Orwellian Amish Heritage Foundation Misunderstands History, Promotes Atheism

The following Newslines column originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of The Sword & Trumpet.

An article in the Mennonite World Review entitled “Dark side to Amish religious freedom?” was not a bad article, but it did uncritically relay the beliefs of the Amish Heritage Foundation” (AHF). I was very glad to be introduced to this brand-new organization as it has an incredibly Orwellian name, it is peddling a rather insidious mis-accounting and misunderstanding of history, and it utilizes atheists who have left other ultra-conservative religions to “teach” the Amish how to escape. It is a dishonest and direct attack on conservative Anabaptism (and all of orthodox Christianity) and it behooves us to understand what they’re attempting.

Orwellian Name

George Orwell wrote the book 1984 which was a fictional account of a dystopian government who manipulated language in order to manipulate and control the people. Orwell wrote, “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”

The Amish Heritage Foundation is named the same way. Its purpose is the opposite of preserving the Amish Heritage. Its purpose is to destroy the Amish Heritage. The founders spin it as “reclaim[ing] our Amish narrative”.

There is a very revealing quote by the founder of AHF in the Mennonite World Review article. This quote gives lie to the Orwellian name “Amish Heritage Foundation” and bypasses theological and historical arguments and cuts straight to an admission of intent. MWR writes, “[As a child,] executive director Torah Bontrager…heard the story of Harriet Tubman assisting escaped African-American slaves along the underground railroad. ‘I told myself if I escaped and I made it, I would create an Amish underground railroad for those who wanted to transition to the outside world,’ she said. ‘That’s what the Amish Heritage Foundation is.’”

This clearly lays bare the Orwellian “war is peace” deception contained in the name. The AHF was created to help Amish escape the Amish life like slaves escaped slavery. That would be like the Underground Railroad calling itself the “Slavery Heritage Foundation” to make it feel more palatable. The purpose of the Underground Railroad was to destroy slavery by helping people escape it and the purpose of the Amish Heritage Foundation is to destroy the Amish by helping people escape it. Neither was to preserve the heritage of the Amish or the “heritage” of slavery.

I fully support the rights of all Amish people to self-determination and making an informed, adult decision on whether to remain Amish or to pursue other churches or none at all, but even though I’ve not chosen to be Amish like my grandparents were, it really makes me unhappy to see such a dishonest approach.

AHF is parallel to liberal “Christianity” that keeps the name Christian but which strips it of most historical beliefs and holds religion as a useful fiction while believing and practicing functional atheism with a bit of “Lord, Lord.” In fact, most leaders of this organization claim to be Amish, even though they are not. They call themselves “noncompliant Amish”.

Promotion of Atheism

The founder of the AHF, Torah Bontrager, graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Philosophy in 2007 where “she focused on Tibetan Buddhism” (according to her website bio).

AHF’s flagship and inaugural conference (“Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story”) had as its speakers a parade of atheists and non-Christians with clear résumés of dedicating their lives to anti-religion causes. Many of the speakers are people who left their religions and were at the conference to teach the Amish how to leave Christianity as well. In their conference schedule, AHF expresses their unhappiness that many Amish that leave the Amish go to “Mennonite” or “born-again” churches. Here are a few speaker bio excerpts.

Sarah Haider is an ex-Muslim and co-founder of Ex-Muslims of Northern America. AHF’s conference program writes, “Sarah will share the work that she is doing on behalf of her culture of origin and how their challenges and solutions might apply to the mission of AHF.”

Joel Engelman is an ex-Orthodox Jew whose AHF bio says, “Through his research on individuals who have left Orthodox Jewish communities, Joel will explore the commonalities between the Orthodox Jewish and Amish experiences of leaving religious communities… the common challenges of those who choose to leave insular religious communities will be discussed.”

Marci Hamilton is a former Supreme Court law clerk and is an advocate for reducing religious liberties and an advocate for the government prosecuting fringe religions.

Galen Guengerich is an ex-Mennonite who is now a Unitarian Universalist “minister”.

Historical Inaccuracy and Secular Education

There are so many historical inaccuracies espoused by Torah Bontrager and her AHF that it deserves a scholarly paper refuting it all. It ranges from the petty (referring to the Pennsylvania Dutch language as “Amish”) to* serious résumé inflation (first and only Amish person to graduate from an Ivy League college; she’s neither) to a distortion of history which is foundational to their leftist, atheist agenda (Wisconsin v. Yoder). Since they focus so heavily on that last point and because it is so important to their agenda, I will focus on that here.

