Hutterites: An Historical Overview

Tamara Berger-Prößdorf
Foreign Languages and Literature
Eastern Montana College

[We are all walking artifacts. In our mouths are Germanic vowels altered by ancient phonological principles and every day we roll across our tongue Latin words the Viking William brought from France into England in the 11th century, words the Romans had brought into Gaul a thousand years before. We count time like the Babylonian astronomers. Our postal service takes as its motto the description Herodotus gave of the Persian pony express in the 5th century BC, the period of Socrates, who was a contemporary of the Esther of the Old Testament. In our cells we all share the mitochondrial DNA of the same primeval woman. The Renaissance and the Reformation are abstract terms we professors try to bring to life in class with texts and paintings from the 16th century and before. But in Montana there is a people, the Hutterites, who are a living and concrete expression of the 16th century Reformation, a people who live the moral and social community life of their beliefs developed during the wars of religion, when Catholics and Protestants slaughtered one another in the name of God.

The following paper was part of a presentation given as "North American Hutterite Colonies in the Nineties: A Multi-Media Presentation" by Dr. Berger-Prößdorf and Mary Wood at the annual meeting of the American Association of Teachers of German at Baden-Baden, Germany, summer 1992, in a session called "Forgotten Odysseys of German Emigration Groups to America." --William Plank, Contributing Editor.]

Through the Reformation in the 16th century in Switzerland, three reformed churches were established. The first one under Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, the second one under John Calvin in Geneva, and the third one is the movement of the Anabaptists which had separated itself from the reformed church of Zwingli. They separated because the Reformed Church of Zurich was too beholden to the laws of the Council of Zurich and did not move their reforms fast enough. The Anabaptists believed that neither human beings nor the church should leave the decisions in matters of faith to the state.

In particular, one should mention three men as founders and leaders of the movement: Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Georg Blaurock. In a letter to Thomas Münzer Grebel emphasized that (a) God and not the Pope is the final authority in matters of faith, (b) the faithful must not take up the sword for their own defense or that of others (as it is the case with the Catholics and the Protestants), (c) only human beings who had made a personal decision for a Christian life should be baptized--and this decision only adults can make. Therefore, the baptism of adults is the only correct one.

Grebel, Blaurock, Manz, and twelve other men baptized one another on the 21st of January, 1525, and thereby founded the movement of the Anabaptists or the Wiedertäufer and became known under the name Schweizerische Brüder (Swiss Brethren).

The death penalty was introduced for Anabaptists, and a few months later Felix Manz was captured and gruesomely drowned in the Limmat River (Zurich). Thus Manz became the first in a series of Anabaptist martyrs. Many more were to follow during the next four hundred years.

Anabaptists had to flee to Germany and Austria; Blaurock fled to the Tyrol where he preached secretly, taught, and baptized. In 1529, he was captured, tortured, and burned at the stake. An eight-year-old boy, Peter Walpot, who was a witness of the execution, became later a Vorsteher (elder) of the Hutterite Brethren in Moravia, an important refugee center in the history of the Anabaptists.

There are three main reasons for the persecutions of the Anabaptists: (1) they refused and rejected the concept of the baptism of small children, (2) they insisted on separation of church and state, (3) they rejected the concept of war waged by the state, on the grounds that Jesus had commanded the love of one's enemies. Thus, the Anabaptists were pacifists and remained so until the present--which was to have serious consequences for them even in the 20th century. In the Tyrol and Austria of the 16th century, the state organized gangs of Täuferjäger (Anabaptist hunters) in order to exterminate all Anabaptists. Many Anabaptists fled then to Moravia where they found protection under regional lords. A continuing stream of refugees moved there from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. Around 1527, there were already 12,000 Anabaptists in a region whose local population consisted of less than half that number. This massive immigration caused some distress with the local population and they demanded that the new arrivals be ejected. However, the regional lord himself had been re-baptized as an adult and he demanded instead from the Anabaptists that they defend him in case of an attack on his fortress. This demand created a crisis of conscience among the Anabaptists and a consequent split. They were divided into Schwertler and Stäbler (the word Schwert means "sword" and Stab means "staff," i.e., the Christian shepherd's staff). The Schwertler were prepared to defend the fortress, but the Stäbler, honoring the concept of the Christian shepherd's staff, moved on to another region.

