Contested Narratives

A Case Study of the Conflict between a New Religious Movement and its Critics

by Julius H.Rubin, Professor of Sociology
Saint Joseph CollegeWest Hartford, CT 06117

This paper was presented at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, November 5-8, Montreal, Canada.

The final version of this essay will be published in a forthcoming book Misunderstanding Cults, edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins

"The battle has been about free speech, and free speech is about disagreement. And so we disagree."

Salman Rushdie regarding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1989 religious edict
charging blasphemy and authorizing Rushdie's death for Satanic Verses.[1]

This essay examines the strange and troubling story of how one new religious group has attempted to suppress freedom of speech for apostates and social scientists who have published critical analyses, raised troubling questions, and made serious charges about the institutional practice and individual conduct of members of this religious group. We will consider the masterful public relation efforts where this sect has manipulated the media to produce puff pieces that have supported their protected and idealized image. We will detail the strategies employed to attack and quiet the voices of apostates and academic critics, branding them as the demonic "enemies of the faith." This story reveals an irony: to protect their religious brotherhood the sect has engaged in unbrotherly actions as they oppose their critics and the organized resistance of apostates.

The group in question, the Bruderhof, is a high-demand Christian community of goods. Within their church-community, they struggle to create and maintain the absolute unity of their brotherhood. The faithful surrender in radical discipleship to the mandate of the Holy Spirit, as mediated to them by their leadership. The Bruderhof cleaves to a single belief system, a dogmatic orthodoxy. The leadership prevents their common brothers and sisters from enjoying unrestricted access to newspapers, radio, television, popular culture and the Internet. Within the sect, they do not tolerate open debate, but instead demand unquestioning conformity to community standards of belief and practice.

Within their religious community, Bruderhof true believers may indeed choose to abdicate liberty of conscience and free speech. However, they have attempted to impose their narrow orthodoxy and understanding of the "truth about the Bruderhof" upon the outside world. In an open, democratic society founded upon the constitutional principles of freedom of speech, citizens enjoy a broad spectrum of protected speech. In the academy, a sociologist of religion, has the right to pursue theoretical and empirical investigations of the discipline even when this inquiry takes the researcher into areas of controversy and conflict between orthodoxy and apostates.

Learned Hand articulated the underlying constitutional principle that forms the foundation of academic freedom in the academy and freedom of speech -- the open marketplace of ideas in the public sphere. He writes that "the interest, which [the First Amendment] guards, and which gives it its importance, presupposed that there are no orthodoxies -- religious, political, economic, or scientific -- which are immune from debate and dispute."[2] The actions of a religious group that seek to impose orthodoxy and abridge freedom of speech and academic freedom are a threat to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy.

The Bruderhof Communities

The Bruderhof (also known in past times as the Society of Brothers or Hutterian Brethren), is a Christian intentional community founded in the 1920s in Germany by Eberhard Arnold. It is now entering its fourth generation, with eight settlements or 'hofs', and approximately 2,200 members in America and England. They support themselves by manufacturing quality children's toys under the trade name 'Community Playthings', and products for disabled people through Rifton Enterprises.

Visitors to the Bruderhof encounter a peculiar combination of a medieval village community and late twentieth-century technological sophistication that includes ultramodern telecommunications, Japanese manufacturing techniques, a community-owned Gulfstream jet, and extensive computerization. Hof life appears idyllic. Violent crime, illicit drug abuse, or economic and material concerns are largely absent from their lives. Premarital sexual activity is prohibited, and single parent families are largely unknown in the community. Divorce is not permitted. Thus, Bruderhof families are not disrupted by family patterns that characterize the wider society.

The ethical mandate of the Sermon on the Mount serves as the biblical foundation for Bruderhof settlements. Believers, surrendered into radical discipleship to Jesus, strive to overcome their sinful alienation from God through conversion and adult baptism. They emulate the apostolic Church by devoting themselves to the fulfillment of the Sermon on the Mount, espousing the principles of pacifism and non-resistance to evil. The brotherhood holds all things in common, rejecting the divisiveness caused by private property and the pursuit of worldly privilege and power. The faithful are bound together in unanimity of thought and belief and espouse an ethic of brotherly love.

In strict conformity to the teachings of Jesus, the community enforces purity of conduct, thought and intentionality in the hearts and minds of true believers. The Church community keeps close watch to ensure that members hold to their religious ethos, motivated by the leadings of the Holy Spirit. They practice the brotherly watch to purify themselves from sin. Their ethos strictly regulates all forms of conduct, belief, appearance, dress and demeanor, with particular emphasis upon the repression of premarital or extramarital sexual expression. Brothers and sisters are prohibited from gossip or idle chatter. Should differences or conflicts arise between members, they must go directly to the person or persons in question and strive to bring a peaceful and loving resolution of these differences or 'unpeace'. Church discipline requires public confession and repentance of sin, and exclusion of the errant sinner into the world. Only by fostering absolute unity, the Bruderhof maintains, can it collectively form a vessel to capture the Holy Spirit in childlike joy, humility and surrender to Jesus.

The first Bruderhof community at Sannerz, Germany, in 1921, began as a charismatic group devoted to Eberhard Arnold. This countercultural commune attracted educated, middle class youth from the student movement and German Christian Movement, who rejected the rationalized orders of modern society. The early members of the Bruderhof embraced an ethic of universal brotherhood, assured of the millennial advent of the Redeemer's Kingdom in their lifetime. The Bruderhof relocated in 1927 to Fulda, Germany, to the Rhoen community.

In the period 1928-32, 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.

Bruderhof members steadfastly refused to cooperate with the Nazis, to surrender their sons for compulsory military service, or to utter the oath of allegiance to the Nazi race-based salvation state. One year before Arnold's untimely death in 1935, they founded the Alm Bruderhof in neutral Liechtenstein and secreted draft-age men out of Germany. The Gestapo and SS closed the Rhoen community in 1937, seizing the property and deporting the members. The Alm community relocated in England in 1939-41, until the British forced the relocation of German nationals. The Bruderhof could not find asylum in North America, but was permitted to migrate to the underdeveloped Chaco region of Paraguay. The Primavera, Paraguay, El Arado, Uruguay hofs served as the center of Bruderhof communitarianism until their closing in 1960. After World War II, new hofs were started in Germany and in England.

