January 30, 2009

The Shepherd at Dusk: His Vision & Legacy

Category: News — Ira @ 6:02 pm





But how much I stand to lose is not the question.
The question is, and must remain, ‘Am I right?’

—Elmo Stoll

The late afternoon heat shimmered from the pavement.

A man on a bicycle rode swiftly along the narrow shoulder of the highway. Gliding along through the Tennessee countryside, navigating the occasional small hill or looping curve.

The man bent forward on the seat. He was strangely dressed. Broadfall “barn door” denim pants. Galluses. Plain blue collarless shirt. No hat. His long gold-gray beard swept behind him in the wind as he pedaled furiously, obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. The bicycle picked up speed as he swept down a long slope on the empty road.

Suddenly he seemed to lift from the seat, plucked up by an invisible hand. Then settled back and slumped forward over the handle bars. His rotating legs slowed, then stopped. The bicycle hurtled on, then gradually slowed as the man struggled to apply the brakes. He guided it into the roadside ditch and wobbled to a halt. The man dismounted and staggered a few steps, then abruptly sat down on the grass, letting the bicycle fall beside him. Something was dreadfully wrong. He clutched at his chest. Gasped for breath. Then slowly reclined onto the grass in a prone position.

The man lay there stretched out in the grass and heat. For a minute. Then two. A pickup truck approached and slowed. Stopped. The “English” driver stepped out and scrambled to the motionless figure in the ditch. He recognized the man lying there and crouched down and felt for a pulse. It was faint, but there. The bicycle rider was still alive.

A few other young men now showed up. On bicycles, also plainly dressed. They crowded around. For a few minutes, in what seemed an eternity, the English man remained beside the fallen rider, whose breathing gradually subsided into shallow gasps. Then faded into silence. Frantically, the English man grasped the rider’s hand again and felt for a pulse.

There was none.

He crouched there in the pounding heat in shock and disbelief, still holding the limp hand. It couldn’t be true. The man on the ground before him was not expendable. To so many, whose world could not go on without him. He couldn’t be dead. Not with so much work to do, so much depending on his leadership.

The English man stirred into action. With the help of the young men, he quickly lifted the limp body into the pickup and sped toward town and the hospital. He pulled up outside the emergency room. Orderlies rushed out and transported the body onto a gurney and disappeared inside.

But the English man knew it was too late. What the verdict would be. Shock waves would reverberate across the country that night. And the next day.

The English man was right. It was too late.

At that instant, Elmo Stoll stood face to face with the God he served.


After their exodus from Aylmer, Elmo Stoll and his brave little band of eager followers arrived in Cookeville, TN on October 5, 1990. To the land they had purchased earlier that summer, all two hundred acres. But on that land stood only one small dilapidated barn. No house. Or any other structure. They would have to build.

Like the Pilgrims disembarking from the Mayflower, the forlorn little group stood for awhile, huddled in the elements, as if waiting for inspiration from above. Then the men roused themselves and unloaded all their earthly belongings from the tractor trailer. Stored what they could in the little barn. Parked machinery willy nilly, here and there. Tethered their horses to trees, the cattle held in temporary rope corrals.

They needed a place to sleep. For their immediate needs, they had rented two small houses on a nearby farm. Two families and several single people set up in the cramped space there. The men walked about the two hundred acre farm in a daze, like settlers in the barren wilderness, not sure what was up or which way to turn. I can’t imagine that they didn’t despair. But they were fully immersed in the magnitude of their endeavor, and filled with hope.

Immediate discord plagued the group, as they wrangled over the rules the Community would adopt. Some wanted true communal living, with all meals shared, and only private sleeping quarters. Others wanted private housing and meals, with communal purse only. Some wanted it this way and some wanted it that. Meetings were held, with much discussion. Somehow a policy was hammered from the discord. Each family would set up its own household.

The Community would not have any power tools, modern equipment like gasoline engines or even running water in the houses. The men scouted about for building sites, and with the help of several men from nearby Scottsville, set to digging the basements and foundations by hand. It was tough, discouraging work. On top of that, the first load of lumber that arrived from the local yard was so mixed up and of such poor quality that it was all sent back.

But they soldiered on. Bravely, day after day. Winter was coming. They needed houses before then. Slowly the first two houses took shape. Simple structures. Block foundation, wood board and batten siding cut from local timber, hardwood floors. Plain interiors, with no plumbing. Dry sinks, with shelving in the kitchens. An outhouse behind each house. Primitive indeed, but they could build as it suited them. In the remote hinterlands of Cookeville, there were no building codes.

Then the great day came when the first two houses were finished, and they moved in. Began construction on several others, for the families that would be arriving soon. They also began construction of a meeting house, in which services would be held.

And so the grand experiment was launched. The Christian Community. Communal living. Perfect harmony. With each other and the land. And before God. The littered trail of historical failures ignored. It had never been done right before. It would be done right this time. This they purposed in their hearts. This they believed.

Of those heady early optimistic days I have no real comprehension. Or of life in the Community in Cookeville, then or later. I wasn’t there. And it’s hard sometimes to capture the true essence of how things really were, without personal exposure. But I was on the sidelines, the peripheral of things. I knew many of the characters involved. And knew enough of the type of personality attracted to such a venture to get a feel of how it was and how it all went down.

The first few families were soon joined by others, some from Aylmer, and the little Community grew. Houses sprouted here and there about the farm. If a family arrived and there was no house, it stayed with another family who had already built theirs. Spring came and each family planted truck crops, tomatoes and such, to sell on the open market.

The discord that had plagued the small group that first arrived remained in the Community in one form or another all through its existence. Elmo Stoll, the leader, worked tirelessly to mold divergent viewpoints into a manageable system. The buck had to stop somewhere. And it stopped with him.

