New book tells insider story of Amish beard cutters

BreakawayAmish_CMYK July 6, 2016

New book tells insider story of Amish beard cutters
Power, isolation, and manipulation were tools of cult-like leader Sam Mullet

HARRISONBURG, Va., and KITCHENER, Ont.—The strange case of the Amish beard cutters five years ago thrust a normally quiet community into the national spotlight. The bizarre attacks seemed so out of character for a Christian community whose traditions emphasize nonviolence and forgiveness.


Johnny Mast

Now, as the fifth anniversary of those attacks approaches, a new book tells the inside story: Breakaway Amish: Growing Up with the Bergholz Beard Cutters by Johnny Mast (written with Shawn Smucker, Herald Press, $15.99 paper). Mast is the grandson of Bishop Sam Mullet, who led the attacks—and who pressured his grandson to participate by cutting his own father’s beard.

The Bergholz Amish community where Johnny Mast grew up in southern Ohio became increasingly isolated from other Amish people as his grandfather Sam Mullet exerted cult-like control, ordering abusive attacks of beard and hair cutting and other punishments, including forcing men to live in chicken coops. Some of the wives of those men moved in with Sam Mullet, who sexually abused them. “Somehow I’m getting a lot of power by committing these sins,” Mullet told Mast after Mast learned of his grandfather’s activities. “I know it’s wrong, but I’m getting a lot of power.”

Members became convinced that cutting their own hair was a sign of repentance and remorse—“a cleansing humiliation and a fresh start,” Mast says. But when that conviction drove them to forcibly cut off the beards of Amish people outside their community, it was more than a strange religious ritual. It was a crime.

Recalling the disturbing events, Mast writes: “I saw images I’d rather forget: Holding my own father’s hair in my hands and cutting off pieces with a scissors. Watching six or seven men wander down toward Sam’s barn, chunks of their hair shaved off, their beards cut straight across with sharp scissors. I remember seeing those disheveled men, skinny from not having eaten, their weird hair and their hats that no longer fit quite right, and thinking they looked like demons.”

The Bergholz community was founded by Sam Mullet and attracted families who preferred the strict Amish way of life practiced there—no indoor plumbing, no tractors, no cars, no radio or television, no cell phones. Life was peaceful until Mullet began using violence and intimidation, along with strange punishments, to control the community. A teenager at the time, Mast lived and worked on his grandfather’s farm. In hindsight, he writes, “What I didn’t realize was how Sam operated: he used knowledge and emotions and sometimes lies to drive a wedge between people. Isolated people, it turns out, are very easy to control.”

Mast asks, “Why would a bunch of grown men allow another man to treat them that way? I can’t say for sure, but I think that for most of us, Bergholz was all we had. Every friend we had in the world lived there, every family member. Sam held the key to all of that.”

He adds, “I think most people stayed in Bergholz because they honestly believed that if they left, they would go to hell when they died.”

Mast’s story is one of redemption and courage. At age 22, he testified against his grandfather and 15 other defendants, many of them his aunts and uncles. They were all found guilty and are serving sentences for their crimes of up to 15 years. Mast left the community—the only world he knew.

Mast reports that Bergholz is still controlled by Sam Mullet, from his prison cell. Mast’s parents remain there, even though Mast’s father was a beard-cutting victim. When Mast left the community, his mother begged him to stay and “try to do everything Sam tells you to do.” His parents have refused to meet his family, Clara and young daughter, Esther Jane. “It would be nice to see my dad again, to be able to have a regular conversation,” Mast says. “But what happened in Bergholz ruined that.”

It did not ruin Mast’s belief in God, however, though he lost interest in belonging to a church. But since the birth of his daughter, Mast is interested in seeking out a new church home at some point. “Everything that happened led me here: to Clara and Esther Jane and a new life,” he writes. “I don’t live with regret. Actually, I have a lot of hope these days. I think it’s going to be a good life.”

Donald B. Kraybill, author of Renegade Amish, writes in the foreword: “Breakaway Amish is a story of human tragedy. It chronicles what happens when men, in the name of God, abuse positions of power to exploit, harm, and denigrate others. It’s an important, cautionary tale, and the rest of us would do well to listen carefully.”