Heinrich (Heini) Arnold, Eberhard's middle child, championed the conservative counter-trend, and continually attempted to redirect the movement to revitalize his father's theological vision.

The critical turning point in the Bruderhof movement came in 1954 with the founding of the Woodcrest Hof in Rifton, New York. As Servant of the Word at Woodcrest, allied with enthusiastic American converts, Heini dissolved the Primavera and European brotherhoods, liquidated the community assets, and excluded several hundred baptized members during what is known as the Great Crisis of 1959-61. Hundreds of people were uprooted; many saw their lives shattered as they were rejected from the new brotherhood lists and made to forge new lives after decades of faithful service to the pioneering communities in Paraguay, Germany and England.

The Great Crisis became the watershed that transformed the Bruderhof. Heini revitalized the movement in separation from the world as an introversionist sect, emphasizing evangelical pietist conversion models and extreme emotional fervor and devotionalism.

The Bruderhof and Hutterites have 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. They are organized as inclusive Church-communities, where the exercise of administrative and religious power is concentrated in the hands of Church leaders who interpret the Spirit and word of God.

The Bruderhof members have passed down control of their movement to Eberhard Arnold's son and grandson in hereditary succession of office. This traditionalism is legitimated as emanating from the will of God, whose divine order has also created a hierarchy of patriarchal relations between husband and wife, parent and child, and leader and follower. Authority patterns are believed to have originated with God; leaders serve as his instrument, providing spiritual and temporal rulership over the congregation. They also believe that God decreed an organic social order where men exercise authority over women, and parents over children.

The promises of salvation are inextricably tied to the surrender to God's will and the believer's submission to divinely-legitimated hierarchical authority. In this manner, the Bruderhof instills habits of unquestioning obedience to the authority of the witness brothers and the servant of the word. Church discipline 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 or individual consciences endanger doctrinal orthodoxy; those who stand against the leadership and threaten unity; those who cannot or will not repent and reform from sinful thoughts and conduct, must be punished with increasingly severe forms of church discipline.

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 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. Paradoxically, the Bruderhof stresses joyful surrender and abiding love, yet imposes the most severe penalties of civic-religious 'death', mental suffering and unbrotherly rejection of the unrepentant sinner.

The members of the Bruderhof are, by their own account, "authoritarian with respect to Christ" requiring the undivided loyalty of their members.[3] The concentration of spiritual and political power into an elite leadership group of servants, ever-obsessed with unity, has resulted in the continued and systematic abuse of Church discipline as a political device to expel members, who because of individual conscience, question or oppose community policy. Such persons stand charged with sins of pride, selfishness and egoism, and are said to be motivated by 'the wrong spirit', or to have lukewarm zeal.

Many Bruderhof apostates recount childhoods marked by family disruptions when one or both parents were excluded. Children suffered beatings, administered by parents, as ordered by leaders, with the purpose of using physical discipline to "win the children to the life."[4] Others tell of times in childhood when adults conducted interrogations, known as 'clearances', to garner confessions of sexual sin and impurity.

Young women confront the issues of powerlessness and gender inequality in spiritual and temporal roles, and severe limits are placed upon their aspirations and participation in the community. Women especially bear the burdens of Gelassenheit, resignation and self-renunciation to the will of God, as enforced by the patriarchy.

Many journalists, visitors and guests have extolled the virtues of this Christian community by writing uncritical accounts of the Bruderhof. In the past five years, more than fifty articles in local and national publications such as Sojourners, Christian Century and The New York Times have presented an apologetic, uncritical, idealized and sentimentalized portrait of the community.[5] Local newspapers in American communities adjacent to Bruderhof settlements print a seemingly endless series of human interest stories that, for example, portray blond and fair children weaving garlands of flowers in celebration of nature and the coming of spring. Somber, bearded men in plain shirts, suspenders and trousers march in a 'peace witness' against nuclear war or the death penalty. Women with heads covered in polka-dot kerchiefs and attired in long, modest dresses go about their daily routine with heads bowed in humility. High-minded men and women unite in Christian community as seekers of God's Kingdom. I term these one-sided accounts of the Bruderhof, telling the "Bruderhof story" as a public relations exercise that presents the community in an unreflective and uncritical light. The community has attempted to preserve the Bruderhof story as the only credible and legitimate presentation of Bruderhof history and social reality by suppressing and discrediting the voices of apostates and academic critics.

Who Controls the Interpretation of Bruderhof History?

I began my research for a book about the Bruderhof in the spring of 1991 when they were called the Eastern Brotherhoods of the Hutterian Church, and were still affiliated with the Hutterites and Anabaptism. Hutterites have actively cooperated with social scientists who have conducted community mental health surveys. Hutterites have developed a folk psychiatry to diagnose and treat the spiritual affliction, Anfechtung, where believers suffer religious melancholy.[6] The Hutterite confession of faith enjoins them from using the state or courts of law. I assumed that the Eastern Brotherhoods would, like their Western co-religionists, allow me to study their group, freely acknowledge the propensity of the faithful to suffer religious despondency, and view the use of lawsuits of anathema to their faith commitment. I was mistaken on all counts.

The Bruderhof has steadfastly opposed my research and refused to assist me. At the beginning of my research, I informed the Bruderhof and ex-members of my belief that the spiritual crises of Bruderhof young men and women were related to the central tenets of their theology, practice, church discipline and communal life. The Bruderhof disagreed and found this critical perspective unacceptable. They did, however, grant permission to the Israeli scholar, Yaacov Oved, to write an authorized history, Witness of the Brothers. Oved wrote a celebratory and uncritical account that reflected considerable editorial and scholarly control exercised by the Bruderhof.[7] The issues that divided my research from Oved's scholarship were control and academic autonomy. The Bruderhof opposed all scholarship where they did not control the questions asked, the evidence made available for investigation, the interpretative framework employed, and the conclusions drawn.

