“At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being…. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life.…”
The subdued whisper was launched almost as soon as last week’s blog was posted. Out there, drifting in the ether. A mere hint, but palpable nonetheless.
And that whisper was, “Why?”
Why dig into the past and unearth the events surrounding one man and his movement? Why discuss and lay bare the essence of the community and background from which he came? What good does it do? Especially if some of the unearthed details are less than flattering. How will his family feel? And the Aylmer community? It was so long ago. Why not just let it go? Let the past rest. Let be what was.
I understand the whispers. And respect them to a point. But ultimately, I reject them.
Elmo Stoll was a man among men in his time and setting. As Aylmer was a community among communities in its time as well. What he said and wrote and did caused mighty reverberations to rumble throughout the world he inhabited, the community he for- sook, and the one he created. As any visionary leader, he was deeply flawed, as well as great. And the path he forged was well worth the time and effort required to record in detail. Because it was interesting and because it was history.
But that alone is not enough.
The Amish have been around for a long, long time. Hundreds of years. By latest count, there are today a little over two hundred twenty-five thousand Amish people. Two hundred twenty-five thousand, out of six-plus billion people in the world.
For such a small group, they have a tremendous presence in “English” society, not only in this country and this continent, but the world. They are pretty much romanticized, but that’s not their fault. Most prefer to be left alone.
Until my father and Joseph Stoll launched Pathway Publishers in the 1960s, the Amish never really had much of a voice of their own. No place from which emanated basic apologetics, a defense and explanation of their lifestyle and beliefs. With Family Life and the other Pathway publications, that voice was presented for the first time.
It was an extraordinary achievement. I admire all those who were involved. Nothing like that had ever been attempted before. They had a vision and pursued it. With un- ceasing labor. At great risk, financial and otherwise. It succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.
They published a lot of good solid stuff. Especially on historical subjects, and common- sense articles on farming and other issues unique to the Amish lifestyle.
And yet, and this is not a criticism, only an observation, I have always felt that the fictional writings and many op-eds published by my father and others at Pathway were less than honest. Too much gooey mush. Too didactic. Too pat. Too formulaic and predictable. All the same answers, all the time.
The rebellious youth always made elaborate plans to run away from home, but then decided at the last minute to stay. Not to explore the evil world after all. And never any regrets for that choice. The chaste and beautiful (or not so beautiful) daughter shyly won her man’s heart with demur manners and downcast eyes. And the father who questioned the preachers’ authority always ended up concluding they were right and he was wrong. His repentance was always deep and sincere.
In real life, it just don’t happen like that. Not every time. Never has. Never will. To portray it as if it does is disingenuous and a little silly.
And I wonder, too, if my father and his Pathway contemporaries ever questioned the path they chose. The God they served. Did they ever despair that He exists? Question their faith? Or was it always cut and dried, black and white? Their children who left and they cut off cold, did it not tear at their hearts? The hard ruthless laws of shunning, did they ever doubt them? And wish it were not so?
Did they ever struggle with such issues? Or did their harsh cold facades truly reflect their hearts?
I like to think they struggled sometimes. Weren’t so sure of themselves. It would have been human. But I don’t know that. Because they never told us.
Maybe they thought it would show weakness. It wouldn’t have. To the contrary, it would have shown strength. And honesty.
And I think too, of my own grandfather, my father’s father, who I never met. Because he died when my father was young. What kind of man he really was, other than the vacant shallow depictions of a stern godly father and a deacon in the church.
There is so much more I will never know. How he looked. The man he was. In the community. As he labored in the fields. Among his children. The sound of his voice when he prayed the morning prayer. As he performed his deaconly duties and read Scripture aloud in church. What gave him joy. And what his quirks were.
And my great-grandfather, Christian Wagler, who took his own life at the age of thirty-six. Who was he? How did he look? Tall or short? The demons he faced, in the dark recesses of his tortured soul, that finally overwhelmed him. Why did he do it? How were his last days? His last morning? What were his last words?