Their distortion of the history of Wisconsin v. Yoder (a 1972 Supreme Court decision) seems entirely driven by their agenda. (In fact, the AHF efforts are a quintessential case study in how the left attacks religion via the conduit of secular education.) The AHF (and Elam Zook in particular) says Wisconsin v. Yoder (WvY) “directly created an embrace of ignorance” and rejection of education. The truth is rather the reverse. WvY did not cause Amish suspicion of formal education, rather Amish suspicion of formal education caused WvY.

During the time period preceding the WvY decision, public education was rejecting God. The Amish only rejected public education because public education was rejecting God. WvY did not cause the Amish to reject public education and be suspicious of book-learning education, but rather it was the atheist drift of the educational establishment that accomplished this. WvY only codified in court precedent the 1st Amendment’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of conscience in regard to education. This was a freedom the Amish were already exercising and willing to go to jail for pre-WvY. Some had been fined and sent to jail already. WvY was not a catalyst and cause of Amish rejection of education; rather WvY was the State realizing that the Amish were correct in claiming that religious freedom, a religious freedom whose exercise came out of a heritage predisposed to practical, hands-on education rather than book-learning.

During the time period surrounding WvY, all Christians from the Amish to the Protestants to the Catholics recognized the attack of leftist/atheist public academia on religion. The Catholics already had their own parochial schools, the Protestants and Anabaptists did not. The Protestants, because of their heritage, developed high-quality institutions of Christian book-learning education in response. The Amish, because of their heritage, created schools that went only through eighth grade and focused their post-school educational efforts on hands-on craftsman and farming skills taught through apprenticeship and on-the-job training.

The AHF has an extremely derogatory and condescending view of the Amish, writing, “[The Amish] are a perilously disadvantaged minority group in the USA and Canada with no scientific and technological skills, no emotional and social intelligence, and no higher education.”

Anyone who has interacted with the Amish knows that this absurd polemic is at best an overgeneralization of the worst of a small minority of Amish upon the entire Amish populace. My Amish and ex-Amish friends are the some of the most intelligent, funny, creative, friendly, curious, skilled, and engaging people I know. For just one example, the ingenious eco-friendly, budget-friendly alternative-energy solutions devised by a number of ex-Amish and Amish friends and acquaintances could fill a book. I know Amish who were computer programmers while still Old Order Amish and who scored top 5 percentile in standardized national High School tests.

In contrast to AHF’s negative view, much of both the secular and religious world recognize that the modern world has fallen into the theoretical book-learning ditch and have underemphasized the trades, practical skills, craftsmanship, and apprenticing. There is a crisis of student debt where students have gotten useless, expensive degrees that they’ll be paying for their whole lives, degrees that brought them little real-world value. Most of the world recognizes the world-class apprenticeship and craftsmanship of the Amish (not to mention their strong, relationship-focused communities) and seek to recapture a healthy balance for our lonely tech- and artificially-focused world. (An example is found in the book Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive by Erik Wesner.)

As someone with a deep love of book learning, thinking logically & consistently, and being well informed, I am of the opinion that the Amish are generally unbalanced on the practical side without enough book learning. I love that my Amish and Amish-Mennonite communities here in Kansas love book-learning and I seek to spread that vision among conservative Anabaptists of all stripes. However, I also recognize my own weaknesses and the weaknesses of the modern world and realize that we have a lot to learn from the Amish craftsman/apprenticeship model.

An insightful conservative Anabaptist leader who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “AHF’s main contention is that the government and civil society must reassert control over Amish education as the only realistic tool for enforcing assimilation of modern values in the church. Amish and Mennonite churches are artificially able to resist societal and moral assimilation because their children are not under the public school system. If they can remove the ‘prop’ of avoiding the secular education system, then the church will eventually be changed… They have accurately identified a key: If you can assert control over what children are taught and [are patient], you force change in the church.”

AHF’s attack on WvY follows the successful playbook of the left in adding the right of gay marriage to judicial canon: change academia’s opinion, thus changing a newly indoctrinated generation of young people’s opinion, thus changing the Supreme Court’s opinion.

It is an enjoyable bit of irony that they decry Amish schools as tools of indoctrination in Amish beliefs. They know all about that because that’s their game. The choice is not between Amish indoctrination and free will as they would like you to believe, but it’s rather a choice of whose worldview will be imparted in education: that of the secular, atheist left or that of the church. Both are equally eager to impart their worldview through education. The Constitution guarantees the rights of parents to make the choice between those two (and myriad other options), but the AHF wants to take away that choice by reversing Wisconsin v. Yoder.