Who "owns" Bruderhof history? Who has the right or the power to articulate the "authentic," "true," and "objective" interpretation of the Bruderhof movement -- their doctrine, communal organization, and church practice? Who controls the collective memory about the Bruderhof? Who can speak with authority about their "invented traditions" -- Bruderhof rituals, ceremonials and commemorations?[8]

From the founding of the first American Bruderhof, Woodcrest in Rifton, New York in 1954 until 1989, the Bruderhof religious leadership controlled their collective memory and the interpretation of their tradition. Through their publishing company, the Bruderhof has printed their canonical writings and two histories of the sect. A monthly magazine, The Plough, advanced the "Bruderhof story." Employing skillful public relations with the national media, the Bruderhof has garnered endorsements by renown theologians and religious leaders such as Thomas Merton, John Yoder, Henri Neuman, and Mother Theresa; and sociologists John A. Hostetler and Pitriam Sorokin. Sympathetic politicians and church leaders extol their community. These efforts have fostered a climate of opinion that casts the Bruderhof as quaint, "Amish-like" folk who embrace religious brotherhood and community.

Each year the Bruderhof welcomes a diverse ensemble of guests: religious seekers, people from the margin, curious neighbors, reporters, and persons from a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and spiritual politics from the left to the right. Many guests are predisposed to see and experience a confirmation of "the Bruderhof story." The Bruderhof appears to them as a remedy to the social problems of modern societies. I marvel at how the Bruderhof has served as Rorschach test, an ink-blot for individuals and groups who are troubled by frustrations, malaise, and insecurities and use the Bruderhof as a screen to project their deepest spiritual aspirations. Reporters and guests are taken on limited tours of the community where they experience the joyous aspects of group solidarity -- communal dining, working, and singing. (They do not attend brotherhood meetings and do not see the exercise of church discipline. Guests are not prevented from free access to books, news media, and information.) Their first impressions after a staged, carefully scripted and supervised visit, invariably confirm the "Bruderhof story."

Mainstream Americans typically live individuated lives, pursuing careers in a competitive, capitalist market economy. Our postindustrial mass society has demonstrated a genius for commodifying all aspects of material and symbolic production (including religious and secular holidays) under the ethos of consumerism. We pursue festive retailing in malls -- our secular cathedrals. Here we shop for what the mass media packages as lifestyles -- claims to prestige and happiness -- ideas, "value and belief systems." Participation in institutional religion is compartmentalized and limited to major holidays and sabbath worship. "Spirituality" has become a privatized, individual exercise of the consumption of commodified avenues to the transcendental, to healing, and self-realization, largely cut free from ecclesiastical and theological moorings.

The Bruderhof story alternatively, speaks to the highest ideals of Christian religious vocation and appears, at first glance, as an antidote to the crisis of modernity. In place of subjectivism, individualism, and relativism of belief, the Bruderhof calls for an absolute commitment to ultimate values. In place of consumerism, the Bruderhof demands a simplified life of all things in common, an end of private wants and property. In place of violence, competition and coercion, the Bruderhof promotes the ethic of brotherhood and love espoused in the Sermon on the Mount.

In 1989, Ramon Sender began publication of KIT (Keep In Touch) a monthly newsletter of the memories and accounts of Bruderhof apostates -- persons expelled from or who had left the community. For the first time, the Bruderhof faced an organized opposition to their collective memory and public image. Sender, an excluded novice who had to leave his wife and young daughter in Woodcrest in 1957, discovered by happenstance that his daughter had recently died. The community had for decades denied him the right to visit, telephone, or correspond with his daughter. He learned of her death a month after the funeral. Sender wished to learn more about the daughter that he had been prevented from knowing, and to write a book to commemorative her life. He explains:

"When the Bruderhof leadership turned down my request to interview Bruderhof members, I began to search for ex-members. . . . By the end of the month, I had talked to more than thirty and personally visited four. By the end of the second month, I had spoken to over sixty. They all asked about the others I had contacted and wanted their news and addresses."[9]

Soon, the ex-members began corresponding with one-another in a round-robin letter which Sender and a small editorial group instituted as a monthly newsletter. He explains: "The KIT newsletter started as a modest two-sheet page sent to thirty or so names, but within four months it expanded to ten-thousand word issues mailed every month to over one hundred addresses. As the volume of incoming mail grew, four Bruderhof graduates and survivors formed the newsletter staff. By 1990, the newsletter grew to 20,000 words per issue and was mailed to over 450 addresses. Most of the copy consisted of letters received from ex-Bruderhofers scattered all over the world."[10]

KIT now operates under the umbrella of a tax-exempt Peregrine Foundation, (founded in 1992)hosts an Internet web site and sponsors annual reunions. In 1993, KIT added a summer reunion in England for European ex-members. KIT also publishes book-length memoirs of apostates under the imprimatur of the Carrier Pigeon Press. Since 1992, the press has published Roger Allain's The Community That Failed and Elizabeth Bohlken-Zumpe's Torches Extinguished, Memories of a Communal Bruderhof Childhood in Paraguay, Europe and the USA, Belinda Manley's Through Streets Broad and Narrow, Nadine Moonje Pleil's Free From Bondage, and Miriam Arnold Holmes, Cast Out Into the World.

The letters printed in KIT express their outrage at the official Bruderhof apologetic where KITfolk, as bearers of a contested collective memory, reveal the traumatic events of the Great Crisis and more recent Bruderhof history. Many define themselves as survivors, "graduates" and exiles who are compelled to remember and inform an indifferent world that the truths about the Bruderhof must now be told. These truths have to do with abuse of church discipline resulting in the disruption of families, and refusal by the Bruderhof to permit family reunions and visitation by former members.

