“Life in a Hutterite Colony” by Donald W. Huffman
Written by: Paul Wipf on Saturday, June 23rd, 2012
DONALD W. HUFFMAN
ABSTRACT. In this study of the Hutterites, an Anabaptist Protestant sect tracing its roots to 1528, an attempt is made to discover the qualities that have enabled their colonies to survive and thrive in North America. It is found that the Hutterite beliefs of community of goods and self-surrender to the will of God are central factors which explain their long-term survival and the high degree of social cohesion they have achieved. The incentive to work for the common good, which has enabled them to remain economically viable as a relatively small community, are also directly attributable to religious belief. The author, who lived in a Hutterite colony as a participant-observer, found these additional significant elements contributing to Hutterite colony stability and growth: religious ritual, the structure of the family, a well defined division of labor, and a well-developed strategy for founding a new colony when the existing colony reaches a critical mass of 120-130 people. The study concludes with a discussion of what mainstream American society might learn from the Hutterites, including both critical and appreciative assessments of the life of this communal people whose members live quietly and effectively in our midst.
I REMEMBER the day well–having said goodbye to my wife in metropolitan Pennsylvania, I
quickly traveled by air to another world. In a brief eight hours I had moved from a modern urban world of possessions and conveniences to a radically different subculture, which one scholar characterized in this way: “Probably no other group in North America is further from mainstream Western values than this one.” That group was a Hutterite colony located in the western plains of Minnesota.
But one hour from Hector International Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, I entered a sub society with a distinctive way of life. From my daily experience of the radio, television, and the newspaper, the automobile, the relatively isolated nuclear family, the once-a-week experience of congregational worship, I was now about to enter a radically different world of insulation and isolation from modern society. It was different in terms of mass media exposure and consumption, a tri-lingual world of Tyrolean, German, and English, a world of work trucks and vans, an everyday experience of extended family relations, a world where religious belief and practice permeate daily existence, from the spoken prayers before and after an afternoon snack and every meal, to a worship service each day from 6:00-6:30 p.m., and a one and a half hour service on Sundays. Truly this was a different social and cultural world, one from whose historical roots and experiences in modern society we can learn a great deal, and one that for years has fascinated me, a professor of sociology keenly interested in cultural diversity and varied religious groups.
It was late in October 1998 that I drove into the Spring Prairie Colony in western Minnesota with the intention to live with the Hutterites. A sabbatical granted me by my college had given me this rich opportunity. With relative ease I had located a number of rich secondary sources on the Hutterites. Then came the more daunting task, that of gaining entrance into one of the more than 300 colonies located in the Plains states and the western provinces of Canada for the purpose of conducting field research. Given the relative isolation of Hutterite colonies, both social and geographical, this was not an easy task. In the end, however, it was a very rewarding process. After several months of persistent detective work, the door to Spring Prairie Colony was about to open for me. Upon reflection, I know that this unique research opportunity would not have been possible without the assistance of the internationally recognized scholar in Amish and Hutterite studies, Dr. John A. Hostetler, to whom I am deeply indebted. He provided me with the names of
several Hutterite leaders in colonies located in North Dakota, South Dakota, and the state of Minnesota. Even more so are thanks due to John Waldner, the long-time and highly respected head minister of the Spring Prairie Colony, who, on behalf of his 130 people, so graciously extended an invitation to me to live amongst them. He invited me to experience their way of life for the week that was available to me. I will always remember his penned message to me: “You are welcome to come when you can experience and learn firsthand about the communal way of life. We will provide food and lodging or what else necessary. Finding something to do is not hard in the colony.”
What did I discover, both as a sociologist and person who had been granted this unique
opportunity to live with the Hutterites?
Historical and Religious Background of the Hutterites
BEFORE I ELABORATE on some of my major findings, it is initially important to place this
sect in historical perspective. For, as I quickly learned, to understand the Hutterite way of life one must first understand their roots.
The Hutterites often referred to as “a forgotten people,” have a rich and long history which is well-documented. From their roots in the Protestant Reformation, this Anabaptist group has persevered for well over four centuries as a radical experiment in communal living, what they themselves term “community of goods.”  In fact, they are the longest surviving experiment in communal living recorded in modern Western history.
Beginning with their roots in the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland in the 1520s, the
Hutterites have moved from Moravia (now Czech Republic) to Hungary, Romania, Russia, the United States, and Canada. Their core beliefs–which can be traced to the New and Old Testaments and their beginnings as a distinct Christian sect in the 1530s–include adult baptism, community goods, and the total separation of church and state. This latter belief is attested in the Hutterites’ refusal to bear arms or to participate in existing social and political institutions, either through membership or leadership in such activities. Of signal importance–in keeping with the Apostolic Church, particularly as reported in Acts 2, verses 44-47–is the norm of living in colonies where community of goods, or sharing of all their goods in common, is practiced faithfully in each Hutterite colony. These beliefs and practices are directly linked to their frequent migrations from country to country, with reports that these migrations often occurred under the cloak of darkness and over treacherous mountain passes as they fled for their lives. It is a historical fact that the Hutterites have been threatened and persecuted by civil authorities in both Europe and the United States. Even more startling is the fact that their severest persecutors bore the name Christian. The Catholic Church, The Lutheran Church and Reformed Churches of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli frequently charged the Hutterites with heresy.