Since the leader of the Schwertler was captured soon after and burned at the stake, his group was dissolved. The Stäbler stayed in Moravia as a community and they soon received the name Hutterer after the great Anabaptist preacher Jakob Hutter, who introduced, in 1528, the possession of goods in common as a way of life corresponding to the original Christian ideal. The Anabaptists were driven as a refugee community from region to region. War and persecution consistently destroyed the colonies they built and the goods they had accumulated. Not only their faith and their strange way of life provoked this deadly response, but also their refusal to bear arms. In spite of this, more refugees came from the Tyrol and founded more colonies in Moravia.

Jakob Hutter himself was born in the Tyrol and grew up there, a hat maker by profession--as his name indicates. He became the main pastor of the Tyrolian Anabaptists. He was elected to be the Vorsteher of the colonies in Moravia. During the years 1533 through 1535, Hutter gained such a reputation for leadership that the Bruderhöfe (the colonies of the brethren) from then on carried his name. In 1535, the persecutions against the Anabaptists increased again under King Ferdinand I, who as emperor of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire was a grandson of Maximilian I, and a stand-in for Charles V who had relinquished the imperial crown and gone into a monastery. King Ferdinand appeared personally in Moravia and threatened the regional lords, demanding that they drive out the Hutterites. The Hutterites then fled again. They split up into small groups, some of them going to the Tyrol, others going to small country estates, where they went into hiding. Jakob Hutter had gone to the Tyrol from where he sent inspirational epistles in order to encourage the brethren hidden in Moravia. Hutter himself was captured in 1539 in the Tyrol, tortured, and burned. His wife was condemned to death and executed one year later.

The Älteste Chronik and the Martyr's Mirror as well as some of the old hymns tell of these events. There is one hymn, for example, with one hundred five stanzas, of which numbers 41 to 50 tell of Hutter's work and sufferings. The whole hymn book I saw is written in old German handwriting (Sütterlinschrift) and the production of these handwritten copies is considered part of a Hutterite student's school work. One of the Montana Hutterites from the Golden Valley colony at Ryegate, a student and daughter of the recently retired Lehrer (teacher) Joseph J. Kleinsasser Sr., had the kindness to lend me her beautifully done autograph copy (see handwriting sample in figure 1).

The period between 1565 and 1592 is called in Hutterite history die Goldene Periode. During that period the persecutions decreased since Emperor Ferdinand I was trying to find an amicable solution with the Protestants in the Treaty of Passau of 1552. In 1555, the Augsburger Religious Peace was declared, the motto of which was cuius regio, eius religio (i.e., one must adopt the prevailing religion of the regional lord). In this "golden period" of 1565-92, the number of the Bruderhöfe grew to one hundred two in Moravia, and Slovakia/Hungary, with a population of 20,000-30,000.

Each colony had a kleine Schul (preschool for small children up to six years) and a große Schul (the dialect omits the e from Schule), for children of the ages six to twelve. The Hutterite pre-school (nursery school) existed 270 years before the kindergarten was generally introduced in Germany, the German kindergarten being a voluntary school for children from two to six. In the große Schul they stressed cleanliness, discipline, table manners, and appropriate dress. Penmanship was cultivated then, as it is today, and this is the Sütterlinschrift which even today each child learns as the proper form of German handwriting. At the completion of his or her schooling, each student must present a complete handwritten hymnal. Besides, the Hutterites learn various crafts and in past centuries they were not only farmers but were represented in each trade.

Figure 1 shows a sampling of a Christmas hymn from the hymn book mentioned above. It is the first stanza of a Christmas hymn, well-known in German-speaking countries even today. Martin Luther wrote it, inspired by the Gospel of Luke 2. 10-16, and it was published in the collection "Geistliche Lieder, Leipzig 1539." [In the current United Methodist Hymnal, the melody (but not the lyrics) of Vom Himmci hoch" appears with the English hymn, "God of all Power and Truth and Grace."]

