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?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.