The saddest thing about the Amish Heritage Foundation is not their dishonest name, their distortions of history, or their attacks on religious freedom to try to destroy the Amish. The saddest thing is what motivated a number of the founders and leaders of the AHF: sexual abuse. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I have frequently highlighted sexual abuse in conservative Anabaptist and conservative Christian circles. I’ve espoused exposing that sin and trying to build a culture that is naturally resistant to such abuse happening. The experience of sexual abuse is endemic to those involved in AHF and it breaks my heart. Of course, if that abuse was one’s experience when growing up Amish, dedicating one’s life to destroying the Amish is the natural response. It also explains the very derogatory view that the AHF has toward the Amish. It is the darkest corners of the most conservative Amish world that sweep such sin under the rug, allowing it to flourish and grow. And it’s those same communities that do actually embrace insularity and ignorance rather than thoughtfully rejecting certain kinds of secular book-learning as not helpful. So AHF’s extremely negative perception of the Amish on those points makes a lot more sense when one is familiar with the various kinds of Amish and where the AHF folks came from.

Obviously, I also have a limited perspective based on the Amish I know, who are not necessarily representative of all Amish people. Amish are congregational, not conference-based. There is no top-down hierarchy, but rather local churches make their own decisions and evolve in drastically different ways both practically and spiritually.

I do appreciate the scholarship of the non-Amish Prof. Donald Kraybill who has undertaken systematic study of the Amish (and is the world’s foremost academic authority on the topic). He has highlighted a number of the positive things I have also noticed. (Because this does not fit the AHF’s narrative and goals, one of their first tasks was to write a scholarly article attacking Kraybill’s credibility and methodology.)

While this has been quite long and probably gives AHF more attention than they deserve, I believe it is an important case study for us as conservative Anabaptists (and more broadly as conservative Christians) to understand. It is absolutely textbook on how the political left and liberal religion seek to use the power of the state to try to undermine the true church. Let us be alert to the admonitions of 1 Peter 4:12-16 which instruct us to ensure that persecution from the government is not due to sinful behavior like sexual abuse. Let us also pay heed to the many Scriptures (Hosea 4:6; Eph. 4:18; Pro. 1:7; 4:13; 18:15; 19:2; 22:3; James 1:5; 1 Tim. 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 2:15; Luke 2:52; Col 2:8; John 8:32; 14:6) that call us to have a love of truth, knowledge, and wisdom and let us make sure “embrace of ignorance” is not a legitimate criticism of our lives.

Sources: Mennonite World Review, Des Moines Register, AmishHeritage.org, “The Functionalist Problem in Kraybill’s Riddle of Amish Culture” by Michael S. Billig and Elam Zook, TorahBontrager.com, “Escaping the Amish” on Tim Ferriss’ blog, Wikipedia

* “Pennsylvania Dutch” was my first language before English. When I was about five years old, I still didn’t fully understand the difference between the two languages and had a limited vocabulary in both languages. I was on a plane around that age and when the flight attendant came by I asked her, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Could I have a kissy?” She looked at me with shock and asked, “What do you want? You want me to kiss you?” My parents were at my side laughing uproariously at my predicament and quickly explained that “kissy” was the Datch word for “pillow” and that I was asking for a pillow, not a kiss. The flight attendant laughed and huffed in faux relief, “Good! I thought he was getting fresh with me!” All that to say, PA Dutch was my native language. We always called it “Datch” or “Deitsch” (depending on your accent) and when I got older, I learned the formal name was “Pennyslvania Dutch” which was an Englishified mistransliteration of “Pennsylvania Deutsch” which is the German word for German. Never, ever have I heard this language referred to as Amish. However, after reading this article, an ex-Amish friend of mine messaged me and said that when he grew up in the Pennsylvania Amish church, he and his friends would jokingly refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as “Amish”. So Torah’s use of that colloquialism is not as out of place as I thought. This illustrates, again, the hazards of making generalizations about the Amish because they are so congregational and regional.

Cautionary Stories of Sexual Abuse in Conservative Christian Ministries: ABWE & IBLP

I wrote the following column in the summer of 2017 for the Sep. 2017 issue of Sword & Trumpet, a small conservative Anabaptist monthly magazine for which I am the monthly Newslines columnist. I am publishing it online now because recent events among conservative Anabaptists make it even more urgently relevant. (The only modification made was to invert the two sections to put ABWE first and IBLP second and to make some square bracket explanatory edits.)