They dressed distinctively and deliberately non-Amish. Very plainly. But different. The men sported long untrimmed beards and mustaches. Hats were optional, but strongly discouraged. Too Amish. Besides, how could a man pray when working in the fields while wearing a hat? His head should be uncovered. But they did wear galluses. And collarless shirts. The women wore plain dresses and capes and a distinctive veiling that flowed back over the shoulder. Bicycles were allowed for transportation. There was no official set of rules, or “Ordnung,” like the Amish have. Or so it was claimed. But groups who disdain Ordnungs usually end up with more onerous restrictions than those who have them. The rules end up stricter. Also more flexible, shifting with the whims of the leaders.

During the early 1990s, Elmo Stoll and I corresponded sporadically via mail. And so it happened that in August, 1991, on my way down to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, I stopped for the night at the Christian Community. By invitation from Elmo. I drove south in my old tan T-Bird and arrived in Cookeville. There, I stopped at a gas station and asked where the plain community was located. They instantly knew what I was asking and gave me detailed directions.

I drove out and turned off the highway onto the long dirt drive. Approached what looked to be a cluster of houses, outbuildings and groves of trees. I parked, got out and approached a plainly dressed, hairy bearded man. I didn’t know him, and he looked at me suspiciously. “I’m Elmo’s cousin and here to see him,” I said. He directed me to the spot where Elmo was working with his sons.

Elmo greeted me warmly. He looked about the same as I’d remembered him. Tanned and fit from all the hard manual labor. Only minus the hat. In Aylmer, he wore the broadest brimmed hat available. Here he stood, bare-headed in the sun. He was genuinely glad to see me. “Get your bag, and I’ll take you to the house,” he said.

I grabbed my overnight bag and followed him. Along a narrow little trail that wound through woods and bushes. As we walked, he whispered conspiratorially. “This is how I’ve imagined our Anabaptist forefathers sneaked through the woods to their secret services. On secret pathways.” I chuckled, but was mildly shocked. What man in his right mind would desire to live in times of physical persecution? But to each his own.

He led me to their house, a plain unpainted two story building with vertical board and batten siding. Lisbet greeted me kindly. I would stay for supper and the night. His sons also greeted me with firm handshakes. Everyone was open, genuinely friendly.

We walked back outside and joined a knot of men working under an open pavilion type building. To one side lay the foundations of a horse powered unit, a contraption of wheels and pulleys and belts. A horse would be hitched to it to provide power for molasses pressing and other work. It wasn’t finished, so I got no demonstration.

The men were soon deeply immersed in discussion. They had a problem. Seems one of them had to catch a bus in Cookeville at 2 AM the next morning. The bearded one who had looked at me so suspiciously when I arrived. Traveling back north to see family, or some such thing. They discussed the logistics of getting the bearded one to the bus station in the dead of night. By wagon, or buggy. Did they have sufficient lights? Who would take him? Although it was the last thing I wanted to do at 2 AM, I bravely piped up and offered my car as a taxi. With me as the driver. Fortunately, my suggestion was received with bemused condescension. And a polite, curt refusal. What was the sense of having a Community separated from the world, if they’d have to depend on a car to get someone to the bus station? In a weird way, their reasoning made perfect sense. But still, a car would be parked overnight on the grounds. The driver available. It would be a lot safer than traipsing through the Tennessee hills at 2 AM with some horse drawn contraption that had no lights. Ah well. Secretly, I was relieved. And slightly embarrassed.

Elmo gave me a quick tour of the Community, probably half a dozen houses at that time. A few outbuildings. As evening approached, I accompanied him to his house, where Lisbet and her daughter had prepared a tasty but simple supper. Soup and bread and some side dishes. After supper, Elmo and his sons and I sat around and visited.

I had hoped for some private time with just him alone, to discuss the issues on his heart and mine. But he seemed to have no qualms discussing the most sensitive subjects in the presence of his sons. Even the younger ones. I was a bit taken aback, and mildly irked, but accepted his conditions. He seemed to have a very good relationship with his sons. We talked about his vision for the Community and discussed my own relationship with my father.

He was intrigued by my pursuit of a college education. Asked many details of my first two years of classes at Vincennes University in Indiana. Queried me about Bob Jones. As we wound down for the evening, he invited me to come and stay in the Community and study the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The early church writings. He was big into that. He had the complete set of their published works, some of which are pretty kooky.

“Come,” he said. “And join us. You can take all the time you want, all day, every day, reading and studying. I think that would be much more beneficial than attending a worldly college.” He continued earnestly, looking right through me with those piercing eyes. “I see you as a seeker. Otherwise, I wouldn’t invite you to come and study. You are a seeker, and the answers may well be right here in the Community.”

I was flattered that he considered me genuine seeker material. But even in those long ago years, I instinctively knew that one day I would write. But not apologetics for plain communal living. I thanked him and declined.

At bedtime, I was ushered to a small corner bedroom, displacing one of the boys. A bed, some plain furniture and a tiny desk with a small manual typewriter. I retired and slept soundly. No dogs barked. It was peaceful.

The next morning, I got up and ate breakfast with the family. Seems the bearded one had been successfully transported to the bus station in Cookeville, with no loss of life. As I gathered my bag, Elmo again admonished me, kindly enough, to keep my priorities in order. To consider carefully the path I was on, the worldly pursuit of knowledge that lured me. I thanked him and Lisbet for their kind hospitality and took my leave.

It was the last time I saw him alive.