Numerous leaders of the early Hutterite movement, including Jacob Hutter himself, were
martyred for their faith. They were tortured on the rack for their beliefs and practices such as adult baptism; they were hanged, beheaded, drowned, and burned at the stake by religious authorities of the day who shared the Christian faith with them.
Survival and Prosperity: The Significance of Religion and Family In Colony Life
GIVEN THE NUMEROUS persecutions and hardships the Hutterites have experienced over the past four centuries, the central question I would like to address as a sociologist is: How have they survived and even prospered in the modern world?
I have no doubts that the Hutterite children are key to our understanding here. The 20 to 30
children and teenagers I observed during my week-long stay were, on the surface, like any in wider American society–lively, rambunctious, curious, and eager to learn. But they are being molded in a very distinctive way. As children whose lives are lived nearly every moment in a colony largely cut off from the wider world, they are socialized from the day of their birth to become baptized adult members of the colony by the ages of 19 to 21. From early exposure to their deeply religious parents, to other relatives in the community who provide child care while parents engage in tasks assigned to them, to the colony nursery school for three to five year olds, to the colony school for first through ninth grades–children are thoroughly educated in the Hutterian way of life. Their education includes German language training (essential for studying the Bible and understanding the daily worship service conducted in German) in c lasses which they attend for two hours each school day from the ages of six on. The children are early and continuously taught Hutterite history and hymnody and core communal values such as cooperation, shared work, and respect for all elders. In the Spring Prairie Colony a well-equipped print shop publishes a wide range of Hutterite school materials, including history texts, catechisms, workbooks, flash cards, maps, and songbooks, all of which are used in many colony
classrooms. The print shop is run by a Hutterite elder (a former school teacher) and his son, with whom I had the privilege of working during my colony stay. It was startling to me to discover that a group of 130 people, including 55 adults and 75 children, all of whom had unique personalities and talents, could function so well together as a cohesive
community. This raised to consciousness a fascinating question: How could such cooperation and obvious unity of purpose exist on a daily basis, given the wide range of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the colony to survive? One major factor, no doubt, is the division of labor which a number of early socioeconomic theorists, including Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim found to be a powerful form of social cooperation that simultaneously allowed people to greatly increase their production. The labor of each individual, so coordinated, added to the wealth of all.  During my stay in the Hutterite colony I observed such welldefined division of labor and community cohesiveness where carpenters, plumbers, field workers, dairymen, hog and turkey managers and workers, meat processors, machinists, feed mill operators, housekeepers, beekeepers, printers, cooks, ministers, teachers, and mechanics all
worked in complementary fashion to enable the colony to exist and thrive day by day.
But for the Hutterites the key cohesive factor, as I discovered, is not division of labor, as
important as that is to them. It is, without doubt, religious belief, religious practice (ritual), and community of goods that holds them together. Again Durkheim’s sociological theory is relevant here. As argued in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, religion is another powerful force bringing about social cohesion amongst a tribe or group of people. In his classic definition of religion, Durkheim speaks of it in terms of “beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community… all those who adhere to them” (1965, p. 62). I observed the powerful, binding force of religion in Spring Prairie Colony. For the Hutterites, religion permeates life.
From the first spoken prayer before breakfast at 7:00 a.m., to the prayer following breakfast (and each meal), to the daily religious instruction of the children and youth (particularly the focus in the daily 4–6 p.m. German school with a Hutterite elder a s teacher), to the experience of congregational worship each evening, and the frequently heard affirmation in both work and leisure that “if the Lord wills, it will be ” religion is the life and breath of the Hutterite colony. Religion is the key means of social control and is obviously effective because there has been no crime in Spring Prairie Colony in the 20 years of its existence. Admittedly, this is not a utopia. The minister, as leader of the colony, made that quite clear to me on a number of occasions during the long, broad ranging discussions we had each evening. “We are human beings with our frailties. But with God’s help, through repentance and confession should there be any infraction of colony ordinances, things [that] can be are made right again.” As for shunning, a practice
Hutterites share with their Amish cousins, this extreme means of social control has had to be exercised only once in the colony’s 20-year history. In this instance, within a week of his
isolation (in which meals and lodging were provided the person separate from the colony dining hall), the young man made confession of his wrongdoing before the congregation and was at once fully re-integrated into colony life.
