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ETHNONYM: Hutterite Brethren


Identification. The Hutterites in Canada and the United States are a Germanic people with origins in the Swiss Anabaptist movement that developed between 1525 and 1536 during the Reformation. Along with the Old Order Amish and Mennonites, the two other Anabaptist groups in North America, the Hutterites reject childhood baptism, are pacifists, maintain a closed religious community, and reject full participation in the Canadian and American societies. Unlike the two other Anabaptist groups, however, the Hutterites strictly adhere to community ownership of property and communal living patterns in farm communities (colonies) of from 60 to about 150 people each. Since settling in North America, the Hutterites have divided into three Leut (groups of colonies): the Dariusleut (mostly in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana), the Schmiedeleut (mostly in Manitoba and South Dakota), and the Lehrerleut (in Alberta, Montana, and Saskatchewan).

Location. Hutterites (colonies) are found mainly in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in Canada (253 colonies in 1989) and the states of South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, and Minnesota in the United States (103 in 1989). Because of a high birth rate and a desire to keep colonies small, new colonies are regularly being formed.

Demography. About 1,265 Hutterites fled to what is now South Dakota from Russia in 1874. Only 443 chose to live communally. The population has increased to 31,521 in 1990. The rapid population growth at a rate of 4 percent per year is attributable to a high birth rate (completed family size of nine children) and a low attrition rate (less than 2 percent). Few outsiders are recruited through conversion and the Hutterites do not missionize.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Hutterites speak the Huttrish dialect of German, use biblical High German in religious services, and speak English with outsiders.

History and Cultural Relations

The first Hutterites were religious refugees who fled from the South Tyrol to Moravia (in what is now Czechoslovakia) and, as followers of Jacob Hutter, chose to hold their material goods in common. Hutter organized them into colonies (Brüderhöfe ) of married adults and their children to live communally, a pattern of social organization that has remained a basic feature of the Hutterite culture since that time. As Anabaptist refugees flocked to Moravia, the early Hutterites managed to survive persecution and flourish, growing to over twenty thousand adherents by the early 1600s. Since 1590, however, the Hutterites have been a regular target of religious persecution, which precipitated a series of relocations first to Slovakia, then Hungary, then Romania, and finally to Russia in 1770. In the 1870s the group left Russia and settled in Dakota Territory, or what is now South Dakota. Their final mass relocation ocurred during World War I when the men were persecuted for refusing military induction and all but one Colony fled to Canada (during World War II Hutterite men performed alternative service). After the war, some colonies moved back, but the bulk of the population has remained in the plains provinces of Canada.

As suggested by their frequent forced relocations, Hutterite relations with mainstream society have often been less than friendly and the Hutterites have often been the target of violence. Their residential isolation, communal social and economic organization, Anabaptist beliefs, and economic success combined with the economic necessity of routinely interacting with outsiders have produced tense, distant Hutterite/non-Hutterite relations, which continue today. The desire of outsiders to develop Hutterite land and the issue of compulsory education are two recent sources of conflict.


For the Hutterites, the colony is the center of their world, and each must be laid out in accord with the basic principles of order and proper relationships. The colonies are named and are essentially large, self-sufficient prairie farms usually located not too close to one another so as to reduce friction but not too far so as to inhibit the exchange of services. Colonies are also located away from towns, although near enough that Hutterites can conveniently shop for equipment and supplies. Each colony has about fifty buildings including longhouses with three-room family apartments, a central kitchen, a kindergarten, school buildings, shops, sheds, and barns. Most colonies do not have a separate church building and services are usually held in a school building or community dining hall in the kitchen building. Colony landholdings range from a few thousand to sixteen thousand acres of land. When colonies reach their optimal size (about 130 to 150 people) a "daughter" colony is formed through a carefully planned and managed process, with half the costs borne by the parent colony.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Owing to their use of highly mechanized farming techniques, a large work force, and fertile land, Hutterite colonies are very efficient and productive. Barley, wheat, oats, and hay are major crops, used primarily to feed the colony livestock with the excess sold for cash. Beef and dairy cattle, pigs, chickens and eggs, geese, turkeys, and sheep are raised and their products used in the colony and sold. The colonies are carefully planned and managed business enterprises with most decisions made in consideration of the supply and demand of the external economy.

Industrial Arts. Production of crafts for sale is no longer important, although bookbinding, clock repairing, tinsmithing, shoemaking, furniture making, and other industrial arts are sources of income for some colonies.

Trade. Although the colonies are largely self-sufficient, they are integrated into the U.S. and Canadian economies through the sale of farm products and services and the Purchase of equipment and raw materials. Cooperation in the loaning of services and materials is common between colonies located nearby, and especially between parent and daughter colonies.

Division of Labor. All people able to work are expected to do so. Work is allocated on the bases of age, sex, and authority patterns. In general, men do the income-producing work, while women handle the domestic chores.

Land Tenure. All land, buildings, and productive equipment is purchased and owned by the colony. A fairly detailed though flexible set of rules govern the distribution and ownership of material goods by individuals. Personal property is defined by the Hutterites as something given to the individual by the colony for the person to use, not to own.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. The recognized kin groups are the nuclear family, the patrinomial family (kin with the same surname), and clans (intermarrying family lines). Leuts are considered not kin groups but, rather, historical branches of the same large group. Brothers and their father often cooperate in many activities. Descent is bilateral with a patrilineal emphasis.

