Of Bees and Men: For the Hutterites who Live There, Spring Prairie Colony is More Than a Home

Aksamit, Nichole. "Of Bees and Men: For the Hutterites who Live There, Spring Prairie Colony is More Than a Home." Forum, 15 November 1999, sec. A9.

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.

Through a plastic pipe from the outside, bees carry pollen into a glass-enclosed hive in the bookshop.

Valentine Waldner Sr.'s grandchildren and their playmates swarm around the observation case, full of questions.

"How do they get out?" a little girl asks, her eyes wide as the bees dance under the glass.

"Through the pipe there," Valentine says, putting his work aside and pointing through the window at the bees' only link to the outside world.

"Why do they come back?" asks another.

"It's their home," Valentine answers without hesitation. "Where else would they want to be?"

Such a response comes naturally to Valentine, the former German school teacher, current bookbinder and longtime keeper of bees at this Hutterite colony northwest of Hawley.

He and his wife, Marie Waldner, feed and tend the hives during winter and collect 120 to 160 gallons of honey from them each year.

But that's not all Valentine harvests from the hard-working creatures in his charge.

"I find them fascinating," he says, folding his arms across his chest and shaking his white-bearded head.

It's not hard to see why. There are indeed many parallels between the lives of bees and men at Spring Prairie.

Like the bees, the Hutterites who live here are, as a group, largely self-sufficient. They make most of the things they need to live - food, shelter, clothing - and their livelihood depends on each other and nature.

Just as some bees fetch the pollen and others carry it into the hive, the human colonists have a clear division of labor. Men do jobs involving machinery, animals or crops. Women tend home and garden, staff the kitchen, the bakery, the laundry and the preschool.

And, like the bees, the Hutterites here work harmoniously toward common goals: the survival of their colony and the pleasing of a higher power.

For that reason, Spring Prairie Colony is more than an isolated community of location. It is a community of mind and spirit, where each member surrenders individual desire and personal profit for the survival of all and the hope of heavenly reward.

'All things common'

Guided by this harmony of thought and deed, the Hutterites at Spring Prairie live together from cradle to grave, apart from the larger society. In order to have "all things common," as in Acts 2:44, and to prevent disunity within the group, they share a common purse.

"How else can I prove I love my fellow man as I love myself?" asks John Waldner Sr., Spring Prairie's elder minister. "The community life and the Christian community of goods is the best way I can find."

John says he truly believes God intended for people to live communally.

"Jesus said, 'Go, all of you and sell your possessions and then come follow me," he says. "How would you do that in this world? How would you be able to survive, if not in a group?"

He points to the Israelites of biblical times.

"They had cripples who could not gather manna, but they also had younger ones who could carry three times the amount they needed. So there was plenty for everyone," he explains. "That's how God intended us to live - to care for each other.

"And why else would God give us each special talents? Why should I have one talent and my fellow man another if we were not meant to live and work together?"

Outside the fold

Although Hutterites strive to live according to their interpretation of the Bible, John says they do not think all other people are damned.

"I know there are a lot of good, honest people in the world who are not Hutterites but are morally and sexually clean," he says. "I'm sure glad I don't have to be the judge. I can't think that God would condemn them just because they didn't live community life. They probably didn't know about it."

Unfortunately, that excuse doesn't apply to those already at Spring Prairie: Hutterites sincerely believe members who leave the brotherhood are putting their souls in jeopardy.

"If God has shown me a brighter light and I choose to close my eyes, how can I be saved?" John says.

Although the number of Hutterites in North America has grown by more than 36,000 since 1874, John admits some Hutterites do stray from the fold. His own brother left a colony in South Dakota and married a nonHutterite.

Those who marry outside the faith rarely return, but John says 40 to 60 percent of the others who leave the colonies find the world outside too unsupporting and come back.

No one has left the brotherhood at Spring Prairie in the 19 years it has existed.

John says Hutterites make every effort to dissuade a member who wants to leave, and to reconcile with a member who has left and wants to return. The colonists traditionally accept apostate members as if nothing has happened, once they have been disciplined.

The most extreme punishment, John says, is shunning - a period of ostracism during which no one in the colony eats or works with the shunned member. This is particularly painful for Hutterites, for whom community is so important.

Personal surrender

Hutterites do very little missionary work and few nonHutterites have converted to this way of life. Hutterites' German language and culture provide one barrier, John says, but the main obstacle for nonHutterites is the community of goods (Gemeinschaft) and the self-surrender (Gelassenheit) it requires.

The two are essential components of Hutterite belief and the primary distinction between Hutterites and their Mennonite and Old Order Amish peers, who share the same 16th-century, Anabaptist roots.

Mennonites use many of the same sermons, songs, and religious texts as Hutterites and have tried to affiliate with the Hutterian Brethren Church.

"They won't give up the individual purse," John says. "They have tried to join with us many times, but they couldn't agree on that issue. And it is something on which we will not budge."

Nevertheless, John says the thousands in Fargo-Moorhead, just 20 miles away from here, could function as a colony if they wanted to.

"I don't see why not," he says. "God doesn't teach the impossible."

The challenges of community life

That's not to say that the Hutterites haven't struggled with community life.

For two long periods of their history, during severe persecution from 1685 to 1762, and from 1819 to 1859, they abandoned the common purse.

The guilty consciences of Hutterite leaders helped revive community life in Romania in 1763 and in Russia in 1859.

John says Hutterites will always struggle with community life.

"Whenever there's human beings, there's going to be some challenges," he says. "Human nature is the greatest challenge."

A cautious beekeeper pauses to gauge the disposition of bees in hives west of Spring Prairie Colony.
With only the aid of his smoker, Valentine checks the colony's hives.

Like the bees at Spring Prairie, Hutterites work together toward common goals: survival and the pleasing of a higher power.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum

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