Tom Shachtman, author of Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, says of the book, “Seldom do outsiders get such a revealing glimpse of what happens to an isolated group when, as Johnny Mast writes, ‘You learn to ignore the voices in your head that were telling you, This isn’t right. None of this is right.’ An eyewitness account of a leader’s twisted descent into mental hell and of the havoc it can cause among people who only seek to be devout and faithful.”

Mast, 26, works on a construction crew. He and Clara and their daughter live in Ohio.


Shawn Smucker

Shawn Smucker is the author or coauthor of seven books. He and his wife, Maile, and their children live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Breakaway Amish is available for $15.99 from Herald Press at 800-245-7894 and, as well as other websites and local bookstores. The book is being published July 12, 2016.

View a video book trailer for Breakaway Amish.

Kelly Hughes, DeChant-Hughes & Associates Inc.

To set up interviews with the author contact: Kelly Hughes, 312-280-8126, or

High-resolution photos available.

For more information from Herald Press:
Melodie Davis
News manager

Annie completes Ellie’s People series of Amish novels

July 6, 2016
News release

Annie completes Ellie’s People series of Amish novels
Herald Press republishes nine of Mary Christner Borntrager’s book

HARRISONBURG, Va., and KITCHENER, Ont.—With the release of Annie, Herald Press concludes the popular series of books about Amish life called Ellie’s People. Annie is book 9 of the series. The series has sold over half a million copies since its original release from 1988 to 1998, originally aimed for younger readers age 10 and up.

In this final book, Annie Troyer, born Pearlie Mae Streeter, is adopted into an Amish family. Annie finds love and security there, but has a hard time adjusting to Amish customs. Her new sister Lucy is jealous of the attention Annie receives, and Annie must make choices about where her loyalties lie.

Fans of Amish fiction and of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series will enjoy Annie and the entire Ellie’s People series. The books open a window to the Amish faith and way of life for non-Amish readers. Annie, like the other books in the series, features a new Pennsylvania Dutch glossary and family tree for the families featured in the books.

Author Mary Christner Borntrager brought firsthand experience to her accurate portrayals of Amish life. She was born to Amish parents near Plain City, Ohio, and lived her first 20 years among the Amish. She called her books “faction”: fiction based on the facts of her childhood and youth.

MaryChristnerBorntrager_SigningBooksBorn seventh in a family of 10, Mary came to writing through the classic avenue of storytelling. Stories about her Amish youth, told to her children and grandchildren, sparked the idea for the Ellie’s People books, which Mary began writing at age 67.

Reading Mary’s books is “like having a cup of tea and chatting with a friend,” said her daughter Kathryn Keim. “She wrote about people’s lives just like hers: the struggles, joys, hopes, and fears.”

Nine of the Ellie’s People books have been rereleased to provide a new generation with entertainment, wisdom, and inspiration. The covers and some terminology have been updated, but the traditional stories remain. “The series is a wonderful legacy to remember how one woman touched many lives through her books and her life,” said her daughter.

Annie is available for $9.99 USD from MennoMedia at 800-245-7894 or, as well as at bookstores.

–Ardell Stauffer

High-resolution photos available.
For more information on this press release:
Melodie Davis
News manager

Mennonite Church USA’s Ervin Stutzman appears on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

April 28, 2016

Joint News Release of Mennonite Church USA and MennoMedia

Reaching way beyond the flock

Mennonite Church USA’s Ervin Stutzman appears on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

ELKHART, Ind. and HARRISONBURG, Va.—On many Sundays, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, can be found preaching or speaking at Mennonite churches, conference meetings, board meetings, or churchwide conventions and other gatherings.

Ervin R. Stutzman

But on a Sunday evening in April, Stutzman was one of several featured guests on the
TLC network television show Who Do You Think You Are? On the program he meets actor/singer Katey Sagal, perhaps most well known for her role on the Married with Children television show from 1987 to 1997. In the April 17 edition of the TLC program, Sagal is the “celebrity” exploring her family roots. (Update: The complete program is no longer available on YouTube. A short portion with Sagal is shown here but not the portion with Stutzman.)

