February 15, 2008

Preachers…(Sketch #6)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:58 pm


“They are gone now, those giants of the earth in the
world of my youth…..the preacher whose powerful,
high-strung voice reverberated like a gong through
the assembled congregation in countless sermons
over the years..…”

—Ira Wagler, “At Dusk in Winter”

The mid-Spring winds whipped and swirled around the house that afternoon. Brooding clouds roiled overhead, threatening more showers. Inside the house, a large group of people was sitting upon row after row of backless wooden benches. Many nodded off, then guiltily jerked awake and tried to focus on the speaker. He droned on and on. The hours passed. As he concluded, a tautness, a strained tension swept through the assembly like a living thing.

It was Sunday afternoon at our home in Bloomfield, Iowa. The date: May 7, 1978. I was sixteen years old. We were having communion service, or “Big Church,” as we used to call it. An all-day affair. But this particular service was distinct from most of the semi-annual Big Church services. Because at the end, around four o’clock or so, a new preacher would be ordained.

Bishop George, the elder statesman, and his minions finally wrapped up the regular Big Church service by distributing the bread and wine. Then church members washed each others’ feet as the last song was sung. As the last note died away, everyone sat there quietly, expectantly. The whole house pulsed with palpable tension.

Bishop George, a slight bald man with a long gray beard, stood to recite the rules of the ordination. He and the other preachers would retire to a separate side room, which happened to be my parents’ bedroom. One preacher would open the door a crack and place his ear in the opening. All members would vote by whispering their choice into the preacher’s ear. A tally would be taken. Any married man with three or more votes would be in the lot.

Bishop George and the preachers retreated into the room and closed the door. And the voting began. The older men went first. Walked up to the door, paused briefly, then whispered their choices, and returned to their seats on the backless benches. Then, in accordance with their age, the younger married men, the young unmarrieds, the women and finally, the single girls.

I was not a member. So I didn’t vote. My buddies and I, normally a wisecracking surly bunch, watched somberly. Wide-eyed. No smart-alecky actions. No smirks. The air was heavy, oppressive.

It took awhile. Then, after the last member had voted, the door shut on the cloistered preachers. They tallied the votes. Minutes passed. Then Deacon Menno popped out of the side room door and gathered five Ausbund song books. And popped back in. Everyone pretended not to notice, but all eyes took a careful count. There would be five men in the lot.

Minutes later, the preachers filed out in somber procession. The tension escalated. The time was at hand. They took their seats on the bench along the wall. Deacon Menno arranged the five song books on a little table. Each book was tied shut with a thin white string. Then Bishop George got up. Cleared his throat.

“There are five brothers in the lot,” he announced in his high, squeaky voice. “They are ….” And he slowly, concisely pronounced the five names. The chosen men, seated at various points among the other men of the congregation, sagged visibly as each one heard his name.

Then slowly, one by one, they got up. Instructed their wide-eyed young children to remain seated on the bench while Daddy left for a few minutes. And walked the long path alone up to the little table with the books. Each man chose a book and picked it up, then sat on the bench before the table. Soon all five were seated. Five books. Five men. Waiting in suspense.

After a short prayer, Bishop George slowly approached the bench, where the five men sat. He took the book from the first. Untied the white string. Opened it.


The first man almost collapsed with relief. Bishop George handed back the book and took the book from the next man’s trembling hands. Fumbled with the string. Untied it. Opened the book.

Again, nothing.

The three remaining men viewed the situation with increasing alarm and accelerating heartbeats. The congregation looked on. No one moved. No one breathed. Original odds were one out of five. Now it was one out of three. Bishop George approached the third man and held out his hand. Took the book. Untied the string. Opened it.

Again, nothing.

Now it was down to one out of two. Two young men. What passed through their minds at this instant remains known only to them. They sat there, frozen with the pressure. Mercifully, Bishop George did not prolong their agony. He approached the fourth man and held out his hand. Took the book. Untied the string. Opened it.

