Kraybill, Donald B. 2014. Renegade Amish: Beard cutting, hate crimes, and the trial of the Bergholz barbers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Donald Kraybill is a Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. He is internationally recognized for his scholarship on Anabaptist groups, with his research featured in many journals, magazines, and newspapers, and on radio and television. “He has served as a consultant for various projects related to Amish and other Anabaptist groups.”[1]

Kraybill was contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice to testify as an expert witness on Amish culture in the case this book describes. It is heavily documented and includes an overview of the Amish culture(s) in Appendix II, with notes on the roots of the Amish, including their growth and diversity, as well as their view of the power and rights of the State. Although outsiders most often think of them as farmers, they are also shop owners, mechanics, carpenters and factory workers, with fewer farmers each year.

According to an Elizabethtown College website, “The Amish are a Christian church that traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. Amish people accept basic Christian beliefs but also have some special interpretations and emphases that have emerged throughout their history. They migrated from Europe to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No Amish remain in Europe. Today they live in 480 geographical settlements in 30 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. Their population (adults and children) totals approximately 290,100. Their unique practices make them one of America’s most interesting and colorful religious subcultures.”[2]

According to Kraybill (138), Amish identity is found in three areas: (1) ethnicity, which includes language, genealogy, common history, and cultural background; (2) religious practices, and (3) religious beliefs. We note later that these include the use of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, horses and buggies, eating certain foods, a simple lifestyle, non-violence, preachers and bishops chosen by their congregations, limited formal schooling, use of the German Bible, and shared community values.

The Amish group represented in the study branches from the relatives of Sam and Martha Mullet and Marty and Barbara Miller (the Bergholz clan—a family tree diagram is given in Appendix I), to include siblings, children, children’s spouses, nieces and grandchildren. It is helpful to keep a bookmark in the Appendix and follow the names carefully, for Mullet and Miller names are ubiquitous in the book (e.g., Mrs. Miller was a Mullet before marriage).

Kraybill explores the questions of how and why a small clan of Amish, schooled in a religious tradition of religious nonviolence and forgiveness, became a cult of revenge and retaliation that led to a major trial, involving several states’ law departments and the FBI.

Chapter one[3] outlines the beard cutting and head shaving attacks that first took place at the home of Marty and Barb Miller on September 6, 2011, and at the home of Melvin and Anna Shrock on November 9th. Bishop Hershberger was also forcibly shaved on October 4th (19). Beards for men and long hair, covered, for women, particular clothes, horses and buggies, no electricity or phones in homes, only primary school education, and other characteristics are part of the worldview of the Amish people. The attacks were humiliating and unprecedented in Amish history. Before suggesting in some detail why this happened, Kraybill introduces us to some of the Amish clans, particularly the one located near Bergholz, in Ohio but near western Pennsylvania. Sam Mullet and his family had moved from Fredericktown, where they had lived for eighteen years, and bought 800 acres of land a few miles east of Bergholz. They had moved there to be more isolated from other Amish communities, many which they thought were too modern, and did not cling to the old Amish ways. Five years after their arrival, a total of nine families and twenty-five children lived at Bergholz, some eleven children belonging to the Sam Mullets.

In 1997, two years after the settlement began, Sam was ordained its first preacher (28). Only preachers can become bishops and three preachers at Bergholz ordained Sam a bishop in 2001. However, this was a problem because the unwritten tradition stipulates that at least three bishops had to attend an ordination ceremony and only Eli Yoder was present. Sam became a powerful man in the community and attracted new members until 2006, when things began to fall apart.

Various disputes and events took place over the next few years and families were either excommunicated or voluntarily left Bergholz. A committee of five outside bishops examined the excommunication process and had Sam psychologically examined for emotional stability (he passed). Nevertheless, a lengthy custody battle took place over two of his eighty-plus grandchildren; the two were children of daughter Wilma and her husband Aden Troyer, son of an exiled deacon. The inter-clan fighting and friction accelerated and included a lawsuit (generally a forbidden Amish procedure) by Sam for the return of his two grandchildren.

In the meantime, 300 elders had met and sent word to Sam that the expelled communicants should be reinstated to his community. That did not happen and Sam’s vision for a flourishing community faded and shrank in size (40).

