Stress and Conflict in an International Religious Movement: The Case of the Bruderhof

by Timothy Miller, Ph. D., Department of Religion, University of Kansas

Prepared for CESNUR/INFORM/ISAR conference, London, March, 1993

prepared for CESNUR/INFORM/ISAR conference, London, March, 1993
This paper is designed as an update on recent conflicts focused on one of the most successful alternative religions to have originated in Europe in this century. The Hutterian Society of Brothers, or Bruderhof, was founded as an idealistic commune of Christian German students in 1920; it now has grown to about 2,000 members and operates nine communal settlements in the United States, England, and Germany. It professes total Christian love and a lifestyle of modest simplicity. It has, however, of late become the target of accusations that it does not live up to its lofty ideals and has become a major element in the most substantial internal dispute among the North American Hutterites in many decades; the nay-sayers, most of them former Bruderhof members, now have an international organization, a monthly newsletter, and regular conferences. This specifically focused anti-cult movement has attracted some scholars to its cause, including Benjamin Zablocki, who wrote the most comprehensive book on the Bruderhof,(1) and John Hostetler, the most eminent living scholar of the Anabaptists, who has close knowledge of both the regular Hutterites and the Bruderhof. For those not familiar with the Bruderhof, I will briefly sketch its history; I will then provide some details, as up-to-the- minute as I could make them, of the problems that continue to plague the movement and the Schmiedeleut Hutterites with whom it has established ties.
I. The Bruderhof: A historical introduction
The Hutterian Society of Brothers, or Bruderhof, is very much an outgrowth of the vision of Eberhard Arnold (1883-1935), who soon after finishing graduate school became General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement in Germany and was thus ex posed to a wide range of enthusiastic social movements. Over a period of several years he and his wife Emmy engaged in a search for religious expression that culminated with their renting of a farm at Sannerz in 1920. Seven adults constituted the original membership. It was spontaneous and unstructured, very much focused on Arnold, its charismatic leader. Despite crises and poverty it grew, reaching more than 40 members by 1926.
The Sannerz farm had been outgrown, and the group, thanks to a timely gift from an outside admirer of their work, managed to make the down payment on a farm in the nearby Rhoen mountains. The group was living there when Eberhard Arnold learned that the Hutterites, whose early history he had studied avidly, were still active and living in North America. In 1930 he journeyed to meet them, visiting all the colonies and receiving ordination as a Hutterite minister. Upon his return he set a process of Hutterization in process in his own group, imitating Hutterite practices to a greater or lesser degree in worship, dress, child-rearing, and generally in as much of life as possible. Although this imposition of an alien lifestyle on the community created some conflicts, life on the whole went well at the Rhoen Bruderhof until Hitler rose to power in 1933. By early 1934 the little band had undertaken to move some of their members -- especially draft-age young men -- to Liechtenstein, where they created what they called the Alm Bruderhof in a little-used summer hotel. The following year Eberhard Arnold died at age 52 after surgery on his leg which had been broken long before but had not healed. (2)
Liechtenstein afforded insufficient safety to these pacifist Germans who could not abide Nazism, and so they managed to make their way into England, where in 1936 they founded the Cotswold Bruderhof, which housed the community after the German government ordered the closing of the Rhoen Bruderhof in 1937 and the community abandoned the Alm Bruderhof the following year. 1938 also saw the founding of a second hof in England, at Oaksey. The group attracted local converts, and its population soon grew to over 300. (3)
When England went to war with Germany the government decided that it must intern its resident Germans, and the community, unwilling to be split in that fashion, had to seek a new home. Canada rejected its overtures for asylum, as did the United States. The only place they could find where they were welcome was Paraguay, whither they departed in 1940 and 1941, braving a sea voyage at a time when hostile submarines were threatening all sea traffic. From 1941 to 1946 the group created three separate colonies at the settlement they called Primavera, which by 1953 had grown to contain 700 residents. (4)
In the postwar era the United States was more hospitable than it had been in wartime, and in 1954 the first American Bruderhof, known as Woodcrest, was opened at Rifton, New York. After serious internal conflicts in 1961 the Paraguayan colony, plus smaller groups in England and Germany, were closed and the Bruderhof became situated solely in the United States. The movement continued its expansion, and now has seven colonies in the United States plus new colonies in the movement's previous homelands, England and Germany, and a missionary outpost in Nigeria. Today its membership is in the vicinity of 2,000.
