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Hutterites

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Profile of the Group

Name:  Hutterites, or Hutterian Brethren
Founder:

Several early Anabaptist leaders helped shape the Hutterites. Jacob Hutter joined the movement soon after its founding, and had such an influence on it that it took his name.

Date and Place
of Birth:
 Moos, in South Tyrol (now Italy), date unknown.
Year Founded:

1528

Sacred
or Revered Texts:

The Protestant version of the Bible is the scripture of the Hutterites. The movement has always been meticulous about documenting its own history, and early manuscript history books are greatly treasured in the movement, although they do not have the status of scripture.

Size of Group:

Over 40,000, in more than 425 colonies in the U. S. and Canada.

Religious Family:

Communal

Remarks:


History

The Anabaptists constituted the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation and began to appear in Germany and Switzerland in the early 1520s. The direct predecessors of the Hutterites were Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland, who advocated the separation of church and state, adult baptism, adoption of a disciplined way of life, separation from nonbelievers, and pacifism. They were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, and in fleeing from persecution they spread to many locations in Europe. Moravia, which had become relatively diverse religiously as a result of the rise of several pre-Protestant religious movements, became a haven for the Anabaptists, and it was there that the Hutterites emerged as a separate body. In 1528, their chronicle records, the Anabaptists who would become the Hutterites committed themselves to community of goods, giving all personal possessions and money to the group as a whole. Complete community of goods remains one of the distinctive features of Hutterite life today.

Jacob Hutter appeared among these believers in 1529; he had previously been an Anabaptist leader in the Tyrol, where persecution was intense, and he and his followers joined the Moravian band. In 1533 he emerged as the decisive leader of the group, which under his direction created the regulations and structures that gave Hutterism its distinctive character. His tenure as leader was fairly short, however; in 1535 he was arrested in Austria, and early the following year he was tortured and executed.

The movement, however, soon entered a period of relative prosperity. Under the protection of the Moravian nobles over 100 communal settlements were established, and the movement grew to 20,000 to 30,000 members. Several prosperous industries, including the making of ceramics and skilled medical practice, sustained the Hutterites financially. But that period eventually came to an end; amid wars and plagues, the Hutterites were expelled from Moravia in 1622. The course of events had many twists and turns in subsequent decades, during which various groups of Hutterites lived in different countries, but in 1770 they began to move to Russia, where the scattered movement became reunited under a government promise of relative religious freedom and, especially, exemption from military duty. For a time they gave up community of goods, but eventually they resumed the practice. Then, in 1871, the Russian government withdrew the exemption from military duty, and once again the Hutterites (and many Mennonites also living in Russia under similar conditions) felt compelled to move. In 1874 they began to depart for the United States, eventually settling in South Dakota.

Two separate congregations of Hutterites who had resumed communal living in Russia established communal settlements in South Dakota, and a third congregation organized itself communally after arriving there. Those three original colonies became the founding sites of distinct movements within Hutterism. Hutterites now consist of three “leuts,” or peoples–the Schmiedeleut (so called because their founding preacher, Michael Waldner, was a blacksmith, or Schmied), the Dariusleut (whose founding preacher was named Darius Walter), and the Lehrerleut (whose leader, Jacob Wipf, was regarded as an excellent teacher, or Lehrer). Other Hutterites also migrated to South Dakota but settled on individual farms; they became known as the Prairieleut. Each of the three communal leuts has certain distinctive practices, and intermarriage among them is rare, but to the outside observer they are greatly similar in their ways of living. In 1992 the Schmiedeleut suffered a schism, largely over disagreements about the leadership of the Schmiedeleut bishop Jacob Kleinsasser. It appears unlikely that the two factions will reunite during Kleinsasser’s lifetime. Those who have rejected Kleinsasser’s leadership are known as the Committee Hutterites.

The first few decades of American life were hard, and the Hutterites were little noticed by outsiders beyond their immediate neighborhoods. However, they expanded steadily as a result of a high birthrate (at times Hutterite families have averaged more than ten children). When a colony reaches about 150 members it builds a new colony, and half of the members are chosen by lot to move to the new location. As of 2001 there were about 11,500 Dariusleut Hutterites in 144 colonies; 12,000 Lehrerleut in 121 colonies, and 16,500 Schmiedeleut in 169 colonies.

