Glimpses of Hutterite Life

Written by: Paul Wipf on Monday, June 10th, 2013

Reprinted with the permission of Author Dave Hubert

The Hutterian Brethren living on the Great Plains of western North America are much studied but little understood. They come from a history of 400 years of unrelenting persecution, and almost extinction. Their history of steadfastness and perseverance is unique in the annals of Christian history. And while this glorious history lies behind them, the contributions they might yet make to the way humanity understands itself might well still lie ahead of them.

The Hutterties are much studied by sociologists and ethnographers. Their way of life is a valid subject of study,  but the underlying philosophy their way of life should be the topic of theological and economic study, and the study of human motivation.

The Hutterites arrived in North America in 1874 and settled in South Dakota. They came to retain and maintain the historic faith for which their forefathers had died. The emphasis on maintaining the faith clearly evident from the records of the migrations fromRussia. There were four groups, and these were the Dariusleut, the Lehrerleut, the Schmiedleut and the Prairieleut. The Prairieleut settled freehold—on the prairie—while  while the other three groups settled on colonies, and followed the “Ordnung”  articulated by Andreas Ehrenpreis, while he was the bishop of the Hutterites from 1639 to 1662.

Of the four groups, the Prairieleut have largely lost their Hutteriteness, and therein lies a story that other Anabaptists and the other three Hutterite groups would do well to study. The Dariusleut, the Lehrerleut and the Schmiedleut have prospered after a difficult start. This start included a move to Canada after two young Hutterite men, Michael and Josef Hofer were tortured to death by the US Army in 1918 for refusing to enlist. About 24,000 of the 36,000  Hutterites living today reside in Canada on 334 colonies. The remaining 12,000 live in the US on 124 colonies. Interestingly, three of the five colonies in Washington State are daughter colonies of Canadian colonies, and one is a grand daughter of a Canadian colony.

Since coming to North America, colonies have typically branched out when they have reached 130 to 140 souls, children included. This is done by buying new land, erecting the buildings and infrastructure and buying the machinery and equipment needed to ensure the success of the new colony. Then, shortly before the actual branching out occurs, the names of the colony members, with existing and potential new leaders for all aspects of new colony life, are drawn by lot to select who will go to the new colony and who will stay behind. This method of cell division ensures that the skills and abilities of potential leaders are utilized and the creativity and initiative within the colonies used to build up their communal life rather than dissipated in personal rivalries competing for leadership.

A visit to a colony demonstrates organization, organizational culture, organizational behavior, division of labor, and a theological and educational philosophy and system that  underlies this remarkable approach to human community and the ordering of a truly unique and remarkable human society. The growth of the movement in North America and the productivity and economic efficiency of the enterprise is not widely known. Between 1930 and 2000, this productivity added approximately $1,000,000 per colony per year to the collective net worth of the Hutterite experiment in North America. While an intense and enormously costly ideological cold war was being fought for seventy years in the latter half of the 20th century between capitalism and communism, the Hutterites quietly and efficiently demonstrated a capitalism that was more effective than the capitalism of Wall Street, and a communism that Karl Marx and his ideological followers would have loved to claim as their own.

A visit to a colony is a study in contrasts. Socially, there is much that harkens back to the Reformation. Clothing styles, some of the teaching methods, worship, and the division of labor between the sexes would not be strange to middle Europeans of the 16th century. Production equipment, whether this be in the kitchen, the workshop, the factories  or the fields, demonstrates an expertise that 21st century industrial designers and production managers would admire.

Yes, I said factories. These are not only the carpentry, mechanical and welding shops found on every colony. Increasingly, colonies are getting into serious manufacturing, using sophisticated, computerized industrial processes needed to produce first rate, top of the line products. Several years ago at the Manitoba hog show, I visited with the manager of one of these manufacturing establishments. He invited me to his colony the next week, and I responded that I would like to do this if he was there. He declined, saying that he would be in Europe, installing a container load of stainless steel, computerized hog rearing equipment, manufactured on the colony, on a Polish farm.   Some colonies have moved so strongly into manufacturing that their farming operations have become secondary to the development and financial welfare of the community.

With this development comes a change in the number of colony residents. Factories need a larger workforce than that supplied by a community of 120 to 140 people.

Educational Foundations                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 The concerns expressed by some government officials notwithstanding, Hutterite education is well suited to their way of life and, in many ways, superior to education of many other groups.

The foundation of Hutterite education was written by Peter Walpot, in Moravia, more than 400 years ago. Along with Peter Riedemann, who wrote the Rechenschaft, (the Huttertie confession of faith), Peter Walpot was one of the outstanding second generation Hutterite leaders. Walpot’s pedagogy, Schulordnung,  was centuries ahead of its time, and may have provided some of the impetus for the kindergarten movement  started by Johann Amos Comenius, another Moravian educator, born fourteen years after Walpot died in 1578.

Hutterite education, according to Walpot, should begin at two years of age. Walpot’s pedagogy started with faith based education, but included literacy for all, both male and female, and led to vocational training within the community. Good health practices and personal hygiene were stressed.

According to the Hutterite school program, children should be taught the virtues that would fit them especially to live in a closed community—patience, gentleness, modesty, self-control, and consideration for others. The teacher should inculcate these virtues by example, rather than by use of the rod…The teacher, who was the chief disciplinary officer of the household, both within and without school hours, must exercise his peculiar power—not in anger, but for the good of the child…The teachers were selected for life… (pp. 233-235, Smith’s Story of the Mennonites, 5th  edition. C. Henry Smith)

Vocational training, learned by working with skilled elder-mentors, is still the practice today, and young people are trained in the wide spectrum of skills needed to manage a colony. Then they are chosen for specific duties, based on the aptitudes they demonstrate in various training settings. A visit to a colony demonstrates all the skills needed to manage a community—skills as diverse as animal husbandry, cooking, teaching, gardening and food preservation, welding, carpentry, accounting, sewing, plumbing, mechanics and operating all kinds of equipment—from an air seeder guided by a global positioning system to managing meat packing operations supervised by government food inspectors.