Religion is so effective amongst the Hutterites, not only because it centers the colony by drawing them together in worship, work and leisure time (as I experienced in the Sunday evening “singing” in which many youth gathered in an apartment for socializing, refreshments, and the singing of spiritual songs), but also because of strong family life which is so evident to the observer.
Large families are prized. The norm in Hutterite colonies today is five to six children per family.
Each child is seen as a gift of God. For this reason, the minister spoke passionately about his opposition to abortion, which he considered sacrificing young human lives. The Hutterite family reinforces the importance of cooperation, work, and worship, viewing them as ways to glorify the God who both brought their people into existence and strengthened and maintained them through centuries of dislocation and persecution.
Add to this the daily interaction of children, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents, in a true and rare expression of the classic extended family  in today’s society–all of whom profess and practice their faith. From this, one can only begin to understand the tremendous reinforcement of communal values and standards which the family brings to the Hutterite experience. From this observational and factual base, it can reliably be concluded that faith, family, the living in true community (in the Apostolic sense of “community of goods”), are the keystones of Hutterian cohesion and strength.
Work: Shared Responsibilities and Shared Benefits
WORK IS ANOTHER activity which enables Hutterite society to cohere. Here Durkheim’s and Smith’s division of labor thesis, referred to earlier, is relevant. Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic  thesis is also instructive, though in a negative way for the Hutterites. For the Hutterite, work is practiced in a complementary, cooperative way. The Hutterite view and practice of work is radically different from the current, largely secularized “work ethic” of individual and corporate competition, a “get as much as you can as quickly as you can” philosophy characteristic of so much of business practice today. 
Compared to the Old Order Amish and Mennonites, this Hutterite colony–as with many others, I was told–was extremely modern in terms of utilized technology. Large tractors, modern combines, earthmovers, trucks and vans, modern welding equipment, offset printers, sophisticated milking and feed-mixing systems, computers, freezers, and one large microwave oven (!) were found in Spring Prairie Colony. Of course, if you are farming thirty-two hundred acres, raising wheat, barley, soybeans and sunflowers; and if you are raising ten thousand turkeys for market and two hundred hogs for sale each week; and if you are milking one hundred thirtyfive cows twice a day, large and efficient equipment and a ready-source of labor is required, as one can easily imagine. In Spring Prairie Colony this labor, both skilled and unskilled, is available to accomplish all of these tasks on a day-to-day basis. No hired help from the outside is needed, since all 55 adult members engage in the economic activity of the colony, as their strength and age allows. All of the work is under the leadership of the two ministers, the steward (who holds and expends all colony monies), and the farm manager. The first-tier leadership positions are filled by vote of all adult male members. The ministers are first nominated by
elders within the colony, and then by elders representing colonies in the Schmiedeleut group.  Adult males receiving at least five votes are then placed in the “lot.” The one who selects the Bible with a slip of paper in it is the one selected by God to be minister, according to Hutterite belief. This elder will soon be ordained by the community as their minister, a position he will hold for the rest of his life. He can only be removed if he is found to be in serious violation of the Ordnung, the long established Hutterite charter, which specifically states the rules which govern colony life. The steward and farm manager are nominated and voted into office by adult colony members. After a period of probation, they may hold their positions on a permanent basis until either incompetence, infirmity, or death requires a new election.
Regarding the workday itself, it is an interesting mix of hard, steady work interspersed with
meals, a brief break of family time after lunch, and refreshments in mid-afternoon. Except for demanding times of planting, harvesting, and the occasional processing of ducks and chickens (during which time members may work from twelve to fourteen hours a day), the day’s work usually ceases by 5 or 5:30 p.m. This enables members to get ready for the evening worship service at 6 p.m., which is followed by dinner at 6:45 p.m. I was surprised and impressed by the rhythm of the everyday routine, finding hard work in the fields, the shops, the barns, the school, and the home to be balanced in healthy manner, with ample time for refreshing social times with friends and family. A nice pace, though for some–including myself, as I discovered–a bit too structured and ritualized, particularly with such little involvement with the outside world. With the nearest town being 12 miles away, and the nearest city of Fargo, North Dakota being 25 miles away–and with no readily available means of transportation made accessible to individuals and families except for the conducting of official colony business or for an occasional visit to relatives in another colony (the closest being 85 miles away)–such selected isolation and offwork activity in the colony is certainly understandable.  There are changes occurring in the traditional world of the Hutterite colony. Most notable for Spring Prairie Colony is the change that has recently been mandated by the state of Minnesota in the area of education.  It is the requirement that all Hutterite youth must move beyond their eighth or ninth grade education to achieve their general education diploma (GED). To respect Hutterite insulation from the wider society, the state has allowed students to do their studies within the colony, with a once-a-week meeting with state qualified teachers in a nearby town. While most colony members that I spoke with think this is a good thing, noting that their youth will be better educated than they are, there appears to be an underlying concern amongst the leadership that higher levels of education may lead more of their youth to chose the modern world over colony life. As sociologists have long known, this is not an unfounded fear or concern, since it is generally recognized that the more education the individual has, the more likely one is to raise questions about traditional ways of life and to seek work that matches one’s skills.
