Magazine article History Today

Hutterians

Magazine article History Today

Hutterians

Article excerpt

A former tuberculosis sanatorium in Sussex today houses the Darvell Bruderhof, Britain's only Hutterian community. Here, 250 |brothers and sisters' live according to the model of the early church, uncompromising in their Christian ethic. All property is held in common. They are pacifists. They refuse to vote, swear oaths or enter public office. The basic pattern of their life, in these respects, has not changed since the first community was founded in Moravia in 1528.

The Hutterians are |Anabaptists', or |Rebaptisers' -- a name originally bestowed, by their opponents, on radical Protestant groups which taught that baptism should follow an adult confession of faith. But present-day Anabaptists express mild regret at the emphasis the name implies. For them, the key is simply their commitment to the teaching of the Gospels. |Jesus calls men to a practical way of life', the Hutterian Chronicle explains, |to love and brotherhood, to God's reign of unity and love ...'

All members of the community live and work within the bruderhof. They eat together at long trestle tables in the dining room; before the meal they sing a hymn and during it they listen to a story or a letter read aloud, or to the brother whose job it is to summarise the news from the radio. Their style is uniform: the men are bearded, clothed in simple tunic jackets over gingham shirts and braces; the women wear calf-length dresses, with polka dot headscarves tied beneath their chins. This costume recalls their sixteenth-century beginnings.

The Hutterians have common origins with the Mennonites and Amish. The movement from which all three emerged began when Georg Blaurock, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz, three young men ardent for reform, baptised each other near Zurich in 1525. |This' says the Chronicle, |was the beginning of separation from the world and its evil ways'. Nikolsburg in Moravia quickly became their centre; but divisions emerged over nonviolence and common ownership of goods. One group, committed strongly to these two principles, moved to Austerlitz in 1528. On the way, the story goes, their leaders stopped in an open field and spread out a coat on which each person placed what he or she possessed.

In Austerlitz they were visited by one Jakob Hutter from the Tyrol. Little is known about him before this date, but the Chronicle has an intriguing footnote on the only extant descriptions of him, which imply that he may have had a military past. In any case, he was plainly a man of ability, and a leader, to the extent that the group would later become known by his name. As increasing numbers of Anabaptists fled persecution by the Catholic authorities Hutter urged them to join the group at Austerlitz, and eventually did so himself. It was he who moulded the community and laid the foundations for the following crucial years, when it grew to more than eighty |households', some with as many as a thousand inhabitants.

In times of peace the Hutterians were renowned for their careful craftsmanship and diligence. They prospered. In Moravia between 1564 and 1619, according to Owen Chadwick's history of the Reformation (1964) they were celebrated as |doctors, clock-makers, copyists, cutlers, designers of furniture, above all of majolica' and were in demand to manage farms, breweries and saw-mills.

But from the beginning the Hutterians were persecuted; they suffered martyrdom and frequently had to flee for freedom. As well as every decision taken by the group, every price rise and every crisis of the early years, the Chronicle recounts in vivid prose how countless brethren went joyfully to terrible deaths by fire or drowning. There are ardent denunciations of the Jesuits and others, including Lutherans, who dealt with them so cruelly. In 1536, Jakob Hutter himself was burnt at the stake in Innsbruck by the Austrian authorities. But not, we are told, before he had been brutally tortured; not before he had been led in mockery |into the house of idols', gagged and bedecked in a feathered hat. …

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