20. Hutterites Again

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

We left the Hutterites in 1770, invited to settle in the Ukraine and the Volga region by Catherine the Great. In 1763 the Russian government issued a manifesto offering foreign settlers free land — as it happened, some of the best agricultural land in the world — complete religious freedom, their own schools, instruction in their own language, exemption from military service, and considerable tax exemptions, on the sole condition that they did not proselytize Russians of the Orthodox faith. Twenty-three thousand Germans, mostly Pietists or Anabaptists, had responded. Many more came in the following years. Until their settlements were broken up during the Second World War and they were exiled to Siberia or exterminated by Stalin, the “Volga Germans” were a small but significant portion of the population of European Russia.

In Rumania and Transylvania the Hutterites found themselves, as absolute pacifists, at the mercy of the marauding troops of both sides. They appealed to the commander of the Russian forces, Count Rumiantsev, and he invited them to settle on his own estates near Kiev, under even more favorable terms than those offered by Catherine’s manifesto. They arrived in the autumn of 1770, and before winter had already established the essential plant of the colony. They brought with them their craftsmen; and in a few years their village, known as Vishenky, had become a showplace, with a textile mill, a blacksmith’s shop, distillery, and pottery. While they had been in the Austrian Empire their ceramics had become famous, and examples can be found today in the museums of Central Europe.

In 1796 Rumiantsev died and his sons attempted to cancel the old count’s written agreement with the community. The Hutterites appealed to the new emperor, Paul I, who upheld the original agreement and granted them all the privileges given to the Mennonites who were migrating to Russia from Prussia by the thousands. After thirty-two years they moved from Vishenky to Radichev, eight miles away, on land granted them by the government. At this time they numbered a little more than two hundred adults.

Soon the Hutterites expanded their manufacturing enterprises and began to grow and weave fine linen and silk. They were probably the first to raise silk worms successfully in Russia. In these years, the life of the community differed little from that of the Hutterite settlements in the United States and Canada at the present time — except that there was far more manufacturing. Land was parceled out at a rate of about two and a half acres per family, only enough to feed the members. There was complete communism of consumption. They ate in a community dining room, men and women at separate tables. They wore clothes issued to all alike. They were permitted a minimum of personal possessions. Their children were raised in nurseries. The day began and ended with religious services, and Sundays were spent mostly in their stark, unornamented chapel.

Their communism of production, which they had practiced from the beginning, had the curious result of making them amongst the very first pioneers of the factory system. The manufacture of products such as pots was broken down into a series of separate operations, each performed by different individuals. However, people were permitted to change their tasks, and even their occupation, to avoid monotony. The reports of Russian officials who visited were enthusiastic, as well they might have been. Around the Hutterite settlement were villages of Russian peasants, inefficient, disorderly, and filthy, virtually unchanged since neolithic times.

By 1840 the land had ceased to be able to support the increased population, and in 1842 the Hutterites were moved by the government to the Mennonite settlements in the Crimea, where they were granted land as individual farmers; and an effort was made, both by the government and by the administration of the Mennonite communities, to break up their communist mode of life. Some were absorbed into the Mennonites, but within a few years, most had re-established the old communal patterns and were prospering. Although many of their manufacturing enterprises continued on a small scale, it was in these years that the emphasis shifted to agriculture.

In 1864 a law was passed putting all the schools in the entire empire under the supervision of the State, and making the Russian language the exclusive and compulsory medium of instruction. The government also announced that military service would be made compulsory within ten years. The Hutterites, unanimously, and most of the Mennonites, decided to emigrate. Members of both groups were sent to the United States, Canada, and South America to find suitable land and governments which would permit them to preserve their way of life. At the last moment the Russian government, anxious to retain such valuable citizens, offered to grant most of the original terms of settlement, but only a very few Hutterites, although a considerable number of Mennonites, remained behind. Those who persisted in practicing communism were exterminated by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War and World War II.

