Ask a Hutterite

The blog of a real, live Hutterite.

Question: Hutterites and musical instruments

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Question: What is the Hutterite stance with regard to the use of musical instruments, e.g. piano, guitar, violin, saxophone, etc. in your homes, schools and worship services?

A handwritten Hutterite hymnal. [photo: Kelly Hofer]

Response: Hutterites have an uncomfortable relationship with musical instruments. Considering that several key personalities in the Reformation and early Anabaptist movement were against all forms of music, this is to be expected. Regarding instruments and other issues, Martin Luther said, “If it isn’t expressly forbidden in Scripture, you may do it.” Ever cautious, Konrad Grebel countered, saying, “If it isn’t directly commanded in Scripture, you may not do it!” Aiming a direct critique against the Catholic liturgy, which wasn’t in the vernacular, Huldrych Zwingli said that corporate worship should focus on helping people understand scripture. Balthaser Hubmaier, however, was OK with singing: he felt singing texts that are understood by the singers is pleasing to God.

Later, the great Hutterite Ältester Peter Riedemann said that singing spiritual songs was a good practice. For me, it is very interesting to note that he didn’t make any mention of instruments in his Confession of Faith, though he did classify them as unnecessary in one of his hymn-texts. On the importance and value of the Hutterite Väterlieder the 19th century Hutterite Ältester Johannes Waldner said, “Give the songs and epistles and accounts of faith about the brethren who have been put to death [gerichtet] to the youth, or whoever can read, so that they can diligently read them, become familiar with and commit them to memory, so that everyone will have a better grounding in the articles of faith; so that if some of them later are confined to prison, or otherwise are called upon to defend their faith, they know of the Lord what they should know.” [my own translation of an excerpt from Das kleine Geschichtbuch] Here we can see that the song text was the high point for our fore-parents and it is from this ‘all else is secondary’ basis that we are building on. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why tension still surrounds the question of whether using instruments befits a people of God.

In the 1940, the famous Canadian prairie writer, W. O. Mitchell wrote a rather unfortunate drama called, “The Devils Instrument” to explore this issue as well. I include that play’s synopsis here for your amusement:

Jacob Schunk, a sixteen-year old Hutterite boy, is given a mouth organ by a stranger. His love of creating music and his love for Marta, a Hutterite girl, inevitably clash with the puritan, patriarchal  society of the Hutterites.  In the view of the stern powerful “Bosses,” music and moon-light meetings by the straw stack are the Devil’s work. They condemn Jacob and Marta to a one-month shunning, smash Jacob’s mouth organ on an anvil, and arrange for Marta to marry some one else—all of which lead to Jacob’s final rebellion.”

Though Mitchell was a fine writer, he certainly didn’t know his subject matter that well in this case. Misrepresenting Hutterites in mainstream media is not a new phenomenon!

But I digress. Today the Hutterite community at large still wrestles with the question of whether instruments are acceptable or not. In some communities instruments are fully accepted for home and recreational use while in others they are considered anathema. There are no Hutterites, to my knowledge, that use any instruments during church services. In communities where they are not permitted at all, there may be a flourishing ‘underground’ music scene, occasionally with some proficient players. Interestingly, in communities where instruments are embraced, the primary issue is convincing kid’s to practice, revealing the human inclination towards the forbidden.

I have been fortunate to study the piano for several years with two non-Hutterite master-teachers, and even I constantly examine my stand on the role of instruments in our communal life. For example, my community be hosting a wedding this fall where a Prediger with more traditional leanings will likely be present. As planner of the musical presentations, I will have to help find a resolution that is comfortable to all our guests.

Some of the arguments against the use of instruments that I have heard are: it might lead to dancing; it is too sensual; it is so powerful that it the might be used for evil purposes; they are unnecessary. These are, of course, very valid concerns. The arguments for using instruments include the fact that it helps our choirs learn music more quickly; it is a positive venue for our young people to invest their time in, instead of playing video games especially considering that our modern society has more ‘free time’ than generations past–this teaches the lesson that hard work and perseverance are important; listening to a skilled player on an instrument can be spiritually enriching.

The most common instruments found among our communities would be the guitar and piano, with the Harmonica (mouth organ) being very popular among the older generation. I am also aware of people dabbling with the violin and fiddle, flute, and an assortment of other typical blue-grass style instruments.

It is a well known fact that restrictions based on principles of faith can lead to an outpouring of unique results. Among my people musical restrictions have fostered an interesting and creative tendency to adapt music from pop culture into a Hutterite context. Listen to this country-style tune by the German artist, Tom Aster.

And now listen to a trio of young Hutterite women perform the same song without instruments while adding harmony by ear. There is also a stanza omitted with words that could be controversial. Fascinating, isn’t it. This is the music I grew up with and even though I listen to many different genres, when life gets really difficult, this is what I turn to for comfort. [My thanks to Carissa Maendel for kind permission to use this recording–the singers are Marianna Maendel, Ashleah Maendel and Carissa Maendel.]