I’ll never know, other than conjecturing, because no one ever honestly wrote it at the time. And I accept that. It’s who they were. Some things were just not done. Some layers not peeled back, the dark secrets carefully guarded. The old way, of the old generations.
But they left us poorer for our lack of knowledge. Of who they were. And who we are.
It seems only fair and right that from the silent shadows of this sheltered culture, a few have emerged, a few chroniclers who have observed carefully over the years. Who filed away the vivid scenes in their minds, and kept that knowledge quietly hidden in their hearts.
A few who now remember.
A few who will say, “This is what I saw and heard. These are the people involved and this is what they did. This is what I felt and thought. What I experienced. These are the words that were spoken, in this time and place. These are the battles that were waged, and this the aftermath. And this is what happened.”
A few who tell it like it was. In all its human drama. Fragmented, perhaps. With some mistakes. But honestly.
Every age, and every generation has its giants and its common people. Its common stories. And its epics. But the characters involved cannot be seen and will not be heard, and will be forgotten, if no one speaks their names.
And tells of them. As they were. In their struggles. Their triumphs. With their flaws. Their impossible visions. Their failures. And their shining accomplishments. As they marched across the stage on which we now play our own roles.
That’s why I write.
It came and went with little fanfare last Sunday. My forty-seventh birthday. Each year, I always think to myself that now I’m really getting old. But after the mental speed bump of dealing with the actual date, I move on and don’t think about it much. But forty-seven is getting awfully close to that “fifty” threshold.
My siblings and I have developed a tradition of calling the birthday person on his or her birthday. I heard from almost all my brothers and sisters, via text or phone. And thanks to my sister Maggie and her daughter Dorothy for the large box of healthy and delicious goodies. UPS’d to my door. You wouldn’t have needed to. But I really enjoyed it all, especially the tarts.
On Saturday night, I hosted my first cookout of the summer. Not for my birthday; I didn’t even mention it to my guests. Three families honored me with their presence. Keenan and Bora Rew. Steve and Ada Beiler. And Paul and Anne Marie Zook. And their kids.
I fired up the grill and cooked sausages, one of my favorite specialties. The ladies all brought salads and such, and generally kept everything running smoothly. When time came for dessert, Paul disappeared into the house and emerged with a mysterious box. I opened the lid and beheld what I’d consider to be the most unique and fascinat-ing birthday cake I’ve ever seen. Few things surprise me, but this, well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. These guys know how to push my buttons.
Somehow, the group had discovered it was my birthday. So Steve Beiler went back to my old blog, copied the picture and took it to a bakery. Sure, they said, no problem, they’d get it on. And they did. Not much of a cake eater, I helped myself to a liberal slice, covered with ice cream. It was delicious.
There is one good thing about having another birthday. Because each year, once my birthday passes, the football season is not far behind. And that’s a thing worth antici-pating, worth waiting for. The college season opens this weekend. Slurp, slurp.
And how about those Jets, snagging Bret Favre like that? Whooeee. I’m really not all that pumped about it, although he surely will be better than the guy he replaced. Favre is 38, positively ancient for an NFL quarterback. But he might still have a few good years left in him. We’ll see.
The dog and pony show of the Demoncrat National Convention unfolded before the world this week. The unveiling of the messiah. Not that I watched one second of it. Won’t watch the Republican Convention either. Both parties are corrupted to the core, like two thugs battling for control over the cowed populace of some hick town. Both parties seek dictatorship. Even with McCain’s choice of the exceptional Sarah Palin as his running mate, I have chosen not to participate this time. Maybe I never will again.
NOTE: THIS POST CONSISTS OF CERTAIN FACTS, SIFTED FROM A WIDE VARIETY OF SOURCES, AND INTERPRETED FROM MY PERSPECTIVE. FROM CERTAIN EVENTS THAT UNFOLDED MORE THAN EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, EVENTS NOW SHROUDED BY THE FOG OF YEARS.
MY OPINIONS, OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS ARE MY OWN, AND MAY DIFFER FROM THE READER’S.
“Let us reason together.”