The first group of Hutterites, one hundred and nine people, left for Nebraska in 1874, and soon moved from there to southeastern South Dakota to the James River Valley. They were followed in the next three years by all the others who wished to migrate. In those days the Dakota Territory was scarcely settled. The Indian Wars were still going on. Custer’s defeat in 1876 and the Black Hills Gold Rush began at the same time. But in 1872 there were only twelve thousand people in what later became North and South Dakota. Each colony as it came in spent its first Dakota winter in sod huts, but in the spring immediately began work on stone houses and barns, and by the second winter were decently housed. The colonies were far out of the way. The world ignored them and they ignored the world. At last they were able to return to strict orthodoxy, discipline, and uncompromised communal living; and due to their isolation they necessarily became almost entirely self-sufficient. They spun and wove their own clothes, made their own shoes, did all their own blacksmithing and iron work, and made their own simple farm machinery. However, except for these absolutely necessary crafts, the Hutterites became purely agricultural colonies in America. They were never to return to the craft and manufacturing enterprises of the first hundred years.

The leader of the first colony, Michael Waldner, was a blacksmith, hence Schmiedenleute, the Blacksmith People. The leader of the Dariusleute was Darius Walther. And of the last group to arrive, the leader was Jacob Wipf, a teacher, hence the Lehrerleute, the Teacher’s People.

Left to themselves, the colonies flourished. By 1915 there were over seventeen hundred members in seventeen colonies, fifteen in South Dakota and two in Montana. The increase was almost entirely natural. They made practically no converts. But they had, and still have, one of the highest birth rates of any group in America. By 1917 they were no longer isolated. Montana and the Dakotas were states, and the colonies were surrounded by settled farms, and there were towns nearby.

The United States entered the war and the draft laws made no provision for conscientious objectors, even on the part of members of the historic peace churches, or even, as in the case of the Hutterites, though the government had originally promised that the settlers, whom they were so anxious to attract, would be forever exempted from bearing arms. The pacifist Secretary of War, and author of the draft law, Newton D. Baker, advised all young men from the historic peace churches to join the army, go to camp, and ask the commanding officer for noncombatant service. As might be imagined, this advice resulted in imprisonment, torture, inspired persecution, and mob violence.

The Hutterites were absolutists and refused to have anything to do with the draft or with war work. Besides very few of them spoke anything but German. They went to prison, and in prison were subjected to relentless persecution. Two Hutterite boys died under the torture of prison guards. Once again the Hutterites were forced to migrate. Not only were their young men imprisoned as draft evaders, but mob violence and arson and wholesale theft of their livestock by the neighboring farmers was steadily increasing. The state of South Dakota revoked their incorporation, with the announced objective to “absolutely exterminate the Hutterites in South Dakota.” Delegations were sent to the Canadian government in Ottawa, and the provincial governments of Alberta and Manitoba, and arrangements were made with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The State agreed to respect their pacifism and refusal to vote or hold office. In fact, the Canadian government had been trying to get the Hutterites to come since 1898. In the fall of 1918 the entire body arrived and was soon distributed on new settlements, the Schmiedenleute in Manitoba, the Darius and Lehrer in Alberta. Within ten years they had bought back the old South Dakota sites and established new colonies in Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government had never deliberately provoked anti-German feeling against its own citizens, as had Wilson’s propaganda machine, directed by the liberal intellectual George Creel. The war ended soon after the arrival of the colonists in Canada, and for several years they were more than welcome, and once again prospered. However, their high birth rate continued, and the colonies were continuously budding off into new land, which they farmed far more successfully than did their Gentile neighbors. They ceased to do their own weaving, although most colonists still make their own shoes, and all knitwear. Blacksmithing is largely confined to horseshoeing and machine repair. The old one-man ploughs, scythes, and cradle-scythes are a thing of the past. Unlike the stricter Amish, the Hutterites believe in using all the latest farm machinery. In fact, they have often been criticized for overcapitalizing their farms. Since they still live lives of strict austerity and spend no money on entertainment or domestic utilities, except refrigerators, which they usually get from the Amana Colony, and since radios, televison, musical instruments, and all but the simplest clothing are completely forbidden, and their farms are uniformly successful, they have little else to do with their money except to spend it for farm machinery.