II. The KIT conflict
The Bruderhof makes much of its devotion to selfless, unconditional, freely giving love in its internal life.(5) However, critics of the movement, usually former members, have in the last few years increasingly argued that the rhetoric of love camouflages an authoritarian leadership that has generated intolerance of dissent, destruction of family ties, and mistreatment of expelled members. One of the first such accusations to be publicly aired came from Robert Peck, who in 1987 wrote a memoir of his thirteen- year sojourn with the group, which he joined in Paraguay and stayed with for many years after its move to the United States. Peck wrote that the group in its earlier years, while rhetorically espousing a strict and orthodox form of Protestant Christianity, was in fact fairly relaxed: if your relations with the rest of the community were good, no one was terribly concerned about the precise nature of your theological convictions. Thus some members were some what liberal Christians whose chief attraction to the group was communal living with warm personal relations at a time when a stable commune was hard to find. Indeed, several had come in a group from the Macedonia Cooperative Community in 1958, and Macedonia, far from being a colony of pious Anabaptists, was a center of pacifist radicals, albeit ones with religious convictions, the most famous of whom was Staughton Lynd, who became prominent as a firebrand in the social tumult of the late 1960s.(6) However, Peck writes, after about 1959 the community turned inward and began what its critics saw as a long and deepening de scent into enforcement of ideological as well as behavioral conformity. Many of the liberals eventually left, reinforcing the conservatives' hold on the community.(7)
In 1961 the community underwent a major restructuring and purge, the result of which was the departure of over a third of its membership, some by voluntary departure, some by expulsion, al though as many as 200 of them returned to the movement about two years later. Especially hard hit by the rupture was Primavera, the Paraguayan colony, which was closed as a result of the problems.(8)As ex-members have characterized the situation, they were "judged `unworthy' and ejected from the communities. They only were allowed to take with them a few suitcases of clothing and were warned not to contact other ex- members. The Bruderhof's `golden handshake' probably averaged $25 per person."(9) The conservative direction was greatly intensified by the leadership until his death in 1982 of Heini Arnold, the son of founder Eberhard Arnold. Indeed, many of those who left attribute many of the problems of the Bruderhof to Heini, who, they allege, had emotional problems of such a nature and depth that his father had urged that he never be given a major leadership post.(10) Leaving was traumatic for those who no longer felt right about participating; it involved economic hardship, since one gives all one's as sets to the community upon joining, as well as enormous social dislocation and, given the religious ideology that permeates the group, a sense of theological shame, that one is no longer worthy of doing God's work.(11) Eventually, however, a loose network of former members began to take shape; through correspondence, largely, they under took important tasks of mutual support and compared notes on what they saw as the shortcomings of life in a community not as loving as it claimed to be.
