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Books, Faith, World & More

An Alternative Point of View

Review of The Hutterites in North America

The Hutterites in North America, by Rod Janzen and Max Stanton. The John Hopkins University Press, 2010.

We get many books about the Amish, not many about the Hutterites. Granted, the Amish community now numbers close to a quarter million, the Hutterites only close to 50,000. And it depends where you live. Amish settlements are concentrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Three-quarters of Hutterite colonies are in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and British Columbia, with a third in North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Washington state.

Hutterites came to North America in 1874 from Ukraine, the same time as the first wave of Mennonites from Ukraine, where Mennonites had helped them resettle after Hutterites had been persecuted in the Balkans nearly to extinction. The first settlements of Hutterites in America were all located in South Dakota, where some homesteaded on individual farms, like other pioneers, while others resumed colony life, identifying themselves by three leaders: Lehrerleut, Dariusleut, and Schmiedeleut (Leut being simply the German word for people).

Most non-colony Hutterites went Mennonite, while colony Hutterites have continued to exist in their three denominations, except for a split in the 1990s that divided the Schmiedeleut into two groups, which our authors call Schmiedeleut One and Schmiedeleut Two. Schmiedeleut One consists of those who adopted some progressive measures under the influence of the Bruderhof community of the eastern U.S., and Schmiedeleut Two consists of those who resisted that influence.

Sociologist John Hostetler, along with Trudy Huntington, wrote a book on the Hutterites first published back in 1967, so this book by Janzen and Stanton is a welcome updating. While several beginning chapters in this study cover Hutterite history, the later chapters describe the life and faith of the about 500 colonies (and counting) scattered across the northern prairies.

Hutterite birth rates remain high, though they have dropped from around ten children per family in 1954 to under five today, so that a colony’s population may still double in a generation, prompting the periodic establishment of new colonies, since “colonies rarely get larger than 150 to 160 people.”

“Most modern Hutterites are the direct descendents of about 90 individuals,” say the authors, the result of endogamy and few converts for hundreds of years. That explains why 99 percent of Hutterites carry one of only 14 names, chief among them Entz, Glanzer, Gross, Hofer, Kleinsasser, Mendel, Stahl, Tschetter, Waldner, Wipf, and Wollman. Despite this endogamy the Hutterites gene pool remains surprisingly healthy.

In the second two thirds of their book Janzen and Stanton describe Hutterite beliefs, practices, traditions, and institutions. Even as they are remarkably open to technology, colonies remain tradition-bound in worship practices, sticking to a rereading of old sermons from a fixed canon of sermons from several centuries ago. Schmiedeleut One is the main group venturing to break out of this tradition. Colonies have their own schools on colony premises, through which Hutterites become bilingual, although their own dialect, derived from the Tirol, remains their everyday language.

The great majority of colonies stay engaged in agriculture, although a few have ventured into manufacturing. Their efficiency and mass production make them major players in the agricultural economies of the states and provinces where they live. The relatively few colonies of Montana, for example, produce over 90 percent of that state’s hogs and 98 percent of its eggs. Non-Hutterite farmers cannot compete with Hutterite efficiency.

While technology may bring Hutterites economic success, its most recent developments also raise problems. Colonies have long used computers to manage machines and to keep track of budgets and agricultural production. But computers have opened the door to the Internet, exposing young people to worldly influences, even immoral ones.

This, our authors suggest, has encouraged defections. Hutterites have a word for defectors, Weggeluffene, literally runaways, young people who leave the colony for individual freedom. Some return, make confession, and get reintegrated into colony life. A surprising 15 percent leave permanently, more of them young men than young women, creating the problem of whom the young women left on the colonies can marry.

Hutterites have their critics. Many evangelicals, including Mennonites, question whether many of them are genuine Christians or only committed to a traditional culture. Our authors admit that for some of them religion is a formality. Yet all Hutterites go to prayers every evening before supper, colony elders exercise church discipline, and colony members exhibit strong family life.

Given their distinctive dress, language, and colony life, Hutterites remain conscious of their difference from outsiders. At the same time most colonies have non-Hutterite teachers for their “English” school. They are hospitable to visitors and relate comfortably to outsiders with whom they do business, or neighbors with whom they share common concerns.

They are imperfect and seek to cope with the same problems the rest of us do. But they adhere tenaciously to their heritage—the rejection of military service, for example. Janzen and Stanton note that there has not been one murder among them in the nearly 500 years of Hutterite history. Moreover, they are the only known group that has continued to successfully practice community of goods for these nearly 500 years.

The fruit of many years of conscientious research, this book is a veritable mine of information about all aspects of Hutterite life. It is therefore rewarding reading for anyone interested in these people.
Numbering nearly 50,000 today, Hutterites have just passed their previous population peak during what Leonard Gross called their “Golden Years” in 1565–1578, following which persecution decimated their number. Our authors ask whether they now face a new golden age. Some Hutterite leaders are seeking to become more missionary. Notwithstanding the challenges of life in the twenty-first century, Janzen and Stanton remain confident that Hutterites will thrive and be around for the foreseeable future.

—A widely published author, Marlin Jeschke, Goshen, Indiana, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College, where he taught for 33 years..