Inside the front cover of the book was a little slip of white paper. Bishop George’s hand shook slightly as he took the little slip of paper. He looked down at the young man before him and made a slight motion with his hand. Pointed his right index finger, sig-nifying, “You are the one.”

The young man slowly struggled to his feet. And there, before us all, Bishop George ordained him, proclaiming him a minister of the gospel from this day forth, until his death. The young man briefly lost control of his emotions; his body shook and racked with quick, choppy sobs. Only briefly, then he stood there quietly, his head bowed. Accepted the office, and the duties he would henceforth carry.

The other men in the lot, vastly relieved at the outcome, now clustered around the young man who had just been ordained, and comforted him. The preachers, too, all of them, came and welcomed him into their midst.

Then it was over. The congregation was dismissed. The young man sat down on the bench. He looked around him, at all the shadowy figures meshing in a hazy blur. He was now a preacher. Until his death. His life would never be quite the same. Never.

Nor would my family’s. The young man ordained that day was my oldest brother, Joseph. He was thirty years old.

And that’s how it all comes down. How an Amish preacher is ordained. He gets up that morning, just a regular member of the church, and goes to the service with his wife and children. He returns home that evening, ordained for the rest of his life. A preach-er. Lots of work, for no pay. Just like that.

The whole thing takes less than an hour. Wham, bam. And there is no counseling session, no discussion with the ordained to see whether or not he has a calling. If the lot hits him, he had a calling. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t, at least until the next ordination. If a man feels he has a calling and is so proud as to express that, he never, and I mean never, gets ordained. Nobody votes for him.

It’s the only system the Amish have ever used, and is based on the account in the New Testament where the Apostles replaced Judas after he betrayed Jesus. Matthias was chosen by lot.

The system has its flaws. But overall, it works amazingly well. A quiet young man who never had much to say will be ordained, and, with no training whatsoever, gets up to preach a month later. Sink or swim. Somehow, he swims. And over the course of years, develops into a gifted speaker and a powerful preacher.

Of course, the reverse is also true. I’ve heard many a sermon from preachers who could not speak publicly. Who spent the first ten minutes of their sermons bemoaning the “heavy load” of their calling. Men who sank, overwhelmed. Who should never have been ordained, in my opinion. The worst of these are the ones who don’t realize they are sinking. And go on and on, saying nothing. Not sound and fury, signifying nothing. Then you’d at least have sound and fury. But saying nothing, signifying nothing.

But the lot chose them. Like it chose Matthias the Apostle. But, if I’m not wrong, we read nothing more of Matthias, other than that he was ordained by lot. So perhaps he wasn’t that great a speaker, either.

When I was a child in Aylmer, we had three preachers in our little church that consist-ed of a single district. Peter Yoder, the Bishop. Nicholas (Nicky) Stoltzfus. And Jacob (Jake) Eicher. In my childish world, they seemed like giants of thunder upon the earth. They still are, in my mind. I can close my eyes and see them, and hear their voices still. Preaching extemporaneously, with no podium and no notes.

Peter Yoder was of medium height and girth, a gentle man with a gentle voice. Ordained at around twenty years old, he was a Bishop before he turned thirty. A remarkable thing. He was married to my father’s older sister, Martha. They never had any children, but adopted two little girls, sisters, after they moved to Aylmer. Betty and Mary.

He putzed around on small farm and had a little harness shop. The shop always reeked of the fine new leather he used for mending harness. It was attractive to children because Uncle Pete had a shelf filled with boxes of candy bars. For five cents apiece. He also sold cheap, tinny pocket watches, hanging on display, mounted on a cardboard poster. The boys in our family got one of those pocket watches on our eleventh birth-day. (We were allowed to shoot the .22 rifle on our twelfth.)

Over the years, Peter developed a stellar reputation as a trouble-shooting Bishop. He traveled extensively to other communities to help settle church disputes and other problems. His grave and gentle demeanor established his credibility and gave weight to his words.

