volvo owner, always a Volvo owner.” I’m not sure I’m that extreme but the word cult doesn’t always have to be negative in my opinion.

      When yoga came about, that became like a “cult” (which is found in Hinduism/buddhism)and a Christian friend built a yoga studio and I guess you could say she was trying to recruit (convert) customers to recognize the health benefits from yoga. One builds a clientele by word of mouth in the yoga business. I have not tried it, but I’m usually busy waxing the scratches out of the Volvo.

    11. The word “cult” is not a nice word and brings up not nice images and therefore should be used careful or not at all!

    12. BettyJean Fritts


      Where can I read the story of the Bergholz Clan? I am new to this site but very interested.

      1. Betty Jean here is a short summary as well as reader feedback from when the story was emerging last fall:

        You can probably find a number of decent summaries via a Google search as well.

    13. Virginia Compton

      The name Waco came from the Huaco Indian tribe that lived here before Waco was setted. It has nothing to do with “Wacko”. We have the larget private Baptist University in the world here–Baylor. Surely you have heard of it? This town is full of churches. But we do not have cults here. It hurts me every time I hear people that don’t have a clue what this town is like to call us Wacko or that we have cults here. Nothing is farther from the truth. Virgnia

      1. Please have another read

        Virginia, if you wouldn’t mind, please re-read my comment. I am just speculating on the media mindset. I know the name of your town has nothing to do with “wacko”. No one was calling it that.

        Unfortunately the media often picks up on superficial connections, which is why I supposed this may have played into how they chose to describe this incident. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with it.

        But with the superficial nature of how many things are portrayed in the media, I wouldn’t be surprised were that the case. Anyway, that’s the point of the comment I made, not at all to denigrate your town or the people in it (something which I emphasized in the 2nd-to-last sentence of that comment).

        I am sure Waco is a lovely place, and I’m sorry its name brings this ugly event to mind. In retrospect, I suppose I could have just called this incident the “Branch-Davidian incident” or something similar. Unfortunately these associations tend to have staying power, even when they are not really justified as in this case.

    14. Bill


      Finding suitable language is often difficult.

    15. Heres Hope

      Math can actually help you tell if a group is a ‘cult’ group or not. Cult groups are any groups that alter the religion into something ‘different’ or ‘more special.’ (And, all world religions have cult groups (Jewish, Buddist, Muslim, etc.), not just Christianity.)

      Cult groups for Christianity would/could…

      ADD to the Scriptures (with things like the Book of Morman/New World Translation/etc.)
      SUBTRACT from the deity of God (no Trinity/Jesus was a good man, but not God)
      MULTIPLY the requirements for salvation (there are works you must do to get to heaven — it isn’t freely given)
      DIVIDE their group from others as the only group with the right answers (Baptist, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Amish, etc., may all think a little different on things, but they do not say that other denominations/groups are going to hell.)

      This is just something that helps me filter what someone else is telling me. Thought I’d share….

    16. “Cult” comes from a Latin word that meant to cultivate or worship. In Spanish today (Spanish is a direct descendent of Latin) they call a church service a “culto”.
      Over time, in English, it has come to usually mean the narrow sense of worshiping a leader so much that a person sort of just does whatever that leader says.
      So Ed is right … Christianity is a “cult”; that is, if Christians are worshiping Jesus so much that they just do what He says.
      I have come to doubt many uses of the word today. Practically any church movement has its detractors, especially if the group holds to any standard at all. As soon as someone in the group gets a negative view of the group and leaves, the word “cult” pops up.
      On the other hand, at some point a group that is supposedly worshiping God or Jesus can get the focus off of God and get it onto a man. Technically, in my mind (who says I have my right mind?? 🙂 ), that is when it becomes a “cult.”
      It becomes a sticky question when that happens, because most Christian churches claim to follow Jesus, and the leaders claim they are simply teaching what Jesus taught. I am sure the Bergholz group feels that way. The Catholic Church feels they represent worship to Jesus. The Amish feel that way. The Mormons.
      Having seen some well-meaning and loving people get the “cult” label, I have just come to the place to consider it pretty much a cliché until definite proof comes forward.
      In fact, some people who are calling others “cultists” are really cultists themselves … because they worship a man … a man called “SELF”!

      1. Ed

        PC, I like your comment which clarifies the definition of a “cult” and the trouble with the word’s current usage. To Teresa, Deb, Erik and others, thank you as well for understanding my original comment.

    17. LeeAnn

      To Heres Hope,

      Book of Mormon in the LDS church does not make them a cult! Latter Day Saints are not a cult, and are a large group of people! The LDS church has members all over the world, and more than any other Christian church. Please stop referring the LDS as a cult, just cause of the book of mormon.

      Cults are where one man runs the church. That church is not run or ruled by God.