Hutterite History Overview
by Dora Maendel & Jesse Hofer
A Historical Overview
Hutterite history involves a succession of migrations in search of religious freedom. Over a period of four-and-a-half centuries, they moved from Germany and Austria to Moravia which today is the Czech Republic; from there to Hungary and further south to Transylvania which today is Romania, then north to Kiev in the Ukraine, south to the Molotschna in the Ukraine near Alexandrovsk, Zaporozhie, across the Atlantic to the Dakotas in the United States and finally, during World War I, up to the Canadian Prairies.
In a historic baptism ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 21, 1525 Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz and Georg Blaurock founded Anabaptism. Subsequent persecution scattered members of the fledgling Anabaptist movement and Georg Blaurock was banished to his native Tirol in Austria, where he continued preaching and teaching; before his execution in August, 1529, he had baptized many, probably Jakob Hutter as well.
As persecution in the German-speaking countries intensified, many Anabaptists fled to the Nikolsburg area of Moravia, which today is part of Czechoslovakia. Here the wealthy Lords von Liechtenstein welcomed them, and by 1527 there were an estimated 12,000 Anabaptists there. The Liechtensteins were very sympathetic to their Anabaptist tenants; Leonard von Liechtenstein was even rebaptized himself. It was landowners’ responsibility to collect taxes from their tenants but when the Anabaptists objected to paying war taxes, the Liechtensteins acquiesced.
Such a huge number of “heretics” in one area caused apprehension and uneasiness, so the Liechtensteins were advised to remove their Anabaptist tenants. Instead, they requested the Anabaptists’ assistance should an invasion happen.
This led to a split because part of this particular Anabaptist group agreed to participate in the defense of Liechtenstein lands. The other, led by Jacob Wiedemann, was convinced that for the Christian the only option is to take up a staff and walk.
Soon war with the Turks resulted in increased pressure on the Liechtensteins to collect war taxes from their Anabaptist tenants. When the government’s threat of invasion was met with the promise of cannonballs, the Wiedemann group offered to leave the estate, so strong was their belief that for Christians violence is wrong.
In 1528, after selling or abandoning their goods, a group of 200 left Nikolsburg to camp in a deserted village nearby. In these desperate circumstances, stewards were appointed, who spread a cloak on the ground and asked everyone to place on it whatever they had brought with them. Thus began, for this group, the tenet which became their most salient — community of goods as described in Acts 2: 42-47.
The group continued north to settle at Austerlitz where they were joined by many refugees from Tirol. In 1529 Jakob Hutter from the Puster Valley also visited; he had succeeded Georg Blaurock as chief pastor of the Tirolean Anabaptists. Later, he organized bands of Tirolean refugees and led them to the community in Moravia. In 1533 this dedicated, energetic man was elected chief elder. After being captured for the third time on a missionary journey to Austria, Hutter was burned at the stake in Innsbruck, Austria on February 25, 1536. In addition to giving the group his name, he left a legacy of decisive leadership and organization.
The years 1565-1592 were the Golden period for Moravian Hutterites. Blessed with good leaders, this was a time rich in religious writing, school organization and craftsmanship such as pottery, leather work and weaving, as well as wheel and clock making, carpentry, carriage and wagon-making.
In 1618 the Thirty Years War began, and in 1622 Cardinal von Dietrichstein expelled the Hutterites from Moravia, so they moved southeast to Slovakia. The Thirty Years War was still raging, and Hutterite communities were prime targets for plundering, pillaging, burning and looting. After the war ended in 1648, Catholics controlled most of Hungary, so there was renewed religious persecution; torture, whippings and book burning were among the conversion methods carried out by Jesuit priests.
In 1621 Gabor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania (Romania) had invited Hutterites to his country. When they declined, he kidnapped 85 of them; he treated them well, however, and later, over 800 more joined them. During the Thirty Years War, these Transylvanian communities actually sent aid to their brethren in Slovakia. Later, as a result of war between Turkey and the Habsburgs from 1658-1661, they also suffered terribly from raids and plundering, to the point where they were forced to abandon their community and seek refuge in rock hideouts in nearby ridges. This disruption in community of goods lasted 60 years.
With the arrival of 275 Lutherans from Carinthia, Austria in 1755, they experienced a miraculous revival. In a stringent attempt to catholicize her empire, Empress Maria Theresia had deported these Lutherans to the remote borders of her empire, where they came into contact with the demoralized Hutterites. The teachings in the Hutterite literature inspired the Carinthian Lutherans to adopt this faith, and together with the remnant of about 50 members, they managed to establish several communities.
In 1762 further persecution and conversion attempts began when Empress Theresia sent a Jesuit priest, Delphini, to stamp out Anabaptism in Transylvania. This resulted, in 1767, in the decision of some 60-70 Hutterites to flee south over the Carpathian Mountains to Wallachia, which is Romania today. Less than a year later war broke out between the Turks and the Russians. This time the Hutterites were caught between advancing and retreating armies; to make matters worse, both sides claimed the land on which the Hutterite communities were situated.