But he still had much work to do. Having laid his hand to the plow, he cast no glances behind him, but marched forward, tilling the fertile fields of his vast new vision. The Cookeville community soon filled with seekers, many if not most from non-plain backgrounds. Through the underground network that connects such people, the word of Elmo’s new community spread like wild fire. Along with the word that seekers would be welcomed with open arms. They needed no further invitation, but descended upon the poor little community in droves.

From every imaginable cultural background, each with his own kookish ideas of how things should be done, how scripture should be interpreted, how plainly one should live. And not at all shy of expressing themselves. Again, I wasn’t there, but from my contacts I gathered that Elmo was almost driven to distraction, dealing with many of these people. And no wonder. Crackpots, vagrants, kooks, tramps. Penniless, most of them. Many with families in tow. Of course, some were relatively sound and level headed. I consider my contacts among these.

After Cookeville bulged to the brim with seekers, there was only one option left. Expand. Create a network of Christian Communities across the USA and even Canada. And so they did. Decatur was founded in 1993. New Brunswick, Canada in 1994, as a haven for those who attempted to join in America, but were turned back at the border, or forced to return after a period. Holland, KY in 1996. Finally, Smyrna, Maine rounded out the circle of Communities. With such explosive growth, they would rival the Amish in a generation or so. For sure if they could keep picking off disgruntled Amish members from across the nation.

These must have been heady times, and extremely stressful and busy days for Elmo Stoll. He was the unquestioned leader of the Christian Community. Others were ordained as ministers to assist him. The Community ordained ministers by voice of the congregation, and also a few times by lot. A mishmash of methods.

Their services were held in a Community meeting house. Not in homes like the Amish. I don’t know exactly how the services went down, but I do know they sang and preached in English. So the seekers could understand.

As an aside, I would have heard Elmo preach there, given the chance. But somehow, in retrospect, I’m glad I never got that chance. Hearing him preach in English would have tainted those vivid childhood memories of his mellow lilting tones in PA Dutch, our native tongue.

Economically, the Community developed a rough form of capitalism. A mixture of Amish capitalism and the one-purse practice of the Hutterites. Each family was expected to raise the cash it needed for the year. Which wasn’t much; one family’s annual income the first year was about $3000.00. Others did better. Truck crops were the main source of income. Labor intensive. Early tomatoes and such. Squash, crook necked and straight. Okra. Nut breads and cookies were baked and sold at the Community market. All baked goods had to be at least fifty percent whole wheat. That was the rule, even though they didn’t have an Ordnung.

There were also craftsmen in the Communities. Wood working. Furniture. Both Cookeville and Decatur developed huge sorghum operations. Each family could plant a plot of land with sorghum and receive a share of the profits after the syrup was sold.

They worked with their hands, whether doing household chores, shop labor or toiling in the fields. Intensive labor was part of the plan. And there were joys, I’m sure, in that. The children too, were expected to contribute. And they did. Without exception, those who have contacted me who were children in the Community describe those years as among the best of their lives.

A comely Cookeville maiden toiling in the fields.

The Christian Community published a little bimonthly pamphlet, the “Update.” I’m not sure how they produced it. Probably with a hand-cranked duplicator. Elmo edited the little rag, and somehow found the time to craft some decent writings. Others also contributed, but not just anyone. Politics existed in the Community, as it does every-where people congregate. And you had to be “somebody” to be published. Every article was signed at the end by the writer’s initials only. So as not to be tempted by pride, to see one’s full name in print. A bit of overkill and silliness there. Excessive modesty almost invariably obscures a foundation of pride. Deep down, somewhere.

There were dark things there too, in the Communities. As there are in almost every congregation of every stripe. And in every society. Religious or secular. Plain or worldly. The Communities harbored perverts who committed the most shocking forms of child abuse. Including the worst imaginable. Elmo and the other leaders tried to deal with such problems as a disciplinary matter. No civil authorities were ever involved.

While still in Aylmer, Elmo Stoll had outlined his positions in his booklet, “Let us Reason Together.” The booklet was distributed to anyone who requested one. After moving to Cookeville, he sent me a copy, signed and dated (since misplaced, but among my stored belongings somewhere). One of his positions emphasized the importance of Sola Scriptura. Getting one’s bearings from the Bible alone, not from tradition. “A visible church, a called-out body of believers, men and women who believed and were baptized into the unity of the body of Christ” (Let us Reason Together, page 26) He envisioned this body as a Commune type lifestyle, where goods and talents were shared, with some private ownership.

In the first years after leaving, Elmo was mostly open to the ideas of others, ideas from those who had not emerged from the Amish. Gentle by nature, quick to laugh, good natured, he was open and ready to consider viewpoints on community living that didn’t really jell with his own. After serious consideration and discussion among the brothers, a policy was usually hammered out with minimal fallout.

But holding a steady line, as the Amish are wont to do, became increasingly difficult, as more and more seekers congregated among the Communities. Tradition having been officially tossed out as a negative thing, there was little ground to shore up their own. And thus they meandered aimlessly, changing this position to suit some, changing that position to suit others. They never developed a logical system on which to base decisions. Only a hybrid mixture of communal living and private ownership. The tweaking never stopped.

Meanwhile, the Aylmer Amish community, stung by the defection of its most prominent son, sulked about and plotted bitter revenge. In the upheaval that followed Elmo’s departure, five bishops from other communities were called in for counsel on how to deal with Elmo’s group. Among these bishops were Amzie Troyer of Ludington, MI and Roy Miller of Shipshewana, IN. Both were famed, known far and wide as trouble shooters for thorny problems in other settlements.

Some in Aylmer called for the ultimate discipline, for Elmo’s excommunication. To treat Elmo harshly, as he had treated so many over the years. But the leaders, his own brothers among them, were hesitant. Showed some favoritism. The five bishops waded into this maelstrom and tried to restore some order.