It was a Friday afternoon. Special church services were being held in honor of a visit-ing minister. He had lived in the area for a few years, then moved away. After moving, he had been ordained. The congregation now sat expectantly as the people waited to hear from this former lay brother who would stand before them and preach.
After a short opening sermon by a home preacher, and the reading of Scripture, the visiting minister stood to take the floor.
Head bowed, he fumbled briefly with his opening statements. He was glad to return to the area, even with his increased responsibilities. It had been good, he said, to visit with his old neighbors and friends. To visit his old home area. The congregation settled in.
But then a strange thing happened. The visiting minister could not preach. Instead, he wept and wept. At times almost uncontrollably. He tugged at the white handkerchief in his pocket and wiped his eyes. It was soon soaked with tears.
“Oh, there is a dark cloud on the horizon, and it is coming right into this community,” he cried. “You are going to experience some dark, dark times.”
He seemed, for a moment, to seize control of himself. He blew his nose and wiped the tears away again. Tried to flow into the natural course of his sermon.
But the tears would not stop. Again and again, like a biblical prophet of doom, he cried out, warning of dark clouds and dark times on the horizon. The congregation stirred, restless. What did the preacher see? What was he talking about? What dark times was he describing?
The congregation was assembled in Aylmer, Ontario, in June, 1990. The visiting mini-ster was Alvin Fisher of Somerset, PA.
The night before, Alvin Fisher had stayed at the house of his friend, Elmo Stoll. The two of them had sat up and talked all night, in a sleepless vigil.
After October, 1976, when my family moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield IA, Elmo Stoll stepped into the spot vacated by my father and became the editor of Family Life. Under his guidance, the magazine continued to prosper and expand its audience. His articles and editorials were among the few actually worth reading each month.
He was a man with a vision. On a mission. To convince the Amish world to repent of its old evil ways and renew itself on a more spiritual path. He used all the tools in his arsenal and all his powers of persuasion. He boldly wrote and spoke and preached his conscience, regardless of whose toes got crushed. And in the pursuance of his vision, he persisted in molding the Aylmer church into the image of what he thought it should be.
A few years after he was ordained, Aylmer, which then consisted of only one district, ordained a Bishop to replace Pete Yoder, who had moved to Marshfield, MO. Elmo and Jake Eicher were the only two in the lot. It fell on Jake.
Jake was a kindly, good-hearted man. My favorite preacher as a child. In a normal setting, he would have fulfilled his leadership duties with little difficulty. But this was not a normal setting. And Jake simply could not withstand the powerful combined force of Elmo’s charismatic personality and leadership skills. Before long, Elmo led, and Jake followed. A figurehead leader only. After Elmo’s brother Stephen Stoll, a deacon, moved back to Aylmer from Honduras and resumed his deaconly duties, the two of them simply overwhelmed any leadership opposition. Things went the way they dic-tated. Backwards, mostly.
While I realize this fact may be difficult for some to face and absorb, it is simply the truth.
As I mentioned before, the Aylmer church at this time thought more highly of itself than it ought. As the shining light for other communities to emulate, it madly plunged about this way and that, searching for ever increasing, and ever more difficult, ways to please that furious frowning God who could never be placated. Or ways the leaders thought would please God. There was no stability. What was OK today was banned tomorrow. What was pleasing to God today suddenly was pronounced unacceptable and would draw His wrath.
This state of raw hubris simply could not stand. The day of reckoning approached. In the distant horizon like a tiny cloud the size of a man’s fist.
Sometime around the late 1970s/early 1980s, four young men, two of whom had joined the church, finally could not take it anymore and rebelled. (That’s the simplistic version. The issues, as usual, were more complicated.) I grew up with these guys. They were my friends. They left the Amish, but stayed in the area. The Aylmer church reacted as one would expect, by cutting off any attempts at effective communication and lowering the boom on the young men with the full force of its awesome might.
The official position was that the young men were bad to the bone. Rebellious. They must be broken of their own strong will. And submit unconditionally. The two who were members, of course, were summarily excommunicated. All four of the young men were ostracized and scorned. Most eventually left the area.
