Expelled Bruderhofers Members Speak Out

by John A. Hostetler

This draft is of an article written with the view to publication. It is circulated for the present for review and correction of factual material.


"Intentional community" is a phrase used widely to characterize a variety of groups that have sprung up periodically in the country. These groups vary greatly in their orientation, ranging from the secular idealistic to the deeply religious, and from the activist to the withdrawn. Such communities were made up of men, women and their children who became involved in an attempt to express a better way of living than was to be found in ordinary society. Intentional communities may be thought of as a pioneering effort to find new ways to living based of love and self-giving.
The attrition rate of modern intentional communities, however, indicates that their foundations are fragile. Most have disappeared as quickly as they came into being. They were socially unstable, constantly changing, and generally short-lived. In the face of instability most of them dissolved, sometimes peacefully, but also sometimes with bitter recriminations.
Despite the failure of many attempts at communal living, it must be acknowledged that genuine values have been articulated in such efforts. They inspired, strengthened and provided a context for intensive joy of fellowship and sharing. But the most difficult problem intentional communities face is governance by consensus. Those groups who have survived as viable, ongoing communities have tended to become authoritarian. Some individuals will be held together by outward submission to authority. But authoritarianism is devastating for those who hold to personal religious liberty. When creativity and personal conscience are submerged, the community itself becomes the instrument of pride, often losing all perspective on personal values and freedom.
One of the most widely publicized communal groups to survive in modern times is the Bruderhof movement (Society of Brothers, or Hutterian Brethren). Founded in Germany in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold, the group has survived for over 70 years. Although they have sought full organic merger with the much older Hutterite group (founded in 1528) who live in the western plains region of the United States and Canada, the two come from very different orientations. The movement which Arnold founded is today comprised of eight communities: six in the United States, one in England, and one in Germany. The oldest community in the United States is Woodcrest at Rifton, New York. These groups manufacture toys with the trade name "Community Playthings." If we read the featured articles on the Bruderhof movement in the "New York Times," "Christianity Today," "Sojourners," and many local newspapers, one gets the impression that here is an unusually dedicated group of radical Christians who are opposed to materialism, militarism and racism. An article in the "Catholic Worker" describes them as "people living as if God's kingdom is here on earth."
No one in all of evangelical Protestantism, at least up until now, has suspected the Society of Brothers of being either unorthodox or cultic. Such charges are now coming from among a group of former members.
Overzealous Discipline
Ramon Sender, a former novice who sought membership in the Bruderhof, recently began research for a book about his daughter who remained in the community after he left. He had been refused the opportunity to visit her as a child. He received no announcement of her engagement and marriage, no announcement of the birth of two grandchildren, and he did not receive word of his daughter's terminal illness until a month after her death. He is now writing a book, he says, "to heal myself of the many years of a father's anguish." In an effort to gather information about her, he contacted other ex-members who had been cut off from communications with the community. After securing over two dozen names and addresses of former members, Sender mailed the list to a circle of friends in what he called a "round-robin network" or persons who had been expelled from the Society of Brothers or had left on their own. The newsletter called KIT ("Keep In Touch") has become a thriving enterprise with over 200 on the mailing list. (The address is P. O. Box 460141, San Francisco, CA 94146-0141.)
The staff of the newsletter decided to host a conference of "survivors and graduates" of the Society of Brothers communities. The first conference was held August 17-19, 1990, at Friendly Crossways Center near Littleton, Massachusetts. My wife Beulah and I were invited to attend this conference. It enabled us to become acquainted with some of the former members and their views.
Without passing judgment on individuals, we wish to examine some of the claims to hardship, and discuss the problems arising when there are unresolved contradictions. Given certain beliefs (or interpretations of beliefs) there are ambiguities in all societies. The Society of Brothers movement is no exception. For purposes of illustration, we shall also allude to the Amish and the traditional Hutterian Brethren. In some instances we will simply raise questions. We speak not only out of professional responsibility, but of our understanding of Christian commitment. This is not an attempt at mediation, but to point out some broader issues for all parties to consider.
I have both a personal and professional interest in this subject. Having grown up in an Old Order Amish family, I have experienced the ties of kinship and faith in a traditional community, and I have also seen the tragedies of division, exclusion and fragmentation. As a student of American community behavior and of Anabaptist communities in particular, I felt some obligation to inform myself of changing trends in Hutterite and related communities. In the past, I have had the fortunate collaboration of Gertrude Enders Huntington, a Quaker anthropologist and authority on early childhood training. We have jointly conducted research on family patterns, schooling, value patterns, and we have co-authored two books, "Children in Amish Society" and "The Hutterites in North America." We have collaborated on the observations made in this article.
Approximately sixty persons attended the conference in Massachusetts. Several persons came from England. Story after story was told of crises and severe recriminations which the expellees had experienced both as children and as adults. There were groups who talked late into the night, and after two days of sharing, there were groups who wanted to talk longer. Descriptions of childhood deprivation and punishments brought tears to the listeners. Of special concern was the treatment of children within the closed communities. There were reports of young people who underwent deep depression and some who had been taught, even as children, that they were harboring an "evil spirit."
Conference attendees drafted an "open letter" which was sent to all eight communities. The letter asked for "serious dialogue" on important concerns. There are elderly ex-members living in poverty and with access to Social Security payments because the Society of brothers did not pay into the system. They asked that visiting privileges be allowed for those who wish to see their relatives, and that the practice of keeping secret the whereabouts of excluded members be stopped. The letter also stated that the threat of intimidation and expulsion gives rise to community-wide fear, that children who wish to leave the community must be given genuine choices, and that censorship and opening of mail must be stopped.