They decreed that Elmo and his group should not be excommunicated, but should not be embraced as brothers either. No concrete rules were made as to whether Aylmerites could visit the Community, but it was strongly discouraged. And so things stood, uneasily for the first year or so.

But not for long. While traveling, Ervin Miller, a close friend of Elmo’s and a deacon in Aylmer, stopped in at the Cookeville Community one Saturday night, arriving late. Elmo, answering the knock on the door at the late hour and seeing his old friend, exclaimed delightedly, “I’m not believing this.” Ervin was welcomed with open arms and even participated in the service the next morning, reading the scripture aloud for the congregation. In English.

It was not a wise decision. Ervin, of course, was promptly confronted with his actions the second he returned to Aylmer. And disciplined. It caused quite an uproar. In the aftermath, it was concretely decreed that no one in Aylmer could go visit Cookeville for any reason. Under threat of severe discipline, including excommunication.

Elmo now was forced to taste the bitter fruit, bear the heavy burdens he had pressed on others for so many years. On the receiving end of unreasonable, irrational policies. It was a bitter pill for him. And he stated as much, expressing remorse for the harsh discipline he himself had inflicted on others in the past.

He was particularly grieved by one development. And that was the fact that his elderly mother was not allowed to visit him at his home. Although I cannot state unequivocally that she expressed her desire to visit Elmo, the natural human yearning of a mother to see her son cannot be extinguished by decree. But the Aylmer church, ruled by Elmo’s brothers and nephews, sternly forbade it.

I’ve taken some gratuitous whacks at Aylmer upon occasion in my writings. As few ever have before. Because I was there and because I could. Because I know the dark secrets and where the skeletons are buried (figuratively speaking, of course). And because I am credible. I’ve probably been a bit overly harsh a time or two. But toward this inexcusable policy, one cannot be too repulsed. It was shameful, heartless, mean, spiteful, shallow, vindictive and un-Christian.

But it was what it was. Elmo was powerless against his former allies. The ruthless Aylmer machine. He had no choice but to accept the tyrannical dictates of those who wished him ill. And plunged the dagger to the hilt into his heart. Just because they could.

He deeply mourned the loss of his family relationships. He longed to be accepted as before. But it could not be. At one point, he wondered aloud to Lisbet whether his siblings would attend his funeral if he died.

Toward the end, in reaction to Aylmer’s threats to “work further” with him, Elmo reverted to a form of his old harsher self. The pressures of leadership and the fear of excommunication from Aylmer took a heavy toll. Wore him down. Wearied him. No longer so willing or open to freely discussing opinions and ideas with seekers. He became more dictatorial, and many seekers became disillusioned by his Jekyll and Hyde personality. No longer did he earnestly pursue Sola Scriptura, but proclaimed that faith and works were equally important. Some of the seeker families left, others were planning to leave at the time he died.

In private correspondence, shortly before his death, he excoriated home schoolers, Protestantism in general, and the feel-good, easy religions of the day. Where each man does what is right in his own eyes. Where each man emphasized his personal relationship to God above his relationship to the church. He was solidly relocating to the “works” camp. Salvation was a combination of faith, works, and submission to the true church, in about equal parts. The true church was a tiny sliver of a remnant. About the size of the Christian Communities. With a few Amish thrown in. And possibly a few scattered nonaffiliated seekers.

His vision could have been so much greater. So much deeper. So much more.

And so things stood on September 2, 1998. That afternoon, Elmo Stoll mounted his bicycle and set off in pursuit of a mentally deranged Amishman who had run away from the Community earlier that day.

September 3, 1998. I sat at my desk in the law office that morning, dressed in suit and tie, deeply absorbed in some thorny legal matter. The phone beeped. It was the secretary. My brother Steve was on the line. A pause, then Steve’s voice.

Elmo Stoll had died the night before from a massive heart attack. No, I said, it can’t be. Can’t be true. Steve insisted it was. The Stolls had heart problems, we knew. Elmo’s father, Peter, had died in Honduras at a fairly young age, from a heart attack. We talked for a few minutes and decided we probably would not attend the funeral, which was scheduled for the next day.

But throughout the day, I had second thoughts. Called Steve a few times. Was he sure we shouldn’t go? He wasn’t. By mid afternoon, our plans were made. I would go home, pack, and drive to his place. He would have his van ready. We would take off for the funeral.

I arrived at Steve’s place at 5:30. His large van was gassed up and cleaned. The back seats removed, and replaced with a mattress. Steve and his wife Wilma and I headed out around 6 o’clock. Hit 81 South and drove. All night, taking turns at the wheel.

We pulled into the town of Cookeville, TN at dawn. Found a nice little motel, and even though it was an odd time to check in, convinced the clerk to book our rooms for that night. We cleaned up and changed into “church” clothes. Headed out to the Community.

A huge crowd milled about when we arrived. We parked in the pasture among the numerous buses and vans and set out in search of our siblings. Most were there, including my brother Titus from Bloomfield. We grouped together and got in line for the viewing. I pushed Titus in his wheelchair.

The place was swarming with people who looked like they came right out of the hills and may have been moonshiners and rum runners. Broad brimmed hats. No hats. Long untrimmed beards. Mustaches. Barefoot. Their women dressed in a vast array of plain costumes.

The Aylmer people too, were present by the busload. Dozens and dozens of them. Including most, if not all, of Elmo’s siblings. Now they came, after he died, for the funeral. While he was living, it would have been a sin. But not now.

The Christian Community people were easy to spot. They walked around in visible shock, like sheep bereft of a shepherd. Many wept, some uncontrollably. They instinctively knew, I think, that the great vision in which they had participated had died with their leader. Or at least that it could not long survive him.