In Chapter three, Kraybill outlines the difficulties that continued with Sam, or “The Bishop”, as he was known. For the five years following his “ordination” Sam consolidated his power structure and on several occasion “compared his role to that of the president of the United States” (45). An ideology quite different from that of the standard Amish communities began to emerge, with Sam seeing himself as a prophet—one of his children related that their father thought he was a prophet like Elijah. Soon no one in the Bergholz community was allowed to read the Bible, in particular the New Testament, because the Bishop justified his actions from the Old Testament. Other activities followed: replacing worship services with social meetings at Sam’s home, no morning and evening prayers, not calling themselves “Christians”, an intense interest in the sexual life of some members, spiritual signs and dreams, all in obedience to Bishop Sam Mullet.

Chapter four outlines the distinctive aspects of a cult and the conclusion seems clear that the Bergholz Amish group is cultish. The group has a leader who believes he has direct information from God, there are alleged sexual improprieties, affirmation comes from selected stories and passages from the Old Testament, and there were unusual rites that involved “extended exclusion in small animal pens (the so-called “Amish jails”), paddling of adults, and cutting of hair and beards” (68). The latter actions were accompanied by voluntary “grief and purification” sessions. These events crystalized in the fall of 2009 and became known as the “Winter of Lament” (71). An associated idea was that the Bergholz beard cutting could help outside hypocrites. It was now clear that: 1) Bishop Mullet stood for the Word of God against the large “sea of disobedience”; 2) he preached against God’s rebellious people, warning them to repent; 3) outside hypocrites, tricked by the devil, had persecuted the faithful at Bergholz; and 4) Sam helped the clan to identify and confess their sins and get them back on the road towards heaven.

However, as Kraybill indicates, “there was a sinister word underlying this yarn that was spun…. That word was revenge” (80).

The tale of how the FBI became involved is told by Kraybill in chapter five. It began on October 4, 2011, when attackers grabbed and assaulted Bishop Raymond Hershberger and his son Andy by cutting their hair (and the Bishop’s whiskers). The incident was reported to the county Sheriff (also a Mullet, but not related to Sam) and a Detective, who found the victim wavering about pressing charges. However, charges were eventually filed and the Sheriff was able to interview the taxi truck driver (the Amish commonly employ drivers) who had waited for the assailants in his car. It was verified that the five men in the truck were two preachers (John Mullet and Levi F. Miller) and Danny Mullet, Eli Miller and Lester Mullet. Arrest warrants were issued for Eli and Danny. The two men and their younger brother, Lester, were taken to jail. Phone calls followed and Bishop Mullet informed the men that they were ready to take more beards off and that they should “stay strong” (89).

The FBI and Department of Justice were called in to determine if the attacks had been motivated by religion and therefore would come under the designation of hate crimes. Additionally, “federal attorneys could use quotes Sam Mullet made to television reporters explaining that the beard cuttings were all about religion” (91). To prove the point of necessary Federal involvement, some ten major issues were outlined, such as “greater and more uniform post-conviction and post-incarceration control over offenders” (90).

The FBI, armed with arrest warrants for seven people, entered Bergholz and arrived at the home of Sam Mullet at 6 am, November 23, 2011. The Bishop soon emerged from his bedroom with Lovina Miller, wife of Eli, Sam’s nephew. Eli, who had been a part of the original assault, had taken photos of the hair and beard cutting and was worried that the FBI would find them. He called a friend at the residence, who then hid the camera with its incriminating evidence. However, the camera was later found and the photos used as evidence against the men who had shaved the whiskers and hair of Bishop Hershberger.

The government built its case around the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, claiming religious motivated violence. The defendants hired a competent legal team to defend them. They were able to do this because Bishop Mullet had received his first payment of $3.5 million on a contract for gas and oil leases on his land. A plea bargain was rejected by Sam and the case moved forward to trial.

The trial is outlined in chapter six by Kraybill, who was called as an expert witness “to answer questions about Amish history, social practices, and religious beliefs posed by lawyers on both sides” (101). Opposite the introductory page of the chapter is a photo of Johnny, Lester, and Daniel Mullet, next to Levi and Eli Miller, in the Holmes County Municipal court on October 19, 2011.

The prosecutors told the jury that the Amish, like everyone in America, had the right to practice their religion freely, without fear of assault. However, the defendants had brazenly ambushed their victims in the dead of the night and desecrated their sacred symbols of faith—their beards and head hair, which “symbolized their commitment to God” (101). There were sixteen of the defendants and sixteen attorneys, one for each of them.

