Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Searching through the Nations": Tasks and Problems of Sixteenth-Century Hutterian Mission

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Searching through the Nations": Tasks and Problems of Sixteenth-Century Hutterian Mission

Article excerpt

Abstract: The goal of the Hutterian mission effort during the sixteenth century was to gather all believers in Moravia. To reach this goal the Hutterites sent missioners throughout the Holy Roman Empire and promoted emigration among Anabaptists whose lives were threatened both by religious persecution and by economic hardship. Hutterian mission strategy changed in the course of the sixteenth century--a flexible organization shaped by the personal motives of individual Hutterites capable of reacting quickly to mandates or economic crises turned to a more institutionalized work that was planned and run by the elders. But the challenge of integrating the masses of emigrants flocking to the Moravian colonies created increasing problems for the church. By the end of the sixteenth century, missions and the ensuing failure to fully integrate newcomers revealed the problems and weaknesses of the Hutterian system.


"The Hutterite mission," according to social historian Claus-Peter Clasen, "was an unusual phenomenon in the sixteenth-century Empire." (2) In contrast to most people living in sixteenth-century German territories who "experienced mission" only when forced to change their official religious confession according to the conviction of the sovereign, the Hutterites practiced mission in the manner of the apostolic church. They sent out missioners, preached in hidden forests and, as a particular characteristic of Hutterite mission, guided groups of potential converts to Moravia.

Although previous scholarship has tended to generalize about Anabaptist mission, combining all branches of the Anabaptist movement into one mission strategy, few studies focus specifically on Hutterian mission. These studies unanimously depict Hutterian mission work as being strictly organized, led by a special committee that was in charge of sending out the Servants of the Word. Franklin H. Littell provided the first and presumably fundamental characterization of the Hutterian mission work in 1958:

   There was a definite transition from the Anabaptist pilgrim, who
   evangelized and taught wherever he found temporary refuge from the
   hounds of the established order, to the missioner whose trips were
   assigned as part of a grand strategy of spiritual conquest. By and
   large the establishment of the Hutterite economy in Moravia may be
   used to mark the line between one type and the other. (3)

In 1984 he again described mission work as "highly ordered" and "well-supported." (4) In the same year Hans Kasdorf described the extensive organization of Hutterian mission, highlighting a special Hutterian committee that supposedly chose the missioners "on the basis of call, gifts, and moral and spiritual qualifications." (5) In 1966 Wolfgang Schaufele published Das missionarische Bewusstsein und Wirken der Taufer--to date the most extensive investigation of Anabaptist missions in general--in which he characterized the Hutterites as having sent out apostles "methodically." (6)

At first glance the sources seem to confirm this "grand strategy of spiritual conquest" (7) that scholars have assumed was integral to Hutterian mission. Even Jacob Hutter warned his brotherhood in 1535:

   But when I say more of us are needed here [in the Tyrol], I do not
   mean that everybody should now take it upon himself to come running
   without the permission and knowledge of the Servants and of the
   whole Church. We will not receive anyone who comes like this, and
   God will also punish him from Heaven. (8)

In the beginning of the Hutterian community, the Servants of the Word claimed to be in charge of sending out missioners and determining mission fields. By the 1550s, a Hutterian brother who wanted to pursue missions in a particular region had to first ask the elders for permission. According to the sources, by the end of the sixteenth century the Hutterites had instituted a special committee--the one mentioned by Hans Kasdorf--charged with the task of sending out missioners and overseeing their work. …

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