The line snaked slowly toward the house. In the oppressive heat. We shook hands and chatted with many old acquaintances we had not seen in years. Most of the greasy, bearish types acknowledged me curtly and swooped in on Titus. Which was fine by me. At last we entered the room where the body lay.

He had not been embalmed, which was one reason the funeral was held a day and a half after he died. He lay in state in a plain wooden coffin, his face mildly puffed up. But recognizable. His mother sat huddled on a bench across the room, expressionless, bent in sorrow. Surrounded by her daughter and her sons, his widow Lisbet sat there calm but teary-eyed, accepting graciously the condolences of those who had come to mourn her loss.

Lisbet smiled in welcome as she recognized the group of Waglers before her. She seemed genuinely surprised to see so many of us. My sister Rachel was the first to greet her.

“Oh,” Lisbet smiled. “I’m so glad you all came.” Her face softened into a look bordering on sorrow and apology. Her next words shocked Rachel.

“You all must have a lot of bad memories of Elmo,” she said somberly. Rachel, bless her heart, spoke the only words that could have been fitting in that moment.

“We have a lot of good memories of him, too,” she said. And Lisbet smiled again. Greeted the rest of us warmly. She recognized each of us and spoke our names.

I can’t remember the exact details of how the funeral service went down. I remember the stifling heat, and how we all traipsed down a long dusty lane to a grove of trees where the grave had been dug. How we all assembled around. Twelve hundred people from around the country had dropped what they were doing on the spot when they heard the news and left, some of them driving many hundreds of miles, to attend this funeral.

Two long, rather incoherent devotional sermons were delivered there at the grave site, one in German, one in English. Three Amish women, dressed in black, keeled over and dropped like flies from the heat. Finally the coffin was lowered. Elmo’s sons stepped up with shovels and returned their father to the earth. The grave was filled and tamped, and dirt piled up on top.


Afterward, we all assembled under a vast open pavilion and a service was held. Bryce Geiser, an ex German Baptist who had joined the Community, delivered the sermon. In English. I can’t remember much he said, but do recall that he was a decent speaker. He may have been the leader of the New Brunswick Community.

I noticed some strange looking bearded men lurking about just outside the pavilion, listening. Real hillbilly types. They wouldn’t come inside or be seated, but shifted around in small circles, their ears glued to the preacher’s words. Later I was told they were from Lobelville, a nearby settlement similar to Cookeville but different enough so they didn’t worship together. Lobelville members were forbidden to sit under the same roof and listen to sermons other than from their own preachers. So they lurked outside and listened. Strange and weird cannot even begin to describe them or their beliefs.

Afterward, some thin watery soup and flat clammy sandwiches were served for a meal. That night, most members of my family stayed at the same motel. We sat around and discussed the day’s events. And what they might bode for the future of the Christian Communities.

And thus Elmo Stoll passed on and was laid to rest. Well before his allotted fourscore years on earth. With so much left undone. He was the greatest Amish leader and preacher of his generation. Maybe the greatest ever. Before he turned his back and forsook it all, stunning the Amish world. He was a charismatic, spellbinding speaker. A natural leader, who took up and carried the heavy mantle of his calling without lament or hesitation.

Deeply flawed. As are all great leaders. Right or wrong, whatever his hands found to do, he did with all his might. And all his heart.

He sensed, I think, that his life would be cut short. Under a doctor’s care the year before he died, he adopted a vegetarian diet and took four ounces of red wine daily for his heart. He also instructed his wife and children to return to Aylmer for five years, should he pass on. They did.

There are those who claim, my father among them, that Elmo was on a journey to return to the fold of the Amish church when he died. That he would be there today had he lived. This is a credible claim, and may well have happened. It seems the Aylmer leaders were preparing for his return. Since there was no opening for another bishop in Aylmer, they founded a new community in Lindsay, Ontario, several hours north of Aylmer. Similar to, but a bit plainer, more conservative than Aylmer. Which would have suited Elmo’s natural preferences. Some claim this community, which has been plagued by dissension since its inception, was specifically founded as a place to which Elmo could return. With some dignity. The truth is probably a bit more murky, but the claim makes sense.

The Christian Community system, I believe, was doomed from the start. It could not work. It cannot work. Religious dissension eventually overwhelms all other factors. Too many harebrained ideas from too many crackpots. Each convinced that his own brand of lunacy is the right one. On top of that, socialism in any form will always fail. Always. Because, among the sincere seekers, it also naturally attracts the dregs of society who have no intention of pulling their own weight. That’s human nature. And if a productive man cannot keep the fruits of his own labor, he will cease to labor. That’s human nature too.

Within months of Elmo’s death, the Communities plunged into the process of natural disintegration. His powerful charismatic personality was the glue that held it all together. Absent his leadership, the system would have collapsed much sooner. After his death, it was only a matter of time. A very short time.

His legacy will always be tainted by the failure of his great vision. Of the perfect brotherhood of believers, living the simple communal life. Given more time, he might well have regrouped and reestablished himself to his former status in the Amish church. In both leadership and influence.

But no one can question his tireless, unceasing labor in the vineyards of the Lord. Although vastly misguided upon occasion, I believe he reached many who would otherwise have wandered aimlessly, lost. He placed his hand to the plow and pursued his vision with little thought to the personal costs or consequences. Or the possibility of failure. Whether you supported or opposed him, you have to respect that.

From the second Elmo blog, I’ve fielded some criticism. To the effect that I’d ignored several very important factors that influenced Elmo’s decision to leave. And at least one important character. The “important character” was deliberately omitted. These blogs are about Elmo, not the hangers on who may have influenced him, whoever they may have been. I am a chronicler, not a historian. There is a difference. That said, the criticism was valid enough, I suppose. All such attempted biographical works are subjective. To the writer’s perspectives. And subject to improvement. And I can’t throw my hat into the ring and expect accolades without criticism.