KIT and the Bruderhof wage a war over contested collective memory. For example, Plough Publishing publishes Torches Rekindled as an apologetic defense of Bruderhof doctrine and history, while KIT publishes the counter-claim, Torches Extinguished. This battle continues over the Internet with competing Bruderhof and KIT home pages on the World Wide Web, [11]the newsgroup and websites created by other Bruderhof apostates.

KIT public relations effectively used Internet, print, and electronic media to challenge Bruderhof orthodoxy. By 1992, KIT sent "media packets" containing reprints of articles about the Bruderhof to reporters and news outlets that were writing about the Bruderhof. KIT had become an institutionalized opposition to the commune, contesting many of their claims to be a loving brotherhood of disciples of Jesus. Bruderhof religious leadership considered KIT and those who possessed the demonic "KIT Spirit" to be avowed enemies of the faith determined to destroy the Bruderhof and all those who surrendered their lives to Jesus

The Attack Upon the "Enemies of the Faith"

During the 1990s after their schism with the Western Hutterite Church, the Bruderhof evolved into a series of secular business enterprises and a charitable 501d organization known as the Bruderhof Communities. They secured trademark protection for their name, instituted a legal affairs office, named corporate presidents and vice presidents of their manufacturing, aircraft leasing, and business ventures. For the first time in Bruderhof history, these corporate officers, with the knowledge and consent of the religious leadership, could use the courts and legal strategies to defend themselves against KIT and all perceived enemies of the faith.

The Bruderhof instituted new policies in the 1990s that appear to contradict their history of pacifism and Anabaptist belief that Christians must not use the courts or police to defend themselves. In the past, the Bruderhof advocated that they must place their unconditional trust in Jesus. Although they might suffer injustice and even martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, they must bear witness to their profound faith commitment.

In 1990-1991, Johann Christoph Arnold, the head religious leader, secured a permit to carry a concealed weapon in New York and purchased two hand guns. (The Bruderhof maintains that Arnold has since disposed of these guns.) Bruderhof corporate presidents aggressively pursued their right to legal self-defense. The leadership called the Connecticut police to arrest an ex-member for trespass when he attended a Bruderhof Open House in 1995. The commune pressed criminal charges for fraud and extortion in 1996 against a disturbed ex-member who threatened to write a book about the community unless he was granted the right to visit his family living inside the commune.

By late 1995, Bruderhof corporate and religious leaders believed that KIT had acquired the customer mailing lists and subscriber lists to Bruderhof enterprises and constituted a dire threat to the economic survival of the commune. At this time, KIT public relations and criticism of the Bruderhof had broken through to regional and national media markets. In response to what the Bruderhof perceived as ominous threat to their existence, they began a campaign of harassment and litigation against KIT and Bruderhof critics.

In October, 1995 the Boston ABC television televised a report critical of the Bruderhof in their Chronicle news program. The Chronicle report investigated charges that Bruderhof elder Johann Christoph Arnold had secured a concealed weapons permit and purchased two handguns in 1991, and allegations that the Bruderhof practiced forms of church discipline that refused to allow apostates contact with family members inside the commune.

Following the Chronicle broadcast, two Bruderhof corporate presidents requested a meeting with me which took place on October 25, 1995 at Yale University. During our two hour conversation, the leaders again emphasized that I did not have their permission to study the community or write a book about the Bruderhof. The message was clear: stop speaking with the media and do not proceed with your scholarship.

In the spring of 1995, a small group of KIT activists formed a membership organization, "Children of the Bruderhof, International" (COBI). They initiated a toll free telephone number intended to assist persons inside and outside of the Bruderhof who wanted information or assistance. COBI's help line appeared in the New York telephone yellow pages nestled between Bruderhof and Hutterian Church numbers. The community responded with more than two thousand harassing telephone calls. The billing records reveal that these calls originated from Bruderhof community telephones or public telephones adjacent to their hofs. Printed fluorescent bumper stickers with the COBI help number were printed and distributed at several airports, giving the mistaken impression that this number was a free telephone sex line:

"SWEET TALK -- Joella and Karen are Waiting FOR YOUR CALL -- 24 Hours -- 7 Days." [12]

Bruderhof spokesperson Joseph Keiderling attributed the phone calls to Bruderhof adolescents acting outside of the control of the leadership.[13] Bruderhof officials deny responsibility for the SWEET TALK advertisements.

In September 1995 , the Bruderhof filed a civil lawsuit in federal district court in Albany, New York charging COBI with trademark infringement over the use of the names "Bruderhof" and "Hutterian" in their Yellow Pages help line advertisement. The Bruderhof sought $50,000 in damages and hoped to compel COBI to change their name and refrain from using the Bruderhof trademark. The Bruderhof reached an out-of-court settlement with COBI in the summer of 1996. The settlement protected the Bruderhof trademark, ended COBI and the help telephone line, and dismissed any Bruderhof claim to monetary damages.

In March, 1996, the Bruderhof sponsored in Philadelphia, the first of a series of planned regional debates regarding the death penalty in America. The Bruderhof leadership met in New York City, on September 13, 1995, with attorney Leonard Weinglass and Ben Chaney, brother of the slain civil rights leader, James Chaney, to form an ad hoc coalition under the umbrella agency, the National Commission of Capital Punishment (NCCP). The NCCP advisory committee included notables such as Sr. Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, actor Edward Asner, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and numerous organizations that promote social justice for the poor and advocate for minority rights. The NCCP's mission was to revisit the question of capital punishment, twenty years after the Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions. The Commission hoped to educate the public and foster a national conversation and debate that would lead to legislative efforts to end what the Bruderhof considered to be "the ultimate revenge." The Bruderhof formed a tax-exempt Bruderhof Foundation to solicit contributions for their Death Row Inmate Legal Defense Fund. The community formed a youth folk band, "Just-US" (pronounced "justice") and produced a first album, "Within the Justice System." Most important for the Bruderhof, they scheduled the first of a series of regional hearings under the auspices of the NCCP in Philadelphia on March 25-27, 1996, centered, in part, upon the controversial case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, and has spent more than a decade on death row, appealing the conviction and awaiting execution. He has written his memoirs and become a national cause celebre.