In addition to his full-time “day job,” Stutzman is a prolific author for Herald Press, the publishing arm of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Herald Press has published Jacob’s Choice and Joseph’s Dilemma, two historical novels in Stutzman’s Return to Northkill trilogy. Stutzman is currently finishing a third and final volume in that series, Christian’s Hope.ChristiansHope

Stutzman’s work on the trilogy is what brought him to the attention of the TLC researchers when they consulted David Weaver-Zercher, professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and author/editor of numerous publications on the Amish. Weaver-Zercher, who is married to Stutzman’s Herald Press editor, Valerie Weaver-Zercher, knew of Stutzman’s historical research for the novels and suggested to the producer that TLC contact Stutzman.

Stutzman is one of a handful of current Mennonite historians and researchers the TLC show could have turned to regarding the Amish family of Jacob Hochstetler. The Hochstetlers lived near what is now the unincorporated town of Shartlesville, in upper Berks County, Pennsylvania. Hochstetler is considered a faith hero among the Amish and many Mennonites for his refusal to use guns to defend his family during an attack in 1757. His wife, daughter, and one son were killed in the attack and his home burned; Jacob and two sons were captured.

A researcher for the program first called Stutzman for a telephone interview in August 2015, asking a number of questions about his perspective on the meaning of Jacob’s response to the 1757 attack, and what nonresistance means to Amish and Mennonites today.

After a Skype video interview with Stutzman in December, the producers invited him to appear on the program with a Hochstetler descendant “whose identity they did not reveal to me at that time,” recalled Stutzman.

“I had never watched the show before being asked to participate,” confessed Stutzman. But he checked out Who Do You Think You Are? and was pleasantly impressed.

When Stutzman finally learned who the show would revolve around, he did some quick searching online about Katey Sagal. “The producer only told me that Katey was my seventh cousin. I wasn’t allowed to meet her before the taping began.”

Thus Stutzman did not know Sagal’s own political or religious leanings, “so I had no idea what her reaction would be to Jacob’s refusal to shoot at the Indians when Jacob’s family was under attack,” Stutzman explained. In the program, Sagal is shown reading the historical description of the often-talked about attack in the library in Reading, Pennsylvania, which is the Berks County seat.

Stutzman said he spent several hours with Sagal, about half of which was filmed. “I had the pleasure of answering many of Sagal’s questions in some depth, but only a few minutes of the interview made the final cut,” he said.

To help Stutzman prepare for the interview with Sagal, the producer suggested a number of passages from the Hochstetler genealogy that might be of interest to her, based on their knowledge of Sagal. Stutzman said, “I prepared a number of tentative responses, geared to the questions she might ask.” He said the producer assured him that he was well prepared for the interview, and knew the relevant material “backwards and forwards.”

In the program, Sagal notes that her parents, who lived in Hollywood, California, opposed the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s. As Stutzman watched the segment on TV and learned more of Sagal’s family history, Stutzman said, “I immediately thought of the Vietnam War as being the first major war in which conscientious objection by a diverse group [not just Anabaptist groups] played a major role in bringing the war to an end.” He noted that it also served to move the church from the terminology of nonresistance toward nonviolence.

Stutzman said he was surprised by the openness of the producer and staff to learn about the Amish and Mennonite faith. “Katey was very surprised to meet a distant cousin on the show. She had no idea that she had so many relatives!” he said.

She was also very pleased to discover that her ancestors were peace-loving people, which she expresses in the show. “She had never heard of a Mennonite and knew next to nothing about the Amish,” said Stutzman.


Ervin Stutzman chatting with publisher Russ Eanes and Jane Eanes at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.

In addition to writing a trilogy incorporating a great deal of Amish/Mennonite history, Stutzman has written the 424-page volume From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908­­2008 and two fictional biographies of his mother and father, Tobias of the Amish and Emma: A Widow Among the Amish, all published by Herald Press.

 Stutzman was born into an Amish home in Kalona, Iowa, and spent most of his childhood in Hutchinson, Kansas. Stutzman says he maintains a huge curiosity about the past, which is his strongest motivation for research. He has learned that “narrative captivates people’s interest in ways that essays cannot.” He is pondering what he will write after his work on the Northkill trilogy is finished at the end of May.

Looking back on the experience, Stutzman is grateful for the opportunity the show gave him. “I consider it an honor to have been asked,” he said.

–Melodie M. Davis

High resolution photos of Stutzman and his forthcoming book available.

For more information on this press release:
Melodie Davis
News manager

Janie Beck Kreider
Director of Communications
Mennonite Church USA

Stutzman’s newest book, Christian’s Hope, is available for preorder from 800-245-7894 or