Since this requirement of a high school education for Hutterian youth has only been in effect for the last several years, it is no doubt too soon to test the effects of increased educational levels on loyalty to and self-selected membership in a colony, which commitment is expressed in the central ritual of adult baptism between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one. This will surely be a rich field for sociological research in the future.
Colony Life: Insuring the Future Through Expansion, Hard Work, and “God’s Help”
I EXPLORED A final question with the leader of the colony, the senior minister, John Waldner, who has been this colony’s spiritual leader for 15 years. I asked him if he expected that Hutterite colonies–over 300 of which are in existence today–will survive in the future. His response was a thoughtful and candid one. He is quite sure that some existing colonies will die in the future. For what reasons? Some will see the rise of false prophets in their midst, who will preach, “We don’t need to be so strict in maintaining communal life” or “We can be making some money out in the outside world, to supplement what we do in the colony.” Other colonies will probably fail for reasons of poor management, for as the minister said: “Not everyone can be a manger; it is a gift.”
He continued: “But Donald, you can tell your students that colony life does work. It has worked for more than four hundred years. You’ve experienced community life with us and know that it can and does work. We’re not a utopia; we have our problems. But we do strive for perfection, to live as the Lord wills us to live as revealed in Scriptures, with Acts 2 serving as our guide.” Expressing deep contentment, the minister added: “What more could a person want? While we have no money as individuals, we have our families, our colony made up of relatives and friends, good shelter, and good food, everything we need to live a good life in Christ.” In a reflective mood one evening, John Waldner told me: “I have no doubts that there will be Hutterite colonies one hundred years from now, perhaps fewer, perhaps more. Given our valued religious heritage, our living faith and daily practice of communal living, I trust, that with God’s help, most of the colonies will survive and many will thrive in the next century.”
The minister, in his mid-sixties, has lived in four colonies, having moved successively into new colonies as they were established. New colonies are planned and developed when an existing one reaches a “critical mass,” so to speak. John Hostetler, the leading authority on the Hutterites in North America, notes that developing interests and skills.
The Hutterites manage their expansion so that on the average each colony consists of from ninety to one hundred persons. When colonies are too small they become clannish and dominated by a single family, and when too large they do not provide enough employment for the members. When a colony reaches from 120 to 130 persons, it will seek a second location. The ‘mother’ colony will form a new ‘daughter’ colony by the process of “cell division”. This planned method of splitting is commonly referred to as branching out (1983, p. 17).
Hostetler later adds an important note to the effect that one of the internal threats to the wellbeing of a colony–a threat of which most Hutterite leaders are very aware–is encountered when the colony’s “population exceeds the positions available in the labor force.” In such cases
“polarization between family members may become a problem” (1983, p. 39).
The Hutterites, in their experience of colony life over a period of 470 years, appear to have
satisfactorily resolved the tensions between the costs associated with their colony size and the benefits which they derive as a small community operating in the context of the larger society which surrounds them. In contrast to the Shaker communal experience in which, according to Cosgel, Miceli, and Murray, “the initially single group was divided into two or more independent groups” (called “Families”) to address the costs of work incentives and coordination, most Hutterite colonies of the size of 100 to 130 members have been effective as “income sharing groups.” They have been able through their unique organization to maintain “face-to-face contact and to establish trust relations” (1997, p. 140), qualities which are essential to their maximum socioeconomic functioning in the colony form. No doubt the success of the Hutterites in this regard can further be attributed to their unity of belief and religious devotion, their “linking of work with worship”  (ibid.), and their provision of meaningful work for all adults in the colony, which is complemented by the well-organized apprenticeship of youth in all phases of colony economic life. Additionally the Hutterites have developed a distinctive “centralized distribution mechanism” (1997, p. 133) represented in the office of the steward, who, in consultation with the council of the elders, seeks to achieve equality and justice in the communal sense of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.”
With regard to a colony’s “branching out” when it reaches maximum size, I was indeed fortunate to learn firsthand of the process and plans of the Spring Prairie Colony. John Waldner fully informed me of the colony’s intention to purchase a thirty-four hundred acre farm some thirty miles southwest of the home colony, at a price of $1,100 per acre. The colony will purchase the land, and then rent it to the former owner for four to five years, with the intent at the end of that time to create a new colony to accommodate the growth of the existing one. This new colony development occurs about every 20 to 25 years in a number of colonies located in the United States and Canada. This, then, results in the growth of the number of colonies to offset those that may, for reasons cited above, go out of existence.
What Mainstream American Society Can Learn from the Hutterites:
IN THIS LAST SECTION of my paper I want to address the following major question which has been in the back of my mind since conceptualizing this research topic. What can be learned from this intentional religious group of the Hutterites which might well have wider American sociocultural application in terms of values; family stability, community cohesion, and social welfare, with particular interest in their treatment of the elderly and the infirm?