Only in recent years have the Hutterites permitted a very few carefully selected members to continue their education beyond the legal minimum, although there is now a growing feeling that they should produce their own doctors and teachers. In the past, a rare member has withdrawn from the community, obtained a college education, returned, repented, and served the community as a resident professional. Since they do not believe in ever going to court, they at least do not need to produce their own lawyers. They have always trained their own midwives and nurses.

Although the Hutterites have often adopted the policy of buying less desirable land than that of their neighbors, they have always made more money out of it, and soon improved it to the point where it was better than anything around. Their dress is odd, although nowhere near as odd as the stricter Amish. They speak a bygone German dialect amongst themselves, although they all speak English. Like the Quakers, they never haggle over prices. They buy almost all outside goods wholesale, and even the heaviest farm machinery is often bought for several colonies at once. They do not drive automobiles for pleasure — women, incidentally, are forbidden to drive them at all. They are a “peculiar people,” and in all contacts with Gentile society conspicuously practice the apostolic virtues. Hence they are hated and envied. Canadian prejudice against the Hutterites has steadily grown. It has never reached the fantastic degree of persecution suffered by the Doukhobors, but simply because the Hutterites have only responded by turning the other cheek. Unlike the Doukhobors, they do not believe in confrontation or nonviolent demonstrations. They do not burn down their own buildings or take off their clothes, parade naked through towns, or when their men are locked up surround the prisons with a crowd of hymn-singing, naked women. Canadian prejudice and pressure has so far operated under the guise of legality. Abusive gossip and malicious myth-making are to be expected amongst competing farmers in the barrooms of the neighboring towns. But what is astonishing is prejudice amounting to a rigid refusal to see anything good in the Hutterites, and a kind of sniggering contempt amongst educated professional people, including professors in Canadian universities, among them scholars in the sociology of religion.

On the other hand, the Gentile Dakotans seem to have learned their lesson; and although the Hutterites may be envied, they are rather admired. The brutal fact of the matter is that, as was prophesied by its founder, a strictly lived Christianity inspires hatred and fear in “the world.” The Roman State persecuted the early Christians because they refused to burn incense to Caesar. The general populace hated them because they were seclusive, dressed differently, supported each other economically, were honest and direct in their dealings, and did not attend the gladiatorial combats in the circus, except as unwilling participants.

The Hutterites form by far the oldest communist society in the world — or in history, except for pre-literate tribes still more or less in the condition of “primitive communism.” It is over four hundred and fifty years since Jacob Hutter in 1533 joined the Anabaptist communities, gathered together from Switzerland, Bohemia, Moravia, and the Austrian Tyrol, and persuaded them to adopt a completely communal life. In the golden age of the Moravian settlements, there were over twenty thousand members in more than ninety villages. Today in Canada and the United States, there are more than a hundred and fifty colonies, yet the number of surnames is amazingly small. All existing Hutterites are descended from the few families that survived centuries of migration, persecution, and desertion.

It has often been pointed out that one of the principal factors in the failure of most nineteenth-century communes, particularly the secular ones, was the lack of discrimination in the acceptance of members. The contemporary Hutterite communities are the end-products of the most rigorous selection imaginable. They have survived both martyrdom and prosperity, and migration to and through the most incongruous political environments, although their physical environment has remained remarkably uniform, the ecology of the Ukrainian blacklands, the long grass prairie, and the Danubian basin. At the beginning they deliberately recruited members with the necessary skills, both craftsmen and successful peasants. In Moravia, and for a while in Russia, they were settled on large manorial estates, where the self-sufficiency of the economy of a feudal community survived, and which they were able to perfect. To this day they still profit from lessons learned in centuries of a manorial way of life. Although modern liberal Christians might call them fundamentalists, the Hutterite confession of faith is in fact more flexible, less strict and, what is most important, more capable of etherealization than that of most Anabaptist sects of the past or millenarian and pentecostal contemporary churches. In fact, the chiliasm and millenarianism have died away.