Figure 1

German handwriting

Vom Himmel, hoch, da komm ich her,
ich bring euch gute neue Mär;
der guten Mär bring ich so viel,
davon ich sing'n und sagen will...

(I'm coming from heaven on high,
I bring you good news;
I bring you so much good news,
Of which I want to sing and tell...)

Thus, in addition to strictly "Hutterite" hymns, there are to be found a good number of hymns that are quite familiar, especially in the German Protestant hymnals of German speaking Europe today, many of them stemming from the prolific song writer, Martin Luther, and other famous hymn writers of the Reformation.

During the Golden Period (1565-1592), the writing of the Großes Geschichtsbuch (Great Chronicle) was begun by Caspar Braitmichel and continued by six subsequent writers. The book ends with the year 1665. A handwritten copy by Hauptrecht Zapff can be seen today in the Bon Homme Colony in South Dakota. Upon the outbreak of the Turkish War in the year 1593, the Golden Period came to an end for the Hutterites. After that conflict came the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). In both wars the pacifist Hutterites were severely mistreated as a result of their refusal to defend themselves. Moravia changed from Catholicism to Protestantism and then back to Catholicism, reflecting the demands of whoever was the victor at the time. From the adherents of both religious persuasions, the Hutterites had to endure pillage, rape, torture, and violent death. The Moravian Brethren were driven out of Moravia and found refuge in the Slovak and Hungarian colonies. At the end of the Thirty Years War, the population of the Hutterites had decreased from 30,000 in the Golden Period to 1,000. From this time exists an extensive literature--some one hundred Lehren (sermons) and short sermons, which were called Vorreden (preambles or introductions). The Lehren and Vorreden are still being read today in Hutterite worship in High German (today's standard written German, to the standardization of which Luther strongly contributed through his translation of the Bible). As already remarked, handwritten copies of these texts still exist in present colonies. The Oberhaupt (leader) of the Hutterites, in the reconstruction of their community after the tribulations of the wars, wrote a small book with the title Ein Sendbrief (epistle) which stresses especially community life and the holding in common of goods as a Christian task. Because the country had become Catholic during the war, the Hutterites continued to be persecuted. They became impoverished and had to give up their community life, i.e., the colonies were disbanded. Help came from the Mennonites, who also were Anabaptists, but who had never subscribed to the notion of community property. The name "Mennonite" is derived from their Oberhaupt, Mennon Simons.

During the years 1740 to 1780, the state spared no effort to convert the Hutterites to Catholicism. Part of those efforts were bookburnings and torture. Hutterites who had been forced into Catholicism continue to live today as Habaner in Sabatisch, Hungary. They are the descendants of the Slovak/Hungarian Hutterites and live in their original houses and kept some of their original traditions. [The origin of the word Habaner is doubtful, but it may come from Haushaben, another name for Bruderhof, as John Hofer suggests in his History of the Hutterites. He adds that the Slovak peasants used to call Hutterites by this name and that the name has stuck.] While the Hutterites in the neighboring countries had suffered much, the colonies in Transylvania (Siebenbürgen) achieved a renewed vigor. However, in the Turkish War with the Hapsburgs of 1658-1661, their Bruderhöfe were destroyed and the people had to go into hiding.