A major step in defining the ex-member opposition came when Ramon Sender learned of the death of his adult daughter, Xaverie Sender Rhodes. Sender and his wife, intrigued with the prospect of communal living, had joined the Bruderhof as novices in the late 1950s. Sender soon found it not to his liking and left it in less than a year, but his wife disagreed and stayed behind, keeping their daughter with her. Given the hostility with which apostates were even then viewed by the community, communications between Ramon and Xaverie (he and his wife eventually were divorced) were virtually nonexistent, with visits and even letters disallowed by the Bruderhof leadership. Sender's quiet toleration of that unpleasant situation ended, however, when he learned that his daughter had died in 1988 of cancer at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York state; he had not been informed that she had been ill and thus had had no chance to visit her during her terminal illness; he was not informed of her death until a month afterwards. Utilizing the informal network of ex- members that already existed, Sender centralized the flow of correspondence, starting a newsletter known as KIT, for Keep in Touch, in 1989. The outpouring was substantial. The mailing list now includes over 200 individuals and families, most of them ex-Bruderhofers and some of them descendants of Eberhard Arnold and former Bruderhof Servants of the Word, or ministers, who see the group as having departed from its original course and, more importantly, spirit.(12)The newsletter focuses primarily on grievances of ex-members, both concerning abuses they believe they experienced while in the group and also since departure. An ongoing theme is the Bruderhof's general unwillingness to permit family communication; just as Sender could not visit his daughter or even know of her deadly condition, families split by the departure of some but not all of their members are rarely allowed to communicate. Bruderhof leaders have occasion ally responded to some of the allegations in KIT, especially to pleas to allow visits, and their letters have been readily printed in the newsletter.
Some of the allegations of Bruderhof misdeeds in KIT are strong, and there is ample evidence of deep antagonisms toward the Bruderhof on the part of the exiles. Perhaps the most serious allegations include those of child abuse, including sexual abuse, that is said to have come not as a result of any official miscreancy but as a result of certain kinds of theological blindness that kept the community from noticing signs of pathology on the part of some of its members.(13) That the antagonisms run deep is illustrated in the most extreme case by the fact that one correspondent's animosity actually led him to consider killing Heini Arnold in the early 1970s.(14)
III. The Schmiedeleut conflict
A central ongoing desire of the Bruderhof has been to establish close relations with, and ultimately become an integral part of, the old-line Hutterites. Since Eberhard Arnold's initial encounter with the Canadian Hutterites in 1930 there has been communication between the two groups, although the acceptance of the Bruderhof on the part of the old Hutterites has been inconsistent. Initially most of the Hutterites were impressed with Arnold's sincerity and humility, but as they learned more about Bruderhof life they came to be skeptical of the rightness of the newcomers' path. In 1950 two Hutterite preachers went to Paraguay and engaged in a serious examination of Bruderhof beliefs and practices, finding distressing such practices as smoking, watching movies, and letting women attend council meetings. The Bruderhof members also quizzed the Hutterites, and were displeased with such matters as the purchase of government bonds and failure to engage in missionary work.(15) Every difference between the two groups seemed to raise eyebrows; the Hutterites were not pleased even with the Bruderhof's use of local vernacular languages in daily life and its economy that was not based on farming. The upshot was that ties between the two movements were largely severed. That separation continues today among the Lehrerleut and Dariusleut Hutterites.
However, the situation is different among the Schmiedeleut, the most liberal of the three North American branches of the original Hutterites. As it happened, one Schmiedeleut colony, Forest River in North Dakota, already known for having a relatively rest less population, remained fond of the Bruderhof. Against the general Hutterite sentiment they invited the Paraguayan Bruderhof members to join them, and some 36 did just that. By all accounts, the Bruderhof virtually overwhelmed the Forest River colony. As Ruth Baer Lambach, who lived at a child at Forest River, recalls, the Bruderhof was "a patchwork community of eccentrics, intellectuals, dissident seekers of truth, and creative practitioners of radical Christianity" that entered Forest River "like a hurricane," so force fully that they were accused of trying to take over the entire Schmiedeleut branch of the Hutterites.(16)Many of the Hutterites, including their preacher, left. In 1955 the gathered Schmiedeleut preachers excommunicated the Bruderhof and put the Forest River colony on probation. The following year the Bruderhof members left Forest River for a new Bruderhof in Pennsylvania, taking several Hutterites with them. Relations were strained for many years afterwards.(17)
In 1973, however, Heini Arnold formally apologized for Bruderhof transgressions. Jacob Kleinsasser, then a colony minister, was the key Hutterite leader who managed to get the whole body of Schmiedeleut ministers to vote to re-admit the Bruderhof members to their church in 1974. Although the Lehrerleut and Dariusleut continued to be wary of the Bruderhof, relations with the Schmiedeleut warmed considerably. Thus was the stage set for more recent turmoil.