How have leaders of the Society of Brothers responded to the claims? Reactions have been sparse, but a few responses have appeared in the Newsletter. Some of the charges are flatly denied and called "falsehoods and lies." On the other hand, a few of the leaders have made face-to-face apologies for harsh disciplinary measures they inflicted on fellow members years ago. One community member wrote: "Could you please let us live our choice of life in peace. All this stirring up of old wounds brings only more pain and does not allow healing." Still another said, "Come and join us in the struggle against idolatry and all human greatness."
The following narratives of former members describe in detail some of their hardship experiences.
Harsh Life Experiences
No. 1
We began to be watched as to how our children behaved. And we were not only being watched, but certain people went to the elders and complained about our children's behavior, that they did not do as they were told. We were then told to report to the office, and had to hear about how badly behaved our children were and that we had to do better. Most complaints centered on our ten-year- old daughter, that she only wanted to play with boys. We were told to keep an eye on the girl because she was after the boys. I thought how moralistic to accuse a ten-year-old girl of being after the boys when she was only playing with her brothers. But instead of easing off, the complaints became worse and worse, and we were accused of not having the children in hand.
Our daughter became very withdrawn and anxious. We felt labeled as incompetent parents and had no say. Finally our girl just stayed at home, read books and helped me. She had been actually told straight out that she was a misfit, and from then on she did not fit in and had a very difficult time. Her growing up in the community became a very tense and uneasy time for her as well as for us.
As the children became older, they began to resent the harsh treatment and they blamed us for a lot of their difficulties. In a way, the difficulties were out fault because we could not stand up and defend the children when something was unfair. We as parents had no rights, and just had to take what was dished out to us.
Our girl began to hate boys and men, and became very withdrawn. She did not want to play with any other children. So she started to sit in the sandbox on her own. She attracted younger children who played with her, and she was very good with them. She loved to build sand castles for them, and she related well to them as she also did to the oldest members of the community. Soon the Servant came to us and said it was unhealthy for her to play with younger children so much, and that she should not play in the sandbox any more. We, her parents, were to tell her that we did not approve of her playing there so that she would resent us. . . .
No. 2
I do remember . . . being labeled the demon child, being possessed of the devil, manifesting evil when I was a child. My memories are very fragile. . . . It is like the death camps of Europe. There are many different stories and experiences, and many different ways of dying and surviving.
I am thinking of the real memories of the demon child. I do remember . . . she [I] was isolated and named when we were learning to make letter loops in First Grade (I was 5 or 6 years old). Mildred Lord was the usual teacher, but on this day it was a tall woman with the tiny head who always had a stiff smile on her face because, I think, she tied her hair too tightly in the bun on the back of her head. She was showing the 'f' and 'l' loops on the blackboard. She was pointing with the yardstick. We made loops at our desks on the paper with the pencil. The child liked to feel the loops making in her hand. She made bigger and bigger loops that filled the paper because they felt beautiful and round.
Then the child saw the shadow of the woman moving fast towards her on the floor. The tight woman grabbed her and the paper and made all the children look at her letting the devil take her and make her disobey and be evil by thinking she could do better than anyone. . . . The girl was bad because she was making only idle marks for her own selfish and willful pleasure and that made her evil, strayed from the good children that she knows all the others to be. She said the girl must be alone to reflect on her evil ways and root out the devil in her heart and soul.
She put her in the dark closet where the coats and school things were kept. She said that the spiders and snakes would keep her afraid, and then she would not go to sleep so she must attend to her task. It seemed that the child was in the dark closet for many hours and she was very empty, like the dark room. She looked for her hands to see if they were still there, but she could not find them. She thought she could hear poisonous snakes and spiders moving around her, and she did not moved and stayed very quiet as much as she could. She is still in there. She disappeared when someone opened the door and the brightness washed her away.
Heini, the head elder, was the ghost always in the background. He did not show his face.
No. 3
The elders of the Bruderhof . . . recommended that I (at age 20) either live with another family at the 'hof or leave the community for a while. That night they locked me in the attic. For two days me meals were brought to me and I slept there alone. I was to decide whether I wanted to leave or live with another family.
I chose the lesser of two evils. I was taken to Pittsburgh some 70 miles away. . . . In Pittsburgh we stopped at a Salvation Army to buy some clothes for me. I trusted that things would be taken of. Around 3 p.m. they dropped me off on the street. I walked to the nearest house and sat down, waiting for the people to come home. It didn't occur to me that food and shelter would cost money. I had $20, but no idea how much that was worth. For the next two weeks I walked the streets looking for a job. I walked to every hospital. I knew they needed people to do cleaning.
No. 4
Bruderhof children were all very much protected. Subjects such as sex, reproduction, abortion and birth control were not topics discussed in their presence, or even with young people. Even adults were not supposed to discuss that sort of thing. The Bruderhof teenagers going to public high school were not even allowed to go to biology classes where reproduction was discussed.
Some people were sent away because they held negative thoughts against the Elder or about his way of dealing with situations. However our time for being expelled had not yet come and. to our shame, we sat listening to Heini shouting at some of these poor brothers and sisters and seeing them sent away. We were so brain-washed that we could not even speak up for these poor people, many of them we loved and respected. It was very sad, and we felt that we were terrible cowards.
