9. Anabaptists, Hutterites

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

For years after the fall of Münster the Anabaptists were a hunted people. They had been persecuted enough before. Now Protestants, Catholics, and almost all the states of Middle Europe united to exterminate them. This was no small task. There was a significant number of Anabaptists in Switzerland, where the movement had been born only ten years before; in the Austrian Tyrol, on the Italian side of the Alps, in Moravia, Silesia, Danzig, Poland, southwest Germany and the Lower Rhineland, the Rhone Valley, and Picardy in France; and in Belgium and the Netherlands where, until the arrival of Calvinism and the struggle for freedom from the empire, Anabaptism was the principal form taken by the Reformation.

In spite of the great numbers of people who had attempted to come to the relief of Münster from the Netherlands, militant chiliasm was not at all typical of Dutch Anabaptism. The majority were pacifists who, if they were millenarians at all, had already begun to etherealize that item of their belief. Most of them were deeply influenced by the parallel movement of the Spiritualizers, who placed little stress on baptism and holy communion, or had abandoned the sacraments altogether. In the years to come Spiritualizers, Sebastian Franck, Caspar Schwenkfeld, Hans Denk, Valentin Weigel, and the rest, down to Jakob Boehme, were the favorite reading matter of the reorganized and reformed Anabaptists — who would come to be called Mennonites. Under the blows of relentless persecution the movement divided into three parts: pacifists, who refused oaths, military service, and public office, but who rejected communism; those who were both pacifists and communists; and the surviving militant chiliasts who mostly would literally die out under persecution.

Menno Simons was born in Friesland, the son of a peasant, trained for the Roman priesthood, and was ordained in 1524. From the beginning he seems to have been a Catholic evangelical and early rejected the doctine of transubstantiation. His brother Peter died fighting while attempting to lead a band for the relief of Münster. Menno was profoundly shocked by the violence on both sides at Münster. At the height of the subsequent persecutions he resigned his priesthood. He went underground and spent the rest of his life as a wandering preacher and organizer with a price on his head, hunted by the authorities, but always protected by the faithful. In due course he was able to turn what had been a movement of independent and often antagonistic conventicles into a church somewhat loosely organized — both communists and non-communists were included — but organized nonetheless, and disciplined by congregational excommunication — the “ban.”

Menno gathered up and systematized the theology of Anabaptism and although his ideas were not universally accepted they provided from then on a normative, central nucleus. In ten years Anabaptists generally were beginning to be called Mennonites. As the century wore on the use of the ban, which had originally been a unifying principle, led to splits and schisms over the practice of “hard ban” or “soft ban,” divisions which still today in America separate the various bodies of “plain people.” However, these divisions did not prevent the Mennonites from presenting a united front to the world.

In 1577 as Protestantism in the Netherlands was becoming more and more Calvinist and the country was battling for freedom from the empire, William of Orange was able, as a condition of his leadership, to push through the Estates General a guarantee of religious freedom throughout the Netherlands, and there at least persecution came to an end. In the course of time Dutch Mennonites would become wealthy and accepted as part of the establishment and would finally permit their members to accept public office and, in some cases, participate in war. The original strict pacifist communitarian tradition, although not communism itself, would survive amongst the American Mennonites.

But in the years immediately after the fall of Münster it was not easy for the hunted Anabaptists to practice communism. The militants, under the leadership of John of Battenberg, one of the leaders who had escaped from Münster, went underground. They practiced no public ceremonies of baptism, communion, or the agapê but scrupulously attended the Catholic Church. They practiced polygamy as best they could and held their goods in common and augmented the common fund by looting churches and monasteries. Battenberg was caught and executed in 1538 but the movement survived in the Low Countries for another five years. Those who rejected polygamy, violence, robbery, and nudism were more or less united by David Joris, an artist, poet, and hymn writer. Better read than most of the surviving Münsterites, he was deeply influenced by the apocalyptic “three kingdoms” prophesies of Joachim of Fiore and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and of the contemporary Spiritualists. The followers of Joris carried on an active propaganda in southeastern England. Their ideas had much to do with determining the character of the English radical Reformation from then on. The principal influence, however, came through the purely Spiritualist movement originating from Henry Nicholas — the Family of Love. David Joris took refuge in Basel and led his movement by correspondence and missioners. He was one of the few Anabaptists to die peacefully in bed, in 1556. After his death some of his followers accused him of keeping a harem and other gross immoralities, and his body was dug up and burned. Small communist groups survived here and there in Switzerland and the Low Countries for another generation but most emigrated to safety.

