By Emil van der Poorten –
For many years I had a copy of a book called “Hutterite Society,” authored by John Hostetler which, despite my knowledge of, interaction with and respect for the subject, I never cracked open. One of those things!
My relationship with the Hutterites was largely confined to about a decade when I worked in the livestock feed industry in that part of Canada better known as the “land of the blue-eyed sheikhs” because of its resource riches – oil, gas and oil sands. While the province of Alberta was famous for its non-renewable resources, it was also known as the “Texas of the north,” the only alleged difference being that Albertans claimed that, unlike in Texas, the b.s was on the outside of the (cowboy) boots! In addition to providing more than 60% of Canada’s beef supply from its prairies and foothills via its rangelands and feedlots, Alberta produced a significant amount of other livestock and their products as well. This encompassed lamb and mutton, chicken, eggs, milk.
The Hutterites came out of the Anabaptist stream of Christianity, among whom are the Amish and the Mennonite communities, both of which are best known for their settlements in Pennsylvania in the U. S. and Southern Ontario in Canada as well as parts of the Prairie provinces as well.
While the Hutterites share the basic Anabaptist theology with their better-known brethren which precludes child baptism, what distinguishes them from the Amish and the Mennonites is the fact that whatever wealth they possess is held in common. There are no individual bank accounts.
The families also live in what might be termed “row housing” rather than individual homes, the children moving out when they marry.
They have always been very successful farmers and stockmen, conducting their enterprises as a community and not as individuals. This is in total contradiction to the economic culture of the province of Alberta, in particular, which is about as right-wing, “free enterprise” as you can get, that econo-political philosophy being adhered to with an almost religious fervor! As an indication of where that province sits politically, it should interest aficionados of politics to know that the Progressive Conservative Party held majority government for 40+ years, with landslide political victories each election, until last year. The party that preceded the PCs was even more right-wing, free enterprise and it too ran the province for a similar length of time! Not exactly a place that a group sometimes denigrated as Christian Communists would be on the look-out for as their promised land!
In fact, it would be hard to find a less hospitable place for a group looking to co-operation rather than competition for economic survival, leave alone financial success. However, the Hutterites from the mid-sixteenth century in central Europe, largely in what was once Moravia had undergone truly unbelievable misery in maintaining the moral integrity of their faith, constantly on the move, essentially sheltering under the Middle-age umbrella of some “benevolent” noble who exploited their skills and hard work as farmers and stockmen!
The Roman Catholic church persecuted them relentlessly, using the Jesuits, in particular, to visit untold cruelty on these people who were consistent beyond belief in their adherence to non-violence, never once resisting being beheaded, burned alive and dismembered.
The many years of conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman provided them with no relief from either because it seemed that those allegedly practicing Christianity were in competition with the Islamists in the matter of who could inflict the most barbarous punishment on the Hutterite Brethren!
Where they had peace to conduct their agricultural pursuits was when various nobles simply exploited their propensity for hard and skilled work to enhance their own incomes, essentially paying the Hutterites for working the land, running their livestock etc. and occasionally giving them some land or buildings which didn’t seem to remain in the possession of the recipients for too long!
The Hutterite Brethren never had security of tenure and were buffeted by the fortunes of war irrespective of which religious/imperial group was in the ascendant.
They were subjected to the most unspeakable atrocities: burned alive, dismembered, starved to death. You name an example of man’s cruelty to man, they suffered it.
Ultimately, many of the Anabaptist tradition – Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites and other shorter-lived groupings crossed the Atlantic and, because of their absolute adherence to non-violence and refusal to contribute in any shape, form or fashion to war ended up in the three prairie provinces of Canada and the North-Western part of the US, where, in the earlier part of their history they were exempted from taxes that could be utilized for war or for purchasing the tools with which such conflicts could be waged.
There has been some equivocation and accommodation in respect of the manner in which the Federal and Provincial governments utilize a Hutterite Colony’s taxes but that has been the only “softening” that has occurred in the matter of their lifestyle.