First, the Hutterites remind us of the significance of beliefs–both religious and moral/ethical ones–in preserving a way of life, a culture. For the Hutterites, it is clear that religion is the lifegiving energy of their existence. Specific beliefs and practices called them into being as a distinctive people in the early sixteenth century, alongside the better known Lutheran and Reformed churches. And religious beliefs continue to structure the way they live, from the moment of their birth, through daily education and worship experiences, through their baptism as adults, to whom one will marry, and even the desired size of their families. The Hutterites ethical or prescriptive beliefs–their values, the way they perceive is the right way to live their lives in relation to one another, and the ultimate goals they want to achieve–are again closely woven from the fabric of their religion. Faith in God, community, love, honesty, cooperation, forgiveness, and helpfulness shown in service to one another are values that they seek to live out in their daily existence.
To be sure, the Hutterites exhibit a number of qualities which are in line with broader American culture. It was clear to this observer that they share a number of values with their neighbors and fellow citizens outside their colonies. Such shared values include honesty, helpfulness, family security, friendship, politeness, and responsibility.
But the Hutterites’ value system varies from wider American norms in significant ways. The center of their value system, both individually and corporately viewed, is God. The Hutterite norm of community, defined in terms of community of goods and cooperating with and serving fellow members, is clearly an outgrowth of their belief in and valuing of God and his will for their lives as revealed in Acts 2 and other Biblical passages.
In contrast to wider American life, little emphasis is found in the Hutterite colony on
competition, on seeking a comfortable, prosperous life as individuals or nuclear family units, on personal freedom, on ambition, or on independence.
Clearly, as this researcher found, there is a sharp contrast between valuing the individual and valuing the community, indicative of a substantive value conflict between mainstream American culture and the Hutterite subculture. Time after time, in the midst of late hours of stimulating conversation with the minister, this point was impressed upon this “outsider” who had been given entrance to the colony to try to understand their way of life.
What can we learn from the Hutterites that is framed by this substantive value conflict? Imagine, if you will, what we as neighborhoods, as work groups, as towns and cities, and as a nation might become if we were to seek more of a balance of these rich value objects. As difficult as it would be to achieve, might this not be a desired goal, a positive aim worthy of investment and of time and energy–to improve the overall quality of our life together as a people, whether we be young or old, black, Hispanic or white, Catholic, Jew or Protestant?
A renewed emphasis on the value of community in the midst of the dominant individualistic
ethos of modern American life could lead us in the direction of a new chapter of what has rightly been called “the American experiment.”
A second area from which we as “mainstream” Americans can learn from the Hutterites concerns the subject of family stability.
Let me initially share some observations regarding family life in a Hutterite colony.
1. The expectation is that everyone (except in rare cases such as illness, for example) will marry, usually shortly after baptism, which occurs between the ages of 19 and 21.
2. The sexual norm for the youth, which appears to be violated only in rare cases, is sex within marriage. Premarital and extramarital sexual relations are strictly forbidden.
3. Once married, each couple is expected, indeed encouraged by the community, to have children since children are so prized, both in terms of their innocent new lives and as future adult members who will perpetuate the colony way of life.
4. The average number of children per family is between five and six.
5. The Hutterites have a ready-made child care system at hand. This includes the primary care of the “housechildren”–age’s birth to two years–by the mother, for whom homemaking is the primary profession. At the same time every mother–as is the case with all members–has specific tasks in the wider colony, from cooking, dishwashing, laundry, and the making of almost all of the clothing her family wears, to the occasional colony-wide slaughter and processing of hundreds of chickens and ducks in marathons of two to four days. Beyond the immediate parents, those engaged in child care and nurturances are older brothers and sisters who “watch” the younger children while the adults eat and worship. Aunts and grandparents are also regularly engaged in child care. I observed all of these relatives tending young children in my brief stay in Spring Prairie Colony. In fact, one of the most delightful experiences I had was to go with a grandfather to baby-sit his grandchildren several evenings after dinner while the mother and grandmother were completing their work of dishwashing in the community kitchen. Every woman engages in dishwashing every eleventh week, according to one community informant.
While child-sitting, the grandfather and I read to and played with the children, who were as
lively and curious as are my own grandchildren.
I asked one mother who is 35 years of age with seven children, how she could keep up with and care for so many children. Her response was an interesting one and to the point. She said: “I think it would be harder to raise two or three children alone outside the colony than it is raising seven here. We have all our clothing, meals, and child care provided by the colony. What more could we need?”
