Heavy With History: A Past Marred by Persecution is one Reason for Hutterites' Wariness of World

Aksamit, Nichole. "Heavy With History: A Past Marred by Persecution is one Reason for Hutterites' Wariness of World." Forum, 14 November 1999, sec. E1 & E3.

The modest women of Spring Prairie Colony share a quiet moment in the early morning sun on a trailer behind a tractor headed for a cucumber field northwest of Hawley, Minnesota.
Spring Prairie Colony, Minn.

The 422-year-old German Bible in John Waldner Sr.'s care is nearly 5 inches thick and weighs close to 20 pounds.

Hand-inked illustrations, German calligraphy and ornate block letters cover its thick parchment pages.

Engravings in the iron corner-pieces attached to its thick, ivory cover reveal the year it was crafted: "1577."

The book was discovered in Romania, wedged between beams in the belltower of a Catholic Church on the site of a former Hutterite settlement, and eventually passed down to Waldner, the elder minister of this Hutterite colony northwest of Hawley.

Whenever he has trouble with modern German or English Bible translations, he turns to the yellowed pages of this precious tome.

Like the Hutterites themselves, the ancient test is heavy with history, a testament to faith and a survivor of persecution.

Hutterite Beginnings

"Hutterites have a very deep understanding, a very keen understanding of their history," says Tim Kloberdanz, a North Dakota State University anthropologist who has been studying Hutterites for more than two decades.

"And it's a history of persecution, not only in Europe but right here in the United States."

The Hutterites, or Hutterian Brethren, take their name from Jakob Hutter, an Anabaptist leader who was tortured for his beliefs and burned at the stake in Austria in 1536.

They are one of three surviving Anabaptist sects that originated in Europe during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Although the groups differ today in the belief and practice, Hutterites share longevity with the Old Order Amish and the Mennonites.

The first Anabaptists, so called for their belief in adult baptism, argued that the Protestant Reformation was only a start. They felt reforms encouraged by Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German and his "Ninety-five Theses" about problems he saw with the Roman Catholic Church needed to go further.

The following tenets eventually became basic doctrines of the Hutterite faith:

*Adult Baptism. Because Christ and his apostles were grown men when they were baptized, Hutterites believe that people must first know and understand the Bible and then request baptism into the faith.

*Community of goods. Hutterites argue that believers should live apart from the larger society, share a common purse and have "all things common," as in Acts 2:44. Hutterites work not for themselves but for the benefit of all in the colony. And the colony supplies its members with all they need to live.

*Pacifism. Hutterites refuse to take part in war, either by paying war taxes or serving in the military, since Christ said to love your enemies.

*Separation of church and state. Hutterites do not vote in elections or run for public office. They believe governments are God-ordained and if they have a grievance with the state, they file it in the form of a prayer.

*Marriage for life. Hutterites do not allow divorce. What God has joined together, they both argue and practice, no man can separate.

Persecution in Europe.

For these and other beliefs, Hutterites were severely persecuted and repeatedly forced to flee - from Moravia to Hungary, Romania, Russia, the United States and Canada - in search of religious freedom.

From the early 1500s to the late 1800s, the Hutterian brotherhood waxed and waned with the religious tolerance of the leaders in the lands in which they lived.

During their golden years, at least 20,000 Hutterites were living in colonies in Moravia - now part of Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

But twice in their history they abandoned communal living. And at their lowest point, only 16 Hutterites existed who had not been killed or robbed of their religious texts and forced to convert to Catholicism.

In the 1870s, when new laws in Russia required Hutterites to speak Russian in school and serve in the military, Hutterites began emigrating to America.

Under separate leaders, three groups - the Dariusleut (the Darius people), the Lehrerleut (the teacher people) and the Schmiedeleut (the smith people) - established Hutterite colonies in South Dakota.

Spring Prairie Colony near Hawley descended from the Bon Homme Colony, founded by Schmiedeleut near Yankton, S.D., in 1874.

Struggles in America

Even after their arrival in America, however, Hutterites struggled for religious freedom

Since military service is anathema to their creed, Hutterites were conscientious objectors to World War I.

Because they spoke German and Huttrisch (an evolved version of the nearly extinct German dialect Tyrolean) and refused service or any contribution to the war effort, they were often targets of hostility from non-Hutterites who viewed them as German sympathizers.

In 1917, colony elders requested President Woodrow Wilson grant them "the liberty to live according to the dictates of our conscience." With no such assurances from the president, many colonies fled to Canada to avoid military service in 1918.

Nevertheless, approximately 56 Hutterites were drafted during World War I. Many were harassed when they refused to wear military uniforms or do work that helped the war effort. Four suffered extreme tortures in military prison at Alcatraz and Fort Leavenworth, where two of the died as a result.

"Because of this history, I don't think they've ever forgotten what the outside world can do to them," Kloberdanz says.

"I do think they appreciate the kindness they see in the outside world, but they remember the acts of violence that were perpetrated against them. That's one of the reasons they are wary of the world. They have forgiven, but they haven't forgotten."

Anti-Hutterite sentiment in America dropped off after World War I. During subsequent wars, Hutterites were allowed to serve in national parks and other non-military posts as an alternative to the draft.

Another golden period?

At the time of their most recent census (1996), 37,297 Hutterites were living in North America. That number is estimated at 38,000 today.

The 174 colonies in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Manitoba are Schmiedeleut. The Dariusleut and Lehrerleut have 269 colonies in Montana, Washington and the other Canadian provinces.

The three groups differ slightly in terms of dress and custom, but share the same fundamental faith and belief in communal living.

Although the colonies have experience tremendous population growth in the last 100 years, Waldner says Hutterites are far from another golden period.

"Now, of course, I don't speak for all Hutterites, but I say we're in a sharp decline," he says. "And I'm not talking about numbers. I'm talking about principles."

When Waldner's great-great-grandfather helped found Bon Homme Colony in 1874, Hutterites seldom has use for litigation or government assistance.

But now, Waldner says, the colonies have a lawyer who helps them with liability lawsuits and the paperwork required for health and property insurance. The colonies now participate in federal farm programs like CRP.

And, in certain instances, they also accept a small amount of government aid to help care for their elderly.

"Many of us do this reluctantly, as taxes continue to rise and we struggle for existence," Waldner says. "For our forefather, this would have been out of the question. Their theory was with God's help and trust in him we will get along without government assistance. But being without liability in their time and being without liability in our time is a different story.

"I guess it's just human beings. If you look at America and the people who set up the Constitution and you look at the country today, it doesn't seem the same."

All of this worries Waldner, on whom both the influence of his Hutterite ancestors and the fear of God weigh heavily.

He knows it will never be easy to resist reliance on the government, involvement in politics, changes in dress and personal ownership.

"The world changes in fashion probably as often as the moon changes. We've got a great struggle to keep from the ever-changing styles and modes of the world," Waldner says.

"But the Christian principles don't change and he who set up the principles doesn't change. If you or I want to change, we're free to go. But then, I guess there's the day of reckoning."

Women work in pairs, picking cucumbers in the garden at Spring Prairie Colony. Like all Hutterites, they believe in working together for the benefit of all.
Some Hutterite books and sermons are still printed in a centuries-old German handwriting style.

Where the Hutterites have lived through time.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum

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