The Hutterites still dress uniformly, both men and women, though there have been some barely perceptible changes over the years. For instance, buttons were permitted to take the place of hooks to hold personal clothing together and some of the clothes, particularly women’s, has become less severe in appearance, with some lessening of the preponderant black in the garments that clothe their upper and lower bodies.
As might be expected of groups living in isolation from the mainstream in a rich north American country, there are some who are enticed by the glittering world outside. However, the vast majority return to the Bruderhof’s security after a taste of the fleshpots of capitalist north America! During the years I spent in contact with these people, I was witness to this fact and one young man whose father was the “chicken boss” (in charge of the poultry on the Bruderhof) after working on the oil rigs – a phenomenally high-paying occupation at the time – returned to the security and simple life of his “colony”
Rather than a single-family dwelling or an apartment he came back to the row-housing, with the simplest of furniture and appliances where the men and women gather for their meals, for prayer and for community meetings in unadorned spaces and then return to their familial lodgings. It should be noted here that the space in which the Hutterites pray is no different from any other meeting space in the colony: no pews, no altar, none of the usual accoutrements of a Christian church of any denomination.
They also, despite being consistently and falsely accused of taking their not-inconsiderable purchasing powers outside the smaller agricultural towns to the larger centres, keep buying their agricultural equipment, food and other essentials from the small prairie towns and I would suggest that you don’t know “small” until you realize a population of 5,000 entitles a town in Saskatchewan to call itself a “city,” not surprising given the fact that Saskatchewan’s total land area is about ten times that of Sri Lanka and it is populated by about a million people – 5% of Sri Lanka’s population in 10 times its space!
With their tradition of non-violence and non-resistance despite provocation beyond belief over six centuries, it isn’t surprising that there has not been one murder among them in the time they’ve been in North America.
They were harassed in the United States during the first World War because of their refusal to support the taking of life in any shape, form of fashion and the first colonies moved into the Southern parts of the prairie provinces – Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta – at that time. With the population increases of the colonies of the south, they have “hived off” to the more northern parts of the prairies.
They were legislatively discriminated against by the Province of Alberta which prevented them from buying land to “hive off” colonies from those that had grown beyond a certain population. This legislation was, after many years, thrown out by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, the discrimination against the “Black people” as they are often known in the prairie provinces because of their predominantly black garb, still continues, though nowhere as virulently as is often the case in other jurisdictions that shall remain nameless!
They do not place any value on intellectual achievement as we understand it and believe that the formal education they receive should be sufficient to fulfill their obligations to the other members of their Colony and to humankind generally. That said, the Anabaptists, and the Hutterites in particular, were the first people in all of Europe and perhaps any part of the world, to ensure that every child had several years of formal education. This was about five centuries before such a practice became the accepted norm in Western Europe!
On a personal level, they have a justified reputation for being excellent, caring neighbours to other (non-Hutterite) farm families and I’ve known of colony harvest equipment being used to bring in the crop of a neighbor who had suffered an accident and couldn’t operate his own equipment. Place this in the context of a very short harvest season where farmers work well into the night, without other help, to bring in their crops and where those crops would, literally, rot in the field if such help was not forthcoming in such an emergency and you’d have the context for such behaviour.
Why the Hutterites as an example of “good people” came to mind was because of the plethora of pseudo-religionists that we seem to have a massive surplus of in our country, only too ready to denigrate and persecute people who do not share their (alleged) belief system which, looked at in the cold light of day, is, at best, a bastardized version of one or the other of the great religions or philosophies that have been nurtured and polished by adherents of wisdom over the years. This kind of thing and its support is nothing short of criminal as has been proven time after time in our own bailiwick and in adjacent jurisdictions too numerous to list.
That we can and MUST live in harmony with the “other” is something that hardly needs laboring given examples such as this. This is particularly so because it was the east that gave birth to all the faiths of substance that we have succeeded in undermining and destroying because of our obsession with removing the “other” from our midst.