6. Further contributing to family stability is the fact that relations between husband and wife are viewed as sacred. This relation has some distinctive features, arising out of Hutterite religious beliefs and community traditions: (a) The husband has the final word; he is the authority figure in all married life. This reflects a classic patriarchal pattern. The wife’s power is, however, demonstrated and effective in child-rearing. (b) While one observed no public show of affection between husband and wife, there is obvious devotion, respect and care for one another, evident in the observed informal home environment. (c) No divorce is allowed in Hutterite culture. This prohibition is clearly and forcefully stated in the Ordnung, the rules that have governed community life since the sixteenth century. In relation to this, we might well ask the question:
How do couples who are unhappy or dissatisfied with one another maintain lifetime monogamy?
Clues to the answer to this question certainly lie in the fact mentioned earlier, that religion
permeates and is at the center of every Hutterites life. The belief that Christ forbade divorce is for them a major deterrent to separation and divorce. In addition, the very nature of colony life, with its daily enforcement of norms and the provision of support to couples or families facing hardship, works in helping couples maintain their marriage vows throughout their lives, literally “until death do us part.” Further, the relatively large number of children born to a couple, children who are prized and cherished as gifts from God, helps to hold husband and wife together even if their relationship may not be all that it could be.
As part of this no-divorce ethos, mention must be made again of the classic extended family pattern operative in a Hutterite colony. In nearly every family situation there is daily interaction between at least three generations. They visit in each other’s homes; they worship together; and they work side by side in the fields, in shop work, cooking and dishwashing, and in the canning of hundreds of large jars of fruits and vegetables. These tasks require nearly every adult member to be engaged intensely in colony life. One gets a sense of being part of one large extended family of 40 to 50 adults every day, so close is the cooperation and accomplishment of the work at hand.
All of these socio-religious factors–the strength of religious norms, the expectation of marriage and the corollary of a large number of children, the provision of family support through a very effective child care system providing relief for parents who might otherwise be stressed by large numbers living in relatively small quarters (basically a living-dining room and all the rest bedrooms), the clear authority structure, the devotion of husband and wife to each other, the stricture of no divorce, and the religious and social resources made available to insure that family ties are maintained, including an effective extended family network of support–all of these factors assist in the achievement of family stability which I observed and has been well documented in respected studies.
This is not to say that the Hutterites are free of problems in their colony and family life. As the head minister told me: “We are human, with human weaknesses and shortcomings. So we must work at it, keeping our colonies and families strong and thriving, day by day. It is an ongoing challenge. But with assurance that God has and will provide for what we need in every way, in terms of personal, social and material need, we trust that our ways will be preserved, if it is his will.”
So, what applications to modern American life can be drawn from Hutterite family structure? In what ways can we perhaps be instructed by this social aspect of this distinctive subculture in our midst who have often been called “the forgotten people”?
First, the Hutterites remind us of the importance of extended family ties, of the strength that is derived from regular and meaningful cross-generational relationships. I observed this firsthand and wondered how we as mainstream Americans might recapture more of the richness of at least three generational family ties in the midst of our modern urban, industrial, information age. What new forms of extended family patterns and participation can we create as we move into the twenty-first century?
Secondly, we are reminded by the Hutterites of the importance of putting the needs of dependent children and the welfare of the community ahead of our own personal and often self-centered concerns. Imagine the difference that might make in our relations with our children, our spouses, other relatives, and our neighbors if we were to emulate their behavior in this crucial area of our lives.
Thirdly, the Hutterites clearly demonstrate the significance of religious belief as a unifying factor in family as well as community life. Here Durkheim’s thesis in The Elementary Forms of the Religious life is born out to the effect that religion is a constructive and effective unifying force in stabilizing communities. When focusing on families as the key building blocks of community, research has shown that religion often enhances marriages and parent-child relationships, as well as increases concern for one’s aged family members.
Religion also assists parents in the moral training of their children; hence it often enables youth to avoid some of the pitfalls that hamper their future development, as well as giving assistance in the form of counseling to marriage partners who are experiencing difficulties.
A third area of Hutterite life and experience which might well have wider American sociocultural application falls in the domain of social welfare, and particularly the treatment of the elderly. This subject was addressed earlier in the paper (see Note 4), so only a few summary insights need to be highlighted here.
The Hutterites, as with other traditional cultures, revere the elderly in their colonies. Always
made to feel a part of colony life, no matter how little labor they can contribute or how
dependent they are due to illness of infirmity, the elderly clearly have no fear for their future.
They know that they will be loved and cared for until the end of their days and that care, in so far as it is humanly possible, will be given them in the familiar surroundings of home and colony life.
One can imagine how the quality of American life and society might be enhanced if we were to regularly express deep respect and genuine care for the elderly in the context of our homes and institutions. With the documented aging of our population, ever larger numbers of the elderly are found in every sphere of the common life–family relations, the economy, politics, and religious life. In many of these areas the wealth of experience and knowledge that the elderly represent in wider American society remains largely untapped, largely because basic and genuine respect for them is lacking. They are often ignored or pushed off to the sidelines by younger family members as “over the hill,” often bypassed for jobs that they qualify for if they choose to work in their senior years, and given little serious programmatic attention by most religious organizations. In this respect, it is clear that we can learn much from the Hutterites. Each colony insures that every elderly member is included in meaningful social sphe res and activities, taking into account their interests and needs, so that the worth and dignity of their lives is affirmed to the very end.
