The Hutterite People

Dora Maendel

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 Czechoslovakia; 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.

As a religious group, Hutterites stem from the Protestant Reformation of early sixteenth-century Europe . This was a time of widespread social unrest resulting in part from the disparity between the Roman Catholic Church which had grown wealthy and powerful, and many of its parishioners of the peasant class who were living in harsh poverty. The invention of the printing press enabled these people to read the Bible in their own language for the first time. This resulted in dynamic discussion of religious principles and increased challenging of church practices.

In England, the work of the great Bible translator and reformer, John Wyclif, was met with derision and rejection, so he went to France and Germany to continue his work. There his influence spread as far east as Bohemia . It's been said that Wyclif (1320-1384) struck a spark, Huss (l369-l415) kindled the coals with it, and Luther (1519) held up the flaming torch.

After nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in October 31, l517, Martin Luther went on to establish an evangelical church, later known as the Lutheran Church, while Catholic rulers were occupied with fighting the Turks. In addition to changing the church service from Latin to German, Luther abolished the orders of monks and the mass as it was celebrated in the Catholic Church.

For many, however, reform had not been far-reaching enough. This led to the formation of other reformed churches, some of whom differed from the Catholic (universal) Mother Church even more markedly than the Lutheran Church. In the German area of Switzerland, for example, the Reformed Church was born, and in the French area of Switzerland John Calvin established his church from which descended the Dutch Reformed and the Presbyterian Churches.

In Zurich , the movement to reform the church was led by Ulrich Zwingli whose zeal for reform was limited by his reluctance to go against the council at Zurich. His disciples argued that since the Bible is man's only infallible guide on matters of faith, church and state should be separate. Three of these, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and Georg Blaurock were especially adamant, therefore, on the issue of infant baptism because the Bible explicitly teaches believer's baptism.

On January 21, 1525 after a time of intense Bible reading and prayer they baptized each other. Thus began the Anabaptist Movement. On March 1, 1526, Zurich introduced the death penalty for Anabaptists or rebaptizers, and that fall Felix Manz was captured and drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich. The courageous death of this young man and other Anabaptists, including Conrad Grebel who died of the plague, paradoxically inspired the public to seek out the new religion, and it seemed that the harsher the persecution, the more people flocked to join these Swiss Brethren.

Georg Blaurock fled Switzerland for the Tirol area of Austria where he continued preaching and teaching; before his execution in August, 1529, he had baptized many, probably Jakob Hutter as well. An eight-year-old observer at Blaurock's burning, Peter Walpot, later became one of the most influential elders in the history of the Hutterites.

As persecution in the German-speaking countries intensified and continued, many Anabaptists fled to the Nikolsburg area of Moravia which today is part of Czechoslovakia. Here the wealthy Lord von Liechtenstein welcomed them, and by 1527 there were an estimated 12,000 Anabaptists there. Such a huge number of "heretics" in one area, caused apprehension and uneasiness, so the Liechtensteins were advised to remove their Anabaptist tenants. They, instead, 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. This they did, leaving the castle to settle at Bergen just outside of Nikolsburg.

The Liechtensteins were very sympathetic to their Anabaptist tenants; Leonard von Liechtenstein even became rebaptized himself. It was landowners' responsibility to collect taxes from their tenants. but when the Anabaptists objected to paying war taxes, the Liechtensteills acquiesced. 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. 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.

They continued north to settle at Austerlitz where they were joined by many refugees from Tirol. In 1529 Jakob Hutter from the Puster Valley visited also; 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. He was burned at the stake in Innsbruck, Austria on February 25, 1536 after being captured for the third time on missionary journeys to Austria. 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.

In 1618 the Thirty Years War began, and in 1622 Cardinal von Dietrichstein expelled the Hutterites from Moravia, and 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. Here 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 Rumania 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, and to make matters worse, both sides claimed the land the Hutterite communities were on.

In 1770 after loading their belongings onto five wagons drawn by oxen, 60 Hutterites left Wallachia for Russia, under the escort of Count Rumiamsev'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.

With 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; the 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 in Bonne Homme County in South Dakota. Although the total number who immigrated was about 1265, only 400 actually 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 a military hospital almost immediately after being transferred there.

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 moved 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 nearly ninety. 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 .

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.