In 1972, along with several other families, he and his wife moved to the new community of Marshfield, MO. Before moving, they held an auction on their farm to dispose of excess goods. Peter’s old plug of a driving horse, Ichabod, was purchased that day by Solomon Herrfort (Sept. 14th post).

Peter never got too excited while preaching, although occasionally he worked himself into a ghost of a mellow rhythm. His voice never carried like some, but I did not dislike hearing him. A gentle man. With a gentle voice.

He died in the early 1990s, while I was a student at Bob Jones. In Aylmer. And was buried there. My sister Maggie and I considered making the long journey from South Carolina to attend his funeral, but I was hesitant to leave my classes, even for a few days. I have always regretted that we didn’t go.

Nicky Stoltzfus was my least favorite of the three. A tall, gaunt man with a long, long majestic beard that curled out at the tip, well below his chest. He had hollow eyes, hidden under bushy brows. He always sported just a shade of stubble above his mouth, just a hint of a mustache. He believed there was nothing wrong with having a mustache. Which was anathema to the established Amish church, a cause of much dispute.

The real scholar, the theologian of the three, he preached by far the deepest sermons. In a bone-dry voice. Never raised. Paying little heed to the time, which made him very unpopular with the children. Nicky believed in extreme simplicity and often preached while barefooted. I don’t know if such a thing would even be legal now, what with all the laws about health and cleanliness and such. As a child napping with my head on my father’s lap in church, I often wished Nicky would just shut it down and sit down.

Influenced perhaps by his Anabaptist roots, Nicky sincerely (and perhaps a bit eagerly) anticipated the imminent persecution of Christians like himself. Late one night, he and his wife Lucille, enjoying the peaceful slumber of the just, were rudely awakened to a great clattering of chains outside in the dark. Nicky and Lucille were terrified, and knew that the Communists had arrived and were coming for the preachers first. Rising and moving with quiet haste, they snuck out the back door with their daughter Millie in tow and fled into the fields. In the dark. Barefooted, probably, with no time to pack any-thing. Sadly (or fortunately), it turned out that Nicky’s large Holstein bull had broken through the barnyard fence and amused himself by banging his nose chain against the gas barrel out beside the shop, causing the great clattering that had roused them from their slumber.

Nicky moved out of Aylmer in 1970. Like a wandering vagabond, he drifted to a number of remote and plain communities over the next twenty years. He ended up in Rich Hill, MO, where people can still hide out in the hills and not be bothered. When old acquaintances stopped by to see him there, Nicky’s first concern was to find out how they were traveling. If they were traveling by car, he admonished them for their worldly ways. To avoid unpleasantness, people took to parking their cars some distance away and walking to his house from there. (What, me? Nope, I just walked here. Yep. From Pennsylvania. And yes, it was a long and dusty journey. A cold drink of water would be nice.)

He passed away recently; I’m not sure exactly when. In his final years he lost his sight. Was completely blind. But even then, still he preached while sitting on a chair. Drawing his sermons from the vast, internal wellsprings of his fertile mind.

Jake Eicher. A frustrated engineer at heart. Jake’s hands were always stained black with the ink and grease he handled on his job as Pressman for Pathway Publishers. He printed all the issues of “Family Life” for probably the first ten years. Kept the clanking, hissing presses rolling, often by sheer ingenuity.

A fiery man with flat, straight-hanging hair and bushy beard, Jake preached in a powerful high-strung voice that invaded the last crevice in the remotest corner of the largest house. I’ve heard it said of Jake, perhaps unkindly, that he had one good sermon in him and that we heard it many times. Probably true. But the man could keep the children awake and alert. He was my favorite, and the favorite of most children. We never napped when he rose to take the floor. He usually stood behind his chair for the first few minutes, warming up, then pushed the chair aside and strode a few steps, back and forth through the open doorway separating the two rooms, waving his arms as the mesmerized congregation absorbed the high rolling thunder of his voice. There were few like him.