The Hutterites do not look upon themselves as a remnant set apart to be saved out of a world of evil at the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. They simply consider themselves Christians, living the kind of life which self-evidently follows from the words of Jesus and the narratives of the apostolic life in the Gospels and Acts. Since the Gospels and Acts and the words of Christ are also, if read without preconceptions, marked by a dramatic eschatology, the expectation of the imminent arrival of the fire and the kingdom, this adjustment is comparable to that of the larger, respectable Christian sects. The group which most resembles the apostolic Christians is probably Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Black Muslims, the Hutterites are not a garrison society. If a community builds a sufficiently impenetrable wall around itself, it will be broken down. The Hutterites are almost as open to the Gentile world as are the Quakers. They quietly accept their religious beliefs and their way of life as distinguishing themselves from the rest of the world, and are content. They do not use cosmetics, or watch television, but such practices amongst the Gentiles do not arouse them to a holy fury. They not only accept their relationship to the world, but the world’s to them. This is very important. Had they been combative and indulged in massive confrontation, as a tiny minority in the midst of a world which was often bitterly antagonistic, and at the best indifferent, they would have long since been destroyed. Hutterite society is truly a peaceable kingdom.

Most communal movements have depended on the charisma of one individual leader, a Robert Owen or a John Humphrey Noyes, and have succeeded in a measure to which that leader was also a practical administrator and a man of many knowledges, as Noyes was, and Owen was not; or, at times, on the ability of the charismatic man or woman to raise up a practical leader to share the governance of the colony. We are dealing with a very ancient polity, the priest-king and war-king of the transition from the neolithic village to the town. The constitution of the Hutterite communities was carefully adjusted to raise up out of each commune individuals with just sufficient charisma and practicality to ensure the cohesion of the community and the efficiency of its economic life. Perhaps it is carefully controlled charisma which has helped the society to endure. The spectacular personalities lie back at the beginning of Hutterite history — the founders and their immediate successors, Jacob Widemann, Hans Hut, Jacob Hutter, Peter Riedemann, and Andreas Ehrenpreis — and their influence overrides that of any leader since, let alone of any contemporary. Their writings are still read in church and their hymns are still sung.

Actually, the Hutterite community owes its cohesion to a diffused charisma, of which each member is the bearer. The community, like the mystical Israel, or the Church as the Bride of Christ, is the pentecostal person. The Hutterites are well aware of this fact, but such awareness seems to mark the limits of etherealization. We know little of the interior life of the devout Hutterite, but there never seems to have occurred a mystical hypostatization of the community. There are no visions of the Shekinah as amongst the Hassidim. The round of work in the fields and kitchens, nurseries and shops, and the congregational work seem to be charged with a consciousness of mystical glory sufficient unto the needs of the very practical-minded Hutterites. There may be a contemplative life, especially amongst older people, that Gentiles never know anything about; but at least viewed from the outside, the Hutterites would seem to be a society of Brother Lawrences.

Unlike many, perhaps most, communal societies, secular or religious, the Hutterites are governed more by custom than by written law, and they have seldom found it necessary to make serious constitutional changes. At the head of each colony is a Diener am Wort, the Servant of the Word. When a new leader is to be chosen, the heads of other colonies are invited to a meeting and they, together with all the given colonies’ male members, vote for one of a list of candidates submitted by the community. After prayer, from those who receive more than five votes, one is chosen by lot. After a probationary period of two years or more, he is then ordained by the laying on of hands of two or three other leaders. He does not eat at the community table, and in many small ways lives a more individual life in his own home.

Most leaders are comparatively young when chosen — between twenty-five and forty — and serve for life or until incapacitated by sickness or old age. They are the spiritual leaders of the community, and formerly the general administrators, although it has become more and more common to elect by simple majority a practical administrator for the economic affairs, known as a Haushälter, the Householder. As colony steward he oversees the work, assigns tasks, takes care of the finances and bookkeeping, and himself takes turns at various jobs, even the most menial. It is important not to think of the Haushälter as “the colony boss.” He is more of a coordinator. Under him is a farm foreman, and if the colony has other important activities, as very few do, other foremen.

