The Abuse of Charismatic Authority Within The Bruderhof
by Julius H. Rubin
Presented at the Elizabethtown Anabaptist
Conference, June, 1993.
The Bruderhof, an intentional community founded
in the 1920's in Germany by Eberhard Arnold, is now
entering its fourth generation with eight settlements in
America, England, and Germany. This paper will examine
how this new religious movement has developed into a
single belief system -- a religious totalism-- commanding
unquestioning obedience of members to authority. This
minority religions concentrated near absolute power in
the hands of a supreme leader and his retinue, creating
opportunities for the abuse of power and the unbrotherly
exclusion of believers in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy
and unanimity of belief.
Eberhard Arnold synthesized the disparate
traditions of Lutheran mysticism (Johann and Christoph
Blumhardt), the American Evangelical Pietist mass
revivalism of the Third Great Awakening, the
Romantic-Illuminism of the German Student movement, or
Wandervogel, and the ideals of Christian Socialism. The
first bruderhof community at Sannerz, Germany in 1921
began as a countercultural commune attracting educated,
middle class youth who rejected the rationalized orders
of modern society. The early Bruderhof embraced an
absolutist ethic of universal brotherhood, striving to
fulfill the ethical mandates of the Sermon on the Mount,
assured of the millennial advent of the Redeemer's
Kingdom in their lifetime.
In the period 1928-1932 Arnold struggled to
develop financial, organizational, and doctrinal
stability for his charismatic church. He found the
solution to the "routinization of charisma" by adopting
the religious orders and administrative blueprint of
North American Hutterite communities. Arnold traveled to
America, received ordination as a Hutterite minister, and
affiliated his community with this Anabaptist
The Arnold community and the Hutterite bruderhofs
shared the Anabaptist vision of a community of goods,
pacifism, and separatism in a church community to
recreate the Kingdom of Christ in dynamic tension with
the carnal Kingdom of the World. Hutterite colonies are
organized as inclusive church-communities, hierocratic
associations where the exercise of administrative and
religious power is concentrated in the hands of church
leaders who interpret the Spirit and Word of God. (Weber,
1946: 294) The spiritual and administrative leader of all
colonies, the Vorsteher or bishop interprets divine
mandate, applying pneumatical casuistry--an inspirational
guidance of the Spirit to discern the meaning of God's
mandate as this pertains to contemporary matters of
colony administration, the arbitration of disputes, or
determining the future direction of the congregation.
Individual colonies are lead by a Servant of the Word, a
combination of preacher and chief executive officer,
elected by the consensus of all baptized men. A council
of five to seven Witness Brothers serves as an
administrative council to assist the Servant of the Word.
Witness Brothers include the community Steward or
controller, various work department foreman and elderly
spiritual leaders.(Hotstetler, 1974:162, Peters, 1965:90)
Thus, Hutterites have routinized charisma in the
direction of a traditionalist hierocracy, a patriarchal
charisma of the office, and a gerontocracy. This
traditionalism is legitimated as emanating from the will
God whose divine order created a hierarchy of patriarchal
relations between husband and wife, parent and child, and
leader and follower. Authority patterns originated with
God; leaders served as His instrument providing spiritual
and temporal "rulership" over the congregation. God also
decreed an organic social order where men exercised
authority over women, and parents over children.
(Hostetler, 1974:142, 162)
The Bruderhof adopted this Hutterian hierarchy
and added their own gradations of Brotherhood members
that included full Baptized members who enjoy
participation in prayer circles and vote in Brotherhood
decisions; Single members who do not participate in
discussions that touch upon sexual questions and
Non-decision making Brotherhood members. These "weak"
Brothers suffer from emotional instability, invaldism, or
the infirmities of old age, senility. The Bruderhof
shields them from the burdens of participating in
controversial decisions. (Zablocki, 1971: 204)
Hutterite teachings instilled in members a
willingness for self-surrender, self-denial, humility and
submissiveness. Each person adopted the inward struggle
of pietist Busskampf: remorse, self-abasement, and
self-loathing for sin, beseeching God for the saving
intercession of Christ's mercy and Spirit. John
Hostetler has written about the relationship of Hutterian
"individuals" to the totality of the community and the
experience of fusion with divinely-ordained structures of
Since "God worketh only in surrendered men," the
individual will must be "broken" and fused with the will
of the community. Just as the grain of wheat loses its
identity in the loaf of bread and the grape is lost in
the wine, so also the individual must lose his identity
in one corporate body. . . . Only unconditional obedience
(Nachfolgle) and self-renunciation (Gelassenheit) permit
the gifts of God to take effect in man. (Hostetler, 1974:
The promises of salvation are inextricably tied
to the surrender to God's will and the believer's
submission to divinely legitimated hierocratic authority.