World War I was a time of trial for the American Hutterites. As pacifists they resisted military service, and several of their young men, taken into custody by military authorities, received treatment that can only be described as torture–sufficiently severe that two of them died from it. At the same time, persecution of German-speaking people became widespread among the American public, and criminal acts did a great deal of damage to Hutterite property. The Hutterites hastily moved to Canada, where exemption from military service had been promised them; only a single colony remained in South Dakota. During the great depression, however, when legions of farmers left their land, South Dakota decided that it could profit from the presence of hard-working farmers who did not seek any kind of public assistance and invited the Hutterites to return, often to their former colony sites. Today Hutterites can be found in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Washington, and Oregon, in the United States, and in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Change has accompanied Hutterite growth. Although traditional in their faith and communal lifestyle, Hutterites have always accepted modern technology, especially farming technology, and many today are familiar with computers and other sophisticated equipment. School beyond about the eighth grade was traditionally opposed by the Hutterites, but today many young members attend high school, and occasionally even college. Internal disputes have divided colonies, and such contemporary tragedies as child abuse have taken place in a few colonies. The movement, however, remains robust and continues to expand at a rate of perhaps 3% per year, with several new colonies constructed annually.


Beliefs, Rituals, and Festivals

Principal Beliefs:

Hutterites continue to subscribe to the basic principles historically upheld by the Anabaptists. The Bible is understood to be the source of teachings on both faith and lifestyle. Hutterite beliefs begin with a conviction that an omnipotent, omniscient God has provided eternal, unchanging truths by which humans are commanded to live. Our focus is to be on the eternal God, not on transitory material reality. We are to look toward a union with God in the afterlife, which is far more important than anything temporal.

Human beings are understood to have a fallen, carnal nature, and therefore have a natural tendency to sin. However, we can recognize sin and repent of it, and we can receive the grace that will permit us to be saved despite our sinfulness. The choice to receive grace must be made by each individual. One’s choosing to seek God’s way rather than the fallen way is outwardly shown in one’s works, or behavior; in Hutterite terms, Godly behavior means conformity to the standards of the church and the community (which are one and the same).

Anabaptists agree with most Protestants (indeed, most Christians) on most theological basics, but differ on several vital points. Their reading of the Bible concludes that they are commanded to be pacifists, and traditionally they have refused all military service, even noncombatant service. They believe in adult, not infant, baptism, a practice that led to their being ridiculed as Anabaptists, or “rebaptizers,” by their opponents; since the name was originally pejorative, it was long resisted by members of the movement, and some today still object to it. They advocate a disciplined way of life in which members adhere to the church’s strict behavioral standards, and the individual will is subjugated to the collective will of the community. To help themselves maintain proper behavior they have traditionally tried to minimize contact with persons outside the movement. They are strong believers in the separation of church and state, having argued from their earliest days that civil magistrates should have no right to punish wrong belief.

Some Anabaptists, in the pursuit of simple and disciplined living, reject certain features of modern life and technology. The Amish, for example, do not drive cars or have electricity in their homes. The Hutterites embrace modern technology, as long as it does not interfere with traditional lifeways, and have become efficient modern farmers. However, unlike other Anabaptists, they insist on holding all property in common, a belief stemming from early Christian practices described in the biblical book of Acts.

Major Rituals and Festivals:

Anabaptists generally have believed in minimizing ornamentation and ritual in their religious life, and the Hutterites are no exception. Brief prayers are said several times a day, as at meals. Worship services on each colony are central to religious life; those services follow time-honored patterns, featuring the reading of sermons composed centuries ago and a distinctive way of singing old hymns. Short services are usually held daily, and longer ones on Sunday. Because the Hutterites regard all of God’s creation as sacred, no special facilities are set apart for religious services. Church services are typically held in the schoolhouse.