Marriage. Marriage is colony exogamous and Leut endogamous. Within these bounds, freedom of choice of spouses is the norm, although sibling exchange marriages are preferred. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, and a woman's ties to her family are usually overridden by patriarchal authority patterns. Divorce is not allowed.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the primary residential unit, occupying an apartment in one of the longhouses. It is not, however, the primary economic unit nor the primary arena for socialization. Patriarchal authority is the norm and the in-marrying wives are greatly influenced both by their husbands and their mothers-in-law. Large families are strongly encouraged.

Inheritance. As there is no ownership of personal property, there is no inheritance.

Socialization. Children are seen as gifts of God who belong to the colony and ultimately to the church. Thus, much of child rearing and socialization occurs in the colony context. Hutterite values and ways are taught and reinforced informally through participation in colony activities and Formally through school attendance. Kindergarten children (ages three to five) attend Klein-Schul and schoolchildren (ages six to fifteen) attend German school (Gross-Schul ), English school, and Sunday school. Except for English school, the emphasis in school is on inculcating Hutterite values and ways of life. English school is taught by a non-Hutterite, though various restrictions are placed on the curriculum and teaching methods so as not to contradict Hutterite teachings.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic social unit is the colony. Colonies are communal organizations where equality and the meeting of group rather than individual needs are core values. Sex and age are important determinants of authority patterns, with these patterns evident in the social organization of virtually all colony activities. Community integration is achieved through communal song, prayer, and worship as well as through the cooperative nature of economic activities.

Political Organization. There is no overarching political structure governing all Hutterites, though each of the three Leut has an elected head elder. Within each colony, there is a clear authority structure: (1) the colony; (2) the Gemein (church) composed of all baptized adults; (3) the council of five to seven men which serves as the colony's executive board; (4) the informal council of some council members which makes day-to-day decisions; (5) the head preacher ("elder") who serves as the contact with the outside world; and the Diener der Notdurft (steward or boss) who is the Economic manager of the colony.

Social Control and Conflict. Hutterite socialization is designed to produce responsible, submissive, hardworking adults who can live cooperatively in the communal colonies. Social control is maintained through the daily reinforcement of these behaviors and adherence to the well-defined rules governing authority and decision making. Misconduct is handled through a progression of sanctions, from individual reproach to a hearing before the council to excommunication followed by reinstatement. Shedding the blood of another and deserting the colony are the worst crimes, neither of which can be forgiven. No murder has ever occurred among the Hutterites. Alcohol abuse has been a minor social problem since the 1600s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Hutterite religious beliefs are the major force shaping their values and behavior. Hutterite religion follows Christianity, with some significant differences in belief and practice. The major difference is the Hutterite belief that humans can be "saved" or "returned to God" only through communal living in a Christian community. The universe is seen as composed of a heaven (Himmel ) and a lower part composed of earth (Erde ) and hell (Ort des Gefangniss). God is seen as omnipotent.

Religious Practitioners. The head preacher of each Colony is responsible for all aspects of colony life. He is supervised by his colony church and other colony head preachers in his Leut. Head preachers are always men and only baptized men may vote on colony issues and select leaders. The head preacher is assisted by an assistant preacher.

Ceremonies. The evening church service is an integral part of Hutterite life. Services are led by the head preacher and involve the singing of hymns, a sermon, and prayer. Sunday services are somewhat more involved and elaborate, and in many colonies Sunday is a day of rest and no or little work is performed. The major annual spiritual event is Holy Communion, taken by all baptized men and women on the day after Easter. Church attendance generally requires the wearing of special church clothes. Baptism at about age nineteen for women and from ages twenty to twenty-six for men is the most important rite of passage for Hutterites. It signifies adult status, is a prerequisite for marriage, and often creates closer bonds between the now-adult children and their parents.

Arts. Traditional crafts such as pottery making and decorative sewing have now largely disappeared, though clothing style is an important indicator of Leut identity. Sports and dancing are virtually absent, and individual hobbies tend toward productive activities such as electrical wiring. Singing is the central expressive activity. Hutterites sing in church, at school, at home, and during group activities. There is a rich and varied repertoire of songs and hymns.

Medicine. Medical care is largely free of religious content and physicians are routinely used. Hutterite chiropractors are used by both colony members and outsiders. The Hutterites have been the object of intense study by mental health Researchers and display an unusually high incidence of affective psychoses and low incidence of schizophrenia when compared to other groups and the U.S. population in general. The Hutterites also display a culture-specific disorder called Anfechtung, characterized by a feeling of having sinned. Treatment is through talk with the preacher, prayer, and confession, usually producing a cure.

Death and Afterlife. Death is seen as the step leading to paradise for those who have lived a faithful life. Burial usually follows three days after the death and is preceded by a wake and an in-gathering of colony members and baptized Members of other colonies. The communal life provides emotional support for the family of the deceased.


Bennett, John A. (1967). Hutterian Brethren: The Agricultural Economy and Social Organization of a Communal People. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hostetler, John A. (1974). Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hostetler, John A., and Gertrude Huntington (1970). The Hutterites in North America. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Martens, Helen (1968). "Hutterite Songs: The Origins and Aural Transmission of Their Melodies from the Sixteenth Century." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University.


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Hutterites (radical Reformation group): see ANABAPTISTS.

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