Heini would stir everything and everybody up, send a few people away, and then suddenly announce that he would be leaving to visit another community the next day. Nothing had really been cleared up, and the Servant left with an unresolved mess on their hands.
Our children began to see that we were being treated in a different manner than other families. No wonder our children felt discriminated against! This was devastating for both my husband and me. We could not believe that the Bruderhof would even think that way, because we were all supposed to be equal.
Whenever the Hutterites came to visit, we had to put all record players, tape recorders and musical instruments out of sight. The Hutterites knew we used them, but in order not to offend them, we put them away. The women were told to tie their head coverings under their chins for the duration of the visit. In addition, we had to wear white blouses at all times. Jackets had to be worn to all meetings regardless of the temperature. I hated the whole business, and felt I just couldn't be myself.
No. 5
My sister and her husband were being sent away from the Bruderhof. The reason given was that the children were not behaving, were causing trouble, the usual thing. My sister was expecting her fifth child and they were sent away. We were absolutely flabbergasted, but once again we were silent bystanders as we watched them and their children being thrown out. We were terrified and did not say one word in their defense. In short, we were cowards, and I had the dreadful feeling that one day our punishment also would come.
We were living in fear from day to day because one of the Servants had called us to the office and threatened that if our children did not shape up, then we would have to ship out. We already had been living with this threat over our heads for some months. Now I started to think back some years to the time another family had been sent away, and I had the terrible feeling of foreboding. Now it was our turn, I felt certain. The time had come.
Every day I when I woke up, I feared what the day would bring. Once a week I was called to the office and told to confess my sins. I did not know what to say, so I began to make things up or say 'yes' to accusations that were made. I thought then I would be left in peace, but it was not so. I was haunted. I knew that I could not go on like this. Also I knew that my children were worried about me. For their sakes, and for my husband's, I forced myself to be happy. But it really did not work.
Heini finally returned, and now we were really in trouble. Everything started all over again. Even one of the Servants was in trouble and asked to stay away from the mealtimes. Everything was upside-down, and no one could tell who would be the next to fall.
No. 6
My family was one of the many who were left to "sink or swim" after we left. Mostly we sank, and I don't know if I will ever come to forgive the Bruderhof for their part in the destruction of my parents and siblings. . . . The Bruderhof powers-that-be purposely destroyed my father's emotional well-being before he left and he never recovered. He is dead now, so no amends can be made. . . . but I am slowly coming back to life and I am very angry. I know that what they did was a most obscene form of bloodless torture. It was done in the name of God and Jesus to the children who did not choose this life.
No. 7
Some [Bruderhof members] felt that the Hutterites had kept the forms but lost the spirit of Christianity. On the other hand, where there is only the spirit as a guide, without the tempering hand of traditions and forms, and that spirit speaks through certain men and women to control the lives of others, it can be deadly, as we have seen in Guyana and in the Bruderhof, especially in the 1960s.
Two of my high school classmates, Hardy Maendel and Virginia Ostrom, are no longer alive. Their suicides are related to their experiences in and expulsions from the Bruderhof.
I was interested in what the Bruderhof beliefs were. They seem to be the interpretations of the leaders' (mostly Heini's) conscience for the 'right' communal spirit. . . . it seems to me that the adults had no set of beliefs. They operated like us children: exclusion if one was not "in the right spirit' as determined by those in power.
There was no creed, nothing objective to measure oneself to, other than the leaders' assessment of what spirit one was in.
No. 8
We drove 6 miles through a terrible snow storm to attend Sarah Maendel's funeral to pay our last respects. On arrival we were chased away from the Hutterite colony in the middle of the night in the midst of the dangerous blizzard. We were treated worse than a stray dog -- and this was in Advent season. "Our dear elder" (from Woodcrest) was at the colony, and the Hutterites who were the messengers between us and him were not allowed to offer us even a barn for the night. It was only when we welcomed their threat to phone the police that they put us up for the night (on the floor of the schoolhouse) on the condition that we leave at daybreak. To treat elderly parents with such inhumanity and lack of dignity, and now talk of making amends, is insincere. These Bruderhof members deserve compassion, for none of them can act from their fundamental humanity. It is not the first time our family was treated that way. I understand the members' helplessness, and I have forgiven then specific individuals. But as far as choice of friends is concerned, I prefer to choose mine from those who demonstrate trust, compassion and human dignity.
No. 9
I was unjustly accused and punished for something which never occurred. My confession was obtained by being questioned in excess of 72 hours by various brothers until I was willing to agree to anything in order to get some rest.
No. 10
My grandfather [Eberhard Arnold] made a will and stated that he wanted [three of his closest associates] to work as one team. No such luck. Heini became the pope of the Bruderhof. He was exalted while the others were humiliated. When someone is raised to the status of a king, the others need to be put down and equality is discarded. The more responsibility that is assumed by a leader, the less responsible become the others. Decision-making is stolen from the people. Without freedom of choice, the conscience cannot function properly. We were all robbed of this choice, and our consciences suffered accordingly. The communist regime, which I only experienced in East Germany last year, has many good qualities like the Bruderhof too.