Since 1528 a communist sanctuary had been preparing in Moravia. In 1526 Jacob Hutter arrived in the colony at Nicolsburg, which was under the patronage of the twice-baptized Lord of Liechtenstein. Hutter was a violent millenarian and a violent communitarian, but he was also a “violent pacifist.” He split away from the Anabaptist community, the majority of whom were followers of the more conventional Balthasar Hübmaier, who in 1528 in the course of this disputation was caught and burned to death in Vienna. Hutter went on to meet martyrdom himself, but his pacifist, communist group, under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann and Philip Yaeger, set up their own community. After a winter-long, peaceable discussion, Lord Liechtenstein asked them to leave. They decided to move to Austerlitz in Moravia, and in the words of the Hutterite Chronicles:

Therefore they sought to sell their possessions. Some did sell, but others left them standing so, and they departed with one another from thence. Whatever remained of theirs the Lords of Liechtenstein did send after them. And so from Nicolsburg, Bergen, and thereabouts there gathered about two hundred persons without [counting] the children before the town [of Nicolsburg]. Certain persons came out . . . and wept from great compassion with them, but others argued. . . . Then they got themselves up, went out, and pitched . . . in a desolate village and abode there one day and one night, taking counsel together in the Lord concerning their present necessity, and ordained [geordnet] ministers for their temporal necessities [dienner in der Zeitlichenn Notdurfft]. . . . At that time these men spread out a cloak before the people, and every man did lay his substance down upon it, with a willing heart and without constraint, for the sustenance of those in necessity, according to the doctrine of the prophets and apostles [Isaiah 23.18; Acts 2.4-5].

On that outspread robe in the spring of 1528 were laid the foundations of the longest-lived communist society the world has yet seen. Leonhardt von Liechtenstein escorted them to the borders of his principality and begged them to stay. He had threatened to defend his Anabaptist refuge with arms against Vienna, and the leaders answered him, “Since you promise to resort to the sword, even to protect us, we cannot stay.” They sent couriers ahead to the von Kaunitz brothers, Lords of Austerlitz, who replied that the Hutterites were welcome, even if their numbers were a thousand. After three months on the road they were welcomed enthusiastically — there was already a colony of radical members of the Bohemian Brethren there. In a short time they had built houses and started to farm and work at their crafts. They brought with them a twelve-point program for a practical religious communism which had been developed for a group of Anabaptists in Rattenburg and this document survives in the Hutterite Chronicles and their first constitution. Soon refugees began to arrive from Switzerland, the Low Countries, and especially the Tyrol. The latter must have been in the majority because today the ceremonial as well as the familiar “little language” is an old Tyrolese dialect, although since then the Hutterites have been forced to wander over two hemispheres.

During the next five years the communist Anabaptists everywhere were given over to sectarian splits and expulsions too complicated to describe briefly; but in 1533 Jacob Hutter, who had been called in by various groups, including those at Austerlitz, as a mediator, brought his own followers from the Tyrol and inaugurated a movement for reunion and federation which for the next two years carried all or almost all before it. At the beginning of the persecutions which accompanied the Münster commune he and his wife were caught and repeatedly tortured. Hutter did not succumb under the most fantastic cruelties to the besetting temptation of all revolutionaries to discuss their doctrines with their captors, much less to reveal the names of his comrades, or any secrets of the movement. He remained silent in the face of the agents of the Devil. The authorities wished to behead him in secret; but Ferdinand, who was Archduke of Austria, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, refused, and he was publicly burned on February 25, 1536. He was caught in the town of Klausen in the Tyrol.

