Hutterite Families

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Hutterite Families

The Hutterites are an Anabaptist group, along with the Amish and the Mennonites. Jacob Hutter founded the religion in central Europe in the middle 1500s. The official name of the religion is the Hutterian Brethren. Today, they total about 45,000 members living in more than 400 colonies. They are the oldest family communal group in the Western world, but they consider the community to be more important than the family. They believe that salvation is found in total submission to the group, which is more important than the individual. One of their original basic tenets was that believing Hutterites must separate from nonbelieving spouses (Huntington 1997).

Continually persecuted, many Hutterites moved to Russia in 1770 where they were promised tolerance of their beliefs and practices. This lasted for about a century before the czars forced them into the national schools and the military. Between 1874 and 1877, all 800 surviving Hutterites immigrated to the United States. About half of them were not practicing communal living and eventually joined the Mennonites. The others settled in South Dakota into three colonies, each with a different leader. From then to the present day each of these groups, or Leut, maintains its own council of elders, has minor differences in customs, and seldom intermarries, although relations are friendly across groups. From most to least conservative in their practices, they are called the Lehrerleut, the Dariusleut, and the Schmeideleut.

World War I brought persecution from the U.S. government because the Hutterites refused to serve in the military, so as a group they made arrangements with the Canadian government, which granted them immunity from the draft. As a result, almost all of them moved to western Canada. They now have colonies in Montana and eastern Washington as well.

Originally craftsmen, they turned to agriculture when the Industrial Revolution made their skills obsolete (Peter 1971). The Hutterites live together in communities and speak a German dialect as well as English. Unlike the Amish, they do accept and use modern devices such as automotive equipment and electricity. Each community, or Bruderhof (a colony within a Leut), is administered by a council of six men, usually elected for life. The preacher is the spiritual leader. There is also a business manager, a farm boss, and a German teacher (Kephart 1976). They live in apartment buildings of their own making.

Kinship Structure

All Hutterites are descended from eighteen families. Four names have since died out, so only fourteen Hutterite surnames remain. The society is patriarchal, and kinship is patrilineal and patrilocal, so men have lifelong association in the same community while women usually leave their colony of birth at marriage. They have maintained the extended family, with three or four generations in the same community, but not necessarily under the same roof.

They believe in a hierarchy of relationships that is ordained by God. Men have higher status than women, and the elderly deserve the respect of the young. The gender and age ranking is seen in all settings, be it church, school, work, or meals. Men typically are assigned to the outdoor farm work; women are in charge of the kitchen and the nursery. Males sit on one side of the room and the females on the other, with the oldest in the back. After church services, for instance, the males file out first, with the oldest woman following the youngest boy (Hofer 1991, 1998).

Due to the high intermarriage that occurs, a colony might have only one or two family names, but consist of eight to fourteen extended families all related to each other to some degree. Others may have as many as seven family names. The three Leut have been endogamous—marrying only within the group—since 1879. However, within these groups, an incest taboo is maintained that includes up to first cousins on both sides (Peter 1971).

The House Child

The sequence and details of childcare were originally described by Hutterite leader Peter Riedemann in 1545 and are basically still followed. Because Hutterites generally adhere to the old rules, their childcare has changed far less than that of the outside world and remains generally untouched by Freudian psychology and other thinking (Huntington 1997). However, since about 1980, some modernizing influences have been noted. Parents now toilet-train their children at about age two rather than at three months; nursing may go all the way to the second birthday, but solid foods are introduced somewhere between six and twelve months (Ingoldsby 2001), whereas it used to be as early as one month after birth (Hostetler 1974).

When the child is an infant, the mother's female relatives commonly visit and care for both the new mother and the infant. The mother is allowed time off from her regular duties to attend to the needs of her newborn infant and to recover from the pregnancy.

The late infancy stage is a time for the house child to venture beyond the mother to a greater range of peers and associations within the colony. When the child gets a little older, the mother is reassigned back to her original job, and so the rest of the community helps to raise the child. In effect, the colony becomes a large extended family tending to the needs and welfare of the young Hutterite (Stanton 1989).