In this manner, Hutterite traditionalism instills habits
of unquestioning obedience to the authority of Witness
Brothers, and the Servant of the Word.
The exclusion system derives from the Book of
Matthew, enjoining Brothers, motivated by love, to engage
in fraternal correction and admonishment of the offending
member, urging the offender to seek repentance, reform,
and return to good standing within the community.
However, those persons whose ideas, thoughts or
individual consciences endanger doctrinal orthodoxy,
those who would stand against the leadership and threaten
unity; those who cannot or will not repent and reform
from sinful thoughts and conduct, must be punished. First
offenders or members who commit minor infractions were
prohibited from attending the Gemeindestunde prayer
circle. The small exclusion or Kleiner Ausschluss allows
the offending member to remain in the community but under
extreme social ostracism. The Great Exclusion or Grosser
Ausschluss involves expulsion from the community.
The threat of exclusion proves a powerful and
dreaded method of social control in the Bruderhof. A
Brotherhood member's baptismal vow to the community takes
precedence over any natural ties of blood and marriage to
spouse, children or kin. Exclusion invariably disrupts
families as those who remain must shun the offending
Brother or watch helplessly as their loved one is forced
to depart the community. The trauma of ostracism,
exclusion, family disruption and shame is shared by the
family, falling most heavily upon children.
The threat of exclusion into a sinful world
stained by Mammonism weighs heavily upon Bruderhof
members. Exclusion signifies a personal failure of
religious vocation, a public certification of spiritual
inadequacy and sin, and banishment from what the
Bruderhof considers to be the only possibility for the
pursuit of an authentic Christian life. The prospect of
traumatic family disruption and the dramatization of
spiritual failure exacerbated the emotional suffering
imposed by the exclusion system. Paradoxically, the
Bruderhof stressed joyful surrender and abiding a-cosmic
love, yet they appropriated social sanctions that imposed
the most severe penalties of civic-religious "death,"
mental suffering, and unbrotherly rejection of the
The Bruderhof instituted the First Law of Sannerz
enjoining members, in the interest of brotherly love, to
seek out the offending brother and settle differences
directly, without the mediation of third parties. This
rule effectively prohibited gossip, factionalism, or
challenges to religious authority.
In this manner, the Bruderhof institutionalized
a system of religious totalism consistent with Arthur
Parsons' definition: commanding "the undivided loyalty of
their members; at the same time they dramatically delimit
the moral complexity of social life by universalizing a
restricted set of categories of significance, by
ideologically 'totalizing' the entire universe of
knowledge and experience within the confines of one or
few salient symbolic oppositions that are boldly
juxtaposed to convention secular practices and beliefs.
(Parsons, 1989: 210)
Bruderhof communitarianism centers upon each
succeeding generation's interpretation of the writings
and teachings of their charismatic founder, Eberhard
Arnold. Revision, perceived declension and revival
characterize Arnold's legacy. During the 1950s, Heini
Arnold, one of Eberhard's sons, revitalized the
Bruderhof, in the direction of an inner-worldly mysticism
and Pietism that formed the neglected marrow of the
founder's theology. This theological awakening that I
term "Heini-ism" allowed Heini Arnold to usurp total
authority over the many Bruderhof communities. Heini-ism
encouraged profound devotionalism among its adherents
directing them, successfully, in the path toward
Heini Arnold's charismatic "genius"
manifested itself in the gifts of discernment--of seeing
into the hearts and minds of believers, ascertaining the
depths or superficiality of their faith, and guiding
their spiritual pilgrimage. He mediated to community
members the cultural meanings and "cues"of authentic
spirituality--what to believe, how to feel, how to think,
how to perceive, what was the agenda or order of things
and whom to emulate (Nelson, 1965: 54-56)
Although older members from the early Sannerz,
Rhoen, Cotswold and Primavera bruderhofs had known Eberhard,
found edification in his sermons, and read his works in
German, the recent American and English converts lacked
this connection with the founder and his teachings. Heini
began an ambitious effort to translate and publish
selected works of Eberhard Arnold.