Before I outline the current state of the Schmiedeleut- Bruderhof relationship and its effect on the Hutterites, let me inject a word of caution about my sources. Unfortunately, I have been unable to get direct information from the Schmiedeleut themselves; contacts with Hutterites with direct knowledge of events are difficult to establish. Therefore I have relied on information that has filtered out through scholars and other outside observers who do have contacts among the Hutterites, and from some popularly published material, notably a well-researched article that appeared in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night in 1992.(18) I believe that my facts are accurate, but my sources are not entirely primary.
The warming of relations between the Schmiedeleut and the Bruderhof in recent years has come largely at the behest of Jacob Kleinsasser, who in 1978, not long after he had played a key role in accepting Heini Arnold's overture for reconciliation and formally restoring the tie between the two groups, was elected elder, or bishop, of the Manitoba Schmiedeleut, who now number about 6,000 in 80 colonies. His office carries sweeping powers, and tenure is for life. Most Hutterite elders have used the powers of the office sparingly, but Kleinsasser has taken a relatively heavy-handed approach to his work, intervening in internal affairs of colonies and pushing his program of good relations with the Bruderhof.
A prime case of Kleinsasser's intervening in the internal affairs of colonies occurred about a decade ago, when the Pine Creek colony was deeply in debt to a feed company. Kleinsasser sent an outside economic overseer to take control of the colony's finances, and the usually submissive colony members balked. Colonies usually flock to help a sister colony in trouble, but in this case they walked away and left Pine Creek to have its land attached by the feed company. For their disobedience, all colony members who remained loyal to their preacher, Sam Maendel, were excommunicated. But the colonists, although they lost most of their land, managed to keep their homes and other central buildings, worked as farmers for hire, and eventually began to buy back their colony, helped by the convenient bankruptcy of the feed company. They are, to say the least, not loyal troupers for their bishop.
Conflicts continue at other colonies as well, as at Rainbow Colony, east of Winnipeg, where Kleinsasser refused to let the colony elect its own minister in the usual fashion, sending instead an "overseer" of his own. When the colony refused to accept the overseer, Kleinsasser seized the colony's quarter-million-dollar bank account and then instructed the colonists to vacate the premises -- which so far they have not done.
And then there is the case of Daniel Hofer, who invented a hog feeder that Kleinsasser's home colony, Crystal Spring, patented in its own name, selling the patent to a company that refuses to recognize the right of Hofer's colony, Lakeside, to continue making and selling the feeders. Kleinsasser excommunicated Hofer for his disobedience, but Hofer refused to leave Lakeside, whereupon Kleinsasser undertook something possibly unprecedented in the court-shunning Hutterite world: he sued in civil court to evict the Hofer family. Hofer, not to be outdone, countersued. Kleinsasser won his suit, but Hofer appealed, and in October, 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Hofer. How that decision has been carried out I have not been able to determine.(19)
To the dissident Hutterites Kleinsasser is a dictator in a way not in keeping with Hutterite tradition. Where did he learn dictatorial ways? From the Bruderhof, his opponents claim. The Bruderhof, especially under Heini Arnold, did have a decidedly authoritarian cast to it. Just how much that actually influenced Kleinsasser is, of course, very much open to speculation.
Kleinsasser claims not to have been influenced much by the Bruderhof; from his point of view, he is rather like a missionary instructing new converts. "They [the Bruderhofers] are not introducing new ideas [to us]," he has been quoted as saying. "They are learning from us, and trying to become good Hutterites like us."(20) However, the connections are rather deeper than that. Perhaps the most concrete evidence of that lies in the fact that about seventeen marriages between Schmiedeleut and Bruderhof members have taken place,(21) and among those marrying have been Kleinsasser's daughter and Christoph Arnold's son.