Problems in Human Relationships
These adverse experiences raise some serious questions. What leaders in any non-resistant Anabaptist group today would want to lead their flock by generating the fears and catastrophic disasters of the Old Testament? We cannot answer these questions, and we wish not to pass judgment on individual members of the communities. Some of their leaders are out personal friends, and our exchanges have been cordial and friendly for these many years. Harold S. Bender and Robert Friedmann acknowledged the orthodoxy of their beliefs within the Anabaptist theological camp. But they did not speak about the orthopraxis of the community, that is, the behavioral practices of people in the community.
The stories of abuse and partiality are so numerous and deep- seated that it is hard to dismiss the charges as the inventions -- works of a few troublemakers which exist in most communities. There may be no totally satisfactory solution to some of these disputes because of the strong emotions and trauma characteristic of communal living. Living in community requires intense conviction and total submission to the policies of the community. Life in community can therefore be "intensely wonderful" or "intensely terrible." There is either ecstasy and fulfillment or endless misery and frustration. There is no room for middle ground.
If persons were hastily excommunicated for fornication, idolatry, railing, drunkenness, theft or robbery, such persons must know that the Society was exercising the disciplinary ways of the early Christian Church. But that does not justify the harsh practices described in these testimonies. Perhaps it should be recognized that some degree of undesirable harshness and emotional heat should be expected when binding covenants are broken either by the individual or by the community. There are also related environmental and cultural factors that need to be taken into account.
Size of the Domestic Unit: the Human Scale
Does the size of a human group have a relationship to social harmony? If a community contains fifty persons, the process of achieving harmony is very different from that in a community of several hundred. People in a face-to-face group are more likely to curb their impulses voluntarily. The way in which group size is regulated (through division) is also important to the harmony of the community. Regardless of culture, complexity or continent, harmony through division is an ancient and rational principle.
Of the three Anabaptist sub-groups we will be considering (the Society of Brothers, The Hutterites and the Amish), the Society maintains the largest domestic unity, having had at one time hundreds of persons on any given site. Several Society of Brothers locations have 300 or more persons in residence. The traditional Hutterite colonies average about 90 persons in a colony, while Amish church districts have on the average about 160 persons.
The community with the largest number of people (the Society of Brothers), it may be projected, will have the most formal and the most pervasive system of control. In addition to its size, the Arnold communities have the added task of training and socializing the many converts who join their movement. Amish or Hutterite communities also have the most ordered method of sub-division. They attempt to maximize the harmony by keeping their numbers small, "small enough so that all of its members are needed for all of its enterprises."
When groups become so large as to become impersonal, there is a tendency to coerce persons to become "loving" in their behavior.
A Theology of Struggle
Eberhard Arnold and his early associates, known as the "inner circle,' believed themselves to be divinely commissioned to establish a community which would become the nucleus of the "coming order" of God's kingdom on earth (Arnold 1975, v. 1). The members were and still are preoccupied with meetings and discussion groups with attempts to exorcise the "evil" or "bad" attitudes manifested among their members.
Arnold's teaching were influenced by his participation in the German Youth Movement. Arnold shared fully in the distaste of many of his contemporaries who were reacting against the values of the urban middle classes. Groups of adolescents scorned urban life and revelled in the freedom which they found in hiking and in nature. There was a desire among youth "to get to the bottom of things."
Arnold emphasized specific religious ideas which can best be understood in terms of his understand of the nature of evil. The world was the principality of evil, the domain of Anti-God, whom most people worshipped in preference to God. Anti-God was destined, he said. to be replaced in the world by God, the source of all goodness. The Anti-God forces manifested themselves in all forms of violence, in lust, deceit, greed, and in private property, the quintessence of greed (Whitworth 1975: 174).
The tragedy of the modern world, according to Arnold, was that mankind had become increasingly individualistic. Individualism and egoism were states of spiritual putrefaction. Community, with the total subordination of the individual to God, was the underlying remedy. All mankind must eventually be bound together in egoless harmony, united by agape, and the love stemming from the spirit of God. The mission of the communities was to establish unity, purity and selflessness, and to evangelize. Christian communities must wage war against Mammon. The church-community was to be a "fighting" church, engaged in constant struggle with the evil powers raging without. Arnold condemned the prevailing denominations for "hiding" their light.
Offensive behavior in the community is quickly recognized by the socialized members, and is interpreted as a symptom of an "unhealthy" mental attitude and of the individual's not standing right in relation to God and the church-community. The individual is required to submerge himself in egoless submission to the Spirit of God. The constant struggle to achieve selflessness is aided by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is the leader who decides which of the promptings are the appropriate ones.
All members are required to reprove misconduct and point out every manifestation of wrong attitudes. Failings and misconduct are frequently inferred from the concrete behavior of the individual. Thus, repeated absence from communal meals, insufficient verbal expression of humility, reluctance to participate in group recreational activities, excessive concern about personal appearance, moodiness and reticence are all liable to interpretation as evidence of bad attitudes and give cause for admonishment (Whitworth 1975: 188).
Special affections and attachments are forbidden. All members must be loved equally, and even public demonstration of affection for one's children may be frowned upon. Cliques are abhorred and may be ended by transferring some of the persons involved to another community. No conversation can be regarded as private or "off the record," for indeed the very desire for such privacy is sinful and merits punishment.
The power of the head Elder or Servant of the Word derives primarily from his task of "leading out" the Holy Spirit which moves in the brotherhood. Unity, which in practice means unity in submission to the Servant as spokesman of the Spirit, is the goal in the lives of the members. The attainment of such unity will, they believe, be rewarded by even greater outpourings of spirit power. Any individual who would challenge the executive Elder would jeopardize the fragile unity which binds the group together. In most cases, such a challenge by an individual would be regarded as a dupe of Satan. In such cases, the transgressing person may be punished by being separated from his family or required to live in isolation. Children may be punished by forbidding others to speak to them for a period of several weeks.