Preaching, catechism, and religious instruction
would now proceed from the books of Arnold, the writings
of Blumhardt and Bonhoeffer, and from the Hutterian and
Anabaptist tradition that formed the Bruderhof canonical
texts. Bible study and preaching from the scripture were
de-emphasized. Only the religiously qualified leaders
could provide a "pneumatical exegesis" of the canonical
writings without succumbing to spiritually-dead legalism.
Heini, never a towering intellectual, simplified
and systematized his father's ideas into an inner-worldly
pietism and adopted the German evangelical pietist
theology of assurance-- the necessity of an intense,
emotionally wrenching inner-struggle (Busskampf)
resulting in the ravishing, joyous psychological union
with God, the inner-worldly mystical "bride of the
lamb." (Stoeffler, 19:12-16) Each new being was marked by
an existential reorientation, separate from the Kingdom
of Satan and the world, engaged in a battle to build the
Kingdom of God. The new creation adopted the five
distinguishing marks of the life of faith: 1. trials
(anfechtungen), 2. Cross-bearing, 3. obedience to God's
law, 4. trust in God, and 5. joy. (Stoeffler, p.19)
Finally, the life of faith demanded an absolute faith in
God manifested by a childlike spirit. Daily life was to
become a witness to joy in life and God-- almost a
literal song sung by brethren united.
The life of faith was not easily won. Heini-ism
appropriated the Lutheran concept of Christocentric
faith--the imitation of Christ's cross-bearing and
redemptive suffering. Heini frequently directed his
followers to Bonhoeffer's work, The Cost of Discipleship,
rejecting "cheap" and freely proffered institutional
grace and salvation of the churches. Disciples who
emulated Jesus, who devoted their lives completely to the
teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, were destined to
suffer. "Suffering, then, is the badge of true
discipleship." (Bonhoeffer, 1963:100) Thus, the life of
faith alternated between joyful surrender to Jesus--the
rapture of assurance as a child of God, fulfilled by His
love, and the seasons of abject suffering-- cross
bearing, self-accusations of sinfulness, and religious
Heini-ism elaborated a comprehensive religious
world view, a cosmic battle between the forces of God and
Satan. They devoted themselves, singly and in unity in
the gemeinde to waging a ceaseless battle against Satanic
attack. The Devil looked to make inroads against the
Bruderhof by turning spiritually weak brethren,
emotionally unstable members, those tempted by sins of
the flesh, and those haunted by obsessive guilt,
blasphemous thoughts, and religious melancholy believing
themselves to be forsaken by God. Each believer faced the
ever-present danger of demonic possession; the community
confronted the perils of Mammonism from without and
disunity and Satan-haunted sinners from within.
Heini taught the brotherhood in "Freedom From
Sinful Thoughts, Christ Alone Breaks the Curse," that
there is no doubt that the Devil tries by every means to
suggest to us human beings proud, evil, impure, even
blasphemous feelings, ideas or thoughts--even the urge to
commit suicide or murder. (Freedom, 1972: 1)
Only a Christ-centered psychology and a
religiously-grounded personality founded upon evangelical
pietist principles could cure the curse of obsessional
thoughts and actions. The power of Christ alone could
break Satan's hold, release frail men and women from the
hypnotic power of autosuggestion where the mere thought
or temptation of evil produced the compulsion to commit
the evil action. Those sick in spirit must surrender to
Christ, bear the Cross, purify their hearts and minds,
and separate from the Kingdom of Sin to cleave unto the
Kingdom of God-- to the Bruderhof church-community.