I do not have the room to recount the whole incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham, a missionary doctor in Bangladesh with ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism). If you are a pastor, Christian leader, or board member (or have influence over any), I strongly suggest you read the whole story: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Kathryn Joyce in The New Republic and “Missionary Donn Ketcham Abused 18 Children. Here’s Why He Wasn’t Stopped.” by Sarah Zylstra in Christianity Today. (For that matter, I highly recommend perusing RecoveringGrace.org in-depth, reading their stories [about IBLP].)

However, in brief, his adultery was well known to ABWE for many years (since 1967) and the mission responded by having him repent and then sending the women missionaries back to the US. It got to the point that veteran missionaries would warn new lady missionaries who arrived to be wary of him and to stay away. However, given fundamentalist culture of not talking about sexual issues with children, no one warned the children. It turns out, the board’s inaction in regards to his adultery gave him the platform to rape and sexually abuse at least 23 young missionary girls in Bangladesh.

When a 14 year old girl came forward to tell about being raped in 1989, ABWE’s response was a strange mix of action and cover-up. They believed the girl, which was good. And they finally removed him from the field, which was good. However, they blamed the victim in some very disgusting ways. They lied by omission to the victim’s parents, who did not find out until decades later the extent of the abuse. They did not investigate further to see if others had been abused. They sent a vaguely worded letter to his sponsoring churches that he had engaged in “immoral conduct” (which is conservative Christian code for adultery, not sexual abuse). They also never told his new pastor back in the US what had happened. But worst of all, as New Republic writes, “Because no one from ABWE alerted police or the state medical board that Ketcham had confessed to sexually abusing a child 45 years his junior, he was able to return to practicing medicine and teaching Sunday school. He would go on to see patients for another 23 years.”

The only way his behavior finally came to public light was his victims began trading stories at a Bangladesh MK (missionary kids) reunion. When they realized they weren’t alone, they confronted ABWE, who did nothing. A few years later, they got together again and disgusted by ABWE’s inaction, launched a blog in 2011 telling their stories. Just as with IBLP, this absolutely opened the floodgates as many more victims came forward with their stories.

Finally ABWE acted, hiring GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) to investigate, but then firing them shortly before they produced their report. ABWE then hired Professional Investigators International (PII) to run the investigation. They were allowed to complete their investigation (after they had ABWE’s in-house lawyer removed who was obstructing the investigation by lying and hiding documents) and issued a 280-page report. All the crimes they detailed occurred outside of U.S. jurisdiction, but some measure of earthly justice may finally be served on Donn Ketcham as a mother of one of his patients in the U.S. (he returned to practicing medicine in the U.S. because ABWE never reported him!) ran across the blog, connected the dots, and Dr. Ketcham is now on trial for molesting her six year old daughter in 1999. [Edited to add: He will not get earthly justice because in July 2018 he has been ruled ineligible to stand trial due to dementia preventing him mounting any defense.] This molestation in the U.S. happened an incredible 32 years after ABWE first knew of his serial adultery (which according to ABWE policies should have removed him from the field for a single instance, much less a recurring pattern) and 10 years after ABWE first knew about his pedophilia. PII’s report identified 23 missionary girls and women he molested or raped (this did not include his consensual affairs with adults). Furthermore, PII encountered evidence that he molested Bangladeshi natives who were his patients, but did not pursue ascertaining details because it was outside of their investigative purview.

More and more stories are emerging of this pattern of abuse and cover-up and further abuse among conservative evangelicals. There have been recent investigations and arrests of missionaries from New Tribes Mission, Bob Jones University, a Christian & Missionary Alliance boarding school in Africa, among others. As we know, we’ve faced similar problems in our conservative Anabaptist churches.

The absolutely essential lesson of both of these stories is that we must take to heart the Bible’s teaching that sin flourishes in darkness, in secrecy. By keeping this sin of abuse hidden (even if it was “confessed” after being caught), it allowed the perpetrators to continue abusing people. We do not want to gossip about sin or engage in public shaming for its own sake, but sins of abuse need to be publicly acknowledged to provide accountability and to open the door for other victims to step forward. Far too often victims feel like they’re the only ones and are scared to come forward. However, in both these cases, as soon as something was said publicly, the floodgates were opened with hundreds of people coming forward to tell their stories. This is something that doesn’t happen if leadership keeps these matters private.

It is also important that church and ministry leaders work with government authorities to report abuse. We are called to obey governmental authorities as they seek to punish the bad and protect the good. And the government has many commonsense protections in place to keep sex offenders from re-offending and damaging more victims, which is for the protection of the offender’s soul, even if he or she has repented. Furthermore, while we forgive and seek to restore someone who has sinned, it is not our place to make the choice whether the law will show them justice or mercy.