It is impossible to portray the true depth and measure of Elmo Stoll’s life and his accomplishments in three short posts on an obscure blog. So much had to be sifted through and left out. I apologize for all important omissions. All factual errors are inadvertent, and my responsibility alone. To do justice to the record of his life will take a book. I hope some day someone will write it.

I also apologize for the length of this particular post. I had no intentions of droning on so long, but once immersed in the details, it just flowed out. I could have divided it into two posts, but was determined that this would be my final Elmo writing. Each one has extracted a fairly hefty toll in physical and mental stress. Not to mention countless hours.

I tried to be honest in my portrayal of who he was. To avoid the old Amish trap of saying only positive things. That gets boring fast. And it’s dishonest. Despite his flaws, I always respected him deeply. His death was an almost unfathomable loss. To his family, his flock and to those of us who knew him all our lives.

I harbor no animosity toward his wife, his daughter, or his sons. I wish them well.

And so we reach the end. Of the long road that began before my time and meandered through the days of my childhood and ended abruptly eleven years ago in sorrow and tears on a lonely stretch of Tennessee highway. With all its twists and turns and dark deep valleys and soaring mountains. We look back now on that road and reflect on the life and times of the fascinating and sometimes maddening character, the charismatic leader, the spellbinding speaker, the giant with feet of clay who strode restlessly to and fro upon the earth, on a relentless quest to please God.

We remember the man who was Elmo Stoll.


Post Note: Anyone may print hard copies of this post, or any post, as always, and pass them around. But the three Elmo blogs (The Shepherd at Dawn and The Shepherd at Noon) may NOT be combined and reproduced in BOOKLET FORM without my EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION.

Finally, my deepest appreciation and heartfelt thanks to those who so graciously and freely shared their memories and experiences with me. By letter, phone and email. Those who lived in the Christian Community. And those who didn’t. You know who you are. Without your patience, your invaluable assistance, corrections and suggestions, these last two “Elmo blogs” could not have been written.

—Ira Wagler
January 30, 2009



  1. Thank you Ira. Most of my memories of living in Cookeville are good & pleasant, although I parted ways in April 1996. I realize not a single person has the true picture of how things were, because each one of us viewed life in Cookeville from our perspective. I saw and experienced Cookeville life through a single woman’s eyes, and not that of a man. Nor of a married woman who was in total submission to her husband. I had much more freedom to think and reason through stuff because I didn’t have to believe what a husband believed or pushed to believe.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — January 30, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

  2. Interesting material. Enjoyed it. Harvest House has plans to begin an Amish webpage soon. I submitted your blog for possible linking, and they expressed interest. Hope you don’t mind.

    Comment by Jerry Eicher — January 30, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  3. Elmo helped my family and I out. No one would have helped us like he did. I will always appreciate Elmo, Lisbet and his family. God bless them.

    Comment by Abigail Starr — January 30, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  4. A preacher or bishop from one of the communities has re-started the “Christian Community” concept in Caneyville, KY. I’ve heard he is from German Baptist background…might it be Bryce Geiser?

    Comment by Hans — January 31, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  5. Ira,

    Very much enjoyed the post. Have you met Richard Pride, political science prof. at Vanderbilt? He’s working on a study of Stoll’s Christian community.

    Ira’s response: I have not met him, but sent him the links to each Elmo blog as they were posted.

    Comment by Mark Graham — January 31, 2009 @ 3:03 am

  6. Wow Ira! I don’t even know the man, thought I didn’t even care about the subject – but this post had me captivated. Thanks for all you put into your writing – too bad you don’t get financially compensated for it!

    Ira’s response: Hmmm, let me think. Maybe I should change this to a subscription site.

    Comment by Anonymous — January 31, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  7. Good job there brother Ira. I was raised in the ‘Bear’s Den’ (Aylmer) too, but probably never spoke over 300 words with cousin Elmo in my life. So can’t say I knew him that well personally. Age difference, the Amish way, etc, our paths rarely crossed, though we lived close.

    At the funeral the one Preacher stressed that Elmo strove to be ‘unspotted by the world’. How that connects to Spartan living is hard to grasp, or support.

    The times I knew him, he would have made a good Amalikite killer in the old Testament. He would have killed them all without question. I’m sure he got more merciful and kinder as time went on, and his family grew. That tends to change people.

    He was also the best writer Pathway Publishers ever had, even if his conclusions were often flawed. (They’ve got a new good writer coming on now, signs his name C.S. and has the same ‘out of the box’ thinking Elmo had very early on.)

    Comment by Grandpa Jess — January 31, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

  8. CAPTIVATING….well written once again! Thanks for sharing family “history” with us as a younger generation!

    Comment by Dorothy — January 31, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

  9. We made the flat sandwiches as you call them. All 750 of them in my kitchen…Ha

    Comment by Iva — February 1, 2009 @ 12:07 am

  10. Elmo Stoll’s story is not over- it will not be over as long as he has children who so obviously respect their father and have such a deep love for their father. If he really were such an awful vindictive person I doubt if they would be where they are today. It sounds to me like they are some very admirable people, and I’m sure their father (and mother) have MUCH to do with that! I’ve always enjoyed reading what he had to write in the Pathway papers. Dad has the early bound volumes.

    Comment by Ella (Wagler) Lapp — February 1, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

  11. Quite an interesting post, Uncle. Could anyone give us the facts on Elmo`s wife and children and where they`re at today? I thought I heard once that they are going back to Tennessee to found a church?