In any event, the other branches of Hutterism are quite unconvinced that Kleinsasser's overtures to the Bruderhof have been benign. They are scandalized that Kleinsasser initiated a lawsuit in direct violation of over 450 years of Hutterite tradition and of the definitive statement of their principles, Peter Rideman's 1565 Confession of Faith.(22) They are also seriously disaffected by practices not in accord with traditional Hutterism that have been in evidence during some of the Schmiedeleut-Bruderhof contacts -- the use of music at weddings, for example, and the sending of Bruderhof children to public high schools. In 1990 Dariusleut and Lehrerleut leaders took the unusual step of writing to Christoph Arnold, presenting a bill of ten particulars concerning unhutterian practices on the part of the Bruderhof; among the itemized disagreements were certain theological matters, relations with the outside world, putting on plays that dramatized biblical passages, baptism by immersion (the Hutterites baptize by sprinkling), and using unacceptable practices in worship. The Hutterites announced that they were revoking the 1974 reunification out of fear that "such forbidden sins may slowly infiltrate into our colonies" and went on to ask the Bruderhof to "stop using and tarnishing the Hutterite name and image with your anti- Hutterian deeds."(23) Earlier the Dariusleut and Lehrerleut had removed Kleinsasser from his largely honorary position as President of the Three-Leut Conference.(24)
The conflict among the Hutterites over Kleinsasser's leadership is far from over. On December 9, 1992, over 160 Schmiedeleut ministers gathered for a business meeting called by Kleinsasser and a majority of them, reportedly about two-thirds, voted to re move Kleinsasser from his position as elder. Kleinsasser, how ever, refused to accept the verdict. Other meetings may lead to further internal actions, but it is generally expected that the battle will end up in the courts. The Bruderhof, incidentally, has jumped into the conflict and attempted to support its friend Kleinsasser; in November, after Schmiedeleut minister Joseph Wipf circulated letters critical of Kleinsasser and of the Bruderhof connection, the Bruderhof excommunicated Wipf and some 48 other Schmiedeleut ministers from their status as ministers recognized by the Bruderhof.
There are certainly charitable ways to interpret Kleinsasser's Bruderhof overtures. The Bruderhofers are people of the modern world; many are converts to the movement, whereas virtually all Hutterites are such by birth. The Bruderhof children finish high school and often go to college; Kleinsasser seems to believe that the Hutterite's hostility to formal education is a hindrance in the modern world. The Bruderhof makes its living through craft industries; the Hutterites in earlier times had similar occupations, and may someday need to have other resources than farming. Hutterites have in their achievement of economic success and cultural acceptance become complacent, losing their onetime missionary fervor and, various critics say, their spiritual center. Perhaps Kleinsasser is simply a necessary agent of regeneration.
It is illuminating to note that the Bruderhof connection and the various internal conflicts are not the only evidence that all is not harmonious in the Hutterite world. Other dissident groups than KIT also exist. In Tabor, South Dakota, for example, a group of former Hutterites plus some converts known as the Ark of the New Covenant has for several years been struggling to establish its own community identity; the heart of the Ark's critique is that the Hutterites have lost their spiritual focus and need a massive revitalization. The battle moved to the courts in 1989 when Ark members insisted on their right to visit the graves of their relatives at Bon Homme Colony, the previous home of 21 Ark members; Bon Homme got a court order requiring them to stay off the property, and a few weeks later several Ark members were arrested when they defied the court order. In 1989 the Ark claimed 32 members, living in a single home and trying to buy a farm. Bitterness between the Hutterites and the Ark is strong, to say the least.