The Society of Brothers' emphasis on the eradication of evil stands in sharp contract to another interpretation of the Christian faith, namely that Jesus Christ was victorious over death and overcame the power of Satan. Individual confrontations with the devil, in fact, often result in deep states of depression and doubt. Many Christian believers would agree that the power of evil must be taken seriously. But the power of Satan for them should not become the object of a Christian's belief, but rather of a Christian's disbelief.
The Search for Unity
Arnold saw himself as an instrument of God. His mission was to establish unity, purity and selflessness, and to evangelize. His dual purpose in coming to North America in 1930 was to unite his community with all American Hutterite Bruderhofs and obtain spiritual identification and financial support.
In retrospect, one must ask why Arnold desired full unity with the Hutterian Brethren. Why did he not learn from them and borrow aspects of Hutterite organization and experience rather than try to imitate a whole range of customs and taboos of the four-century-old group? The present Society of Brothers leadership continues Arnold's effort to "unite" with the ethnic Hutterites without specifying what uniting means. The Hutterites severed their relationship with the Society of Brothers in 1955, renewed it again in 1974., and The Darius and Lehrer-Leut served notice to the Society of Brothers in 1990 that they were "not recognized as Brothers in the Faith."
In respect to uniting, the Hutterian Brethren find the following beliefs and practices unacceptable: sending children to local high schools, protest marches for any reason, the use of fire or candles as forms of worship, the dedication of babies before the assembled church, going to law against another individual or community, the use of plays and musical instruments in worship, baptism by immersion, and the denial of the Bible as the Word of God.
Eberhard Arnold also felt that the three groups of Hutterites (Schmiede, Darius and Lehrer-Leut) ought to be unified and that this threefold division was a major shortcoming. Why did he feel that three groups are less pleasing to God than one? Arnold's intolerance for this division, a non-antagonistic one accepted by all three groups of Hutterites, indicates his general intolerance for difference of expression or behavior among communal Christians. Would he also feel that the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites should be controlled by one administration? Why is centralization more desirable or more holy than decentralization?
Hutterites in their history have allowed for some diversity of practice in keeping with their historical experience. The three Leut arose not out of basic doctrinal divisions, but because (while living in the Ukraine) the three groups restored communal living at different times and under a separate leader. Slight variations in dress, grooming and marriage patterns were permitted.
Leaders of the Society like to insist that their lives are not bound by dogmas, regulations or rigid modes of behavior. In this they want to "differ" from the rigidity they perceive in the old Hutterians. Yet after 70 years, the rituals dating from Sannerz, their first community, still persist. No major aspect of Arnold's teaching has been repudiated.
The Hutterians have made a provision for the Arnold movement in their native speech patterns. They relate to them as "the Arnold- Leut." The Society's leaders dislike this designation, but what could be more graceful, inclusive and authentic? They are accorded equal status with the three other Leut. Commenting on the use of names, a Hutterite elder said: "The Hutterian Brethren are named after Jacob Hutter. The Darius-Leut are named after their first leader, as also the Lehrer-Leut and the Schmiede-Leut. Therefore the Arnold-Leut should be baned after Eberhard Arnold." To show good faith in their desire to unite, the Society of Brothers changed their name to "Hutterian Society of Brothers" in 1974, and in 1985 they adopted the name "Hutterian Brethren" exclusively.
The incessant desire of the Society of Brothers to unite is inherent in their belief in mission and evangelism. They point out that the Hutterites have neglected this essential Christian zeal, and that today's Hutterites are suffering from stagnation and outdated customs. Christ's message, the Society points out, is believable only when its messengers are themselves united. But some Hutterites feel that such reasoning is a form of intrusion and domination which will lead to alien social control.
There are some fundamental, social, cultural and religious differences between the Arnold movement and the Hutterites. What are some of the deeper incompatibilities?
Word and Spirit
The Hutterites are to a large extent word-oriented rather than spirit-oriented. Hutterite sermons are impossible to separate from texts of scripture. The word for sermon is the same as the term for Scripture (Schrift). A knowledge of the Scripture is pervasive in the education of children. It is not uncommon for 14-year-old children to be able to recite 250 bible verses. Adults retain a reservoir of biblical passages from their early training.
The Society of Brothers, by contrast, attempts to be spirit- oriented. Children's education is almost totally devoid of biblical memory work and recitation. Eberhard pointed out that the Word of God is a living word. The Bible, he says, "is not the Word of God." "The Bible has to come alive here and now in our hearts." Present- day leaders of the Society of Brothers like to point out that "the Bible is the greatest weapon of the Devil, who uses it constantly to kill souls" (The Plough, 7/8. 1985: 2).
When a group is primarily spirit-led instead of scripture-led, authority tends to become centered on personal authority instead of textually interpretive authority. This allows for less personal freedom because there is no "objective" basis for authority. Authority then becomes subjective, idiosyncratic and manipulative. There are no clear-cut guidelines.
The early Anabaptists held to a balanced orientation of word and spirit. Menno Simons, for example, warned that "the word is the standard by which doctrinal instruction is to be tested and checked" and that "the adding of glosses, explanations and conjecture can but bring confusion and generate pride." Among the early Anabaptists, extra-biblical philosophy and rationalization was insuffiient as a basis for spiritual truth (Littell 1961:11).