Despite its flaws, the Aylmer community prospered and grew, and in 1984, two dis-tricts were formed from the one. Now another Bishop was needed. The ordination was held on October 10th. Elmo Stoll and Simon Wagler were in the lot. This time it fell on Elmo Stoll. He had now reached the office in which he would rise to the apex of his power and influence.
He was already widely known throughout the Amish world as a writer and a preacher. So it did not take long for other communities to request his assistance whenever out-side Bishops, or “fremda Mann,” were needed to settle church or personality disputes. He traveled widely and soon gained quite a reputation as a man who gave wise and Godly counsel.
As the years passed, Elmo mellowed a bit from his earlier habits of always demanding his way, in his time frame, usually right now. But he never lost them entirely. And he never quite lost his habit of constantly stirring about, always pursuing some issue, small or large, to fuss about and fret over. At least not while in Aylmer.
At one point, he decided that the motor powered lawn mowers were too worldly. Too handy. He labeled them “flying boats” and began his usual campaign strategy to ban them. But this time his message did not resonate. Motor powered lawn mowers had been allowed in Aylmer since its inception. People were unwilling to give them up. And when Elmo tried to stir up public support to ban them, he was simply ignored. This defeat was highly unusual.
Eventually he saw his wishes would not come to pass. So he remarked that if everyone else has the flying boats, then he will get one too. And he did.
As Bishop, he could be and often was a harsh disciplinarian. Once, a group of Aylmer young people visited the community of Mio, Michigan. While there, several of the youth boys rode around on bicycles. Unfortunately, one of the young men fell off his bike and broke a bone (possibly his collar bone). So their sin was found out.
The fact that they were riding bicycles caused a huge and furious uproar back home in Aylmer. Unfathomable and senseless to us who view the incident in retrospect over the years. But true. Riding a bicycle was a SIN. The young man who broke a bone was not a church member, but others in the group were. All who were members were required by Elmo to make a public confession in church. They did. The yoke he inflicted was heavy.
Elmo insisted on another strict and strange and far-reaching policy. Over the years, some members of the Aylmer church moved away to other Amish communities, perhaps a bit more progressive. Some of these former Aylmer members, years later, left their then-current Amish church and joined a Beachy or Mennonite church that allowed cars. The standard method among Amish churches was to allow the church the member actually left to deal with it. And decide whether or not to excommunicate.
This did not fly with Elmo. He insisted that anyone who ever was a member of the Aylmer church who ever left the Amish, anywhere, anytime, was still under his juris-diction. I can’t verify that he actually did so, but he threatened to excommunicate people he hadn’t seen in years, and barely knew. Formally hand them over to Satan. Just because they had once been members in Aylmer. The yoke he inflicted was heavy.
After posting my first “Elmo blog,” I heard from many people who knew him and lived under all stages of his leadership. Some I knew. Some I didn’t. But they all felt com-pelled to join the conversation, for which I’m grateful. They contacted me through letters, emails and on the phone. I heard it all.
From those who loved him. And from those whose memories of him bring only pain.
Some told me of how, after the strident early years, he mellowed and developed open relationships with the young people in the community. How he gained their trust. How they respected and liked him, and looked up to him, even the ones who disagreed with him, because they knew he really cared for them. How easy he was to approach and talk to. How sympathetic he was to the struggles that others endured. How they listen-ed, mesmerized, to the stories he told.
But I heard, too, from the least among them. The ones who could never do anything right. The ones who were openly persecuted and harassed. The scorned. The unloved. Not just by Elmo, but by certain other members of the leadership. These people were second class, the ones who never had a voice.
I listened to their tentative hesitant voices, probably as few before ever have. And heard them. Read their letters. And absorbed their words. It soon became clear to me that there are a number of such people out there today who harbor deep wounds from those times. The passage of the years has scabbed over the wounds so they no longer bleed. But under the right circumstances, the pent-up emotions release and come pouring forth in torrents.
My heart goes out to these people.
Some who participated in inflicting those wounds still live in Aylmer. And in at least one nearby settlement. In leadership positions. They know who they are. And they know who they wounded.
They can still do the right thing.
