Saloma Miller Furlong
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Book Review: "Breakaway Amish" by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker

It’s hard to believe people can become so dependent on a man that they’ll want him back even after he does terrible things. ~ Johnny Mast


Do you remember hearing about the “renegade Amish” from Bergholz, Ohio, who forcibly cut the hair and beards of Amish people in other communities, and how the leader of the group, Sam Mullet, with several of his followers were sent to jail after being convicted of hate crimes? If you were like me, you longed to know  the inside story of the Bergholz Amish.

Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker tells this inside story from the perspective of Johnny being Sam Mullet’s grandson — at one time one of Mullet’s favored grandsons. I do not know the role that Johnny’s co-writer, Shawn Smucker, had in the writing of this book, but I think he did an excellent job. The writing is riveting, and he preserved Johnny’s voice beautifully.

The story opens with Johnny taking the witness stand in the prosecution when he was still a member of the community in Bergholz. This had me holding my breath to find out if Johnny would be honest, especially after his grandfather gave him a colluding smile during Johnny’s testimony. I should not have worried. It did not take me long to trust Johnny. In a voice clear and true, he tells the story of how the Bergholz community started out “nice and Amish” and then gradually turned down a dark road.

Defenders of Amish culture will want to claim that the Bergholz community was “not really Amish” and they want to claim that they are a cult. End of story. This accomplishes two things. It isolates the Bergholz community, and it preserves the public perception of the Amish as being wholesome and sometimes even a model of a good society.

Johnny Mast’s story complicates this view. The community in Bergholz was certainly Amish once, which raises the question: at what point did it cease being Amish? Defenders of Amish culture might say it was when they turned down that dark road. But that would belie the fact that darkness lurks in the corners of every Amish community, just as it does in any other culture or religion.

Donald Kraybill wrote a foreword for Breakaway Amish. In it, he writes about the book: “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.”

I agree with this sentiment. I believe that the Amish are especially susceptible to repeating this story because they are already “primed” for accepting whatever the bishop decrees. When I joined my Amish church in Ohio, I learned the gravity of what it meant to become a full member of the Amish community. Twice a year, at every communion service, we were asked by the bishop of the congregation, to give up our individuality to become part of the community, just as the grains of wheat had given up their individuality to become part of the communion bread.

Conditioned to submit their will to that of church, members of the Bergholz community, blindly followed their narcissistic leader who supplanted their judgment and authority and turned them against one another. This tyranny was accepted one incremental step at a time, until no one dared to follow their own conscience or reason for themselves. Johnny addresses this in his book:

A lot of people ask me the same question, especially about those days in particular: Why would a bunch of grown men allow another man to treat them that way? I can’t say for sure, but I think for most of us, Bergholz was all we had. Every friend we had in the world lived there, every family member we cared about at the time. And Sam held the key to all of that. […] But you also have to understand that our beliefs as Amish people meant that Sam, as the church bishop had a lot of power over our eternal souls. The rules he put in place were the final words. If we didn’t listen to him–well, I think most of us truly believed that we’d be putting our eternity in jeopardy. (Pages 73,74)

Perhaps this last part sounds like part of the reason the Bergholz community is considered a cult. However, in most of the Amish communities I know, instilling the belief that those who leave the Amish will be putting their salvation at risk, is one of the ways that they preserve their culture. This is another way that members of the Bergholz community were primed to accept the abuse that Sam Mullet meted out.

There is yet another way in which the Bergholz community was prepared in advance for turning down that dark road, with Sam Mullet in the lead. The herd mentality of people schpotting one another (picking on one another), sometimes unmercifully, is a common story in Amish communities. Ira Wagler, in his book, Growing up Amish, tells a tragic story of a child who was scapegoated in his community.

