Hutterites of the 21st-century live in an era of unprecedented prosperity. Never have we experienced such an extended period of peace and plenty as in the last century on the Great Plains of North America. The political and religious persecution of Moravia, Ukraine, and the early years in North America are but a distant, vague memory in the collective Hutterite psyche. That is not to say that these memories are not important or have no influence at all. It is to say, however, that with this significant shift come different challenges that must be confronted if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus and our foreparents’ legacy.
The year 2020 marks the conclusion of the Manitoba-Hutterite centenary. The migration from South Dakota, which represents a crucial turning point in Hutterite history, began in 1918 and continued into 1920, spanning a two-year period. It is a happy coincidence of history that this auspicious occasion overlaps with efforts to commemorate the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement as a whole. Reflecting on the many cultural and ecclesial changes is a gift that anniversaries offer—where will it all lead?
Hutterite life in the late 20th-century was characterized by simplicity and asceticism, with firm guidelines for virtually every facet of life. Much of this was necessitated by challenging economic and social circumstances associated with migrating from South Dakota to Manitoba. Through Gemeindeordnungen, the grapes of individuality were systematically crushed into the strong wine of communal living. Today, well into the 21st century, the emphases of the past are no longer the normative factors in Hutterite life; the prohibitions that controlled life’s minutiae have relaxed considerably. The metaphorical bread of community today does not consist of bland bleached flour, but rather is a rich loaf of multi-grains, generously loaded with millet and sesame seeds that give a satisfying crunch. This shift from persecution to prosperity, from hardship to comfort and convenience, is the most significant challenge that Hutterites of today must learn to metabolize. Perhaps the most significant obstacle associated with this is that most Hutterites would not even consider this to be a problem!
The growth and flourishing of the last century have come at a cost. We may have achieved religious freedom from the state, but what is the state of our religious freedom within? Are we seeking to conscientiously balance individual Gewissensfreiheit [freedom of conscience] with the health of our communities, for it is healthy individuals that form healthy communities? Have we become so focused on uniformity and conformity, that we have quashed the individual? By overemphasizing the historic grapes and wheat metaphor, we have forgotten that kernels of grain and berries have uses other than bread and wine.
Can we offer a prophetic witness to a society that has become pathologically individualistic to encourage an orientation toward equality, sharing, and diverse forms of community? Or will we follow our present trajectory of becoming more insular and parochial, more concerned with our immediate family cliques, and desperately clinging to our comfort and convenience? Do we have the will to heal the divisions among us—ruptures in the body of Christ—brought about by internal struggles?
Perhaps living courageously on the cusp of not one, but two, centennial anniversaries might mean that Hutterite Anabaptists wrestle with the question of what it means to be individuals created in the image of God, gathered together by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Jesus Christ where the worldliness of hierarchy and authority are subdued and mutuality, accountability, and filial concern are embraced. Do we dare reclaim the spirit of our 16th-century foreparents?
This article was originally written for publication in Gewagt! 500 Jahre Täuferbewegung, 1525-2025: Themenjahr 20 gewagt! mündig leben (Frankfurt/Main: 500 Jahre Täuferbewegung 2025, 2020), 63. It can be read in German here.