About a hundred years later, a new ascendance began because Maria Theresia (Queen of Austria, daughter of Emperor Charles VI and the mother of Marie Antoinette) deported in 1755 a large group of Lutherans from Carinthia (Kärnten), a province of Austria, into the vicinity of the Hutterites in Transylvania. They were about 270 people, amongst them Hofers, Waldners, Kleinsassers, Glanzers, and Wurzs (History of the Hutterites 47) who as forced laborers came into contact with the former Bruderhöfler. As a result, communities of brethren were once again established. When an additional colony was founded in 1762 under the leadership of Hans Kleinsasser (History of the Hutterites 47), Queen Maria Theresia put an end to it again by dispersing the people over the whole region, forcing them into Catholicism. A few years later, two Hutterites by the names of Kuhr and Stahl returned from their exile and convinced the Hutterites to emigrate one more time--even without passes. Sixty-seven people made the illegal trek in open daylight across the Carpathian Mountains in 1767 to Rumania, to Kräbach (today, Tscherlegirle) and into the Wallachia. Shortly after their settlement there, the Hutterites were persecuted again and driven out. Three years later, the Hutterites found themselves on their way to Russia. Four months and seven hundred miles later, they reached the Ukraine, founded again a colony and sent emissaries to Wallachia and Transylvania. Seven journeys were made to bring back prisoners and family members. On the way to Transylvania and Hungary, they came also in contact with Mennonite communities living in Poland and Prussia. Of these, 15 persons by the manes of Entz, Gross, Decker, and Knels joined the Hutterites, and from Hungary, former Hutterites by the names of Walter, Wollmann, Tschetter, and Mandel reunited with their Hutterite brethren (History of the Hutterites 52). Altogether, fifty-six persons joined the new Bruderhof in the Ukraine.

In 1793, Johannes Waldner started to write a history book, which became known under the title Klein Geschichtsbuch (Little Chronicle). The Groß Geschichtsbuch had ended with the year 1665, i.e., 140 years before the beginning of the new Geschichtsbuch. The Klein Geschichtsbuch started with the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement and ended with the year 1802. This book can be seen at the Sturgeon Creek Colony in Headingly, Manitoba.

Twenty-six years after the arrival of the Hutterites in the Ukraine, they had to continue their migrations in order to avoid being forced into serfdom. Forty-four families and two hundred persons experienced great difficulties, with the result that in 1819 the community of goods had to be dissolved for the second time in their history. Around 1834 they were completely impoverished, the children became illiterate, and farmland became unobtainable. Again the Mennonites came to their aid. An elder (Vorsteher), Johann Cornies, who was also a state administrator, helped them to find farmland near the Mennonite settlement and to obtain a permit for it. This new colony was called Huttertal. Through the Mennonites, who also came from German-speaking roots, the Hutterites were able to maintain the German language. From the Mennonites they also learned about modern farming techniques. They built settlements according to Mennonite models, with houses in long parallel rows. Their children went into the village schools and the adults went into evening school (here are continuing education and nontraditional students in 1834!).

In the middle of the 19th century, the establishment of more Hutterite colonies began, but attempts to reestablish common-property communities failed. In spite of that, the Hutterites preserved their own clothing, dialect, language, worship services, and read the old sermons of their forebears. Not until 1859 did the preachers Jakob Hofer, Darius Walter, and Michael Waldner succeed in establishing a community of goods after an interruption of forty years. These three names are very important because these men brought the major groups of Hutterite colonies to the United States and Canada, groups which differ today to some extent by the varying lifestyle and rigor of discipline which developed after their arrival in North America. These three main groups of the Hutterite Brethren are the Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut, and Lehrerleut. Michael Waldner was a Schmied (smith), therefore this group called itself Schmiedeleut. The next colony founded by Darius Walter coined the name Dariusleut. The third group, the Lehrerleut, did not receive their name until their emigration to America in the year 1877 under the leadership of Jakob Wipf, who had been known as an excellent teacher (Lehrer). The year 1874 is considered officially the main emigration year to America in Hutterite history. The reason for the emigration from Russia was a new decree in 1864 according to which all children had to go to Russian schools. Also, the Hutterites as well as the Mennonites were to be forced into military service.

