A profile on the Hutterites: their history, beliefs, and culture.
Founder: Jacob Hutter
Headquarters: There is no central Hutterite authority. They live in various loosely connected colonies primarily in Canada and the Northern United States.
Membership: Between 40,000 and 45,000
Origins: 1530's in Austria and Moravia
Brief Description: Hutterites are a radical Anabaptist sect that broke off from the main Anabaptist movement over the unique Hutterite conviction that Christians should renounce all private property and live completely communally with shared ownership of all things. Hutterites today live on communal farms where they believe their faithfulness to their distinctive way of life, which they believe to be the only true Christian life, will be the means of their salvation on the coming day of judgment. As such, they practice a form of works righteousness and have separated themselves from biblical Christianity and the biblical gospel. They are a sub-Christian cult.
History: As the Anabaptist movement spread through Europe in the 16th century, it was by no means a strictly unified phenomenon. From early on there must have at least been some discussion of the concept of the "community of goods" (the doctrine that Christians should have no private possessions and should live in complete shared ownership of all property as a communal church, for this doctrine was openly repudiated by the founding Anabaptist leaders.1 In the town of Nikolsburg in Moravia, however, during a time of relative peace and security for many otherwise persecuted Anabaptists, a man named Jacob Wiedemann arose advocating this teaching and gained for himself a significant following.2 Wiedemann even insisted that his follower refuse to pay taxes.3 This, combined with Wiedemann's constant conflict with others outside his group (especially with other Anabaptists), ultimately led to him and his followers being driven from the land.4 It was only after being expelled that the group put their teaching on the "community of goods" into practice. Laying a coat on the ground where everyone placed all that they owned into a pile, overseers were chosen to manage and distribute it as needed.5 The first bruderhof, or Anabaptist commune, was established in Austerlitz, Moravia, where the lord of the territory was also tolerant to Anabaptists and dissenters.6 Financial struggles, accusations of unequal distribution, and doctrinal disputes plagued the group, and they eventually split into a variety of rival communal sects.7 The most successful faction was under the leadership of a man named Jacob Hutter, who was an able administrator with a zeal for the Anabaptist faith. 8 Though his life and ministry was short amidst the waves of persecution,9 he established what would prove to be the only one of these communal offshoots to last. They came to be known as Hutterites.
While they were in error in their communal doctrine, these radical Anabaptist offshoots were not initially devoid of the biblical gospel. There were seeds of what was to come from the very start. One of the earliest theological controversies was over the issue of baptism, where one leader brought charges against several of the others, saying:
"They taught that water baptism was a work of righteousness, whereas that should be faith; this, I have heard with my own mouth, from the elder Jacob [Wiedemann], which I also reproved him for in the presence of his brethren at the time, for he said that his comfort and salvation rested on water."10
This false teaching that baptism is a necessary work for salvation was not a part of Anabaptist teaching in the beginning. Indeed, the Anabaptist movement began in part as a repudiation of Roman Catholic dogma on baptism as a salvific act,11 but here we see the beginnings of it rising back up within the midst of the leadership of these communal offshoots.
Another early Hutterite leader wrote that private property was "murderous" and that it "is one of the worst sins," stating further that it "belongs together with fornication and all other impurity."12 The logical conclusion of this view was not long in coming. Hutterites eventually came to believe that repentance must mean giving up all property and that no one can be saved without joining a Hutterite commune.
