Amish faith in peril
Jacob’s Choice, Return to Northkill, Book 1
Ervin R. Stutzman
Jacob’s Choice is not another simple Amish romance, as the cover may suggest. It’s a skillfully portrayed, heart-wrenching story – based on history – of personal conviction, spiritual struggle, persecution, horror, loss, recovery and forgiveness.
The novel begins in the mid-1700s near Northkill Creek, Pennsylvania, with occasional flashbacks to the Reformation and subsequent persecution of the followers of Jakob Ammann in Europe. Through the decision to leave the old country for America, Jacob Hochstetler has been bountifully blessed, but the shadow of danger from Indian attack always lurks in his mind. Instead of moving from the area, he decides to trust God to protect him and his family in Northkill.
When the worst happens, Jacob must reconcile his beliefs with his situation. Who is this God he trusts and why does he allow such things to happen to his committed followers? What does God require of him? The trials he and the other non-resistant Amish of this time experience equal those in the copy of the Martyrs Mirror that Jacob treasures.
The story of Jacob Hochstetler is well-known in the annals of Hochstetler history, preserved by generations of his descendants as a legacy of faith and non-resistance, a 16th-century Job story.
The author of Jacob’s Choice, Ervin R. Stutzman, currently executive director of Mennonite Church USA, has done exemplary research into the Hochstetler account, as well as the details of the French and Indian War, and native American life. The settings are vivid and the action intense.
Stutzman’s two point-of-view characters, Jacob and his grown daughter Barbara, offer differing responses to their trials, thus affording readers a broader perspective for consideration. Supporting characters (even so many Jacobs, Jakobs, Jakeys and Jakes) provide a varied and intriguing cast of family, friends and enemies.
Ranging from the differences in clothing worn by the Amish, Puritans and Indians to the foods they ate and their varied lifestyles, the details form an incredible backdrop to this story of faith under pressure. The characters are filled out well enough for the reader to become attached to them and to care what happens in their lives. The story hinges on the setting and the time period, tying them together into a balanced whole.
For the most part, Jacob’s Choice is not a comfortable read. The author does not gloss over events, and although at times I would have chosen to know less about certain practices, the recording of them gives more impact to the characters’ respective spiritual journeys. Their believable and honest feelings of fear, doubt, hope and love give readers the opportunity to walk in their footsteps and at least contemplate a personal response to similar situations.
This is an important story for Anabaptists of today who may well have no idea what real persecution is – and I include myself in that category. What do I know of persecution? In our society, we avoid it as much as possible, sometimes to the suppression of our witness. We live in a place of security and safety, often forgetting the reasons for our beliefs, neglecting the stories of our forebears who sacrificed much to live in freedom of conscience and worship.
With the help of books such as Jacob’s Choice, we would do well to reflect upon the depth of our personal commitment that we might not lose faith in times of peril.
Note: Jacob’s Choice ends with lead-ins to the sequel, due in the spring of 2015. I trust Return to Northkill, Book 2 will prove as commendable a read as this first volume.
Janice Dick is a novelist and member of Philadelphia MB Church, Watrous, Sask.