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Hutterites of Montana

Book review by Beverly H. Wigley, Fargo, North Dakota.

Wilson, Laura. Hutterites of Montana. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000.


The cover photograph gives a telling glimpse of what is to be found in this privileged look into the Hutterite colonies of Montana by Laura Wilson. With only 21 of the book's pages containing written text, the black-and-white photography captures the adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words." From the stark Montana countryside to close-ups of children's faces, Wilson's photography helps tell the story of a communal people who appear contentedly out-of-touch with the high-tech, fast-paced lifestyle so prevalent today. Some of these close-ups, however, are strikingly large. Using black-and-white photography is fittingly appropriate to document the lives of people who have the appearance of living in a time warp.

Having spent my early years in Central Pennsylvania's Amish country, I found it surprising that Wilson was given permission to take the pictures. The Old Order Amish share the Hutterites' belief: Photography is a direct contradiction to their interpretation of Exodus 20:4 where God forbids the making of "any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." When Laura Wilson first began visiting the colonies, the Hutterites were watchful; neither being welcoming or unwelcoming. Eventually, out of their trust and her persistence, they gradually allowed her in. We are the beneficiaries.

Hutterites, whose name is taken from their early leader, Jacob Hutter, trace their beginnings to a small group of religious refugees from the Tyrol region of Austria. In the spring of 1528 as the refugees were passing through Moravia, an historic region of the Czech Republic, they spread a cloak on the ground and placed on it everything they owned. Their decision was to put into literal practice the Apostles' words found in Acts 2:44-45, "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." For nearly 475 years, communalism has been the distinguishing principle by which the Hutterites have lived. Religious and state authorities of the time deemed the Hutterites' Anabaptist beliefs heretical. Anabaptists believed faith was a voluntary commitment thus rejecting allegiance to a state church and infant baptism. Seeking freedom from religious persecution and resentment due to their prosperity, the Hutterites eventually fled to the plains of the American West in the 1870s. Today, the three founding colonies have hundreds of offshoots across the prairies of North America.

In this book, which is a culmination of photographs and interviews over a 14-year period, Wilson is able to convey her appreciation of "seeing something remarkable." The subjects and settings of her photography provide a contrast to the homogenized America of shopping malls and chain restaurants. Aided by some members' own words, Wilson documents the leadership structure of this close-knit religious society, the place of women, children's education, the role of sports and outsiders' misconceptions among other things. While celebrating their spirit and dedication to their beliefs and to one another, this work doesn't shrink away from hardships and limitations of the Hutterite way of life. As Wilson herself asks, "How long can the Hutterites resist the most invasive, most powerful culture in the world? Twenty years from now, fifty years from now, how will we know what the Hutterites looked like, what they believed in, and how they lived?" The answers are in this treasure.

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