Two Hutterite representatives had been sent to America to inquire about the right to conscientious objector status and the right to have their own schools. Even though the Hutterites did not get any guarantee of these privileges, 18,000 Anabaptists emigrated, a number which included all the Hutterites. They consisted of individual and community farmers. The individual farmers received the name Prairieleut, i.e., "the people of the prairie." Russia in the meantime recognized that they were about to lose their best workforce. The number of Mennonites and Hutterites was 45,000. The Anabaptists were asked to stay and indeed about 27,000 stayed. The emigration groups sold their land in 1874 to the Mennonites, and the Schmiedeleut and Dariusleut sailed for America, followed three years later by the next group who were later known as Lehrerleut. John Hofer explains that "five hundred Hutterites and Mennonites...came from Russia and arrived in New York on the ship Hammonia, July 5, 1874. Most of them went to South Dakota" (History of the Hutterites 59). The family names of these people were Decker, Frieson, Hofer, Kleinsasser, Stahl, Waldner, Walter, Wipf, Wollmann, etc., the names of many of our neighbors in Montana. The above named Prairieleut, who settled as individual farmers, belong today mostly to the Mennonite church. The first home of the Bruderhöfe became Bon Homme County, South Dakota. The Schmiedeleut established the Bon Homme Bruderhof, which became, so to speak, the mother of all Schmiedeleut colonies. The Dariusleut founded their first Bruderhof near Wolf Creek forty miles to the north of Bon Homme. The Lehrerleut established three years later (1877) the Elmspring Colony, a few miles west of the Wolf Creek colony. The total number of the Hutterites who arrived in America was about 1,265; the number of those who settled in colonies was 400.

The Hutterites were successful. Around 1897, the colonies owned five flour mills as well as spinning, carpentry, shoemaking, blacksmithing, book binding, and broom-making workshops. Their industries flourished and for their farming and husbandry they used the most progressive techniques. With the First World War, the Hutterites were again forced to emigrate, this time to Canada. Before the outbreak of the war, the local population of the United States was hardly upset about the presence of these "strange" people, since they lived comparatively far away from other settlements. However, at the outbreak of the war several factors caused them difficulties: wars in general encourage a thoughtless and occasionally fanatic patriotism. First, the Hutterites were distinguished as foreigners by their mode of dress, originating in the 16th century; second, they spoke and taught German; third, they were pacifists and thus conscientious objectors. Historically, and especially politically and nationally, the Hutterites were hardly connected with the Germans or a Germany of the 20th century. Over 400 years ago, their movement had started in Switzerland. They had been pursued in Europe from country to country but they always regrouped and wanted to live according to their interpretation of genuine Christianity. Their original homelands were especially Switzerland and Austria, hence their German language and dialect.

At the beginning of the war, the young Hutterite men decided to register and to be examined by the military physicians. However, they refused the uniform and service in the war. In Camp Funston, the young men were beaten and tortured with bayonets. The Hutterite elder turned to the United States government, but was met with little sympathy. Hofer recounts the story of four young Hutterites, Jakob Wipf and three Hofer brothers who had been brutally tortured and condemned to thirty-seven years in Alcatraz, where Joseph and Michal Hofer died of abuse and their bodies were then put in uniform as a final gesture of official disapproval. This image of an involuntarily uniformed corpse reminds one of the caustic antiwar balled "Legende vom toten Soldaten" (Legend About the Dead Solder), written by Bertolt Brecht in 1918 at age 20.

Brecht himself had been drafted out of high school via "Not-Abitur" (early emergency graduation), and was serving in a military hospital when he wrote the poem. It describes a corpse of a soldier, "killed in the fourth spring of the war," being dug out of his grave in order to cancel his early death. He is declared by the military physician as being "k.v.," the commonly used German abbreviation for "kriegsverwendungfähig" (fit for military service). He is clothed in the colors of the Kaiser, being set upright and supported by two medics on each side in order to be able to march a second time into a hero's death because:

Der Krieg war aber noch nicht gar
Drum tat es dem Kaiser leid
Daß sein Soldat gestorben war;
Es schien ihm noch vor der Zeit.

(The war, however, was not yet done,
That's why the Kaiser felt sorry
That his soldier had died:
It seemed to him to be yet before his time had come.)

The ballad ends with the 19th stanza;

Die Sterne sind nicht immer da
Es kommt ein Morgenrot.
Doch der Soldat, wie er's gelernt
Zieht in den Heldentod.

(There are not always stars,
A red dawn of morning appears.
However, the soldier, as he was taught,
Marches into a hero's death.)

Brecht was blacklisted by Hitler in 1933 for this World War I poem--as well as for other works--causing the author to go into exile in the same year.