Heini writes, "Jesus is Victor over devils and
demons. But the Brotherhood must be so deeply bound
together in Jesus that no evil spirit can grieve Jesus at
the Lord's Supper." (Freedom, 1972: 15)
Johann Christoph Blumhardt exorcized a demon from
a servant girl, Gottliebin in 1842, proclaiming "Jesus is
Victor!" founding a spiritual movement and retreat in
Bad Boll, Germany. Eberhard was profoundly influenced by
Blumhardt and Arnold himself cast out demons in Sannerz
in 1925 when Lotte Henze came under Satanic attack. Heini
fought the Prince of Darkness who had entered the
Woodcrest Bruderhof in 1959, through the possession of a
young novice, Miriam Way. The struggle for the soul of
Miriam Way became the metaphor for the collective renewal
of the Bruderhof movement. "Even though the battle for
this one person did not seem to end in a full redemption
for her personality, it began a breakthrough in our
Bruderhof struggle for renewal in a return to Christ as
Center." (Mow, 1989: 127)
The religious world view of cosmic battle
legitimated the consolidation of Heini's political
authority. Heini allied himself with young American
converts--true believers who came to Heini-ism from the
Fourth Great Awakening in America, from the Billy Graham
Crusades, and the post war revitalization's of the Church
of the Brethren and Society of Friends. Based in the
newly founded Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York,
with its self-sufficient and lucrative toy manufacturing,
Heini achieved the economic, political and doctrinal
basis for the usurpation of the Bruderhof movement.
Using his gifts of the Spirit of discernment,
Heini distinguished those believers who manifested an
evil, impure, insincere, and egocentric Spirit from those
souls who enjoyed the authentic Christ-centered Spirit.
He expelled weaker members as a threat to the collective,
as an opening to Satanic attack. Confronted with devils
and demonic possession, he reaffirmed the absolute
necessity for unity among the brotherhood as the only
defense. Those brethren who raised questions, challenges,
or grievances against Heini-ism, this single-belief
system and its adherents, opened the door to the Devil.
Brethren who promoted disunity had no place in the
gemeinde; they faced expulsion.
Heini thus redirected the communal movement away
from an international, pacifist, social activism
exemplified by the Primavera communities, and built an
introversionist sect, separate from the world. He
directed brothers to turn inward, seek the opportunities
for spiritual maturation, purge themselves and the
gemeinde of all impurities. Thus Heini-ism as a world
view could justify the mass-expulsion of members found
wanting in the Spirit, purges of brotherhood lists of
weak brothers and sisters, the closing of the Paraguayan
and English communities, the Great Crisis of 1959-1961.
Allain, Roger. The Community That Failed, An Account of
Twenty-Two Years in Bruderhof Communities in Europe and
South America. San Francisco, California: Carrier Pigeon
Press, A Project of the Peregrine Foundation, 1992.
Arnold, Eberhard. Brothers Unite, An Account of the
Uniting of Eberhard Arnold and the Rhon Bruderhof with
the Hutterian Church. Translated by Hutterian Brethren.
eds. John A. Hostelter and Leonard Gross. Ulster Park,
New York: Plough Publishing House Hutterian Brethren,
Arnold, Heini. Freedom From Sinful Thoughts, Christ
Alone Breaks the Curse. Rifton, New York: Plough
Publishing House Hutterian Brethren, 1972.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Revised
and Unabridged Edition ed., New York, New York:
MacMillian Publishing Company, 1963.
Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore,
Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Mow, Merrill. Torches Rekindled, The Bruderhof's
Struggle for Renewal. Ulster Park, New York: Plough Publishing
House Hutterian Brethren, 1989.
Nelson, Benjamin. "Self-Images and Systems of Spiritual
Direction in the History of European Civilization". In
The Quest for Self-Control, Classical Philosophies and
Scientific Research, ed. Samuel Z. Klausner. New York:
The Free Press, 1965.
Parsons, Arthur S. "The Secular Contribution to Religious
Innovation: A Case Study of the Unification Church."
Sociological Analysis 50 (3 1989): 209-277.
Peters, Victor. All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of
Life. New York, New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Rubin, Julius H. Religious Melancholy and Protestant
Experience in America. Religion in America, ed. Harry S.
Stout. New York, New York: 1993.
Stoeffler, Ernest. German Pietism During the Eighteenth
Century. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.
Weber, Max. "The Social Psychology of the World
Religions". From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds.
H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1946.
Whitworth, John McKelvie. God's Blueprints, A
Sociological Study of Three Utopian Sects. Boston,
Massachusetts: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
Wilson, Bryan R. Religious Sects, a Sociological Study.
New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.
Zablocki, Benjamin. The Joyful Community, An Account of
the Bruderhof, A Communal Movement Now In Its Third
Generation. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, Inc.,
Click here to get back
Peregrine Archives Page.