Sources: The New Republic, Christianity Today, “ABWE and Donn Ketcham Investigations – Final Report, March 11, 2016” by PII, WoodTV.com, BangladeshMKsSpeak.WordPress.com

When I began writing the [ABWE] piece [prior] to this, I thought I had already written about the Bill Gothard sexual harassment cases, but a number of searches through the Newslines archives reveal I had not. I apologize for the oversight. Many of us are familiar with the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) curriculum and the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) headed by Bill Gothard. They were popular for many years among conservative Anabaptists. In my early grades in school, I was taught using some of their curriculum for a few years. However, over the past decade, I began to be concerned over some of the misplaced emphases in his teaching. And then the sexual harassment emerged. The website RecoveringGrace.org has been at the forefront of documenting it. They offer a summary of their own journey:

When we launched our website in July of 2011, we did so with the express mission of helping people whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard through the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) seminars and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. We have attempted to fulfill that mission through regularly posted articles primarily written by former students of ATI—articles that have covered a wide variety of issues such as theological discussions of IBLP teachings, personal stories of discovering grace, and bringing to light some of the darker aspects of working at an IBLP Training Center. What we truthfully did not realize at the time of our launch was the strong undercurrent of depravity displayed for decades at the highest levels of IBLP leadership. Our thought at the time was that the most viscerally damaging effects of Gothardism were spiritual, and that Bill Gothard’s worst flaws were theological and hermeneutical. As such, most of our attention for the first year of our website was focused on these areas.

In early 2012, this all changed for us when a young lady shared with us her experiences working for Bill Gothard at Headquarters. While it has long been widely known by anyone who worked there that Bill had his favorites, this young lady opened our eyes to what being a ‘favorite’ meant: unwanted and unwarranted emotional and physical attention from a man in a position of authority to young women who could not refuse it. In other words, it was textbook sexual harassment.

So, on April 20, 2012, we published Lizzie’s story. And as soon as we did, we discovered that we had opened Pandora’s box. The emails and comments poured in like a flood, and we knew that we had stumbled across something bigger than we could have ever anticipated. A few weeks later, we published Annette’s story; a year later, Grace’s. Over the past two weeks, Meg has shared with us her very painful personal journey. And, later this week, we will share yet another account.

Since the time that Lizzie’s story was published, we have identified by name at least 34 different women who have experienced the same harassment, and we have sufficient evidence to believe that there are dozens more. We have had men and women who served in IBLP leadership confirm that the allegations are true, although they felt (and often were) powerless to do anything at the time. In fact, we have learned that the IBLP Board of Directors has on more than one occasion addressed this behavior with Bill Gothard, but to no lasting avail.


RecoveringGrace.org goes on to detail how they wrote an article in June of 2013 calling on Gothard to repent. How he refused. How further emails from former senior IBLP staff revealed that this had been a problem as early as 1980 with him being forced to resign because of it, only to forcefully return, force most of the senior staff and board out of IBLP, and bring in a new, more pliant group of people. They go on to write:

As our database of troubling information has grown, our team has struggled over what to do with what we know. We have always tried to demonstrate a grace-based approach to our work and ministry, even towards the one man we believe to be the originator of the greatest damage. However, we also know that God desires both justice and mercy, and that grace does not preclude justice or truth. Every time we hear of another young person struggling with their faith in God, or dealing with chronic health issues because of physical mistreatment and exhaustion while working at a training center, or fighting depression and confusion because they were sexually harassed by Bill Gothard, an inescapable question confronts us: What can we do with this information to ensure that the abuse does not continue to happen?

We based our decision on a passage of Scripture familiar to most ex-ATIers: Matthew 18—wherein Christ teaches us how to deal with a sinning brother. We know that Bill Gothard has been confronted one-on-one many times about his sin, as well as in groups of two and three, so our team believes that it is time for us to engage in the final phase of this process which is found in Matthew 18:17: ‘If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’


As a result of the full release of all the stories and information RecoveringGrace had gathered, the IBLP board finally took action in March of 2014, accepting Gothard’s resignation and barring him from serving in any capacity with IBLP.

Sources: RecoveringGrace.org, IBLP.org

Edited to add: It has been brought to my attention that one of the authors of RecoveringGrace is an extremely anti-Christian person. This does not necessarily cast doubt upon the stories of the many victims of sexual harassment at the hands of Bill Gothard (in fact, I’ve received second-hand friend-of-a-friend testimony that the harassment was quite real), but it does remind us to never swallow whole anyone’s writings or opinions as they are inevitably colored by our beliefs. And not everyone is as honest as we try to be. I welcome any further, well-sourced comments on the veracity of the IBLP narrative.