After Münster Ferdinand demanded that all Anabaptists be expelled from all territories subject to the Austrian throne. In many places they were expelled and they hid out in the forests and mountains until the storm of persecution had passed; but the Moravian nobles seem to have protected them, and as soon as Ferdinand’s attention was distracted elsewhere, they were re-established in their former colonies. During these years under the leadership of John Ammon the Hutterites began a missionary activity to central Europe. They sent out apostles, four-fifths of whom were martyred, to Danzig, to Lithuania, to Venice, to Belgium.

One of the most active of the missionaries was Peter Riedemann, who, in and out of prison, began to develop a systematic theology and social order for the Hutterites. On the death of Ammon in 1542 he was elected leader, although he was being held in prison, very loosely it is true, by Philip of Hesse. By this time incidentally, the Hutterites had come to call their leaders bishops, although these bore little resemblance to members of the Catholic episcopacy. Leonard Lanzenstiel had been appointed by Ammon as his successor and Riedemann and Lanzenstiel shared the leadership until 1556 when Riedemann died in a new colony of Protzko in Slovakia, and his place was taken by Peter Waldpot, one of the greatest of the Hutterite leaders, who died in 1578.

Over a generation had gone by, and communist Anabaptism had become a successful polity, prosperous, seldom troubled any more by sectarian contentiousness, and with outlying colonies in Slovakia and Bohemia. The core of the movement, those directly under the administration of Waldpot, numbered as many as thirty thousand adults. From the beginning in Austerlitz they had realized that a communism of consumption was not enough and had organized workshops, little factories of craftsmen, and work brigades and communal farms, with detailed manuals for the different trades. They established their own schools (the first nursery schools and kindergartens) with grades up through adolescence. Higher education they rejected, as they still do, as unnecessary to the welfare of the community, and as distracting from the love of God and the love of neighbors. But their elementary schools were the best in Europe in their day. Child care was socialized. The children usually lived in the schools and were visited by their parents. Each Hutterite colony had an active, careful public-health program. The villages were not only clean and neat but their hygiene and sanitation were unparalleled. Marriages seem to have been arranged by the collaboration of the elders, the community, and the individuals and were commonly very successful. Of all Anabaptist groups, or for that matter of all communists and pacifists whatever, the history of the Hutterites is singularly free from sexual scandals.

With a system of production and distribution far better organized than anything else at the time the colonies grew wealthy. Since they believed individually in living in “decent poverty” they soon accumulated considerable surpluses, particularly after the colonies were permitted to sell their products to Gentiles. These surpluses were invested in capital improvements and in the subsidizing of new colonies, a necessity, as it still is today, because of the high birth-rate, and low death-rate, in those days due to their exemplary public health. The Hutterites had discovered a dynamic, continuously expanding economy of the type that Marx would later diagnose as the essence of capitalism, but this was a communist economy and it was based on a very high level of peasant prosperity, the source of its accumulation of capital. In other words the Hutterites in their little closed society solved the contradiction in capital accumulation and circulation which in different forms bedevils both the Russians and Americans today.

The golden age of the Hutterites lasted until 1622, when the Moravian nobles, who had been their patrons, were forced by the Church and empire to expel them from their estates. They scattered, finding refuge in Slovakia, Transylvania, and Hungary. Their harassment increased during the Thirty Years War when the imperialists were able to obliterate the Utraquist Church of Bohemia and drive the Czech Brethren underground. By the eighteenth century communism of production had necessarily been abandoned and community of goods was practiced only in the form of a common welfare fund, but the Hutterites still wore their traditional costume and held to their manner of worship.