He too passed away, sometime in the mid-1990s, I think. I did not hear of his death until weeks after he was gone. He was bedridden for several months before he died, and could not speak. During this time, they say, he often wept, sobbing like a child.

Bishop Pete Yoder. Nicky Stoltzfus. Jake Eicher.

They were preachers. Giants on the earth in the world of my youth. But, in retrospect, common men, with common human flaws. Who lived their lives in strict accordance with their simple faith. Men who have now passed on. Men, chosen by lot, who labored faithfully and tirelessly without complaint for decades in their Master’s vineyard. Men who transferred the mantle of their calling to those who followed, in the same manner they themselves were called.

Like my brother. Who in turn has already assisted in ordaining those much younger than himself. Men who will carry on after he passes to his own reward. And so the continuation flows through time like water, from one generation to the next. As it has for the last three hundred years. As it will for as long as the Amish church endures.




  1. Why do I have to wait until next Friday for next chapter??? Sounds like I’d love to hear Peter and Jake speak… but no, I don’t have the gift of hearing. Menno used to be my neighbor in Michigan.

    Comment by Jean — February 15, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Thanks for an accurate account of the Amish ordination system. I’ve been there. Never heard an account of my Dad’s ordination before. It helps me understand him a bit better. And he certainly has the gift of speaking. I have always enjoyed listening to his sermons, especially the recent years I spent in Bloomfield. My favorite Christmas sermon ever was preached by him a few years back. I last heard George speak about two years ago. He repeats himself a bit, but is still quite entertaining, what with his willingness to say whatever is on his mind.

    Comment by Mervin Wagler — February 15, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  3. I am a first time blogger; long time friend, admirer, and reader. I decided to break my ironclad silence (don’t ask – lots of ‘plain’ baggage) after reading this week’s brilliant essay. So many memories flooded in, of my own, now deceased Father, and his ordination into the office of Bishop at an Amish-Mennonite church a number of years ago: The packed, airless church, the terrible dread we all felt, the relief of the unchosen, and the heavy mantle of responsibility that descended upon my Father and his family that night.

    My Father served his church and his community faithfully for decades, while running a successful business and raising a family. He was well loved and approached his tasks with the heart of a shepherd. He was “silenced” near the end of his career, after a series of unfortunate events that broke his heart and divided his congregation. I know that other pastors in other states have been silenced, but this was my Dad, and it is hard not to be cynical about the state of affairs when a man is chosen by lot, gives the best years of his life to the job, and then is unceremoniously dismissed when he should be receiving accolades and enjoying the fruits of his labor.

    Ira, thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts with us. Your gift is formidable, and I believe you are the most compelling voice that this fascinating community has had. I hope you will take it to the world.

    Comment by uomo libero — February 16, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  4. Thanks for an insider’s view of an ordination. A lot of my rowdy friends are now Amish preachers. I must say, they take it serious. I have never been to an ordination, but about twice a year I hear the excited news- “So and so got preacher!”

    A close relative of mine rode home with his wife after being ordained in a church that was about as strict as the one you describe. Neither one said a word. Silence. Clop, clop. Finally, the man, who had now been a preacher for almost two and a half hours, spoke: “Somebody in the church wants a tractor!” The man was a prophet!

    Put all these blogs together, call it a book, and I’ll buy the first copy! Great stuff!

    Comment by John Schmid — February 16, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  5. I was riveted by the account of my Dad’s ordination. I was present only once that I remember. That was about 15 years ago in Aylmer, when Daniel Stoll got ordained bishop. I traveled up there with Doddy and Mommy for the event. I just went along for the ride, but I didn’t really have a choice about attending the event. The thing I remember most was the somber air. Even the young kids didn’t do their ususal fidgeting around.

    Thanks for the plug on my Honey’s website. Our best traffic came from your site.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — February 16, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  6. It was interesting to read about the preachers of the past. I grew up hearing those names and remember Jake and Peter in their old age. Jake would have been my grandfather. I don’t remember much of him preaching and often wondered how he preached and conducted himself.