Baptism is performed when a Hutterite is ready to become an adult member of the church/community, usually when a person is in his or her early twenties. On a Saturday the candidate undergoes an examination in regard to his or her beliefs, and Sunday the colony preacher performs the ceremony, which is conducted with the sprinkling of water over the candidate. Marriage typically comes not too long after baptism, especially for men. After a colony has approved of the marriage, a short engagement ceremony is held and a party follows. Then the couple travel to the groom’s colony (if they are from different colonies, as is usually the case), where a marriage ceremony typically follows a Sunday worship service. The couple then take up residence at the groom’s colony.

Death takes place in a supportive colony environment. After the death relatives at other colonies come to join the mourning process, which lasts for about two days. A funeral service, simple in form like other Hutterite observances, is held, and burial takes place in the colony cemetery.


Controversies

Controversies, sometimes intense, have surrounded the Hutterites since their life together began nearly 500 years ago. Petty incidents, such as vandalism (broken windows, animals released from their pens), have been experienced by most colonies. Hutterite pacifism, as we have seen, has been highly controversial during wartime. As a matter of policy Hutterites object to paying war taxes, but generally do not try to distinguish between war-related and other use of their general tax payments.

Compulsory education laws have long been a point of contention between Hutterites and public officials. Although not opposed to education at the most basic level, Hutterites have historically been suspicious of too much formal schooling. In order to make sure that education conforms to Hutterite expectations, the colonies have their own schools. Basic lessons are taught in the “English” school, which covers the kinds of things generally taught in public school and in which the teacher is usually a nonhutterite, since the Hutterites, lacking college degrees, do not usually have certified teachers in their ranks. A separate daily session is held in the “German” school, conducted in the traditional dialect (“Hutterisch”) spoken on the colonies, and taught by a Hutterite. Traditionally Hutterites have quit school at about age 15 or when the state allows it, but in recent years colony high schools have been opened in several places.

After conflicts over pacifism, the most vexing antagonism with which Hutterites have been confronted has been opposition to their acquisition of farmland. Some traditional farmers are scared that the Hutterites, with their low labor costs, will outcompete them. The high Hutterite birth rate has meant that new colonies are built and opened every year, each of them occupying several thousand acres of farmland. The first legal restriction on Hutterite property ownership came in the Canadian province of Alberta in 1942, at which time sale of land to Hutterites was legally prohibited; the law was amended in 1947 to let a new colony buy up to 6,400 acres of land, but only if it were located at least 40 miles from an existing colony. Although the law was later repealed, Hutterites responded to it by opening new colonies in Montana and Saskatchewan. Other jurisdictions have also contemplated restrictions on Hutterite land purchases, although nowhere has the sentiment for such restrictions been as high as it once was in Alberta.


Internet Links

http://www.hutterite.org/. An excellent resource providing basic information on Hutterite history, organization, education, religion, and many other topics. Created and maintained by high school students at the Decker Colony School. The Schmiedeleut Decker colony has generally been regarded as a progressive force among the Hutterites.

www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues98/nov98/hutter.html. An illustrated article on the Hutterites that appeared in Smithsonian magazine.

feefhs.org/hut/hut-hist.html. A chronology of Hutterite history from 1755 to 1879.


Research Bibliography

A complete bibliography of published works on the Hutterites would be prohibitively lengthy. This list presents a few of the major and readily available works. For a book-length bibliography see the work of Maria Krisztinkovich, below. A more limited bibliography is contained in the volume by Timothy Miller, also cited below.

Friedman, Robert. Hutterite Studies. Goshen, Indiana: Mennonite Historical Society, 1961.

Gross, Paul S. The Hutterite Way. Saskatoon: Freeman Publishing, 1965.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 [1974].

Hostetler, John A., and Gertrude Enders Huntington. The Hutterites in North America. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996 [1967].

Janzen, Rod. The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1999.

Krisztinkovich, Maria H. An Annotated Hutterite Bibliography. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1998.

Miller, Timothy. American Communes 1860-1960: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990, pp. 189-257.

Peter, Karl A. The Dynamics of Hutterite Society: An Analytical Introduction. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1987.

Peters, Victor. All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Stephenson, Peter H. The Hutterian People: Ritual and Rebirth in the Evolution of Communal Life. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.


Created by Timothy Miller, University of Kansas
Last Modified: 03/24/04