    Comment by olen yutzy — February 2, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  12. Fascinating, and answers a lot of questions. Though I’m still not able to figure out how Cookeville was going to differ from Scottsville. You say you hope someone will someday write the book on Elmo, but why not you?

    Comment by Monica — February 2, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  13. Elmo’s wife lives in Maine now. The settlement where she lives seems to be somewhat connected with the Pearisburg, VA Amish and the Scottsville, KY Mennonites. Perhaps someone else has more details?

    Comment by Hans — February 3, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  14. One thing really strikes me in your reflection on a man I never knew: “Although vastly misguided upon occasion, I believe he reached many who would otherwise have wandered aimlessly, lost.” Wow, may that be said of all of us!

    You repeat the saw that ‘all leaders are deeply flawed.’ Left unanalyzed, it deposits the implication that those who are not leaders are less flawed, or that to take leadership is to skew one’s life. Hmm.

    I appreciate your chronicle of a life and community I had never heard of before. It shocks me that it is so close in time. And yet not so shocking. As your perspective always makes me reflect, we are not so different from others once we get past the externals. In this context, another overused “proverb” that finger-pointing involves three pointing back seems well applied. Yes, we all need some kind of saving, some kind of lifting above. And when we think we’ve attained that, we are not so different from some of our “kooky”(?) ante-Nicene brothers and sisters on their pilgrimages, called out from their world, too, to find a way to live in it in a way that transforms it.

    It makes me chuckle. I imagine the Apostle John himself would seem a bit abstruse, whether in bustling, networked New York City, small communities in howling Montana, or the various groups manifesting fierce independence in Texas. We’ll have quite a meeting someday; if we have so received grace that it flows through us to others, I mean. Flawed as we are, oh, that we could still, somehow, show at least something of Christ to others before we see Him ourselves.

    These are just a few of my reflections. I want to thank you, Ira, because it is your ability to paint the picture that draws them out. Use your gift, keep writing.

    Ira’s response: I didn’t mean to imply that all leaders are flawed. They’re not. But almost all GREAT leaders are deeply flawed.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — February 3, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  15. Aaron & Solomon are in Caneyville KY, which is community living. Jonathan is in Aylmer Ontario. Caleb, Andrew, Christina and Abner, plus Elizabeth are in Maine.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — February 3, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  16. Aaron is a gifted writer like his Dad! I remember Elmo… a very Christlike man…that taught a loving, gracious God. It was easy to see the wonderful relationship he had with his family. I can hardly think of a man that i have ever had more admiration & respect for. I am sure he was imperfect…we all are. He was an inspiration to all of us & I remember he always had a ready smile & a twinkle in his eye. He also had a way of making others feel loved & appreciated. I am blessed to have known him & sat under his teaching…. Many good memories of Cookeville. I praise God for time well spent there.

    Comment by Susan Vincil — February 5, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  17. Excellent post, Ira. You really hit it spot on. I too hope someone someday will write a book about Elmo – such a gentle and good-natured man. An acquaintance who used to live in Aylmer (but not the CCs) once told me about Elmo’s harsh early years as a minister in Canada. That was nothing like the Elmo we knew in Tennessee, but as you mentioned in this piece, we did sadly get a taste of that “old” Elmo towards the end of his life. In the end, even he admitted he was maybe out-Amishing the Amish by clamping down so hard.

    I printed out all 3 of the Elmo posts and read them aloud to the family last Friday night. Half our children remember the CCs and Elmo, and we sat around and shared our memories together – lots of laughter, plenty of sadness too. The CCs were a grand, but failed, experiment by a great preacher and a giant of a man. Thank you for not white-washing it, but telling it like it was – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Comment by pilgrimhen — February 6, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  18. Ira, I really appreciate your perspective in writing these three columns about Elmo. I can understand why it must have been very taxing on you, especially for the last one. But they are well written and you have done a great job.

    I didn’t necessarily know Elmo well, but was at an ordination service he was in charge of at Hillsboro, Wisconin perhaps in the late 80’s. I was not necessarily impressed by his style. Something about it didn’t come across as right to me. But that was also back in the days when as a “good” Amish minister I was purposing to keep to the “old ways” that we had been taught for generations. I was set free later (….His truth shall be your shield and butler PS 91:4) and left the Amish behind, with no regrets for that today. Ps 127:1 Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; — Unless Jesus really is the Head of the church, the body will die.

    God bless you,

    Lester Graber

    Comment by Lester Graber — February 8, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  19. I see others are still leaving messages. I just got home from uncle Abner’s funeral and must leave a comment on Elizabeth. I was impressed by her quiet serenity. She really seems to be doing well and does not look old at all. Her whole attitude is kindess with no desire to inflict hurt on anyone. Her children are very near and dear to her mother’s heart. I count it an honor and privelege to visit with her. I think you are wrong; it was Scottsville that couldn’t listen to the sermon, unless it was both Scottsville and Lobelville.

    Comment by Rachel — February 9, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  20. Yeah, the Hoover Mennonites (Scottsville) aren’t allowed to listen to another preacher in a church. A Hoover relative didn’t even attend the church funeral services for his father. The Lobelville community doesn’t have an ordnung, from what I’ve heard.

    Comment by Hans — February 9, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  21. Such a fascinating story. And vividly written. The only part I am missing here (as a newcomer to this whole Cookeville history) is more about the vision Elmo Stoll had. What was it that he was trying to create in TN and why?

    Comment by Vera — March 21, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  22. Wow…hard to believe that it was more than 10 years ago. I lived in Decatur at the time…still remember how shocked everyone was. The sons of the man Elmo was looking for when he died were close friends of mine, as was the guy who eventually married Elmo’s daughter…

    Thanks for the post…brought back a lot of memories.