Cultic Tendencies
Some of the expellees have charged that the movement founded by Arnold has been turned into a cult by subsequent leaders. They cite not only harsh disciplinary measures but misguided zeal, psychological deprivation and brain-washing. In its attempt to be spirit-oriented rather than word-oriented, it is plausible that the Society of Brothers is more prone to cultic temptations than the more tradition-directed communities.
Cultic may be defined as the veneration of a person, ideal or things, especially as manifested by a body of admirers. The cult may also be defined as a religion that is considered false or unorthodox. There is a sense in which all religious groups are cultic. Mennonites, Mormons, Moonies all have a founder and, insofar as they venerate the man, they are cultic. Cults are generally short-lived. The leaders often disappear, isolate themselves from their followers or they suffer from sickness which renders them unavailable.
When does a community become cultic? If a person cannot become a member of the Bruderhof without reading Eberhard Arnold, or a Mennonite without reading Menno Simons, or a Hutterite without venerating Jacob Hutter, the group is probably cultic.
Cult members are often friendly, but intolerant of the beliefs of others. Their beliefs are ambiguous and contradictory. Cults are typically manipulative, maximizing the uses of power. Cults are guilty of preaching truth out of balance. Cults acquire power by intimidation and threats. They perpetuate contradictions. Cults force persons to be someone they are not. A cult is hungry for affection, affirmation and domination. A cult leads by intimidation, threats and by inducing fear. In a cult, the leader decides what is good or evil.
The cult cannot tolerate reservations, for the individual's loyalty is expected to be total. An act of hesitation or deliberation becomes suspect. Decision-making is taken away from the rank and file of the members. The "priesthood of believers" is rejected by the cult leader. A cult seeks favorable public opinion. In a cult, the individual leader or elitist group claims to be accountable only to God. The cult does not allow exceptions or deviations for personal reasons.
No Gossip
"The first law of Sannerz," dating from the early history of the group in Germany, has remained a fast rule. There will be no gossip. No talk about others behind their back. Any member who hears gossip must immediately challenge the gossiper to repeat his statements to the subject's face. Such talk must be reproved as evidence of wrong attitudes. The offender must confess the sin and humbly ask forgiveness. Otherwise he or she may be excluded from worship and group meetings, possibly with the imposition of even greater sanctions.
Idle talk about other peoples' affairs, or unwarranted interest in news-mongering appear to be a temptation in closed communities. It has been noted in Amish groups. We believe, however, that "small talk" in informal settings among work and friendship groups has an important function. The overzealous enforcement of the Sannerz law destroys important communication channels. It is an effective device used to control the free flow of information. Small talk permits individuals to discover issues on which there is consensus. In Hutterite communities, for example, "women's talk" can check the paternalistic tendencies of the men who alone make the formal decisions and large expenditures in a community. The rule of no gossip prevents individuals from confronting or even approaching the spiritual leader. The rule protects the highest executive. On the other hand, without a knowledge of informal consent, leaders are deprived of vital feedback, review, correction, evaluation and critical assessment. In extreme cases, cult members believe that their leader can do no wrong.
In no area of life is there greater disparity between the Hutterites and the Society of Brothers than in their view of human nature, child nature and children's education.
In the writings of Eberhard Arnold (1976:1-9), children are imputed to be "truly children of God" who "love the light," the "divine light of God." "Each child is a thought in the mind of God." Children are innocent, without guile and "almost" without sin. Although purity, truth and love are imputed to child nature, there are "extremely dangerous forces in the child." "As soon as the child has consciously and willfully done evil, he has ceased to be a child." The age at which this "catastrophe" occurs cannot be predicted. Those responsible for the child's upbringing need "alert hearts, active love, and real sharing in the child's experience." They must take up a "fighting position within the child and with the child." "This crisis serves to strengthen the child so that he can himself take up the fight against evil and conquer it."
In the early days of the Arnold community in Germany, the German Youth Movement practices influenced the character of childhood education. Young children formed a "Sun Troop," the name given to "little groups of young fighters for Jesus." Arnold wrote: "We rejoice when they join together in little groups or Sun Troops and express their unity and mutual trust in childlike fairness and loyalty." These children have meetings of their own which foster cooperativeness, help to control selfishness, and develop a sense of responsibility. These enthusiastic "Troops" help to awaken the spiritual perceptions of the other children and to extend the children's community in the fight against evil.
After completing elementary school in the Society of Brothers, young people attend local public high schools. Here they are placed in a particularly "fierce battle" against evil, as they are exposed to the temptations of the world at a time when their developing sexuality poses great problems of self-control. Their task is to preserve themselves from contamination.
The Hutterites consider children as gifts from God. A child is believed to be completely innocent until he or she is observed to hit back. At this stage, the child is old enough to be disciplined and prevented from having its own way. Young children are given liberal attention and loving care. They are taught to be obedient.
Children enter the German school before starting the English school. Throughout their school years they practice handwriting, memorize prayers, hymns, Bible stories, the catechism, and episodes from Hutterite history. The children are taught to work efficiently. They know what to do and how to do it. They also learn how to accept punishment without resistance and without anger.
During the early years of childhood and especially when they are in kindergarten, Hutterite children learn to obey and conform to communal patterns of behavior. Later they will acquire a verbal understanding of their faith.