There is considerable rotation of tasks. A man may be a cobbler one year, a beekeeper the next, and a farmer the third year. In the course of time, most people settle down into a regular occupation, but often switch, even late in life. There is a similar hierarchy amongst women — a Haushälterin, who supervises the kitchen, the sewing room, the garden, and the kindergarten. There are also women who specialize in midwifery, and most of the women are competent practical nurses. Although the doctrinal constitutional documents of the Hutterites insist rather strongly on the submission of women to the governance of men, observers are unanimous in their reports that Hutterite women seem to be extraordinarily happy, working together in a state of cheerfulness verging on euphoria. And of course, due to the nature of “women’s work,” if it is done cooperatively by a large number of women, it is decidedly easier than the chores of the single farm housewife.

Hutterite families live in separate homes or apartments with their children, and are assigned larger ones as the family grows. In the past children were sometimes raised in cooperative nurseries, but this practice has been dropped — except that babies and very young children are cared for cooperatively while the mothers are working. Family relationships are even stronger than those of the old-fashioned German patriarchal family. Questionnaires submitted to children attending public school away from the colony reveal practically none of the alienation, generation gap, much less “Oedipal conflict” typical of modern youth. In spite of the lures of the outside world, with its commodity culture, conspicuous consumption, and over-stimulating entertainment, Hutterite young people almost all seem to want to be just like their parents and the five hundred years of communist ancestors behind them. Those who leave in late adolescence, usually do so to marry a Gentile spouse. They return on holidays and weekends to the colony, often settle nearby, and frequently the spouse is converted, baptized, and the couple are returned, with rejoicing, to the fold.

There is far less desertion of the Hutterite way of life than there is even of similar but non-communist sects like the Amish, Mennonites, or Mormons, or the communists of Amana. One reason for this probably is that there is nothing in the Hutterite creed so improbable as to demand a drastic effort of etherealization on the part of a person educated in modern schools. Very few Hutterites go on to college, although more do under the direction of the colony than used to, to provide professional services and further ensure the self-sufficiency of the community. Those who do, almost without exception, return to the colony.

Furthermore, the twentieth-century movement imitating the original Hutterites, the Brüderhof, founded by German and English intellectuals, and still made up largely of college-educated and quite sophisticated people, has never come in conflict with the birth-right Hutterite communities over matters of faith and morals. The disagreements have been basically about customs and folkways of two radically different classes. This was probably one of the weaknesses of the Shakers. As time went on, it became harder and harder for people to believe in Shaker doctrines, especially since they involved celibacy. So the Shakers were almost never able to hold the orphans they raised, and eventually were unable to recruit new adult members.

In practice, the result of almost five hundred years of practice, the governance of the Hutterite community is remarkable for its elasticity. The modest hierarchy of administration can always rise to an emergency. Its flexibility makes it earthquake-proof, and the general governance of the entire movement is similarly flexible. Both colony and general councils, like the Quakers, try to avoid action without unanimity; and since the Hutterite way of life is the end-product of almost every conceivable testing, this unanimity is usually easily arrived at. “Not the rule of men, but the administration of things,” as Marx said.

An interesting and possibly significant detail is that the Hutterite colonies, like many villages of primitive people, practice a limited exogamy. Couples choose one another from nearby colonies more often than from within a single colony. This, of course, creates a web of cohesive family relationships, radiating out from the original settlements, and preserves a wider hereditary range, a bigger “gene pool.” The gene pool is small enough as it is. Outsiders are always saying “Hutterites all look alike.” In 1965, there were only fifteen surnames of the Haushälters of all one hundred and fifty-five colonies. The Hutterites may all look alike, but they certainly do not look like what is commonly meant by “inbred.” Hereditary diseases and dysfunctions are practically unknown amongst them. They suffer less from such things than the general population.