I last heard Elmo Stoll preach at the wedding of Bert Farmwald and Linda Wagler (my cousin). In Shipshewana, Indiana around 1987. Elmo conducted the marriage cere-mony. It’s not the last time I saw him, just the last time I heard him preach. I can still remember some of the things he said that day.
As the 1980s decade approached its end, Elmo Stoll was at the very peak of his power and influence. As close to empire as any Amishman will ever achieve. At age 46, he was a Bishop. Leader. Editor and writer. With a national audience. He was known in every Amish community in North America, with the possible exception of some isolated Swartzentruber settlements. And maybe a few places like Big Valley in PA. He was at the top. The most powerful and well-known Amishman in the world. And, being human, he quite likely was quite aware of that fact.
But here, at the peak of the mountain where he stood alone, something was lacking inside. In his heart, he was unsatisfied and unhappy. The young man who had shown up hatless at his pre-baptismal meeting still stirred in him. The Amish church, he felt, was too materialistic, too focused on wealth. Too restrictive, too culturally dormant, not evangelical enough. Not open enough to those from the outside who were interested in the plain lifestyle and pure Anabaptist faith. Despite his efforts in writing and preach-ing, he saw little evidence of the changes he had expected.
And there were other influences. Some say this and some say that. That his heart was drawn to isolated communities like Gorrie. And that he had a burden for the outside seekers who desperately wanted to join the Amish, but who were hampered by the language barriers. Some claim that his sons were not content in Aylmer, and Elmo was afraid he would lose them. So he conformed his thinking to theirs. And while I couldn’t double-verify this particular fact, it does seem plausible. He wouldn’t have been the first father to do such a thing. Or the last.
When and to whom he first unveiled his “heretical” thoughts remains obscured. His brothers, I suppose, two of whom were also in the ministry in Aylmer at the time. What is true is that in late summer and fall of 1989, the Aylmer ministers held a series of private meetings in strictest secrecy. In November of that year, all church members from Aylmer’s three districts were summoned together one weekday afternoon. The entire meeting consisted of Elmo getting up and making confession after confession of his wrong and sinful thinking. Without really defining what that thinking was. He was formally forgiven, and people returned to their daily lives, utterly bewildered as to what had just happened.
And so things stood until the following June. A few quiet rumors persisted, whispered furtively from person to person. Until minister Alvin Fisher from Somerset, PA, stood before them and delivered his weeping non-sermon. Alvin had also heard the rumors, and to his credit, decided to travel to Aylmer and check their source for himself. That night, he stayed at Elmo’s house, and the two of them sat up all night, discussing the issues that troubled Elmo’s heart. And while I have heard second-hand some of the things that were supposedly said that night, I am not sufficiently convinced of their accuracy to disclose them.
The next day, Alvin Fisher stood before the church and wept. And from that day, the flood gates were swept open, never to be closed again. Elmo Stoll shocked the Aylmer community and the Amish world to its core.
He formally announced that he and his family, along with others, were moving to found a new settlement. Not just any settlement, but a commune, where all material belong-ings will be shared. A little socialistic haven for weary seekers. They would not be Amish, or associate with the Amish. They would be known simply as The Christian Community. This was a staggering, unprecedented development.
The Aylmer community reacted as one would expect. The leadership, now shorn of its own leader, clamped down hard on Elmo and any others who were considering the move. Elmo and his little flock of followers were ostracized within the community. Those not already attached to him were strenuously warned against doing so. A pal-pable tension pulsed through the settlement.
For the little group, these were difficult days. They met semi secretively. Made their plans. Felt persecuted, like their Anabaptist forefathers. And always, always, looked for guidance and strength from their natural leader, Elmo Stoll.
Having placed his hand to the plow, he cast no glances over his shoulders, but forged boldly ahead. He wrote, published and distributed a little booklet outlining his positions. It was entitled “Let Us Reason Together.” In it, he succinctly detailed the problems he had with certain positions of the Amish church, and the solutions as he saw them. How he would follow the truth, even if it cost him his editorship at Family Life, his office as Bishop, and his reputation and good name among the Amish churches.