Ramon Sender contacted Philadelphia media and the Fraternal Order of Police, (FOP) before the hearings, providing them with the KIT public relations packet. Sender argued that the Bruderhof, as a authoritarian group, does not respect the individual rights of its members, and does not value democratic process. They should not mediate the public debate over the controversial issue of capital punishment. The Bruderhof had scheduled the first hearings in Philadelphia City Hall, which gave the appearance of official, political endorsement of their stand in the Jamal case. The FOP, under the leadership of Richard Costello, held a news conference on the morning of March 25, airing the video tape of the Chronicle report and calling the Bruderhof a "cult." Local newspapers, television stations, and a late night radio show recounted KIT allegations. News accounts with interviews of Bruderhof leaders counterpoised by questions raised Sender and other KITfolk, and by sociologists Zablocki and Rubin, made the Bruderhof religious controversy, not capital punishment, the center of public debate. Although the Bruderhof mobilized political and religious groups to defend them, the remaining regional death penalty hearings were canceled and the NCCP disappeared from the website.

In March 27, 1997, CBS New magazine 48 Hours televised a report critical of the Bruderhof, broadcasting this piece together with a sensational breaking story about the Heaven's Gate religious suicide. As background to this news story, The Malek Group, a Manhattan public relations firm then contracted by the Bruderhof, had contacted CBS in October,1996, urging 48 Hours to film a short piece on the beauty of Advent and Christmas at the Bruderhof. I received a telephone call from the executive producer who had just returned to her offices in Manhattan following a visit to the Woodcrest Bruderhof outside of Albany, New York. The news crew taped a Christmas musical program with Cardinal John O'Connor in attendance as the Bruderhof's 350 voices united in four part harmony to celebrate Advent. She told me that she found the performance transporting, moved to tears by their simplicity, unity, and joyous religious brotherhood.

The producer demanded to know how I had the audacity to criticize this group or to associate their spirituality with depressive illness. "Why are you their enemy? Why do you oppose their commitment to Jesus?" she demanded."You know nothing about this group and yet you persist in attacking them!"This harangue continued for thirty minutes until she had vented her anger. The Bruderhof had supplied her with my name and telephone number, characterizing me as an "enemy." The Bruderhof leadership had urged CBS to contract me and KITfolk, apparently, believing that the national media might effectively discredit my work. I urged CBS staff to investigate a variety of news sources both critical and supportive of the Bruderhof when they researched their story.

In the ensuing four months, CBS had interviewed scores of KITfolk, Benjamin Zablocki and me and had reached a more balanced, albeit critical story on the Bruderhof/Kit controversy. The Bruderhof strategy of using the media to discredit their enemies had failed, bringing unfavorable national notice to the Bruderhof.

The Bruderhof mobilized to defend themselves. They contested the facts of the news account and protested the association with a "cult," calling upon famous and influential friends to denounce the story, CBS, and Dan Rather who narrated the program.

On April 7th, the "Refuse and Resist" website allied with the Bruderhof's campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and end capital punishment, posted a broadside urging supporters to protest against CBS, listing the address and telephone numbers of the producer.

James M. Wall, executive editor of The Christian Century, wrote a lead editorial in the May 21-28 issue, characterizing the program as a "distorted and shameful display of an antireligious bias for which Dan Rather, the show's producers and CBS should apologize profusely to the Bruderhof community."[14] Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, now a prominent New York Attorney and Bruderhof associate in the NCCP, sent Dan Rather a scathing letter on June 11, 1997 (also posted on the Bruderhof website) demanding an apology and stating: "The program was a great disservice to truth, an assault on the right of everyone to freely exercise a chosen religion and an insult to the common sense of the American people."

According the Wall, Clark and others, when CBS broadcast a story that raised probing questions about Bruderhof church discipline and treatment of former members, or asking if the commune had become "cultlike" in ways that resembled Heaven's Gate, then CBS was guilty of dishonesty, antireligious bias, and abusing the public trust. Apparently the Bruderhof and their friends believed that only an uncritical puff piece that restated "the Bruderhof story" constituted the responsible exercise of freedom of speech in a democratic society.

CBS did not retract the show and apologize to the Bruderhof. On June 15, 1997 the Bruderhof brought legal action in the Manhattan Supreme Court seeking discovery and disclosure of reporter's notes, unedited video tapes, and materials from the many persons and sources used in this story. According to CBS sources, the Bruderhof attempted to discover evidence of slander and defamation from the reporter's sources and interviews as a method of gathering evidence to prepare a defamation lawsuit against CBS, the KITfolk, and social scientists interviewed for the story. On August 5, 1997, the case was dismissed.

During the dispute with CBS, the Bruderhof launched a many-sided attack upon their perceived enemies. On March 24, 1997, the Bruderhof served Ramon Sender, editor of KIT, with a suit for copyright infringement in federal District Court after he reprinted a letter sent by Christian Domer, a Bruderhof corporate president, on January 23, 1997 to Michael Waldner, a Hutterite living in South Dakota. The Hutterites, as is their practice, faxed Domer's letter to scores of separate colonies. Eventually, a fax reached the KIT newsletter. KIT publishes opinion and news about the Bruderhof/Hutterite schism as an integral part of KIT's public service as a tax-exempt organization.

In late July, 1997, the Bruderhof filed a 15.5 million dollar defamation lawsuit against Ramon Sender, Blair Purcell, myself and the Peregrine Foundation, sponsor of the KIT newsletter. Sender and Purcell were sued for writing allegedly defamatory statements in KIT. I was charged with defamation for remarks that I made during an interview with a Philadelphia radio station in March, 1996 where I questioned their sponsorship of death penalty hearings and raised questions about their participation in the Social Security System. (The suit was dismissed in November 1997 and the Bruderhof dropped their appeal on December 20, 1997 and withdrew the copyright infringement lawsuit against Ramon Sender.)