    I do think one of the great orators and preachers in my time was Elmo Stoll. I don’t know why, but at a very early age I took a great interest in preaching and the way the preachers delivered their sermons. My favorites were preachers that were loud, bold, had interesting stories with their sermons, and got all fired up. I had to sit in the front bench (because I was a minister’s son) and I remember more than once feeling some wayward saliva hit me like some sprinkling rain before the downpour when an all-fired-up preacher would pronounce the woes of worldliness and of leaving the Amish.

    Ira’s response: Elmo Stoll was from a slightly later era. One of these days, he will be the sole subject of an essay on this blog.

    Comment by jacob wagler — February 16, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

  7. My sister wants to see a picture of the man that moved 2000 miles away, wondering if you had a picture of him.

    Thanks, Randy

    Ira’s response: Nope.

    Comment by Randy Stoll — February 17, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

  8. Very, very interesting and brings back a lot of memories. One quote that Nickie used was ‘Sind unser hend voll bluth?’, are our hands covered with blood? I do believe Jake was the favorite preacher under all the children. He used to tell interesting stories. A lot of what Pete and Nickie preached was over our heads, may their souls rest in peace.

    Yes, I would like to see a blog on Elmo Stoll. I am sure it would bring a lot of Aylmer blood out of the wood work.

    Reuben, I read your Barbara blog and tried to leave a comment and it didn’t work so I congratulate you here. I like your honeymoon site.

    Katie Troyer, where are you traveling to? I heard someone on the chatline say last night that you are coming to their area next month. Women have no voice on there, so I could not ask who or where he was. Jacob, your sister wrote an interesting account of their move to Va., in the Plain Interest. Ira, is it Nicky they want apicture of? I have a good one in one of his last years. Naomi was there and took it.

    Comment by Rachel — February 17, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

  9. Would also like to see a picture of “the unfree man” and his family.

    Ira’s response: You will not see that on this site. Sorry.

    Comment by Jean — February 18, 2008 @ 11:09 am

  10. I was planning to spend most of a week in Sarasota the first week in April, but as of today I sort of dropped those plans for the simple reason the United Airlines are booked full.

    You better believe that a lot of Aylmer blood is going to come out of the woodwork and Cookeville blood too. I have blood from both areas.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — February 18, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  11. Apparently there are at least two Jeans in here. Last Jean wasn’t me. I have no interest whatsoever in digging up info on him! I consider this man not worthy to be even implied beyond what Ira said in his blog. Let alone pictures (shivers). If you are so curious, ask OFFLINE. End of subject.

    Ira, keep on plugging along. I think I’m seeing progress in your writing and really appreciate your blossoming style. I’m slowly improving my own writing style in my blog. It is certainly a learning process!

    Ira’s response: Comment #9 was very likely a “plant,” trying to get me to specifically identify a certain person.

    Comment by JTH — February 19, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  12. Post about Elmo sounded like it will be quite interesting. I once had strong interest in joining that community but had no resources to just go and who would believe that I’m very serious (does deaf have normal IQ?). So I sat tight and waited. It worked out that I moved back to MI instead of TN.

    Comment by JTH — February 19, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  13. I went back in my journals to 30 yrs. ago & on May 7, I wrote “a full day full of events, but we pray it was all God’s will.”

    Here are a few sentences I picked out.. “Alvin & Naomi were published!” “We also made a new minister!” I then proceeded to say who I voted for & who was in the lot ending with “so & so was God’s chosen one, think the Waglers were quite shocked! I think he’s a good one.”

    (Stephen & I had just started dating shortly before that.)

    I also said “Alvin & Naomi went to Josephs after church & Josephs stayed there & that I helped chore at the Waglers & Allen (Helmuth), Ira & Marvin (Yutzy) did Joe’s chores…”

    Comment by wilma — February 19, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  14. Well, Miss Jean #2…sorry you have been offended, but some people like to put a face to a name…..How would anyone ask a question offline when this is an online site?

