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

Why I wrote Jacob’s Choice

Guest post by Ervin Stutzman, author of the novel, Jacob’s Choice.

There’s hardly a day that went by in the last two years without my musing on Jacob Hochstetler’s story of faith which I portray in Jacob’s Choice. Each day, my mind transported me back more than 250 years in time to witness the immense clash of empires in Penn’s Woods, a conflict which forever altered the social and religious landscape of America.

Historical Marker of Indian attack on Hochstetler familyOn some days, I strolled the foothills of the Blue Mountains where Hochstetler and his family carved a homestead out of the rich forest surrounding the Northkill Creek. On other days, I marched with Hochstetler and his captors through hundreds of miles of dense forest.

Northkill CreekForest and Northkill Creek

Or I smelled the smoke that rose from the cooking fires at the Seneca village of Buckaloons, where Hochstetler was kept as a captive.

Confluence of Brokenstraw Creek and Allegheny River at BuckaloonsConfluence of Brokenstraw Creek and Allegheny River at Buckaloons.

Although Hochstetler’s story is well-known among his more knowledgeable descendants, it deserves a much wider telling. It begs to inspire not only those who share his nonresistant convictions, but also a broader audience that embraces violence as a way to do God’s will.

The founding narratives of our nation beg for significant nuancing and reinterpretation. That’s what James Juhnke and Carol Hunter hoped to accomplish with The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History. I envisioned Jacob’s Choice as a way to show rather than tell how the Amish eschewed violence in the face of war. The publishers and editors at Herald Press heartily embraced this vision, and have done their best to make that possible.

During the surge of interest in Anabaptist origins in the mid-1900s, Mennonite scholars translated dozens of 16th century Anabaptist texts and wrote extensively about that period. Some wrote historical novels about that era. Most recently, Myron Augsburger wrote The Fugitive, the story of Anabaptist reformer Menno Simons. Why so few stories from the 1700s and 1800s? The paucity of historical novels could give the impression that not many faithful Anabaptists lived during that era. Jacob’s Choice was written to help fill that void.

Frankly, I hope to ride the current wave of interest in Amish novels, as explained in Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. Like Weaver-Zercher, I live with considerable ambivalence about the portrayal of the Amish in popular media, so I’ve done my best to write something that tells the story of my Amish forebears with respect and as much accuracy as I could achieve through careful research.

JacobsChoiceAlthough I’m enthralled by Hochstetler’s story, the narrative in Jacob’s Choice draws its ultimate meaning from the larger story of God at work in the world. As in the stories of scripture, the ultimate hero of my book is God, whose visage in made visible to us in the face of Jesus Christ. That story has the power to bring us to our knees in repentance and readiness—like Hochstetler— to make the hard choice to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

(Photos in this blog, except for below, are courtesy of Ervin Stutzman and appear in the hardcover Expanded Edition of Jacob’s Choice along with maps, genealogy, extensive end notes, and more.)

A news release and purchasing information is here.


Ervin Stutzman, author and executive director of Mennonite Church USA, signing books at Gospel Book Store, Berlin, Ohio.



The story of Amish folk hero Jacob Hochstetler for a new generation

Rarely has my professional work intersected so nicely with my personal history than in the forthcoming publication of a new book by author Ervin Stutzman, Jacob’s Choice.


The Jacob in this page turner of a book (to be released by Herald Press on Feb. 8) is my sixth-generation-back great-grandfather, along with how many other thousands of kin: Mennonite, Amish, or not. As Jacob’s early 1700s-era home was torched, he witnessed not only the agony of the death of his wife and two children, but he and two surviving sons were captured by members of the tribe of Lenapi Native Americans.

One of the older sons who was not captured was John, my five times great-grandfather. He was already married and living away from the farm where the raid happened.

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Photo of Moses P. Miller, (long beard in back row, top left)
my great-grandfather, and Jacob’s triple great-grandson.

Thousands of Hostetler, Hochstetler, Hochstettler, and probably a dozen other spelling variations in North America (and many more relatives with other surnames like me) lay claim to that same faithful legacy. Valerie Weaver-Zercher, editor for this book, is one; Amy Gingerich, who acquired the title for Herald Press, is another. Some of the relatives have created this website and organize a huge reunion every five years. (Watch the fun graphic at the top of the home page, which morphs into all the different ways Hostetler is spelled by all these relatives.)

The novel is set in the Northkill area of eastern Pennsylvania and, while carefully historically researched, is a fictionalized version of the events. So much is not known, especially the interior thought life of these ancestors.

In Jacob’s Choice, Ervin has chosen to focus his look at this courageous, peaceloving ancestor on Jacob’s decision to eventually seek reconciliation in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy that befell his family. Here’s a link to two free excerpts.

And this volume is just the first of three books in a planned trilogy called the “Return to Northkill” series. A lifelong churchman and currently executive director of Mennonite Church USA, developing the writing chops to turn out plausible and engaging fiction is no easy feat. Fiction coaches help, so say my inside (but not secret) sources.

Cousin Ervin (okay, its really shirttail, as momma always used to say about distant cousins, but still) has done hundreds of hours of painstaking research. He became something of a skilled historian and researcher in pulling together the fictionalized stories published earlier by Herald Press of his own mother and father in Emma and Tobias). I greatly respect not only his work, but how he is able to get all this done on the side.

The expanded edition of Jacob’s Choice includes maps, photographs, family tree charts, and other historical documents to help readers enter the story and era of the Hochstetler family. Both Jacob’s Choice (the novel only) and Expanded Edition (novel with all the other goodies) are on prepublication discount ($10.50 and $20.99, respectively) until the publication date of Feb. 8.

If you are on Facebook and a relative (or just interested) you might enjoy hooking up with the “official” Facebook site for Hostetler/Hochstetler relatives, called Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler. There is a version of the genealogical book of the same name on Amazon, but I cannot vouch for its authenticity. There is also a complete PDF of the whole book available online. Yes. Here. All 1200+ pages!

In the 70s, when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite University, I first discovered the genealogy book in the Historical Library there and was so excited to find my father’s name written in it that I scribbled out all of the information pertaining to my lineage on notebook paper (not being able to photocopy it). I still have those scribbles and I remember feeling such a powerful connection to my heritage.

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After writing about this for my own blog here, I sat on the floor for a morning workout and all of a sudden my eyes were drawn to my grandfather’s rocking chair. I could almost see him sitting there, elderly, as I knew and loved him. (Photo bottom left is my Grandpa Uriah seated circa 1962 at a CROP Farm dedication.) I had not felt his presence or even thought about him much for many years but how thankful I am for the long (92 years), loving and faithful heritage he bequeathed to our family.


Are you part of the Hochstetler clan? We’d love to have you comment, share, like this on Facebook, join in the celebration. And if you are in the eastern Ohio area, join Ervin Stutzman & our editorial director Amy Gingerich for a book signing there from 9 a.m. to noon, Feb. 8, at Gospel Book Store, in Berlin! Or in Harrisonburg, Va., join us for a launch Feb. 14 at Park View Mennonite Church. And sign up to follow Mennobytes blog to always get information like this as it becomes available.

Do check out Jacob’s Choice – a great read and powerful example of living your faith,
regardless of any personal historical or family connections.
Order before Feb. 8, 2014 for the discount.