In Hutterite society, the expectations for the individual within the social structure are clearly defined by the religious beliefs and reinforced by the social patterns. Each individual knows what is expected of him. He wants to follow these expectations and, in most instances, is able to do so. The Hutterite community is a remarkably secure environment for the individual. In the Society of Brothers, the expectations are much less clearly defined, for the individual who gives up his identity must now submit to the "spiritual" impulses as articulated by the leaders of the community.
Value Contradictions
The children must learn to "fight" for truthfulness (Arnold 1976: 43,39,54) but "love" everyone. Children are "free," but when "the sun hides behind a cloud, the Servant of the Word will interfere." "Corporal punishment can have no place in our education" but "we cannot always avoid a certain use of force." As the children grow toward adolescence, "They adopt a militant stand," but "without violence or coercion."
On the one hand, the community says it is engaged in a battle against "idolatry, all human greatness, all forms of vanity, pride, envy and hatred," but on the other hand it must strive to be peaceful and loving.
Exclusion and Avoidance
All Anabaptist groups strive for the maintenance of a "pure" and "undefiled" community, and hence must not only maintain discipline but find ways to exclude unworthy members (Jeschke 1972). Persons who live in open sin must be excluded, not only to bring about the repentance of the offending member but to protect the group from false teaching. Among the Amish and the Hutterites, excommunicated persons may not eat at the same table with members, but none are ever physically removed from their residence. They may be helped in case of sickness or need, but members may not receive favors from the excluded ones. In Amish life, the children are disciplined by the parents and never by the church.
The Society of Brothers has maintained a more sophisticated form of exclusion than either the Amish or Hutterites. The "small" or limited exclusion (ausschluss) permits the person to remain in the Bruderhof but not to attend prayer or praise services. He or she is excluded from casual conversation with others. The "great" exclusion requires that the person be removed from the Bruderhof.
Some expellees have been taken to a nearby city and dropped off on the street. Husband and wife have been separated or placed in different Bruderhof locations, and sometimes children are removed from their parents and placed in other homes. Parents who refuse to punish their children may be asked to leave the community. Occasionally, persons are encouraged to move away from the community to a "half-way" house owned by the community in a nearby town or city for "a time of reflection."
Children who are disobedient may be placed with childless couples in another community. They may be excluded from all group activities and never spoken to for a specified time. Childless couples are often not very good with children, and in fact may be cruel.
When the Society lived in Paraguay, men were banished to live by themselves in a little hut in the woods. Food was left for them in a prearranged spot where they would pick it up and later return the empty dishes. They worked by themselves in the fields during the day. Exclusions could last for six months. Some men were expelled so often that the woods they lived in during their banishment were named after them. There was "the Chuck woods" and "the Bobby Woods."
A Closed Society
Compared to the Hutterites or the Amish people, the Arnold communities are a closed society. In our initial contacts with Hutterites, they invited us to attend their most sacred holidays and ceremonies including the baptismal service. We were free to walk anywhere on the property and talk with any person, observe the work and ask questions, or assist them. We were received as participants rather than guests. The leaders were not threatened by our presence or inquiries. One of them said: "Come and watch us, for the world might learn something from us."
Because the Hutterites have been open to serious observation and study, basic knowledge about their economics, family and education is widely known. But in respect to Bruderhof education, we have scant knowledge based on systematic observation. Our knowledge of education in the Society of brothers is limited to their own subjective statements (ideals and intentions) and to the testimony of persons who have left the Society. The Society of Brothers warn visitors at the outset not to write about their community. The reason for their insecurity in the presence of skilled observers is not known. Are the risks of exposure too great? Scientist have studied the Hutterites to advance basic knowledge in many fields: mental health, population trends, agriculture, marriage patterns, education, intelligence, personality characteristics, music and hymn types, linguistics, ceramics, folklore and other topics. Many of these subjects have also been researched among the Amish. The wider society has benefited from the results of some of these studies.
Concluding Observations
In this article we have dealt with the "back stage" of community life with view to what might be done to help those who have been deeply wounded or destroyed by their encounter with the life. Where there are errors of misinformation in this article, we wish to be corrected. But what has been done in secret or in darkness must be exposed to the light.
My advice to all persons who are ex-members of the Society of Brothers is not to seek revenge. If you have voluntarily left or have been hastily excluded, there is a temptation to become hopelessly depressed or to become angry. Let these attitudes not destroy you or consume your Faith.
There are some person who cannot adapt well to communal living. We suggest that a good indicator of the maturity of a community is how it treats those persons who leave. There is a tendency among closed communities to regard such persons as enemies, traitors and failures. The departure of community members is frequently a harsh and bitter experience. In the past, lawsuits have been initiated by both expellees and by the corporate community. Yet many of those persons who have left the communities have been sincere, able and mature Christian persons.
We encourage the Society of Brothers to discover and accept their own identity in the broader spectrum of modern Anabaptist groups, to adopt their own symbols, attire and grooming styles, their own tradition, and not "call down fire from heaven" against those who wish not to "unite" with them.
The author acknowledges the helpful comments of Gertrude E. Huntington, William T. Snyder, Norman Loux and others.