In early September, 1990, Elmo Stoll and his small group purchased a 200 acre farm in Cookeville, Tennessee for $130,000.00. They had scouted for land in several states and Canada, but settled on Cookeville because of its proximity to a similarly minded group already settled in Scottsville. The farm they purchased was pretty much bare; all their buildings would have to be erected.
And so the dark days and dark times forecast by Alvin Fisher came to pass. Gloom and despondence descended upon Aylmer. The remaining leaders, several of them closely related to Elmo, struggled to deal with the crisis. And the shame of the world learning of the defection of Aylmer’s most famous son.
The raw hubris that had long plagued the community began to chip away. But not entirely. It was deeply entrenched and almost impossible to uproot. It would cling to life for a few more years. Until the Great Light of Truth finally invaded the sinister hidden crevices in which it cowered, and cast it out. Along with a lot of other things.
The shock of the news of Elmo’s plans cannot be overstated. Eighteen years later, people still discuss it as if it happened yesterday. Those involved on both sides re-member it vividly. Details of minutiae would fill several volumes.
The news spread like a pestilent cloud. It caused an explosion of speculation and gos-sip in all the Amish world. Those in the more conservative communities clucked and shook their heads. See how it goes when one goes about reading and writing too much. You get a big head and lose your mind. Think you know it all. Better to stick with reading just the Bible and The Budget. They always were suspicious anyway of Aylmer and its superior attitudes. The news confirmed all they already knew. The progressive Amish groups also reacted virulently. Elmo was clearly off his rocker.
Whatever valid points he raised, and there were some, were lost in the turbulence. Other than the few in his group, almost no one listened and no one heard his message. He had chosen to leave the fold and now was considered deceived.
Elmo was unceremoniously stripped of his editorship of Family Life. He was not even allowed to honestly say good bye to his readers. Just a short statement saying he would no longer serve as editor or be writing for the magazine.
The little group forged ahead with their plans. Auctions were held, belongings sold, farms sold. Elmo continued his preaching duties right up to the last. He ordained his nephew, Peter Stoll, as Bishop to replace him when he left.
Sunday, September 30, was his last Sunday in Aylmer. Elmo preached the main ser-mon. It was a tense and sad affair, his last sermon as an Amish Bishop. On this day, there were no mellow lilting tones, no shimmering woven tapestries, only sparse and somber words. And tears. He solemnly thanked the community and the ministers for all they’d done over the years. But in true Elmo fashion, he also dramatically warned that unless the church in Aylmer changed directions, it would come to destruction.
The departure date arrived. Great clouds rolled in from the west and the heavens opened and poured forth driving torrents of sheeting rain. Elmo sent his family ahead in a van and stayed behind to load their final belongings on the large tractor trailer. The neighbors arrived to help with the loading. As they were finishing, Elmo suddenly disappeared into the house. The neighbors loaded the last few belongings and closed and locked the trailer doors. They stood there for a few minutes in the rain, waiting for Elmo to emerge from the house so they could say good-bye.
But he did not come out. After standing about forlornly for a few more minutes, the neighbors shrugged and departed for their homes. A short time later, some of them watched from inside their houses as the loaded tractor trailer crept slowly down the soft and muddy gravel road. Rain obscured the truck’s windows and they caught no glimpse of the man sitting in the passenger’s seat. The truck turned south toward Highway 3 and disappeared into the incessant downpour.
And thus Elmo Stoll departed from Aylmer, the community that had been his home for thirty-six years. The vineyard in which he had labored so tirelessly for so long. The people that he had led and shepherded for almost twenty years.
His face was set toward the south and the west. Toward the vision that burned in his heart and called him away. Toward a new flock, in fresh pastures, in an unfamiliar land. Toward Cookeville, Tennessee and the beginning of what would be the final chapter of his life.
Editor’s Note: The third, AND FINAL, installment on the Elmo Stoll saga, “The Shepherd at Dusk; His Vision and Legacy,” will be written and posted when and as the muse strikes me. Not before. Could be next week (NOT), next month, or next year. Don’t look for it until you see it posted.