In 1770 after loading their belongings onto five wagons drawn by oxen, 60 Hutterites left Wallachia for Russia, under the escort of Count Rumiantsev’s guard of ten Cossacks. At Vishenka on the Desna River, 192 km northeast of Kiev, they established a new community. Plows and sheep were loaned them to be repaid later. They farmed, planted orchards and became active in various crafts once more.
After the death of Count Rumiantsev in 1796, however, difficulties arose with Rumiantsev’s sons. This necessitated the move to Radichev, thirteen kilometers northeast on the Desna.
In this isolated community, internal conflicts developed and the economy suffered; by 1819 community of goods was abandoned, and because of a lack of teachers, by 1842 their youth was illiterate. The Hutterian Community which had been on the cutting edge of public education in Slovakia during 1550-1618, had now reached a state of spiritual and cultural bankruptcy.
Faced with economic and spiritual ruin, the Hutterites appealed to Johann Cornies for help. An outstanding Mennonite agricultural and academic leader who had great influence in government circles, Cornies moved the 400 Hutterites 640 km south of Radichev to a new location on the Molotschnaja River south of the Molotschna Mennonite settlement. With Cornies’ assistance they established Huttertal, learned modern farming practices from the Mennonites and improved their educational standards: the children attended the village school; Hutterite adults attended night school. In 1852 another Hutterite village was established: Johannesruh, named in honour of Johann Cornies.
Although they lived close to the Mennonites who shared their main Anabaptist beliefs, Hutterites continued to live apart from them, to elect their own ministers and to use their own religious writings. The Pentecost teachings, with their emphasis on community of goods, kept alive the idea of communal living, but the necessary zeal for its renewal was lacking.
In 1859, after a religious experience similar in scope to the first adult baptism in Zurich in 1525, Michael Waldner, Darius Walter and Jacob Hofer renewed community of goods once more, ending a 40-year disruption.
In a vision, an angel showed Michael Waldner the ethereal beauty of heaven and the agony of hell. When Waldner asked the angel where his assigned place was, the angel reminded him that in the great Flood only the eight persons inside the ark were saved; the angel went on to admonish him that the ark symbolizes the “Gemeinschaft”, communion of the Holy Spirit and instructed him to reestablish community in the manner of Jesus and His disciples. Waking from his trance, Waldner was surprised to find his family, who had taken him for dead, weeping by his bedside. Thereafter, he and Hofer worked closely at their end of Hutterdorf to resume community of goods.
Since Michael Waldner was a blacksmith, he was also called Schmied-Michel, because the German word for “smith” is Schmied. Thus, his group became known as Schmiedeleut. Darius Walter settled at the other end of Hutterdorf from Michael Waldner. His group became known as Dariusleut.
In 1864 the Russian government decreed that Russian be the language of instruction in all schools, and in 1871 the Hutterites’ and Mennonites’ exemption from military service was revoked. From 1874 to 1879 all Hutterites left Russia for the United States to settle at Bonne Homme Colony in Yankton County, Dakota Territory. Although the total number who immigrated was about 1265, only 400 settled in colonies; the others took up individual farms. The third and final group to leave Russia was led by Jacob Wipf, a teacher. Since the German word for teacher is “Lehrer”, his group became known as Lehrerleut.
During World War I the U.S. government passed the Selective Service Act which meant that all young men aged 21 to 31 were conscripted into the army. Hutterites ran into difficulty when they requested exemption from military work orders and wearing the military uniform. For this reason, four young men from Rockport Colony were sentenced in 1917 to the prison at Alcatraz where they received such brutal treatment that two of them died in Fort Leavenworth, Kanas in a military hospital almost immediately after being transferred there. Even in death their consciences were ignored when their bodies were dressed in the army uniforms they had refused to wear.
At this time the Canadian government still needed settlers on the prairies and welcomed the Hutterites, assuring them of religious freedom and exemption from military service. In 1918, therefore, the Hutterites immigrated to Canada.
The Dariusleut and Lehrerleut founded four colonies each in Alberta, and later branched out to establish new colonies in Saskatchewan, as well as Montana and Washington in the US. Schmiedeleut Hutterites founded six colonies near Elie, Manitoba; these have grown to number over one hundred. Some of the Schmiedeleut colonies returned to South Dakota after WWII to establish colonies there once more and were able to purchase several of the former colony sites. Today there are about 15,200 Schmiedeleut: 6500 in the US and 8700 in Manitoba.