The Bruderhof strategies in dealing with KIT and academic critics first attempted to quiet them by private persuasion or manipulating the media to discredit them. When these efforts failed, the Bruderhof mobilized the Internet, and influential friends to bring pressure upon the media to retract critical stories and apologize. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, the Bruderhof began a series of lawsuits intended to punish their critics and to prevent the publication of my book.

'You Do Not have Permission to Study Us'

(interview with two Bruderhof corporate spokespersons, Yale University, October 24, 1995)

In February, 1997, Oxford University accepted the second revision of my manuscript, The Other Side of Joy, Religious Melancholy Among the Bruderhof, (OSJ) and issued a contract for the publication of this book. By early June, the work had entered the production process. Oxford University Press advertised the work in their fall catalog and secured a copyright and ISBN with the Library of Congress., the internet book seller, listed the title as a forthcoming work in their database. The anticipated November 1997 publication of my book became public knowledge. (The book was taken out of production in late June after I informed my editor of the law suit brought against CBS. The manuscript has been vetted by an intellectual property attorney and is currently being revised before returning to production and manuscript preparation at Oxford University Press.)

The Bruderhof devised a concerted strategy to prevent the publication of this work. The defamation complaint filed against me constituted a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) that was intended to intimidate me, to prevent me from speaking and writing about the Bruderhof, and to frighten my publisher. Increasingly, costly and burdensome lawsuits have been filed against individuals and groups who speak out about public issues over real estate development, the environment, consumer issues, and new religious movements. In what has frequently become an abuse of the courts, corporations and religious groups use their economic power to sue their critics thereby transforming public debates about political and social issues into narrowly defined, "private" disputes over libel, slander, and defamation. In this manner, the debate is removed from the public sphere. Now private citizens and grass roots community organizations, without access to wealth and political influence, must defend themselves in expensive lawsuits, ever confronted with the threat that the court will award monetary damages. Even if the lawsuit is dropped or dismissed, the defendants frequently are "devastated, drop their political involvement, and swear never again to take part in American political life."[15] As George W. Pring and Penelope Canan argue: "Normally thought of as the protectors of constitutional and political rights, courts are being used, in SLAPPS, to transform public political disputes into private judicial disputes, to the unfair advantage of one side and the disadvantage of the other."[16]

In early August, a Bruderhof spokesperson called my Oxford editor, informing her of the defamation lawsuit against me and their belief that I had accused the community of committing criminal acts. Thus began a round of telephone calls and letters from the Bruderhof that have continued into 1998, urging my editor to reconsider the publication of OSJ. The Bruderhof also sent me copies of these letters so that I would aware of their tactics of intimidation. In December, 1997 a Bruderhof corporate president asked me to pressure Oxford to meet with their representatives.

In 1998, the editor had Oxford legal counsel instruct the Bruderhof to stop these "harassing" communications. The Bruderhof has repeatedly requested a meeting with Oxford to discuss these matters assuring the editor that once the facts were know about my work and the truth was presented about the Bruderhof, that Oxford would reconsider this book.

Strange, unsigned reviews of the yet-to-be published book appeared on on November 1st, when OSJ was originally scheduled to appear. One review read: "A Reader from Albany, N.Y. , 11/01/97, rating=3D1: I would rather read the Readers Digest then this book. Professor Julius Rubin should be ashamed about this s book. To me it is garbage because he writes about something he does not know anything about. To top it all of this comes under the name of [sic] Scholar ship. I pity all those students who study under him at St. Joseph's College in Hartford. I have read the manuscript and it was a complete waste of my time. They are being greatly deceived. Julius Rubin should give them all a refund for the tuition they have paid. A book to be ignored. "

In late November, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, (SPCK), a respected British publisher, mission society, and charity with a three-hundred-year history as a patron of the Queen in association with the Church of England, published my essay about the Bruderhof in an edited book, Harmful Religion. This book was sold only in the UK and Europe as SPCK did not have a North American distributor.

Harmful Religion presented the proceedings of a 1995 academic conference at King's College, London that involved Pentecostal, healing and deliverance ministries in Britain, the abuse of religious authority in new religious movements, and allied topics. Although I had not attended the conference, the academic editors, Lawrence Osborn of Cambridge University and Andrew Walker of King's College, commissioned my essay on the Bruderhof.

The book was advertised in the KIT newsletter in November and entered the SPCK bookshops in the UK in early December. (SPCK would sell the work directly to American customers by special order.) Several weeks later, I received an e-mail from Lawrence Osborn on December 18, 1997. He wrote that his co-editor "just had a visit from a nice man from the Bruderhof. He tells us that they have been advised to sue us over your paper, but, of course, they are too nice to want to do anything like that."

One month later, in frantic efforts to prevent a libel suit, SPCK had removed Harmful Religion from their shops and distributors and sold the entire first printing run to the English Bruderhof communities. These actions allowed the publisher to recoup their production costs, avoid a lawsuit, and make the disingenuous statement that the book was temporarily out-of-stock with no certain date set for the second edition printing. Through these strong-arm strategies, the Bruderhof successfully suppressed my writings and the publication of a critical essay about their sect. Threats of litigation and the tactic of buying out the print run allowed the sect to use their economic power to stifle academic freedom or freedom of the press when the writing was critical of their community.

Martin Wroe, a correspondent for The Observer in London broke the story in March 22, 1998, in "A Cult Best Seller. . . And Why You Can't Read It," He quoted one of the authors who stated that SPCK "decided the book was not worth going to court over. . . . It looks as though it will come back on the shelves without that chapter."

Osborn and Walker wrote a "statement of clarification" to the Bruderhof. A spokesperson for the English Bruderhof informed a senior official of the University of Oxford that SPCK had taken the book out of print because it contained my essay. (Oxford University Press is a division of the University.) This university official informed top officials at the Press who then contacted my editor in Oxford's New York office. The American Bruderhof spokesperson had sent her this information, adding to the pressure to drop the publication of OSJ.

