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 conventicle.
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 hierarchical authority.
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: 144)
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 unrepentant sinner.
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 salvation.
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 melancholy.
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. (Allain, 1992)
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.
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