By Chaplain Mike
“To have all things in common means to love our neighbor, to have with him, to want with him, to suffer with him and to endure the ups and downs with him.
“In Heaven (as it should be on earth) there is no ownership and hence there is found contentment, true peace, and blessedness.”
– The Hutterite Chronicles, 1525
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Over the course of history, and church history, people have sought to establish ideal communities. We sometimes call these “utopian” — a word coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book bearing that designation.
The word has a double meaning. In Greek, it can mean “the good place,” and thus it has been used to describe a community that fulfills ideals humans long for: peace, justice, economic equality. However, changing one letter in Greek results in a word with the same pronunciation but a different meaning. In this spelling, “utopia” means “no place.” The ideal community is, realistically, out of reach. “The good place” is nowhere to be found.
As so, as God’s community of Christ-followers, we continue to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
One group of people seeking to establish true Christian community on earth is called “Hutterites”.
The Hutterite communities have existed for nearly five centuries. Heirs of an Anabaptist tradition through their founder, Jakob Hutter (c.1500-1536), Hutter’s followers have formed colonies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Like other Anabaptists such as Mennonites and the Amish, Hutterites have a long history of pacifism, which often led to their persecution during religious wars in Europe. The trials they faced forced them to migrate from Austria to Moravia to Transylvania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia. In the 1870’s, they came to North America and settled in the Dakotas and Montana. During WWI, they were again persecuted for their pacifist stand, and many moved to Canada. They settled in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Today, it is estimated that between 40-50 thousand Hutterites live in Canada and the northern U.S.
What distinguishes Hutterites from other Anabaptist groups is their commitment to communal living.
The religion of the Hutterites is unique in their belief in the community of goods in which all material things are held in common. This idea is gleaned from the teachings of Jesus, where he explained to the rich young ruler what he needed to do to receive eternal life (Matthew 19); from the fact that Jesus and his disciples shared everything (John 12); from the early church where the apostles and their followers held all things in common (Acts 2: 44-47). Hutterites believe community of goods is the highest command of love.
All members of the colony are provided for equally and nothing is kept for personal gain. Hutterites do not have personal bank account; rather all earnings are held communally and funding and necessities are distributed according to one’s needs. (Hutterites.org)
This obviously sets the Hutterites apart from their neighbors. They live in self-sustaining colonies and spend most of their time in daily life and work together. Each day is highly structured around communal work, school, meals, and corporate worship. Hutterites are not as opposed to change and technology as some of their Anabaptist brethren, particularly when it comes to farm machinery. However, they remain a plain people with a simple lifestyle. They avoid modern entertainments such as radio, television, and secular music. They have few photographs and do not decorate the walls in their houses. They dress in plain style, though the women’s dresses are often made with vivid colors and patterns. They wear no jewelry, not even wedding rings. One distinctive feature of Hutterite dress is the polka-dotted scarf worn by women. They do patronize and deal with local businesses.
The community is patriarchal, and major decisions are voted on by all male baptized members. In communal meetings such as meals and church services, men and women sit separately. Daily affairs are governed by a minister/chief executive who works with an advisory board that consists of the colony manager, the farm manager, and deacons who are elected for life. They deal not only with the business and religious affairs of the community, but also any personal conflicts and requests that need to come before the colony for determination.
In her bestselling book, I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage, Mary-Ann Kirkby describes features of the Hutterite common life as she knew them.
- Each colony can sustain meaningful work for about 125 members. Once that limit is reached, they “branch out” and a new colony is formed.
- In the center of the colony property and life stand the school and church. They attend daily church services in addition to Sunday worship.
- Hutterites have large families, with an average of over ten children per household.
- The heart of the colony is the kitchen and dining rooms. This is where the community prepares and shares meals together. In Kirkby’s colony, the afternoon meal was eaten separately in family homes.
- Hutterites place a high value on education. They originated the kindergarten 300 years ago, and their children begin schooling before age 3. School for the older children is taught by outside teachers for public school subjects, and by Hutterite teachers for religion. In addition, vocational education and apprenticeship is given to enable the older ones to become skilled tradesmen.
- They don’t lack for recreation. Hutterite children enjoy such sports as hockey, volleyball, baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse and others. Members visit other colonies for shared events and projects, women enjoy crafts, and their choral singing is renowned.
I highly recommend Kirkby’s book if you want to get a good taste of the day to day life in a colony. She provides an insider’s view of Hutterite life from the warm and sentimental viewpoint of one looking back on her childhood. She writes with true affection about the rituals and routines of living in community, and you can hear the bells ring, smell the scent of freshly washed floors, salivate over the daily feasts at the communal tables, and sit with the children in wide-eyed wonder at the power of the stories told by gifted adults.
Her family left the Fairholme Hutterite community when she was ten years old. Kirkby’s book is the story about how she came of age caught in the conflict between the security of life in the colony and her parents’ risky abandonment of that life because of continuing conflict with the minister (her mother’s brother) and his policies. In the end, she learned that:
I understood for the first time that freedom is not found on a Hutterite colony any more than it is found off the colony. True freedom is an inside job… (p. 226)
Why Consider Extreme Community?
Christ-followers and churches today are longing for community. There is a lot we can learn from the Hutterites, as well as many warnings we can take from considering their way of life.
- I respect their sincere convictions about communal living.
- I see many advantages to living in a community that practices some form of communal living. Whether Anabaptist, monastic, or missional in character, sharing a “common life” can be a way of deep spiritual formation that testifies to Christ and life in the new creation.
- They go too far in claiming that sharing all possessions is the only or even the best way of experiencing NT fellowship and community in Christ. Their view of salvation becomes dependent on a lifestyle rather than on Christ. They fail to recognize the diversity of the NT record when they demand this approach.
- Where is the mission of the church that is to be lived out “in” the world even while we are to be “not of” the world? Separatism and biological growth will not fulfill the Great Commission.
- Inherited and enforced conformity can never substitute for the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the full freedom of life in Christ under the New Covenant.
Perhaps some of our Canadian readers can speak firsthand about the Hutterites.
Theirs is no “utopia,” but perhaps this tradition of our Anabaptist brethren can say something to us about our longing for NT fellowship and community.
Note: The National Film Board of Canada produced a film on the Hutterites (1964) that is available for viewing on the web. It is well worth your time.