On December 29, 1997, a Bruderhof leader again wrote to my editor at Oxford informing her that my essay in Harmful Religion was filled with false, inaccurate and misleading statements. He listed three pages of objectionable material. The letter further stated that when the Bruderhof appealed to SPCK, they quickly realized their mistake in printing my words. The Bruderhof did concede my First Amendment right to publish, but urged Oxford, in the interest of fairness and accuracy, to meet with the them and publish a balanced work.

Two weeks later, on January 13, 1998, Oxford received a follow-up letter from the Bruderhof with the SPCK statement of clarification, written by Osborn and Walker. They lauded the Bruderhof as an inspiring example of Christian witness to pacifism and religious community, embodying the highest ideals of faith and ethical practice. They explained that there is nothing inherently or intentionally abusive or wrong with the Bruderhof, that they are not a cult. They apologized for any negative inferences that might be drawn from my essay.

Appended to this letter was a statement by a clinical psychologist who stated that case studies taken from Bruderhof history have no relevance to the contemporary community. The Bruderhof letter concluded with another appeal to meet with Oxford and with an offer to provide additional letters from distinguished journalists, academics, editors, and Catholic theologians. Oxford received several letters from these friends of the Bruderhof who discredited my writing after having had read excerpts from my chapter in Harmful Religion. Each correspondent lauded the idealism of the Bruderhof communities and denounced my critical essay as erroneous, mean-spirited, and flawed social science.

During the spring of 1998, the Bruderhof sent my editor copies of critical reviews of my first Oxford book, Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America as further evidence my problematic scholarship. The Bruderhof also contacted and shared their concerns with the General Editor of Oxford's "Religion in America Series," a distinguished professor at a major American research university.

The Bruderhof had formulated a concerted strategy of pressure to stifle my voice, first by suppressing the SPCK essay and then by using this small victory as a leverage to attempt to pressure Oxford to reconsider the manuscript. Finally, they commissioned letters from prominent friends who would discredit my work.

The Bruderhof attacked another critic and threatened legal sanctions to suppress public criticism. In June, 1997, Bill Peters, the husband of a Bruderhof apostate, created Bruderhof, an Internet newsgroup. The newsgroup provides a free and uncensored forum that hosts threaded discussions to air complaints and ventilate anger about the commune. On June 16th, Bruderhof attorneys sent Peters a letter charging him with trademark infringement for using the term "Bruderhof," demanded that he remove the newsgroup from the Web, and threatened legal action should he fail to comply by a two-week deadline. (Newsgroups, once initiated, take on a life of their own and cannot be removed. Bruderhof threats could not change this curious fact of the Internet.)

News of this controversy and the threat against Peters spread on the NET. Frank Copeland, a critic of Scientology living in Australia, took up the conflict between the Bruderhof and their critics. Copeland posted a web page with the story of the news group conflict, information about KIT, and the story of Harmful Religion. He posted a web page with my out-of-print chapter that browsers could download.

Chris Stamper of The Netly News broke this story on July 7, 1997 in "The Great Bruderhof Newsgroup Fight." He interviewed me for this story and I explained: "They want to use legal remedies to stop criticism. . . . They don't want to see any critical statements made by anyone."[17]

In July, 1998, Elizabeth Bohlken-Zumpe, the granddaughter of the Bruderhof's founder and author of the critical history, Torches Extinguished, presented a paper in Amsterdam at CENSUR, Center for the Study on New Religions. Before the session began, she was confronted by her brother Ben. She reports that he threatened to "expose me as a liar and traitor."[18] Shaken by this intimidation and reduced to tears, Bohlken-Zumpe did not want to deliver her paper in an atmosphere of intimidation. Yaacov Oved, author of Witness of the Brothers, an authorized history of the Bruderhof reassured her: "We are academic here, this is a University and we invited you. We did not invite Ben . . . . Just calm yourself and I will do the rest!"[19] Her paper was delivered without interference by her brother and sister-in-law.


During an extended conversation in 1995 with two corporate presidents who are part of the sect's core leadership, they repeatedly told me, "You are not listening." This phrase meant that I disagreed with their account of the facts, their interpretation of events, and the motives attributed to the actions of others. Inside the Bruderhof, when a leader tells a common brother "You are not listening," the brother must hurriedly change his belief, attitude, demeanor and behavior to comply. Inside the commune, leaders have the authority to interpret social reality and the power to make their interpretations stick. However, the enforcement of a single belief system and total unanimity of thought, belief and practice does not apply in mainstream society. The Bruderhof continually chafes at their loss of control over the interpretation of their movement by KIT and academics, and the freedom of public and academic discourse that openly questions orthodox accounts. KIT publications, the internet, academic conferences, and university presses can contest the once-unchallenged public relations promulgated by "the Bruderhof story."

The contested narrative of the Bruderhof and their critics is neither new nor unique. American religious innovation in the past two centuries has fostered the emergence of a seemingly unending diversity of sects and utopian experiments from the Second Great Awakening in the first decades of the nineteenth century until the counterculture of the 1960s. New religious movements, formed in response to ethical prophets who have proclaimed that they serve as the instrument of divine will or as the emissary of a transcendental other, have institutionalized their charismatic messages, actively proselytized, gathered new converts and issued challenges to the wider society. Not infrequently, public controversy, contested narratives, and litigation result. The charismatic origins of the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee, the Mormons and Joseph Smith, the Oneida Perfectionists and John Humphrey Noyes, and Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy, are four groups from a list that could include many lesser known sects. Each exemplifies the common theme of contested narratives, public controversy, and conflict between true believers and critical outsiders.