In 1767 a decree was issued, upon the urging of the Jesuits, who had led in the persecution, that all Hutterite children in Hungary, including Transylvania, should be taken from their parents and raised in orphanages. The Hutterites fled to Rumania and found themselves in the midst of the Russo-Turkish War. In 1770 the Empress Catherine invited German Pietists and Anabaptists to settle in the Ukraine and there for a time we can leave them. They would develop, deteriorate, revive, and emigrate at last to the United States and finally Canada, where they would flourish as never before. We will return to them when we come to discuss modern communalism, of which they are incomparably the most successful practitioners.

During the last half of the sixteenth century there were isolated survivals and sporadic revivals of communism amongst groups of Anabaptists and Spiritualists. Community of goods endured as an apostolic ideal amongst Swiss and Czech Brethren who were no longer able to practice it, to be revived for a while when some of them migrated to America. There were communist colonies in the once-powerful Unitarian Church of Transylvania.

The only community that can be compared with those of the Hutterites was that of Rakow in Little Poland northwest of Cracow. Founded in 1569 by Gregory Paul, it attracted Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and Unitarian leaders from all over Poland, Prussia, Lithuania, Silesia, and Galicia, the whole northeast of central Europe, which in those days, before the Counter-Reformation, seemed to be turning to the radical Reformation. One of the most remarkable features of the radical Reformation in this territory was the very large number of the nobility who were converted, freed their serfs, sold their land, distributed their goods to the poor, and took part as equals in the communism of Rakow — in that order of frequency. That is, many only freed their serfs, and only a few came to Rakow, but nonetheless a good number of the most powerful nobles were sympathetic toward Anabaptism.

The Rakovians sent a delegation to the Hutterites in Moravia, proposing to affiliate with them and learn their methods. The Rakovians were impressed by Hutterite efficiency and prosperity, but they rejected their Trinitarianism and were offended by what they considered their arrogance, intolerance, and conceit. At this time, to judge from the Polish testimony, the Hutterites believed that “anyone who owns a house, land, or money, and does not bring it to the community, is not a Christian but a pagan and cannot be saved.” To the Rakovians communism was not a condition of salvation but simply the counsel of a more perfect apostolic life.

The Hutterites on their part objected, of course, to the Unitarianism of the Poles, but surprisingly, not very strongly. More important by far were practices that would seem to us trivial. The Hutterites baptized by pouring, the Poles by immersion. But more important still was a class difference. The Hutterites were peasants and workers whose education, though sound, was limited to the Bible and a few spiritual writers. They were offended by the Poles’ aristocratic manners, their “cold hearts,” their knowledge of languages, their Latinized names, and their refusal to submit outright to Hutterite authority. Peter Waldpot went so far as to demand that the Poles be rebaptized by the Hutterites. Correspondence and visits went on for two or three years but at last the Rakovians gave up hope of affiliation with the Hutterites. The overtures had all been one way and even after negotiations had been broken off the Poles still occasionally visited the Hutterite colonies. There is no record of any Hutterites visiting Rakow.

Out of the Polish radical Anabaptism was to come Faustus Socinus, one of the major theologians of the entire Reformation period, who had migrated to Poland from Italy. He elaborated a fully developed system in which Unitarianism, pacifism, community of goods, baptism by immersion, and all the major tenets of Polish Anabaptism and Spiritualism were rationally interrelated in a systematic philosophy which was at the same time consistently evangelical. When the Polish Brethren were driven out of Poland and found refuge in Holland they came to exert both in doctrine and practice considerable influence on the more radical Dutch Mennonites and through them on the development of the movement in England and America. In Poland the Counter-Reformation led by the Jesuits did its work thoroughly and the communalist Polish Brethren are extinct.

As a footnote it should be pointed out that the basic difference between the Hutterites and almost all other Christian sects, orthodox or heterodox, was that the society of the Hutterite colonies was what modern theorists would call a “shame culture,” fundamentally unassimilable by the “guilt culture” of Christianity and rabbinical (as differentiated from Hasidic) Judaism.