The case turned out to be complicated and involved sixteen trials wrapped into one. There were also “ninety different legal charges, twenty attorneys, nine victims, five attacks on four different days but also sixteen defendants with overlapping names: four Mullets, nine Millers, two Shrocks and one Burkholder” (102-3). Included, were four married couples. There were ten general counts against them, including 1) conspiring with others to commit a crime; 2) assaulting a victim that causes bodily harm; 3) obstructing justice (destroying hair; hiding a camera and concealing shears); and 4) lying to the FBI.

Sam had nine of the ten counts directed at him, including lying to the FBI, and all sixteen were charged with conspiracy. In Sam’s words “We know what we did and why we did it. This is all about religion” (105). However the Assistant U.S. Attorney went further and told the jury that the defendants were “on trial for physically attacking people because of religion, obstructing the investigation, and lying about it. That is what this trial is about” (105).

Kraybill himself was involved in five hours of testimony over a two day period. Well-acquainted with the Amish rules of conduct, Kraybill noted “red flags” such as an autocratic special spiritual leader who does not tolerate dissent, threatens physical force, has improper sexual conduct—all seemed to fit the Bergholz situation.

The defense’s argument was basically that the case was not about religion. However, it became clear that the Amish interpreted their separation from the world and their symbols for doing so as stemming from biblical principles. The prosecution reiterated that the defendants formed a conspiracy and that the lead perpetrator was Bishop Mullet. The defense argued that the government’s case was one of prejudice against the Bergholz community because they were “different” (115).

The jurors faced a monumental task of sifting through the evidence, noting and organizing the details. A key issue was whether the evidence was enough to convict the defendants of a hate crime. Eventually the jurors concluded that cutting the beards had resulted in temporary disfigurement and that the attackers were motivated by how they viewed the religion of their victims. After five days of deliberation the jurors convened, having determined that the defendants were guilty on eighty-seven counts.

Chapter seven describes the sentencing, which took place in Cleveland in February 2013. The bishop, who had already been behind bars for a year, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison; the ministers Johnny and Lester Mullet, and Levi and Eli Miller, seven years; and the third group, five years. Two people received two year sentences and five women and one man, one year. There had been apologies and letters of contrition (and accusations) and the judge had taken it all into account.

“The Aftermath” is the title of chapter eight. Although the judge had asked prison officials to assign the defendants to prisons as close to their homes as possible, this was not done. The men were scattered to Texas, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois and the women ended up in Connecticut, Minnesota, West Virginia and Ohio.

Sam Mullet was unrepentant: in a jailhouse interview, he held his flock responsible, not himself, saying “I never ordered anybody…to do beard cuts. These haircuts, they told me these things, but [they] didn’t want me to get involved” (136).

Amish communities across the country declared that the Bergholz community had left the fold and listed twenty-five irregular practices by them. The publicity of the Amish Bergholz group proved shameful to other Amish communities. However, according to Kraybill, the “benefactors in this story are the adherents of any religious faith” (152). They are guaranteed protection of their right to believe and practice their religion without fear and that religious people of the same group cannot use violence against others in the name of God.

By April 2014 the defendants with one year sentences had returned to the Bergholz community, but their bishop was in jail. However, the matter did not rest and an appeal was filed in February 2013.

After the publication of this book, on August 27, 2014, a federal appeals court overturned the hate-crimes convictions of the Amish Bergholz group. They may receive a new trial—the reversal was based on the definition of a hate crime. The appellate ruling said: “The assaults were not everyday occurrences, whether one looks at the setting (several normally peaceful Amish communities), the method of attack (cutting the hair and shaving the beards of the victims), the mode of transportation to them (hired drivers), the relationship between the assailants and their victims (two of them involved children attacking their parents), or the alleged motive (religious-based hatred between members of the same faith).”[4]

This does not mean that Mullet and the others will be set free—defense attorneys would have to file a motion to begin such a process.

To summarize briefly, Kraybill provides an excellent and sympathetic account of the “Whiskers War”, as it was sometimes called by the press. His first hand knowledge of the Amish culture provides a degree of authenticity often uncommon in sensational stories and his detailed yet easy reading style keeps the reader alert and interested to the end—well, almost the end., because it is not yet certain how the case will actually end. It could end up with the Supreme Court.



[1] From, accessed January 5, 2015.

[2] Accessed January 5, 2015.

[3] Twenty four pages of notes accompany the chapters. Many of them refer to extensive interviews that Kraybill held with Amish people. He also supplies a bibliography and an index.