The case of Christian Science proves instructive. In 1907-1908, McClure's Magazine, known as a leader of muckraking journalism, accused the Mormon leadership of again embracing polygamy, and they published a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy and history of Christian Science. Written by Georgine Milmine with considerable editorial assistance and co-authorship by Willa Cather, this expose largely discredited Eddy as the absolute head of the church. Harold S. Wilson writes:

"A parallel between authoritarian religious institutions and the trusts was quickly drawn in McClure's articles exposing the Mormons and the Christian Scientists. . . . Mrs. Eddy was touted as the 'priestess,' the 'old queen,' and the 'absolute ruler' of the church." [20]

The magazine series was reprinted as a book in 1909, although this work quickly disappeared and remained unavailable for sixty-two years until the publication of the second edition in 1971. Christian Scientists purchased all copies and kept the book on permanent loan from public libraries. [21] Here, a new religious movement devised strategies to silence the critical reporting of muckraking journalists.

Using similar tactics ninety years later, the Bruderhof has responded to critical accounts of their sect by demonizing these enemies of faith. From the sect's increasingly extremist position, they feel threatened, attacked by forces of evil, struggling for the very survival of their religion. Melvyn L. Fein argues in Hardball Without an Umpire, The Sociology of Morality, that religious sectarians, in defense of orthodoxy, can become extremist. Here morality is "systematically immoral. It is an unregulated contest in which skulls get cracked open. . . ." [22] Groups defend orthodoxy by recourse to legal and extralegal measures, violence and intimidation of their enemies who are portrayed as increasingly dehumanized monsters deserving of destruction. Conflicting groups are divided into a "good-guy/bad-guy" dichotomy. Fein explains:

"The good guys must prevail. Whatever it takes to win, they must not shrink from the effort. . . . As the only ones fit to make a decision, they must grind the bad guys into the dust. Were they to abdicate this duty, the depravity of the black hats would generate waves of pollution that might engulf society." [23]

The good guy/bad-guy syndrome of polarization and extremism can also apply to apostates who aggressively criticize and attack the Bruderhof, seeking to discredit them as a "cult." Jeffrey Kaplan argues in "Radical Religion in America," that the anti-cult movement and watchdog groups form as a dialectical opposition to the religious group; a highly motivated cadre of opponents dedicated to the task of 'exposing' the alleged dangers of the movement. The jury associated with court of public opinion may be a religious denomination, but it may as easily be the general public or the agencies of local, state, or federal government. Often, not content with merely publicizing the iniquities of the movement, these watchdog groups may organize to harass, intimidate, or even outlaw the target group. [24]

The Bruderhof, self-proclaimed as the good guy, denounce their critics as the demonic enemies of faith and adopt a complex legal, public relations, and extra-legal strategy to quiet their those who disagree with them . The courts become the tool to punish those who disagree by costly litigation and SLAPP suits intended to intimidate critics. Alternatively, KIT apostates, self-proclaimed as the good guy, denounce the Bruderhof as a "destructive cult" and attempt to discredit them in the court of public opinion. In the escalating conflict of dialectical opposition, the exercise of free speech and academic freedom is held hostage.



[1]. Sarah Lyall, Rushdie, Free of Threat, Revels in Spontaneity, New York Times, September, 1998, A7.

[2]. Learned Hand, "International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 501, v. NLRB,181 F.2nd 34 (2nd Cir. 1950), 40. Quoted from Frederick Schauer, The First Amendment as Ideology, in David S. Allen and Robert Jensen, Freeing the First Amendment, Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression, New York: New York University Press, 1995, 10-28.

[3]. Merrill Mow, Torches Rekindled, 9-11.

[4]. Nadine Moonje Pleil, Free From Bondage, 219ff.

[5]. See Francis X. Clines, "Thou Shalt Not Traffic in Demon Gossip," The New York Times, March 2, 1995. Joyce Holiday, "The Stuff of Life, A Visit to the Bruderhof," Sojourners, Vol. 13, No. 5, May, 1984. Connie Nash, "Bruderhof Women: A Testimony of Love," History Today, Vol. 44, No. 7, 1994.

[6]. See also W. Eaton and Robert J. Weil, Culture and Mental Disorders, A Comparative Study of Hutterites and Other Populations, Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1955. Bert Kaplan and Thomas F. A. Plautt, Personality in a Communal Society, An Analysis of the Mental Health of Hutterites, Lawrence Kansas: University of Kansas, 1956. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society,Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

[7]. Yaacov Oved, Witness of the Brothers, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1996.

[8]. See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collected Memory for the discussion of the social and cultural dynamic of group collective memory and collective representations. See also Hobsbaum, The Invention of Tradition.

[9]. Ramon Sender Barayon, "The Evolution of the Peregrine Foundation," http://www.

[10]. Ramon Sender, "The Peregrine Foundation Information Sheet."

[11].The KIT internet address is The Bruderhof address is

[12] . KIT, Vol VII, Number 7, July, 1995.

[13]. Blaise Schweitzer, "For Hutterians, There's a Storm Before the Calm," Kingston Daily Freeman, July 27, 1995.

[14]. James M. Wall, "Cults and Communities," The Christian Century, May 21-28, 1997, 500.

[15]. George W. Pring and Penelope Canan, SLAPPS, Getting Sued for Speaking Out, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1996, 29.

[16]. Ibid., 29.

[17]. Chris Stamper, "The Great Bruderhof Newsgroup Fight," The Netly News, July 7, 1997.(,2334,12554,00.html)

[18]. Bette Bohlken-Zumpe, "Report on CENSUR," KIT, Vol X, No 8-9, August, 1998, 15.

[19]. Ibid, 15.

[20]. Harold S. Wilson, "McClure's Magazine and the Muckrakers," 303.

[21]. See Steward Hudson, Preface to the Second Edition of The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1971, xv. I am endebted to Cynthia A. Read, Executive Editor, Oxford University Press for bringing this example to my attention.

[22]. Melvyn L. Fein, Hardball Without an Umpire: The Sociology of Morality, London: Praeger, 1997, 150.

[23]. Ibid., 152.

[24]. Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America, Millennial Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 127.

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