In the Middle Ages the Hutterites believed that "as soon as the mother hath weaned the child she giveth it to the school." Today the nuclear family is not so limited in its functions, but the schools do play a large part in the lives of Hutterite youth (Hostetler 1974).


Children stay with their families until they are three, at which time they go to the community kindergarten, which usually lasts from seven or eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. Throughout their six-day-a-week program, the children are separated from the rest of the colony, including parents and siblings, from early in the morning to mid- or late afternoon. The children sing together, memorize together, eat together, and even take their mid-morning and mid-afternoon naps together.

Young children are considered to be willful, and strict punishment, including strapping, is used. They are expected to learn to obey, pray, share, and sit properly. The three Leuts have different practices in the area of toys. For the most conservative Lehrerleut, none are permitted. The Dariusleut will tolerate small toys brought from home, and the Schmiedeleut provide them in the school (Hostetler 1974).

However, many Dariusleut colonies have stopped running kindergartens. Although the kindergartens have been a key element in the philosophy of putting the community over the family in the raising of children throughout most of Hutterite history, these colonies are simply not organizing them. This means that small children are now spending those years with their families (Ingoldsby 2001).


Following kindergarten comes a ten-year period from ages six to sixteen that is a time of intensive preparation for embracing the Hutterian way of life. A large part of this period is spent in the big school. The local school board instructor teaches from the normal provincial curriculum, and their German teacher provides the moral and religious instruction. The instruction takes place in a one-room classroom with children from the first to the tenth grade in attendance.

The English school is staffed by a teacher provided by the government, who teaches at the colony. Before and after those classes, the Hutterites run their own, in which the children are taught German and the Hutterian way of life. This way, the colony meets government requirements, and the children get a minimal education for interacting in the larger world, but they are not corrupted from their way of life (Kephart 1976).

The education system successfully separates Hutterite children from the outside world. Having close primary, intimate, concrete relations with the colony and only a secondary generalized relationship with the outside world, Hutterites find it hard to interact with and relate to the outside world, so defection is rare (Peter 1971).


Adolescence is from age fifteen to baptism (which is around age twenty), where adult work is learned and begun. Corporal punishment stops here. Termed the foolish years, this is a time when adults expect minor deviations—smoking, having a radio, dating—and tolerate them. Serious problems like suicide, drug addiction, arson, or sexual immorality are virtually nonexistent (Kephart 1976). At this point, adolescents begin to eat with the adults in the dining hall.

The young adult occupies an apprentice position. The boys in this group do most of the colony's hard labor and enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate their strength and stamina. Almost all the boys in this age group find ways to generate cash of their own. They may share it with their sisters in exchange for having the sisters sew them clothes that depart from the accepted pattern in some small way. This is, however, against the expectations of the good basic communal commitments of the Hutterites. Young adults are still considered to be immature emotionally and in need of more religious instruction, but moodiness or poor work performance is not tolerated (Hostetler 1974).

Hutterite preachers condemn dating as a carnal or romantic activity, but it occurs anyway. Parents will usually veto a child's choice that they do not like, or colony leaders will intervene if the partner is considered inappropriate (such as a first cousin). John A. Hostetler quotes a sixteen-year-old girl speaking on relationships:

When boys or girls from other colonies come and visit we all go together in the evening. If the visitors have never been here before, one of our group does the introducing (so the boys know what the girl's name is when he wants her for a date). Then we sit and talk or play. If a boy wants a date, he goes out with one of our guys and tells him; then he calls out the girl he wants. If she wants, she goes along with him. If not, she says no. Sometimes the boys don't like it if we refuse, but you can't tell a girl to go along if she doesn't want to. It's only in leap year that the girls call the boy for a date. Otherwise the boy has to do the calling. In wintertime we really get a lot of visitors because there's not much work to do. In all the colonies each boy gets a two-week vacation. Then they can go and visit whenever they please. (1974, p. 223)