    Comment by Mark Minn — March 29, 2009 @ 1:21 am

  23. Interesting blog Ira. I know two families from the New Brunswick settlement that have been members of the Gorrie Mennonites for some time now. These are affiliates of the Hoover Mennonites, the Hillbillies you speak of. LOL. Peter Gerber took his family back to New Brunswick about 4 years ago and rents the community property from the gentleman that bought it.

    Comment by Matthew — April 5, 2009 @ 2:51 am

  24. Ira, so what’s your take on the Hutterites? They practice the community of goods, and yet are successful and growing.

    Comment by Vera — April 9, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  25. I would have much more patience for criticism of Elmo and the Communities from a man who followed Christ.

    What does a lawyer have to say to Christians about their communities?

    What does an apostate or unbeliever have to say about how it should be?

    Ira’s reponse: You’re pretty free with your judgments there, buddy. And you’ve just poured some heavy concrete.

    What do I have to say? Certainly more sensible facts and opinions than a guy who acts Plain and gets on a computer and the internet (How could you? Does your Bishop know about this??) and spouts asinine things like you just did.

    Comment by Noah Grabill — April 13, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  26. There is a discussion thread on MennoDiscuss regarding Elmo Stoll, and a link to a scholarly article about the Cookeville community as well as the Aylmer background. It rounded out the story for me.


    Comment by Vera — May 16, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  27. Lobelville might not have an “ordnung” but they sure have rules. They also are not allowed to listen to “other” preachers. My sister lives there and she wouldn’t sit in on her own mother’s funeral.

    Comment by Ruthy — June 11, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  28. I’ve gleaned some tidbits and rumours about the Lobelville group over the last few months, and it seems they might not be in the mainstream of Amish/OO Mennonite thought, practice, and theology. I’ve heard they’re akin to a “horse and buggy Charity group (no ordnung and charismatic oriented), that they don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, some of them keep the Saturday Sabbath, and that they practice the German Baptist-style trine immersion baptism. Which of this is fact and which is rumour? I wish someone knowledgeable could post a definitive summary of the beliefs and practices of this fascinating and unusual group.

    Comment by Hans — June 24, 2009 @ 12:54 am

  29. really enjoyed the Elmo blogs.I grew up in Scottsville and remember some of the tensions between Scottsville and Cookeville.anyway…

    Comment by jason — January 22, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

  30. Okay, I know I’m late. Some things are just too good to miss. I really enjoyed reading your memories; good and bad of my uncle. I never knew the man himself but have ceartainly been very intrigued by the story I’ve picked up through the years from my family and then later from Elmo’s family. I spent a year in Caneyville, Ky which was as interesting I believe as the Cookville years must have been; though I gather quite a bit more stable under Bryce Geiser’s firm leadership. My relationship with my cousins is quite interesting; there is a lot of mutual respect. Strangely enough we both feel the other has his head buried in the sand; as one of the sons commented once. Most of you are probably aware of how politics control plain communities…. CC’s are not excempt. I look back on my year spent in KY with lot’s of good memories; ceartainly the perfect place for me to break the ice after leaving the Amish. However I was an obvious misfit. Good Times. I still have family both in Maine and Kentuck.The thing that grieves me the most about communities like these is the time wasted on nothing. Like fighting over how many phones, steam engines, church building, houses, the list goes on almost into eternity. May we learn the good things from this man who has gone before; and steer away from the mistakes he made.
    On another note I had to really chuckle about he comments on Lobellville and Scottsville. I won’t say too much or else I’ll get lynched by Mr. Beachy. Especially Lobellville has a campaign all their own of which I have never understood totally. Lot’s of good motives behind the whole thing; but unfortuanately many innocent people get crushed by the machine of ??? I myself do not fully understand what turns some peoples cranks. Possibly ignorance.
    On a much more encouraging note; we do have one shining example. Jesus, Lamb of God. Virtue by service, love, unselfishness, all those traits we long to express and be!! Let’s follow HIM. KING of KINGS, LORD of LORDS. Worthy is His name.

    Comment by Alvin Stoll — December 16, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  31. I am not Amish and I never had the honor to meet Elmo Stoll, but I feel I have been blessed to have become friends with his family!

    I live in Maine, near their settlement, and met them a few years ago. Since then I have I come to know, respect and love all the “local” family and the “out of state” siblings as well (they often come to visit). They are like family to me. They are the finest example of Christians I have ever known. All of them are generous, thoughtful, caring and considerate and they live as I believe the bible tells us all to live in Col 3. Not being Amish, I live with all the good and bad of the “English” society, but no matter how upset or stressed I am when I visit with them I always leave there with a smile on my face and my faith in God and Humanity renew!

    So, not having met Elmo, I can only believe that he must have been a true Christian, otherwise he and Elizabeth could never have raised such a amazing family. I am very grateful that God choose to bring them into my life. Susan Chretien February 2011, Maine

    Comment by Susan Chretien — February 28, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  32. Elmo Stoll sounds like a good man. Doing some research on this Christian Community may proove to be interesting.
    You mentioned sorghum being a prominent money maker in Cookeville, TN from the CC’s. Last year I bought some from a man selling honey on the roadside while visiting my mom in TN. It wasn’t CC’s since I’m assuming they are no more, but it was Amish grown. The label on the jar said so. I loaded up on honey and decided to give sorghum a try. It’s great stuff when you run out of brown sugar and have to make your own.
    It was difficult reading about the sexual abuse within some of the communities. And that it was simply disciplined. How many children were scarred from the ignorance of the community leaders. It makes me sick to my stomach. Poor children.
    Why haven’t you written anything about the PBS program “The Amish: Shunned?”

    Comment by Francine — February 13, 2014 @ 12:30 am

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