Some of the questions around this issue that remain for me are: How will instruments impact our vibrant congregational singing tradition? Will those who come behind us find soul-comfort in singing the hymn texts of the past? What can we do now to make sure they do? As we embrace music from other cultures, will our own remain loved and treasured?

For anybody interested in a more in depth analysis of Hutterite music-making, I suggest the master’s thesis ‘Performing Salvation in Hutterite Choirs‘ by Matthew Knight.

Thank you, John C. K. for the question.

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7 thoughts on “Question: Hutterites and musical instruments

  1. Well, I’m ‘for’ the comment, ‘if Scripture does not forbid it, who are you to,’ or however that went. I think your greater danger is worshipping and sanctifying your ‘culture’ as holy and unchangeable. No man-made culture is. If something that is tradition does not line up with God’s will and the freedom or the boundaries cited or ignored in scripture, don’t cite is as ‘good.’ It is merely a way you’ve always done things. The arts; music in all forms, dance, paintings, poetry, choirs, architecture…as are foods, are a gift of God and can be used for good or evil. How can you ignore the commands of the psalms to use the arts to glorify God? Dance, sing, make music on instruments, and since people are the church, whether in their homes or in a meeting, there should not be much difference. There are those who delight in being ‘professional stumblers’ and allowing anything unfamiliar to ‘hinder their faith.’ Or anything that THEY think is crossing a line. It is a merely a power tool that squashes freedom. How many people, honestly Kenny, do you think reject God because of God’s people expressing freedom and redemption of the arts? It is usually the Pharisaical that are offended. The ones that could leave the church and leave it better because of their legalism which Jesus hated so much. When Christians express their freedom, along with the responsibilities of their faith, outsiders are drawn in, finally knowing what God-freedom looks like. And our goal is to reach the lost, to free prisoners, not to cajole the self-righteous and fit into their own man-made rules.

  2. Very interesting. It confirms what I suspected (and learned) during our time together in Kodály classes; I wasn’t altogether sure about the propriety of putting together a recorder ensemble, even though the goal was developing skills for music educators. The end result in our final concerts seemed to be well-received, though.

    I would hate to think of the Hutterite choral tradition coming to an end. Such a rich repertoire and tradition, and the harmonizing by ear is – to my University trained ears – amazing.

  3. I’ve been part of many Christian groups with musical instruments and have found the following problems: the church spends lots of money on sound systems and choir directors instead of helping the poor or spreading the gospel, music becomes a performance or entertainment–with lots of envy and rivalry, and finally people spend lots of time and money on music rather than improving their job skills, fellowshipping or helping others. I really appreciate the conservative Mennonites who play instruments at home, but avoid performing and going overboard with music.

  4. Lovely thought provoking discussion. I would encourage the Hutterites to stay focused on their principles. Whether to play instruments or not should follow from whether doing so promotes the principles they adhere to, in ways that they understand. That said, it might be possible to maintain principles and get loose once in a while. Relaxation and getting unworried is helpful to the soul and healthy to the body.

  5. Hello, through the years 1979 to 1982, I and a small group of French believers lived communally a couple of miles from the Oak Bluff colony. We were also helped by the Crystal Springs colony. We had continual interaction with the Hutterites on a virtually daily basis. We attended many services (evening services after dinner and Sunday services. We never got into disputes about things like worship but I have to say that the lack of musical instruments, I viewed as a disadvantage. Picking up on the retort by Konrad Grebel countered, saying, “If it isn’t directly commanded in Scripture, you may not do it!” I thought “wow, then why don’t they play instruments?” for the psalms do use language like “play it on the psaltery” and it seems to me that our guidance on how to worship God should look especially to the psalms for our example. I think what has happened is that Hutterite tradition has become very entrenched. I think that in many ways the Hutterite tradition against music during worship is at the extreme end of one scale and at the other end are some churches that play music so loud that it is actually distracting for the worship of God. I mean, I can’t even hear my own thoughts. I find a lack of balance in both positions. Music should be a servant not the focus. The lack of musical instruments is no sin but I think about God who created us and I think about all the worship displayed in scripture and can’t imagine why anyone would deprive – by tradition or fearfulness – those who are gifted by God for music and who would thrive by using music in worshiping. I view this kind of prohibition to be as sinister an evil as Catholic monks who may not speak and when they sing, it is by chant alone without musical instruments. I find the Hutterite prohibition against musical instruments to be akin to that of some Catholic monasteries. Hutterites are in need of a fresh move of the Holy Spirit and hope it may happen. God bless.

  6. They in need of a Holy Spirit move? Let me dampen your hopes. It will never happen. Their clergy suffocates any hope of that. I had acquaintance with a senior gentleman who left the colony years ago who testified that God showed him a dream that depicted the colony as a dead corpse. It’s thrice dead indeed. Their developmental stage manifested in a relatively dead era and they have done the predictable, that is preserve this post dark age era and held it rottenness over another 300/400 years. Certainly gives the biblical term “twice dead” a valid application. The pious gent who moderates this forum may not publish my comment. Typical of their european era superstitious control freak mentality. Study the term (Niko laity). It’s used in revelation. Means simply to conquer the laity. And make a government that usurps control. It’s not God’s system. But the devil’s

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