Q&A with Donald Kraybill


From the Preface to the forthcoming Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers:

Amish. Hate. Crimes. These three words suddenly linked arms in the fall of 2011 when a string of beard-cutting attacks startled the Amish community in eastern Ohio. The fact that the perpetrators were Amish generated an avalanche of news stories about Amish-on- Amish violence as the bizarre story played out until the defendants were sentenced in February 2013. Pundits and late-night talk shows alike poked fun at the Amish—these supposed saints who now had streaks of sin on their faces. Even a cartoonist joined in the humor by depicting a distraught Santa Claus with only stubbles on his chin, waiting in vain for children to sit on his lap. Apart from beards, bonnets, and buggies, nonviolence is a cardinal signature of Amish identity. That a band of supposedly pacifist Amish had assaulted their own people shattered all the Amish stereotypes in the popular imagination.

When this cultural brawl finally ended, ten men and six women from a maverick Amish community near Bergholz, Ohio, were behind bars. A federal jury found them guilty of multiple charges involving conspiracy, hate crimes, kidnapping, lying, and obstructing justice. Most shocking of all, the three Bergholz clergymen—Bishop Samuel Mullet and his two ministers—were among those charged and convicted. The jurors found evidence that the assailants had attacked the Amish victims because of their religion.

Apart from etching violence into the annals of Amish history, the case set a new legal precedent—under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act—for its first-time conviction of assailants for religion-driven hate crimes. Moreover, it was also the first one within the same faith community. In addition, because a hate crime conviction requires evidence of “bodily injury,” the jury had to judge whether cutting a beard qualified as disfigurement, which is one type of bodily injury. The verdicts stretched the definition of bodily injury for hate crimes and the nature of acceptable evidence for interstate commerce—one requirement for federal jurisdiction and prosecution of hate crimes. Some legal experts considered the interstate commerce evidence tenuous in the Bergholz case, and others have even raised questions about some aspects of the constitutionality of the Shepard-Byrd Act.


With his new book coming out in August, Donald Kraybill has stopped by the JHUP blog to answer a few questions about the Amish beard cutting scandal which shook the Amish community in late 2011.

Q: How did you first learn about the Ohio Amish beard cutting story?

A: I heard about it on various media in September 2011. I thought it was a joke at first or some kind of misunderstanding.

Q: Have beard cutting attacks happened before in Amish history?

A: This is a precedent. It never happened before these attacks by the Bergholz Amish community. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve come across in researching and writing on the Amish of North America over the last 35 years.

Q: How did you get involved?

A: I was contracted in the spring of 2012 by the U. S. Department of Justice to assist them in the prosecution. I helped them to understand Amish beliefs and practices. In September 2012 I served as an expert witness for five hours during the three-week federal trial in Cleveland, which included 16 Amish defendants.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: For several reasons. This was such a benchmark case in Amish history. I wanted to understand it better and also document it for historical purposes. I was also curious about the background of the Bergholz Amish which executed the attacks. Who were they? How were they transformed from a peace-loving group into a violent one? Were they, in fact, really Amish?

Q: How did you answer that question in the book?

A: I provide an abundance of evidence that shows many ways in which the Bergholz clan strayed from Orthodox Amish faith. Throughout the trial they maintained that they were Amish. They still use horse and buggy transportation and dress Amish-like. Of course there are no laws that prevent any group from claiming the Amish brand. In my judgment they are not Amish, at least not according to any conventional standard of Amish belief and practice.

Q: How do other Amish people view the Bergholz clan?

A: The 65,000 other Amish people in Ohio were greatly embarrassed and shamed by the beard cutting attacks. The attackers even included members of the Bergholz clergy. Another reason I wrote the book was to vindicate the thousands of sincere and devout Amish people in Ohio and other states whose Amish identity was maligned by these attacks

Q: Why did the federal Department of Justice become involved in what might appear as a petty Amish quarrel?

A: There were nine victims, sixteen offenders, and five different attacks in various counties. It would have been difficult to undertake multiple prosecutions in different counties for a host of reasons which I explain in the book. The federal prosecutors argued that the nature of the crimes and the fact that they involved interstate commerce made it possible to prosecute the offenders under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act. The jury agreed and convicted the sixteen defendants with some 87 different criminal charges.

Q: What surprised you most about the story?

A: The case is now under appeal to the sixth circuit federal appellate court. Recently the national Anti-Defamation League pulled together a coalition of 40 different groups vigilant about civil rights abuses. These groups filed a friend of the court brief urging the appellate court to uphold the convictions. The coalition groups view the Amish convictions of federal hate crimes as a benchmark that will help to protect many other Americans from hate crime attacks. The case is especially pertinent for attacks motivated by the hatred of a person’s religion, sexual orientation, race, gender, or disability.

Q: What is the most important take away of the book?

A: The sad irony is that the hate crime convictions of some former pacifist Amish have helped to reinforce the long-standing American tradition that citizens are legally protected to practice their religious faith according to their conscience without fear of being attacked by those who may despise their religion.

Kraybill_RenegadeDonald B. Kraybill is a Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of more than a dozen books on Amish culture, including The Riddle of Amish Culture, The Amish, and the upcoming book on the Bergholz Barbers, Renegade Amish.

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