Final Reflections: Critical and Appreciative Assessments of Hutterite Colony Life
THE AUTHOR MUST draw these observations and reflections to a close. The following insights are drawn from my experience as a participant observer in the Spring Prairie Colony as well as from published research on the Hutterites. On the basis of these sources both critical and appreciative assessments are made, to the ends of placing Hutterite colony life in broader perspective as well as encouraging further reflection and research on this fascinating, dynamic subculture in our midst.
To be sure, life in a Hutterite colony is not perfect; it is not a utopia, as their minister reminded me a number of times. Most of us in wider society, including myself, would have problems living in a similarly isolated world where individual freedom is stifled and where absolute conformity to centuries-old rules determine how one lives from day to day. Hostetler is perceptive as he elaborates on this point: “For most moderns, the Hutterite colony has no appeal. For persons who have been raised to maximize the self, it would be a prison and no less so for those who equate private ownership with the Christian religion. Young people who seek an alternative lifestyle are unprepared for what they find among Hutterites, Self-surrender does not appeal to most” (1983, p. 45).
In wider American society we would also have problems with living in a patriarchal society
where women’s roles are traditional in every sense of the word. While, as I discovered, many Hutterite women are bright and talented and appear to be content with the roles that they are socialized into from the moment of their birth, it is clear that their talents and skills beyond traditional wife/mother/servant roles are not given expression in colony life. They cannot hold leadership positions in the colony other than the head cook and head seamstress. These are the highest colony positions to which women can aspire. They do not have the vote when it comes to election of colony leaders such as minister, steward and farm manager. The women walk behind the men on the way to all colony functions such as the evening worship service. They obediently wait upon the men. The home is their primary environment and the area where they have the most power in their lives.
To be sure, the Hutterite colonies themselves will no doubt continue to experience difficulties, including tensions between themselves and those who compete with them for scarce resources. “The pressure for affluent living will continue to surround them. A variety of fundamentalists and sects will continue to try to convert their weaker members. (Even) cattle thieves and swindlers will prey on their colonies”  (Hostetler 1983, p. 46). The above critical comments suggest that it would be difficult to transplant Hutterite culture and institutional forms directly into the mainstream world. My own observations, supported by earlier studies done on the Hutterites, make it clear that it is the very separation from wider society and the intentionally limited size of the colony which make it possible for the Hutterites to both maintain and perpetuate their way of life within the context of the modern, largely secular society which surrounds them.
Having said this, I believe that we can learn much from these “forgotten people” who so
graciously invited this outsider to come into their midst to fully experience life in a Hutterite
colony. Having addressed this subject at some length in the last section, I would add that I
concur with Hostetler who draws his Hutterite Life to a close with the following appreciative
assessment: Aspects of Hutterite community life are instructive for the modern world. The Hutterites demonstrate a remarkably stable pattern of communal living in a socially unstable world. Social stability is achieved by a combination of factors. Material, spiritual, intellectual, social and psychological needs are met in a community that has an orderly predictable existence. The system does not require the individual to deny the basic human drives, but to subject them to a community of love that is both human and spiritual. The expectations for the individual are clearly defined, and the individual is able to meet these expectations. The Hutterites are successful in training and preparing their children for Communal living. Socialization is consistent in all age groups. A certain amount of human failure is tolerable within each age stage, while strong reinforcement is provided by the group. The Hutterites are effective in managing their adolescents, including them in family, work, and social responsibilities, and the young are able to meet the standards set by the community. The Hutterites are able to accept material innovations without altering the cohesion of their community life. Members are not anxiety-ridden about impending social upheaval. They experience a high degree of belonging and few doubts about their basic religious beliefs. They are careful to distinguish between changes that improve the economic viability of the community and changes that would result in social erosion. They are one of the few subcultures in the Western world that maintain a culture of austerity–a way of living with less, and doing so with dignity and purpose (1983, pp. 45-46).
My own final thoughts: The Hutterites remind those of us in mainstream America of some
virtues we have lost or are in process of losing, of some beliefs and ways of life that, while yet part of our personal and social fabric, are growing more faint. And they remind us that some of the more traditional beliefs and values yet have power to maintain dynamic communities. Four hundred seventy years, and counting. . . . Somehow a prophecy of another four hundred seventy years of Hutterite colony life–and then some–does not seem unrealistic, though as John Waldner, the head minister, told me: “Only if God so wills. . . .”
(*.) Donald W. Huffman, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Cedar Crest College, Allentown,
PA 18104. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. His research
interests include subcultures and the sociology of religion.