Johnny Mast tells the harrowing tale of how this ganging up on one another manifested itself in Bergholz and how he regretted his part in it:

He [Sam] had the Bad Guys so confused and mixed up about what they had done and what they hadn’t done that they didn’t know how to respond. We Good Guys, on the other hand, listened to Sam, and I guess we listened for many different reasons. We liked being on Sam’s side. We liked being in the in crowd that was telling people what to do, and we knew that if we didn’t listen we’d end up in the Bad Guy crowd. We wanted Sam to approve of us. The Bad Guys spent a couple of weeks living in the barn, sleeping in the animal stalls. Sometimes Sam would let them come inside to eat, but usually one of us Good Guys would take food out to them.

Anyway, the Bad Guys didn’t know which end was up.

My dad was one of the Bad Guys. (Page 61)

Of course there is a big difference between the schpotting in my community and the Bad Guys in Bergholz sleeping in animal stalls because most Amish bishops are not as narcissistic and sick as Sam Mullet. And bishops are not usually the instigators. Johnny describes how Sam was behind everything that happened in his community:

Through all of this–the violence and the intimidation, the haircuts and the changes we couldn’t understand, the odd punishments and the penance–through all of it, Sam sat there and watched. As I reflect on what happened, I believe Sam orchestrated it, and he controlled as all, and that gave him the power to sometimes just sit and watch it all play out. He split up families, maybe because it forced everyone to rely on him. He pitted the strongest men against each other, and they couldn’t direct their energy at him or the things he was doing because they were all fighting with each other. When the weak or the punished got fed up, he flipped the tables, and they felt thankful to him for doing it, as though he was doing them some huge favor. As though he was some kind of savior. (Pages 81-82)

Every community, every culture, every religion has it’s narcissists. In the history of the Amish church, there is no other known case in which a bishop took his power as leader of his flock and abused it as Sam Mullet did in Bergholz. So far, the ordination process the Amish use to choose their leaders has screened out those who would become dictators. In Sam Mullet’s case, this did not work. He was just the kind of person who should not have been ordained. But he was. Once he had his community isolated, and he had instilled the fear and disdain for “outsiders” with the us-versus-them paranoia, he had created the conditions under which he could now abuse his power. He talked about his lust for power to Johnny:

“I’m sorry to confuse you like that,” Sam said in his quiet, understanding voice. He could be very convincing when he spoke like that. “And Johnny, I can’t explain it. I can’t.”

Then he said something I will never forget. “Somehow I’m getting a lot of power by committing these sins. I know it’s wrong, but I’m getting a lot of power.” (Pages 84, 85)

This chilling admission sums up the motivations behind everything that happened in Bergholz.

I am so glad that Johnny had the courage to break away from the Bergholz community. He didn’t slink away in the night. He faced his parents and told them what he was about to do. They tried dissuading him, but Johnny had made up his mind. He describes the exchanges with his dad:

“If you can give me one solid reason, from my point of view, that I should stay, then I’ll think about it. One good reason to stay.”

My dad looked at me for a little bit. His eyes went blank. “I can’t,” he finally said. (Page 158)

Johnny pointed out to his father that it was obvious that the problem was not the other Amish. He urged his father to look around and see where the real problem was. His father replied, “Well, if that’s the case, then that whole winter, what everyone went through–having their hair and beards cut, Eli being crazy like he was, writing all our sins down, people staying in the chicken coop–that would all have been for nothing.”

Johnny’s dad’s way of thinking is so very Amish. Most people taking an inventory of all that had happened would ask themselves why they are not leaving. It is so ironic that the suffering that Sam put Johnny’s dad through is the very reason he stayed.

Johnny describes the feeling of driving away from Bergholz and leaving his parents behind. “I hated to think about leaving them there in that community. I hated to imagine them growing old in that darkness.” (Page 161)

I am not only glad that Johnny found his way out of that darkness, but I’m also glad that he had the courage to tell his story. While many of his relatives are still in Bergholz doing whatever Sam Mullet tells them to do from his jail cell, Johnny is thriving in the life he has chosen. He has followed his love of horses by buying, training, and selling them to the Amish and he shoes horses for the Amish in the same community where his Grandfather Sam grew up.

Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mullet and Shawn Smucker is an important and riveting story.


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