Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Hutterite Family in Transition

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Hutterite Family in Transition

Article excerpt

Since the mid 1980's I have been studying the Hutterite family. I have developed personal relationships with members of various Lehrerleut and Dariusleut colonies in Alberta, Montana and Washington. Through interviews and observation I have concluded that they are "modernizing" in the sense of structuring family life in a way more similar to that of the outside Western world. The role of the community is becoming less important as the affectional ties within the nuclear family become more important.

L. Foster (1984:245) stated in his study of three communal societies that: "No social order is static, or unchanging, especially when it demands the kind of intense commitment and dedication that these experiments did." I believe that the same is true for the Hutterites. They are modernizing, even though it is at a slower rate than is true for the rest of society. Of necessity, they are accommodating to the practices of the larger culture in which they find themselves.

These changes have gone on virtually unnoticed by those who write about the Hutterian Brethren. There are two goals for this article: 1) to provide a review of the literature on family life among the Hutterites, as many younger scholars will be unfamiliar with it due to the paucity of more recent work, and 2) to update it with my own years of participant observation which focuses on the transition from communal to individualistic values. We will follow the traditional developmental approach in organizing the material as it takes us through the various stages of the family life cycle.


The Hutterites are an Anabaptist group which began in central Europe in the middle 1550's. Today they total somewhere between 36,000 (Huntington 1997) to about 45,000 members living in over 400 colonies (Stanton, 1999). They are the oldest family communal group in the Western world, but the community is considered to be more important than the family. They believe that salvation is found in total submission to the group, which is more important than the individual. One of their original basic tenets was that believing Hutterites must separate from non believing spouses (Huntington, 1997).

All Hutterites are descended from 18 families. Four names have since died out so there are only 14 Hutterite surnames. Society is patriarchal and kinship is patrilineal and patrilocal, so men have lifelong association in the same community while women usually leave their colony of birth at marriage. They have maintained the extended family, with three or four generations in the same community but not necessarily under the same roof.

They believe in a hierarchy of relationships that is ordained of God. Men have higher status than women, and the elderly deserve the respect of the young. The sex and age ranking is seen in all settings, be it church, school, work, or meals. Males sit on one side of the room and the females on the other, with the oldest in the front. After church services for instance, the males file out first, with the oldest woman following the youngest boy (Hofer, 1998).

Due to the high intermarriage that occurs, a colony might have only one or two family names but consist of eight to fourteen extended families all related to each other to some degree. Others may have as many as seven family names. The three Leut have been endogamous since 1879. However, within these groups an incest taboo is maintained which includes up to first cousins on both sides (Peter, 1979).

Married couples tend to name their children after themselves or another close relative. Most first names are biblical and/or traditional Hutterite, but a few new names have been showing up in recent years. A newborn child is usually given as a middle initial the first letter of the father's first name. At marriage, the boy takes the first letter of his wife's first name as his new middle initial, and the girl changes her middle initial to the first letter of her husband's first name. …

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