The computer lab with a dozen fully equipped computers on one colony surprised me, but googling Hutterite on the Internet (resulting in 58,900 hits, many of them generated by Hutterites themselves,) requires good information technology skills.

In Manitoba, among the Schmiedleut, there is an innovation in education—some forty Hutterite young people are enrolled at the University of Brandon in the Faculty of Education. While some among the Dariusleut are afraid that this will lead to more “weggelaufene” (runaways) it is my understanding that most of these university students are returning to the colonies. Perhaps the individuals with the best educations in the Old and New Testaments were Moses and Paul, respectively. Both were outstanding leaders, and the kind of leadership and creativity that may emerge from among these university trained Hutterites is something that may surprise us all.

Hutterite education is a lifelong undertaking. In August 2004, I participated in a seminar at the Viking Colony, organized by Paul Wipf. At this seminar, I presented some thoughts under the title, The Economics of Jesus, presented elsewhere in this newsletter. Other presenters at this event were Ivan Glick from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Jan Gleysteen, from Goshen, Indiana. One of the influences that brought this seminar about was the travel of Hutterites among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. Another was the travel of Hutterites to Germany, Austria, Moravia, and other countries where the Hutterites have sojourned in their eventful 480 year history.

Prospects                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  On the wall of Andy Hofer’s office at the Iron Creek Colony hangs an Emerald Award. Emerald Awards are conferred by the Government of Alberta on people or groups who make significant contributions to environmental protection and innovation. The award to the Iron Creek Colony recognizes the fact that the Colony installed the first agro-commercial bio-digester in Canada. The bio-digester converts the manure of a 600 sow farrow-to-finish hog operation into electricity to service the entire colony with enough power left over to sell into the grid. This is only one of the many innovations that Andy has introduced on Iron Creek Colony. It is an innovation that has been appropriately recognized by the Government of Alberta.

However, another manifestation of this same government was a private member’s bill which would have raised the school leaving age in Alberta to seventeen. Many considered this to be a thinly veiled attack on the 167 Hutterite colonies of Alberta. And therein lies a conundrum.

These 167 colonies have demonstrated a way of life unique in western civilization. Only the kibbutzim ofIsraelcome anywhere near the model of economic integration, human service and productivity of the Hutterite colonies. The kibbutzim did this with the support of a powerful government and the international Jewish community. The Hutterites have done the same in the face of unrelenting pressure and criticism from their host society. And exactly, what is “this”?

The Hutterties have demonstrated an economics that provides a cradle to grave food, shelter, clothing, health care, education, social services, employment, cultural development model for the entire community. It is a system that confounds those economists committed to the belief that money and economics are the most powerful of human motivations, for no one on the colony draws a salary or a wage. With few exceptions, members of the colonies are highly productive, creative, innovative people who defy most contemporary economic theory. It is my belief that in the colonies there exists an alternative to the economics of scarcity and divisiveness that characterizes the economics of capitalism that has become ascendant since the fall of communism. Humanity desperately needs alternatives to this economic model that is inexorably driving the human experiment towards destruction. I believe that there is in the Hutterite model an alternative that the rest of humanity needs to study if we humans are going to live together in this world without destroying ourselves.

Perhaps the most influential Mennonite writer in the last century was John Howard Yoder. His book, The Politics of Jesus has had, and continues to have, a huge impact in the larger Christian world.  John Howard was the heir of the conservative Amish community. Is it too much to imagine and hope that an intellectual parallel, The Economics of Jesus, might emerge from the group of dedicated, committed and learned Hutterite Christians now studying at Brandon University?  Is it too much to hope that this might provide a way out of the corner into which humanity is painting itself into more deeply with every passing year?

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Showing 6 comments

jimmy gray said:reply
On: 27th Aug, 2013 at 20:28

how does one become involved with community;do you accept outsiders,wanting that simple life-style?

Carolyn Price said:reply
On: 13th Sep, 2013 at 16:41

Where in Wa. are the hutterite colonies.

Amir said:reply
On: 17th Jan, 2015 at 23:09

Hi Just a question,why the Hutterites population is so small?

Nancy Sutton said:reply
On: 23rd Aug, 2017 at 16:15

Thanks… looking forward to reading ‘The Economics of Jesus’. I think that the only solution for Western civilization, and the Christian church, is to live the true meaning of the words and actions of Jesus. (And resolve the divisive multiple ‘interpretations’ of his message…. I have heard so many twisting of His words to justify …. Mammonite practices… it breaks one’s heart!)

Julie Wainwright said:reply
On: 6th Jan, 2018 at 14:51

When I was 11 years old my family was visiting the US from Australia. We stayed with some friends in Montana. They were friends with some Hutterites, I am unsure of which community but we were fortunate enough to visit the community. I got to see the birth of baby pigs, the communal eating place, school house and every single person, adult and child that I met were gracious, friendly, beautiful people and it was a rare once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget. I’m so grateful to have met that particular community and I apologise that I don’t know the name of it. I’m not a Christian but I am a pacifist and I respect all people’s beliefs. I just wanted to say thank you for allowing that 11 year old the opportunity to experience and respect you and your communal living.