(1.) This is the distinctive feature of Hutterite Anaptism, which clearly distinguishes them from their spiritual cousins, the Amish and the Mennonites.
(2.) See Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1976); Spencer, The Evolution of Society (1967); Durkheim, Division of Labor in Society (1947).
(3.) That the extended family is truly effective in a Hutterite colony is attested to by their care of the elderly and the infirm. The Hutterites–who do not participate in the Social Security system– have, as do the Amish, their own social welfare system. They do not draw on state or federal government in this regard. Those who cannot work due to age or infirmity, for example, are cared for by colony members who can and do work on their behalf. If colony members can work or be active an hour a day or more, they are encouraged to do so. If that is not possible, they are not judged negatively, but treated with great respect and concern as integral members of the community. In Western experience, it has been said that no group treats their elderly with greater respect than the Anabaptist believers, whether they be Huttrites, Amish, or Mennonites. To demonstrate this genuine respect, even at the point of the death of one of the colony elders, 500 Hutterites attended the wake and funeral of an 80 year old man in Spring Prairie Colony during the summer of 1998. Such widespread support at significant life points is not unusual, I was told by my Hutterian informants, several of whom were becoming my friends.
(4.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1958).
(5.) Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis, however, is confirmed at one point in the Hutterite
experience. The Hutterites are strongly committed to maximizing productivity in colony life. At the heart of each sphere of economic activity–whether it be in grain and milk production, or in the raising of hogs and turkeys for the market–the main concern is for the efficiency in achieving the highest financial outcome possible in existing markets. The underlying question and concern often expressed to the author during his visit to the colony was: “How can we do this better to achieve the highest possible output from all our resources–human, capital, and environmental?”
(6.) There are now three major groupings among the Hutterites, with the Schmiededleut branch being the most progressive. The other main branches located in both the United States and Canada are the Lehrerleut and the Dariusleut.
(7.) While it is clear to this observer that the norm of colony life is “selected isolation,” which translates into as little involvement with the outside world as possible, some limited contact with outside markets is, at the same time, essential for the colony’s continued existence. The fact is that the economic life of a typical Hutterite colony is a form of controlled interaction with the surrounding community within which it exists. What may be called “official business”–business with outside markets which is entirely conducted by the colony steward–is a routine part of the upper leadership’s role on behalf of the colony. As noted, the colony regularly markets its products of soybeans and sunflowers, milk and eggs, and turkeys and hogs each year. At the same time the colony purchases needed products from local markets, including farm machinery, building supplies, shoes, fabrics for making clothes, and paper products.
Given their evident knowledge of both retail and wholesale markets and a keen eye to price per unit, the Hutterite leadership seeks to maximize the colony’s profits and to minimize its costs in relation to the competitive market within which it trades. In their business roles the leadership drives hard bargains, all to the end of assuring the colony’s continued existence through both productive and lean years, which swings often characterize farm life today.
Again, it needs to be emphasized here that such interaction with outside markets is highly
controlled and as limited as possible, in order to maintain the Hutterite’s distinctive way of life.
Their religious beliefs mandate separation from the outside world to enable them to realize their central tenet of community of goods, which for them is at the heart of what it is to be Christian.
Since access to outside markets is limited to the carefully selected colony steward in consultation with the head minister and council of elders, one can see how influences of outside markets, and indeed nearly all aspects of the wider culture, are carefully filtered out for Hutterite colony members.
(8.) This requirement of a high school equivalency education is not found in every state in which Hutterite colonies are located. I discovered this firsthand when the minister of Spring Prairie Colony took me to the White Rock Colony in South Dakota, the colony which created Spring Prairie in 1980 and from which the minister himself had migrated. South Dakota, to date, does not require Hutterite youth to move beyond the traditional ninth grade level.
(9.) On this matter of linking of work with religion, or what might be called the economic
function of religion, Adam Smith (1976) makes an interesting observation which might well
apply to the Hutterite experience. He states: “When the general rules which determine the merit and demerit of actions, come thus to be regarded as the laws of an All-powerful Being, who watches over our conduct, and who, in a life to come, will reward the observance, and punish the breach of them; they necessarily acquire a new sacredness from this consideration. That our regard to the will of the Deity ought to be the supreme rule of our conduct can be doubted of by nobody who believes his existence. . . The idea that, however we may escape the observation of man, or be placed above the reach of human punishment, yet we are always acting under the eye, and exposed to the punishment of God, the great avenger of injustice, is a motive capable of restraining the most headlong passions, with those at least who, by constant reflection, have rendered it familiar to them” (p. 170).
(10.) For a more extensive elaboration of both external and internal problems of Hutterite colony living, see John A. Hostetler’s Hutterite Society (1974), pp. 256-283.
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Donald W. Huffman “Life in a Hutterite Colony: An Outsider’s Experience and Reflections on a
Forgotten People in Our Midst”. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, The.
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