Facts from the following published works are also acknowledged: John McKelvie Whitworth, God's Blueprints: A Sociological Study of Three Utopian Sects. London; Routlege, Kegan & Paul, 1975 Francis D. Hall, Pitfalls of Intentional Community, Christian Century, August 14, 1963 Franklin H. Littell, A Tribute to Menno Simons Eberhard Arnold, The Inner Life Rifton, NY, 1975 Eberhard Arnold, Children's Education in Community, Rifton, NY, 1976
Marlin Jeschke, Discipling the Brother, Scottdale, PA; Herald Press, 1972
Some Indicators of Cultic Thinking
Quotations from former members of the Society of Brothers, as cited in issues of the KIT Newsletter, published by The KIT Information Service, a project of The Peregrine Foundation
". . . the greatest flaw in the way of living in the Bruderhof: they have taken a "virtue" (unity" and driven it to such extremes that it has become a religious totalitarianism where the individual conscience is subjected to the "communal conscience" in the name of "complete unity." (11-7-90)
The brotherhood allowed Heini to have absolute power, and the pain this has caused me and others was and is excruciating. (4-1-91, 3)
Why should the principal Servant of the Word in effect rule as an absolute monarch? (4-1-91, 4)
Why should the spiritual leadership be centered in successive generations of the Arnold family? (4-1-91, 4) Why should the leadership be confined to bearded men? (4-1-91- 4) . . . why should members who have dedicated all their possessions to the Bruderhof be turned out against their wills? (4-1-91, 4)
I do not trust kindness or "love" because I always think of it as only the velvet glove covering the iron fist. (4-1-91, 5)
. . . it is nothing but shameful and criminal to deny a child's needs and feelings and try to punish any sign of them. (4-1-91, 5)
The word gemutlich makes me feel sick and suffocating. To me it is a hideous word that evokes nothing but danger and terror. It is the sickly sweet syrup than camouflages. (4-1-91, 5)
It is the false promise of "belonging and family," when in reality you have to live with heavy judgment and isolation (4-1-91, 5)
. . . the cult system with any membership at all gets really adept at portraying a nice deceptive, seductive front for people like this person and anyone who wants to believe because they are too desperate to see or do anything else. (4-1-91, 5)
I tried speaking up, and experienced again that there is no way my whole self can be heard and acknowledged. They don't listen to what they don't want to hear. (4-1-91, 5)
. . . they never look at the underlying beliefs that result in their hurtful behavior. (4-1-91, 5)
This kind of thinking is crazy-making. I can never get through to them. How confusing and frustrating it must be for children growing up there. . . . the system is abusive. (4-1-91, 5)
They are religious love-addicts the way others are workaholics. By focusing on loving others and dying to themselves, they never have to deal with their whole selves. (4-1-91, 6)
The co-dependent bargain in the Bruderhof is: if I love God and take care of everyone else . . . the world can be saved (and) God will take care of me. (4-1-91, 6)
Nowhere do I find a commandment that I am to hate myself and live in shame and personal disgust. (4-1-91, 8)
I never was good enough. I was essentially an evil being whose whole life had to be dedicated to controlling and/or stamping out the worm inside. When people make mistakes, they lose the right to be loved and either live like ghosts without a voice or are cast out into the void to perish. (2-1-91, 5)
All bruderhofers seem to be very clear on the point that spirituality cannot be forced. . . Why, then' have they so often used the most ruthless psychological if not physical force in the pursuit of their spiritual goals? The answer: it's acceptable for the community to circumvent personal volition and use psychological force to combat evil in the cases of children or baptized brethren thought to be under the influence of a "wrong spirit." These two beliefs are in flagrant and insupportable contradiction. (2-1-91, 5)
The idea that it is permissible to try and force evil out of anyone, even children, is no more plausible to me than the idea that God would force goodness on anyone. But various kinds of psychological as well as physical force have been used over and over again on bruderhof children. (2-1-91, 6)
My father was sent away for two years. . . for pride and ambition, as I understand it, I guess for his part in getting Heini off the 'hof in 1959. I heard one of the charges brought against him was that he was too friendly with people "outside." How can you explain that? Upon what basis does the Bruderhof break a person's spirit and personality. . . the Bruderhof has trampled on people's spirits. I've seen it happen to my dad and to Jonathan and others. . . . this is a misuse of church discipline as spelled out in Matt. 18: 15-17 or I Cor. 5. (3-1-91, 2)
The root of the problem lies with your authoritarian power structure, which has nothing to do with the love of Jesus. It has to do with the power of one man over others. (4-1-92, 3)
These doctrinal beliefs in a personified devil and evil spirits create more suffering than anything else. . . . the system has created a doctrinal belief that is destructive. (12-1-90)
I cannot figure out what he (Heini) had against British people. He speaks about the English people as if being English was like having a disease. . . . all these people that had to be sent away were on the side of Satan. Heini turned the Bruderhof into a cult. (11-1- 90, 6,7)
Mixing the Bruderhof with the Hutterites is like mixing water and oil. It just created a mess. (4-1-91, 4)
The Bruderhof. . . is no longer a society of "brothers' but a Hutterite SOB, and we have no wish to join a sect again, let alone a Hutterite sect with its mixture of medieval religiosity and ultramodern, multi-million-dollar agribusiness practice. (12-1-90, 4)
It is profoundly sickening to be compelled to remain silent where there is need for expression. It is tyranny at its worst to compel a person to express thoughts that are not their own. (11-1- 90, 6)
I felt like a trapped animal. . . if you wish to return to the community, you first have to ASK to go into the great exclusion. Now where is the voluntary asking? Is it right to feel like an animal held at bay or as if a gun is being held to your head. That is how I and many others felt. (12-1-90, 7)
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