    Ira, thanks for the stories. I am John Yoder’s (SRQ) first cousin and Ben Yoder’s nephew, so your stories are interesting to me due to close relationships.

    Comment by Randy Stoll — February 19, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  15. Ira, I think you were wise not to use a name or to identify anyone with pictures…

    Comment by wilma — February 20, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  16. Ira and others here, I’ve been reading and enjoying this blog for several months now. Been fascinated by the Amish for many years. I was subscribing to The Budget in the late 1960’s and read about a new magazine. I have most issues of all three Pathway magazines from then through the early 90’s. I’ve also read The Mighty Whirlwind, Simon and Susie Stories, and Through Deep Waters (I found this site by Googling “Titus Wagler”) as well as The Midnight Test (I see they’ve made a video of it- wonder what Elmo would have thought of that) and One-Way Street.

    After so many years of reading his articles, I felt as though I knew and liked the man. “Elmo Stoll” was one of the early searches I did when I first went online maybe six years ago and I was stunned at what I learned. It wasn’t enough for me. A local Mennonite historian (Wilmer Swope) suggested I call Stephen Scott. He would of course know, but I wouldn’t have had the nerve without Wilmer’s encouragement. I had a very pleasant and long conversation with Stephen and did learn more.

    Anyway, I’ve been wondering what might come up here about the man, and am looking forward to an essay on him. I’ve already learned that Titus and Ruth appear to be doing well-cute kids. Hope this post isn’t too out of place here-I’ve thought of just e-mailing Ira-but I wonder if there aren’t other readers who got here the way I did. Just one more thing-I’m feeling ignorant here-what does “blood out of the woodwork” mean? Thanks and best wishes.

    Ira’s response: As used in the comments above, the term means that those who used to live in Aylmer will emerge from the woodwork.

    Comment by Jon Fickes — February 20, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  17. In conversation with a friend, he brought up your blog and its current content. As an individual who was baptized in the Amish church and a member until the age of 21, it was very interesting to read. I had the opportunity of being present when my dad was chosen by lot to serve as a minister. It was a highly charged and emotional moment which will be ingrained in my memory as long as there is breath in me. I saw my dad shed tears two times in life, the first being when he was ordained and the second time when my mom passed away.

    Comment by John — February 20, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  18. Just a thot, but we read in John where the Spirit was going to be sent to lead/guide men and women into truth.

    The apostles’ method of choosing someone to replace Judas was done BEFORE the Spirit fell.
    Rather ironic….and as someone has already mentioned…the one that man chose was never heard of again.

    It is my belief that God had someone in mind to replace Judas, also, and that was….Paul.

    Brings back memories…of the time when my Dad was one of those in the ‘lot’.
    Quite an emotional time…

    Comment by fritz — February 27, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  19. Interesting, revealing account of Amish ordination, just the sort of info for which I’m looking, that is in such contrast to the “English” academic church “professionalism” – seminary credentials that guarantee a salaried position that’s well above what most people suffer to earn, professionals that all too often smell and act like mercenaries.
    And the icing on the cake! – Nicky Stoltzfus…LOL; from now on I’ll think of those clanking bull chains and his fearful spirit as being channeled in the bodies of everyone I hear spewing the usual apocalyptic anti-communist “conservative” “christian” rhetoric that’s thought to be so “right” by such true “believers” whose “faith” means ignoring so many facts to justify their opinions LOL
    When the “end” really does come, surely it’ll come not from the expected “bull” but from some place just as unexpected and unsuspected.

    Comment by D. Stall — August 14, 2012 @ 10:01 am

  20. What an amazing story. Not only the contents but the way it was written. My goodness, Ira.

    I wonder how it feels to have people tell you what a good writer you are and how much they enjoy your stories. I would think quite good. You have been blessed and in turn you bless.

    Comment by Francine — July 23, 2014 @ 2:32 am

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