B. Biblical Basis
The Hutterites adopted the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession very soon after it was written in the late 1520s. To the articles concerning adult baptism, non-resistance and the Lord’s Supper, the Hutterite community added Gelassenheit, the spirit of inner surrender expressed outwardly in the practice of Christian community of goods. In the Hutterite Article Book these articles are supported with extensive biblical proof texts. Among the texts that are cited in support of communalism is Jesus’ challenge to the rich ruler in Matthew 19: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (v. 21, NIV).
Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith, completed by 1542, provides an outline of the main beliefs and practices that Hutterites have held throughout their history. Riedemann emphasized that the Hutterites had no intent of establishing a rival sectarian church, but instead desired “to recapture the essence of historical Christianity” (Friesen, 1999). Hutterites are also heir to a detailed internal record of their history dating back to the beginnings of their story. These Chronicles contain inspiring stories of faithfulness, summary doctrinal statements and exhortations to the community. Commentaries on biblical texts and exhortations to faithful living, also known as teachings or Lehren, are part of all worship services. Together, these documents represent a rich literary tradition that Hutterites today draw from to guide their living.
Although many refer to the Pentecost account in Acts 2 and 4 as the primary biblical basis for communal living, the theological motivation for this lifestyle is more wide-ranging. Sharing both spiritual and material things in community is a way to faithfully enact the central command of Scripture — to love God and neighbour — in a daily, embodied sense. Caring for the elderly, for widows and orphans and treating each member of the community justly is understood as an expression of this central biblical text. The fellowship between Jesus and his disciples is an example of this kind of shared life.
Early missionary and servant of the Word, Peter Riedemann (c. 1501-1555) uses the Trinity as an allegory pointing towards the logic of community of goods. Since neither of the persons is divisible from the godhead nor claims ownership of anything, but instead gives expression to a unity of being, so must the people of God organize their lives. Moreover, since creation was initially intended as a gift to all people, the ownership of land, water, air was unthinkable.
Further, the story of the Israelite people in the Old Testament represents a motif of a separate people who share a common life devoted to God. The Jubilee tradition points toward the economic leveling practiced in communalism.
C. Hutterites Today
It is important to remember that Hutterite communities are very diverse and that no two communities are identical in their organization and overall way of life. However, there are some characteristics and practices that are fairly similar for most communities.
In every Hutterite colony, the minister is both the spiritual leader and the chief executive. He is also part of an advisory board that makes the day-to-day decisions affecting the community. The advisory board consists of the colony manager, the farm manager and two or three witness brothers or deacons. The colony manager receives and pays bills, does the banking and is the business manager of the colony. The numerous activities of each colony are managed by witness brothers (deacons) or other brothers.
Most communities depend on mixed, large-scale farming as a livelihood. Many colonies also operate industrial shops, producing a wide range of products and services.
Women serve many important roles in the community. A married woman is responsible for various housekeeping duties such as sewing, cleaning and caring for her family. Women also manage community duties such as cooking, baking, gardening and food preservation. A female head cook works with several rotating pairs of married and single women who assist her on a weekly basis. Other management positions always filled by women are Gärtnerin gardener, Zeichschneiderin sewing materials manager, Klanaschuel-Ankela pre-school teacher, Essenschul-Ankela children’s dining room supervisor and Kronka-Köchin special needs cook . It is quite common for women to serve as schoolteachers.
Contrary to popular belief, Hutterites strongly advocate education. Although education was neglected during the first hundred years in North America, Hutterites are increasingly realizing its value. During the Golden Years, the Hutterite standard of education was so highly esteemed that lords and nobles brought their children to the colony to be educated. Centuries before governments introduced kindergarten, Hutterite parents sent their children between two-and-a-half and five years of age to a kindergarten maintained by the community. The young children learned prayers and songs, as well as how to live, play and eat together.
Since the mid-nineties, over fifty Hutterite men and women have graduated from Brandon University’s Hutterian Education Program (BUHEP) and received their teaching degrees. In many colonies, Grade 12 is a minimum education requirement. High school is delivered in various formats, including interactive television (IITV) broadcast via broadband Internet (HBNI). Most of the teachers on the HBNI-IITV system are Hutterites.
Although Hutterites are primarily concentrated in North America, there are communities in Nigeria and Japan. Many communities are making an attempt to reach out to others beyond their immediate community through singing, volunteer work and financial contributions.
Hofer, John. The History of the Hutterites, Altona: D.W. Friesen & Sons 1998.
Zieglschmied, A.F.J. Die Älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, Philadelphia : Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1943.
Zieglschmied, A.F.J. Das Klein Geschichtbuch der Hutterischen Brüder, Philadelphia : Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1947.
Suggested Further Reading
Friesen, John J. (translation & introduction) Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith. Waterloo: Herald Press, 1999.
Hutterian Education Committee (trans. & ed.) The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Volume I, Elie, Manitoba, 2003.
Hutterian Education Committee (trans. & ed.) The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Volume II, St. Agathe, Manitoba, 1998.
Peters, Victor. All Things Common. Winnipeg: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.