In the earliest years, there were preachers of the true gospel among them and true martyrs for the faith died as members of these sects. In time, though, after generations of persecution and unrest without and growing doctrinal falsehood within, the group would eventually form colonies in the New World seeking a monastic-like isolation from the world. They abandoned all evangelistic outreach (which by then would probably have been outreach with a false gospel of works anyway) and settled into the pattern of life they still maintain today.13
Doctrine and Practice: Like many groups, the Hutterites profess a core of basic teachings that sound quite Christian. They believe in one God. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They believe that Jesus died on the cross for sins.14 They believe in a future day of divine judgment.15
Their most distinctive doctrine, of course, is that of the "community of goods."16 Today they believe that this practice makes their communal colonies like Noah's ark; a means of their deliverance.17 Those outside the "ark" of the Hutterite commune will perish on the day of judgment.18 By blending together personal surrender with communal sharing, sinful humans are able to enter the ark of the Lord, so it is said.19 As one modern Hutterite put it plainly, "Community life is the only way to heaven."20 Notes from one traditional Hutterite sermon read, "Whoever cannot give up his private property as well as his own self-will cannot become a disciple of Christ."21
Hutterites not only teach that one receives the new birth and the Holy Spirit through submission and obedience in baptism,22 they also put equal emphasis on baptism as an act of obtaining membership in the Hutterite community.23 One traditional Hutterite baptismal sermon states, "Every true believer who wants to be one of the Lord's sheep is obligated by true submission to join the community."24 Thus, for the Hutterite, baptism is not only a work necessary for salvation, but it is also the initiatory act that gains one entrance into the community of goods and a lifetime of works necessary for salvation.
One former Hutterite reports having been taught as a child that on the day of judgment, if her last deed on earth was noble, then she would go to heaven.25 This is perhaps a careless exaggeration that an adult chose to use on a child to keep them in line rather than an official Hutterite teaching, but it reflects the culture of pressure toward perfection among a people who believe their works and lifestyle are what safeguards their own salvation.
Christian Response: Their communal doctrine is erroneously derived from passages like Acts 2:44, which mention believers holding "all things in common." These passages, however, are plainly speaking of an attitude of self-sacrifice and holding other believers above themselves. They are about being willing to give up whatever we have to meet the needs of another. They are talking about a heart transformed by the gospel. They are not condemning the entire concept of property. The book of Acts, and indeed the whole New Testament, is filled with references to Christians owning personal property and using it selflessly to God's glory.
Still, this is not the central issue between Christians and Hutterites. In theory, a group of Christians could choose to live communally and yet still trust fully in the biblical gospel of God's grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Such Christians could still go into the world and preach the true gospel to the lost. They could even remain in fellowship and brotherhood with other Christians that did not choose to live this way. Such a choice to live communally would not be based on a proper reading of the Bible, but it would not deny them salvation or make them inherently unchristian. The problem with the Hutterites is that they have made their communal living a means of salvation and have thus created a different gospel, a gospel of works that cannot save. As a result of this, they have denounced and broken ties with biblical Christianity and walled themselves off from both believers and the rest of the unbelieving world in hopes of finding salvation in their colonies. "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19).
The Hutterites are a people lost and in desperate need of the biblical gospel who live in isolated communal farms where few have the opportunity to take it to them. Under the quaint facade of their seemingly idyllic, simple life is an ever-present need of deliverance from their sins and the hope of eternal life in the true and living Jesus and we must find a way to share with them this glorious truth. The Hutterites are a cult and a mission field, not a Christian movement. Their doctrine is to be guarded against.
- 1. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 40
- 2. ibid, 127-128
- 3. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998) 77
- 4. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 128
- 5. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998) 77
- 6. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 129
- 7. ibid, 132
- 8. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998) 77
- 9. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 133
- 10. ibid, 130
- 11. ibid, 196-202
- 12. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 25
- 13. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story - 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 220
- 14. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998), 75.
- 15. Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) 99
- 16. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998) 75
- 17. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 25
- 18. Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) 130
- 19. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 28
- 20. Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) 52
- 21. ibid, 45
- 22. Samuel Hofer, The Hutterites: Lives and Images of a Communal People (Hofer Publishers, 1998) 57
- 23. ibid, 57
- 24. John A. Hostetler, Leonard Gross and Elizabeth Bender, Selected Hutterian Documents in English Translation (Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, 2013) 67
- 25. Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) 45