A later description of Hutterite dating involves more physical contact:

A date could be as simple as going for a walk or sitting in a dark corner holding hands, talking, and kissing. On a typical date however, a couple meets in a private room, preferably with a cot or bed on which to sit or lie on (most Hutterites don't have sofas in their homes). Sometimes several dating couples will use the room simultaneously, each minding their own business, on separate cots. And so, usually with the lights off, the couple "dates" often in horizontal position. I was told that this is not universally practiced among the Schmiedeleit, but I do know it is among the Lehrerleit. I suspect that most young people of all three Leit date this way. (Hofer 1998, p. 51)

Hutterite leaders are uncomfortable with the dating style, and they hide it from outsiders, which is not surprising given the strong religious stance they have of confining sexual relations to marriage. Hutterite dating, then, although still conservative, has become romantic. Love and sexual attraction may be as important as orthodoxy in mate selection.


The Hutterites invented a matching procedure during which once or twice a year the marriageable youth were assembled, and the preacher gave each male a choice of three females from which to select a wife. The man had to wait for the next time if he did not want to marry any of the three. This changed to personal choice in 1830 following the uproar caused when a young girl refused to marry an older man (Peter 1971). However, one must marry a Hutterite, and interfaith marriages never occur in the Hutterite church (Hofer 1998). Most colonies are like a large extended family where everyone is either a relative or feels like one, so one usually goes outside the colony to find a spouse. Because Hutterites cannot marry until after baptism and because visiting across colonies is relatively infrequent (for weddings, funerals, and the like), courtships of three or four years are not uncommon (Kephart 1976).

After it is informally known that a couple wishes to marry, and any objections with the families or the colony are worked out, the formal procedure begins the Sunday before the actual wedding. First, the boy asks the preacher's help, which is granted. Next, the elders consider his request and lecture him on proper behavior, and he is encouraged to confess his sins. The next day father and son travel to the girl's colony to get her parent's permission. The day after they are put together in the girl's church. Following this are two days of celebration in the girl's colony and the rest of the week in the boy's. They are married on Sunday and lectured on submissive role of the wife and the kind protective role of the husband. They do not have a honeymoon, but rather immediately return to the normal routine. Marriages are durable due to the strong community relations, and divorce is unknown (Kephart 1976).

Weddings should not take place right before Christmas or Easter, and rarely occur during the planting or harvest seasons. Half of all Schmiedeleut marriages occur in November or December (Hostetler 1974). The bride typically wears a blue brocade wedding dress, along with her usual kerchief head covering instead of a veil. The groom wears a black suit (made for him by his fiancée) with a white shirt and black tie. Wedding cakes seem to be getting fancier, and pictures are now usually taken. It is a happy time, with much to eat and drink (Hofer 1998).

Men are under pressure to marry because they cannot grow beards until they are married, and a beardless male is visibly set apart and not allowed to move into the upper authority levels. The marriage bond is relatively weak in that the couple is generally together only at night. In some colonies their bedroom is next to the husband's parents during the first year. Overt affection is discouraged, but romantic love is filtering in from Canadian society. Wives have a sense of loyalty and devotion to their husbands, but the men are more concerned with other males, as they are the ones who vote on advances in the occupational hierarchy (Peter 1971). Since about 1980 an increase in love and affection in marriage has been noted, with a resulting focus of family over work structure (Ingoldsby 2001).

In 1950 the median age at marriage was 22.0 years for women and 23.5 years for men. Only 1.9 percent of the men and 5.4 percent of the women over the age of thirty had never been married, and only one divorce and four desertions had been reported since 1875 (Hostetler 1974).


In 1954, Joseph W. Eaton and Albert J. Meyer published their landmark study on Hutterite fertility. They documented that from 1880 to 1950, the Hutterites grew from 443 to 8,542 persons. This represents an annual increase of 4.12 percent, which appears to be the world's fastest natural growth rate. Documenting an average family size of slightly over ten children, Eaton and Meyer established the Hutterites as the demographic standard and estimated that maximum fertility for humans is twelve to fourteen children.