John Hostetler, who knows the Hutterites and their history better than anyone else, provides a fitting closing remark on the Russian years, during which the Hutterites abandoned communal living and experienced a nearly fatal breakdown of their tradition: "What is significant from a sociological perspective is that the absence of persecution by the outside world tended to maximize internal problems."(25) Fortunately, when the Russian sojourn turned critical, a combination of sympathetic neighboring Mennonites and a new generation of charismatic leaders within the Hutterite community kept the flame burning. The Hutterites may survive because of Kleinsasser, or perhaps in spite of him. For nearly half a millennium, in any event, they have survived.
The Bruderhof, for its part, has survived nearly three-quarters of a century, a long time for a communal movement, and there is no evidence that its growth has been seriously hampered by the KIT discontent; indeed, half of the Bruderhof's colonies have been opened since the mid-1980s. More chapters in this history remain to be written.
1. Benjamin Zablocki, The Joyful Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980; originally published in 1971).
2. An insider history with much detail of these years, ending with Eberhard Arnold's death, is Emmy Arnold, Torches Together(Rifton, New York: Plough, 1964).
3. Zablocki, 82.
4. Donald F. Durnbaugh, "Relocation of the German Bruderhof to England, South America, and North America," Communal Societies 11 (1991), 74-75. Durnbaugh provides the most complete overall history of the various migrations of the Bruderhof.
5. That is the theme of "Life Together," a video sold by the Bruderhof, and of many Bruderhof publications.
6. Lynd and his wife Alice were the only full members of Macedonia who did not join the Bruderhof; they moved to Woodcrest with the others, but, in Lynd's words, were "unmoved by the religious life," since "we believed that people can ex press the same religious commitment in different words." See his letter in KIT 3:8 (August, 1991), 6.
7. Robert N. Peck, "An Ex-Member's View of the Bruderhof Communities from 1984-1961," in Gorman Beauchamp, Kenneth Roemer, and Nicholas D.Smith, eds., Utopian Studies I (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987), 111-22. For a separate anecdote that illustrates the tightening up of expectations for orthodox belief, one in which an older member freely admits his liberal outlook to a novice struggling with doubts, see Zablocki, 180-81.
8. Zablocki, 107-11.
9. Peregrine Foundation brochure, ca. September, 1991.
10. Ramon Sender, "Creative Writing," KIT Newsletter 5:1 (January 1,1993), 8.
11. These themes are explored in some depth in Zablocki, 281-85.
12. One former servant wrote a book-length memoir of his life and gradual disillusionment in the Bruderhof; it has recently been published under the auspices of KIT. See Roger Allain, The Community that Failed (San Francisco: Carrier Pigeon Press, 1992).
3. See Julius Rubin, "Field Notes in Progress on Allegations of the Sexual Molestation of Children in the Bruderhof," KIT 4:4 (April, 1992),7-8.
14. An oblique reference to this situation was published in "Letters, "KIT 4:5 (May, 1992), 1.
15. John Hostetler, Hutterite Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 280-81. 1
6. Brian Preston, "Jacob's Ladder," Saturday Night (April, 1992), 77.
17. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, 281-2.
18. Preston. The article is found on pp. 30-38 and 76-80.
19. Presumably the shunning of Hofer will continue. See "Late-Breaking News," KIT 4:10 (November, 1992), 10; the article is reprinted from The Winnipeg Free Press, October 30, 1992.
20. Preston, 32.
21. Letter "to brothers out in mission," published in KIT 4:10 (December, 1992), 2.
22. Peter Rideman, Account of Our Religion, Doctrine and Faith (English translation by Kathleen E. Hasenberg, London: Hodder and Stoughton in conjunction with the Plough Publishing House, 1950).
23. The complete letter is reproduced as "The Hutterian Brethren Church," KIT 3:2 (February, 1991), 1-2.
24. "The Woodcrest Brotherhood," KIT 4:9 (October, 1992), 2.
25. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, 117.
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