The Hutterite colonies suffered during the first World War. Their livestock was seized, sold, and the money used for the war effort. The German language and the dialect were forbidden and were not allowed to be used in school or worship, where the melodies and rituals used were based on the old German texts. Again the Hutterites had to migrate. Canada wanted them to develop the agricultural potential of the prairies, which at that time were open and undeveloped. They gave the Hutterites assurances that they would not be forced to do military service and they were also assured religious freedom. After the Schmiedeleut had established six colonies in Manitoba and the Lehrerleut four colonies in Alberta, the government, under pressure by the local population, withdrew its promise and published a decree prohibiting further immigration of the Hutterites. After the end of the war, the hostilities by the local population and the government decreased. Thus between 1918 and 1929, more colonies were established, four in Manitoba and eleven in Alberta.

The rapid expansion of the Hutterites and the additional Mennonite settlements alarmed, however, the people and the government. Protests were made against the purchases of the best land. When the great depression of the 1930s hit, the hostile behavior ceased because Alberta and Manitoba were faced with bankruptcy. Only the Hutterites were able to pay their property taxes and their mortgage payments and they also did not become a burden on the state because they took care of their aged and ill themselves.

Now they were again being courted. In the year 1940, there were fifty-two Hutterite colonies in Canada. That year, when World War II had already begun in Europe, brought an end to the good will toward the Hutterites in Canada. However, in this war, the right to refuse military service had been granted by the Unites States as well as by Canada. The Hutterites had to do substitute service in public institutions, hospitals, national parks, paper mills, etc. In spite of the greater tolerance that the governments demonstrated, there still were "patriotic" excesses on the part of the population. Through the Second World War a certain prosperity was achieved and it had become more profitable for individual farmers to work the land. The Hutterites were a stiff competition in agriculture. The Canadian government again acceded to the pressure of the population and proclaimed a series of discriminatory regulations which were intended to make life more difficult for the Hutterites. For example, no land was permitted to be sold to "Enemy Aliens, Hutterites, or Doukhobors." Any expansion of the Hutterite real estate was prohibited. No new colonies were allowed to be built within a radius of forty-eight miles of any other colony. No colony was allowed to posses more than 6,400 acres.

The Veterans Land Act of 1942 determined that the land had to be offered for sale for sixty days before Hutterites were allowed to bid on it or buy it. These and other restrictions forced the Hutterites to move into other Canadian provinces, for example, Saskatchewan, and south of the Canadian border to the states of Washington and Montana. In the later forties and fifties, the Lehrerleut of Alberta founded twelve colonies in Montana and eight in Saskatchewan. On the avenge, one new colony was founded per year. When the non-Hutterite owners of farms placed their property on the market and sought buyers with cash, the hostilities decreased accordingly. However, in Saskatchewan a bill still existed to the effect that not more than 5% of the available land could be sold for use as common property--and that, of course, was directed at the Hutterite concept of community living. Finally, some changes came about because, for example, the Civil Liberties Union became involved. Also, the Hutterites themselves came to the conclusion that the three colony groups should incorporate themselves legally as a registered church under the name of Hutterische Bruderkirche (Hutterite United Brethren Church). This event transpired in 1950 and enabled them to better protect their interests and rights from governments.

In addition consciousness was raised on the North American continent during the sixties and seventies with the idea that discrimination and attacks against them should no longer be tolerated. As a result, many restrictive laws that were directed against the Hutterite people were invalidated. Now there seemed to be the promise of a real Golden Period for the Hutterites, with which the former Goldene Periode of 1565-1592 in Moravia could not compare. In the 1980s, the population of the Hutterites in the USA and Canada was about 25,000. In the nineties, that population may easily have doubled.

The main source for the information in this essay is John Hofer's History of the Hutterites and personal interviews at local colonies where I was received graciously and especially because I was a German Lehrer, know their Sütterlinschrift, could follow their old historic sermons, and because I could participate in singing their songs, which they sang in harmony acapella and with great zeal and voices.

My special thanks go to the recently retired Lehrer Joseph J. Kleinsasser Sr., and Family, Golden Valley Colony, Ryegate, Montana, who shared generously with me about their history and lifestyle.

Contents | Home