Because Hutterites do not marry when a woman first becomes fertile and because there is virtually no premarital sex, the actual number of children is lower than the theoretical maximum. Birth control is considered to be murder, and Eaton and Meyer noted that it was often not used when medically recommended. Natural methods, such as coitus interruptus, are considered sinful. These sexual beliefs and practices have been substantiated in other research (Lee and Brattrud 1967).

Since that time a 33-percent drop in their birthrate has been confirmed. K. Peter (1966, 1980) attributed the decline to later age of marriage and speculated that the purpose was to delay colony divisions or to save money and avoid having idle workers. Although it is true (Laing 1980) that age of marriage is increasing and colony size decreasing, others (Boldt and Roberts 1980) believe that some forms of birth control must be practiced, which could represent a weakening of church authority and a change in core values.

In 1985 access was given to the medical records of all Hutterites treated at a clinic in a small southern Alberta town. Six colonies (three Lehrerleut and three Dariusleut) patronize that clinic for treatment. The clinic had medical records on forty-eight married Hutterite women. Of these 12.5 percent of the women had used oral contraceptives, IUDs, or both. An additional 25 percent had tubal ligations or hysterectomies, meaning that over one-third of the sample made use of some form of birth control. Other physicians and Hutterite leaders confirmed this (Ingoldsby and Stanton 1988).

Later Life

The Hutterites believe that the aged are to be respected and deserving of rest. Women are usually relieved of regular colony jobs in their late forties. Most will continue with food preparation because they prefer that to being alone in their apartments. Men will move to council positions. Having a large family is seen as grandchild insurance against loneliness in old age, and a grandchild may be assigned to run errands for someone with health problems.

Hostetler used a short survey based on Myers-Briggs categories to assess personality. Results indicated that Hutterites are generally extraverted rather than introverted, sensing rather than intuitive, feeling rather than thinking, and judgmental rather than perceptive. They believe that God controls the time of death, and they envy children who die young for having avoided life's temptations and struggles. Most colonies have cemeteries, but funerals are quiet and simple (Hostetler 1974).


Superficially, Hutterite society may appear unchanging. Many colonies hold firmly to the traditional rules concerning dress, food, and recreation, but at the same time important shifts have been occurring in family size and relations. Although still very communal by outside standards, some evidence suggests that individualism is on the rise (Huntington 1997).

In visiting a Dariusleut colony, one gets the feeling of an extended family sharing an inherited farm. The atmosphere is not so much one of communalism as it is of togetherness. Rather than living in the apartment rows, every nuclear family has its own home. This includes mobile homes brought onto the property. Families do their own laundry, and furniture stays in a family from one generation to the next rather than going back to the community.

Although there is the community dining hall, each house has a kitchen with a microwave and refrigerator, and people can eat at home if they chose to. The groups use many store-bought goods in addition to those the colony produces. Each adult is given a personal monthly allowance, and everyone has personal knick-knacks. They are comfortable with picture taking. One sees children's books, soda cans, and toys in the rooms. Unlike the Lehrerleut households, their furniture is soft and comfortable.

Most important is the family interaction, which reminds one of the idealized American family of the 1950s. Families are still technically patriarchal with occasional blustering on the part of the father, but the mother does what she wants in most cases. There is a real affection that leads to greater gender equality in decision-making. Without televisions, families engage in easy, happy conversations. Word games and jokes are common, with extended kin dropping in and out throughout the evening.

The center of life seems to be the family, with the colony as a shared business extended family. Hutterites remain faithful to key tenets and are not threatened by societal incursion in minor areas. They are still conservative enough to be set apart and are less individualistic than are members of the greater society. But the family is now psychologically more important than the community, which has become a support rather than the center (Ingoldsby 2001).

See also:Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite); Extended Families; Family Planning; Intentional Communities


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bron b. ingoldsby