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
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
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
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