Over the past eighty years the Hutterites and the Bruderhof have merged and separated two times, but throughout this period each group has preserved its own distinctive traditions and cultures. Ten years after their latest break-up, both groups still have remarkable, if distinct, strengths.
An outsider can only wonder, considering their many differences, why they ever would have thought they could merge. And some outsiders still confuse the two groups. Fortunately, Rod Janzen, in a recent journal article, provides an excellent history of the confusing relationships between the two groups and a comparative analysis of their societies and cultures.
While the Hutterites and the Bruderhof share many basic beliefs and ideals, they have very different cultures due to their differing histories and traditions. From their beginnings in early 16th century Austria, the Hutterites had strong leanings toward communal living, much like the early Christians in the New Testament Book of Acts. After several centuries of persecutions and migrations eastward across Europe, they moved to North America in the late 19th century, where they divided into three different groups known as the Schmiedeleut, the Lehrerleut and the Dariusleut.
The Bruderhof movement, founded in Germany in the 1920s by a German academic, Eberhard Arnold, developed similar Christian communal ideas to the ones of the 16th century Hutterites that they had read about. Unlike the Hutterites, they also accepted the teachings of the 19th century theologians Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son Christoph Blumhardt, plus various other ideas.
Arnold learned in the early 1920s that descendants of the original Hutterites, after whom he had patterned his commune, still existed in North America, and he began corresponding with them. He was interested in affiliating with them because of their very similar beliefs.
The relationship began to flourish after Arnold visited the 33 North American Hutterite colonies in 1930. In December 1930 the Hutterites accepted the Bruderhof into their fold, though relationships couldn’t really develop too effectively over the next 20 years due to the moves of the Bruderhof community to England and later to Paraguay to escape the strife in Europe.
When visits resumed between the groups in the 1950s, a split quickly formed. The Hutterites discovered that their Bruderhof affiliates allowed many practices that seemed very alien to them. The two groups reunified in 1974, but subsequently split again in 1995. Further confusing the story, the three Hutterite leuts were also split due to their attitudes toward modernization and toward the Bruderhof culture.
The Schmiedeleut, the most progressive of the three leuts, split into factions, and one particular colony, Forest River in North Dakota, became partially allied with the Bruderhof and partially with the Hutterites. Janzen effectively sorts out the various fissions, fractures, and issues involved in this history.
The article includes a most useful overview of the social structures and cultural patterns of the two societies. The Bruderhof, according to the author, has 2,600 residential members in seven major communities in the states of New York and Pennsylvania (plus some other locations), while the Hutterites have about 42,000 members in 430 colonies in the Great Plains of the US and Canada.
Comparing the two groups, he indicates that the Bruderhof members are quite courteous and controlled. They tend to speak carefully and thoughtfully, and are often very serious in their relationships, while the Hutterites tend to be more blunt. The Hutterites have no problem gossiping about one another, both positively and negatively, while the Bruderhof members firmly believe, in the words of one of their documents, that “there must never be talk, either in open remarks or by insinuation, against a brother or sister …” (p.532).
Another striking difference is that the Bruderhof members see work as a form of worship, while the Hutterites see work as “simply a way to put bread on the table.” The latter don’t resent working, but, according to Janzen, “they simply do not associate the construction of a new hog barn with the worship of God.” (p.533).
The two groups also view education differently. The Hutterites minimize formal education for their young people, except that the Schmiedeleut has recently showed interest in training their own schoolteachers; but otherwise the Hutterites are happy to rely on outside professionals when they need them. In contrast, the Bruderhof encourage their young people to achieve a higher education, and their communities now include dentists and lawyers who were born in a hof.
Janzen describes many other disparities in the beliefs and practices of the two groups. The Bruderhof is quite willing to work with other Christian humanitarian groups, such as Habitat for Humanity, in a wide range of projects. The Hutterites have not become involved in those sorts of outreach efforts.
On a more fundamental level of belief, the Bruderhof believe that the Bible, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is central to their beliefs, but in the interpretation of “the Word of God, the life-giving spirit is decisive,” in the words of one of their documents (p.536). The Hutterites, in contrast, interpret the Bible in the unvarying light of the 17th century sermons that have guided their group for centuries.
Decision making in the Bruderhof is characterized by consensus, while the Hutterites mostly make decisions by majority votes. Hutterite women do not vote and don’t participate in policy-making meetings, while Bruderhof women do. Janzen does point out, however, that Hutterite women feel they have as much power as Bruderhof women because of their informal, behind-the-scenes, grapevine and gossip.
Janzen’s careful analysis of the vibrant history, society, and culture of both the Hutterites and the Bruderhof is a very solid contribution to the scholarship about the two groups.
Janzen, Rod. 2005 “The Hutterites and the Bruderhof: The Relationship Between an Old Older Religious Society and a Twentieth-Century Communal Group.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 79(4): 505-544. [Note: MQR obviously messed up the sub-title of this article on page 505. The sub-title given in the table of contents and in the volume index of this issue (and the only wording that makes sense) read “The Relationship Between an Old Order Religious Society and a Twentieth-Century Communal Group.”]