It was an unlikely union. One party was an Anabaptist group dating back to the early 16th century, full of tradition and belief forged by years of persecution. The other was a fledgling movement drawing from a range of Christian and social influences.
Yet 90 years ago, the North American Hutterian Brethren (or Hutterites) and the Bruderhof in Germany joined together, based on their common commitment to living in community, believers baptism and peace.
What became the Bruderhof traces its origins back 100 years, to 1920, when a handful of people purchased a villa in the central German village of Sannerz to create an intentional community. Its leaders were Eberhard Arnold and his wife, Emmy von Hollander Arnold. He held a doctorate in philosophy, had been active in several German Christian movements and was in demand as a speaker.
The early Hutterites had been an inspiration — although not the only one — for the Arnolds and the Sannerz group. When they moved to larger accommodations at nearby Rhon in 1927, they adopted the name Bruderhof, the term used by the early Hutterities for their communities. But with no remaining presence in Europe, the movement was assumed to have died out.
But they learned otherwise in 1921. Eberhard Arnold received a letter from J.G. Ewert, a professor at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. Ewert was aware of the Sannerz community, having ordered several books from an affiliated publishing house. His letter included mention of the Hutterites, who had migrated to America from Russia in the 1870s, as well as the Old Order Amish.
In 1926, Arnold received the address of Hutterite elder Darius Walter in Canada. Arnold’s source was Robert Friedmann, a Jewish scholar of Anabaptism in Vienna who later fled to the United States, where he became a Mennonite and worked for several years at Goshen (Ind.) College. Walter replied with a package of Hutterite writings, which Arnold devoured. A lively correspondence followed, including the Bruderhof’s 1929 proposal to unite.
“We give ourselves first to God, and now to you,” Arnold wrote the North Americans. “We want to be yours in the obedience of faith, love and discipline.”
That goal could not be met simply by mail. It required Arnold to go to the United States and Canada to meet with the Hutterites — all of the Hutterites. Between May and December 1930, he visited all 33 Hutterite colonies in South Dakota, Manitoba and Alberta. He was interviewed by ministers — one such grilling lasted five and a half hours — and had many more impromptu conversations with colony members. Arnold also spent much time copying traditional Hutterite sermons and other documents found at the various colonies to take back to Germany.
Finally in December, the Hutterites had come to consensus to welcome the German Bruderhof into the Hutterian Brethren. They were impressed with Arnold’s knowledge of the Bible and Hutterite history and by his commitment to communal life.
This new union was symbolized in a Dec. 9 ceremony where Arnold was rebaptized. Nine days later, he was ordained a minister, or Servant of the Word, for the work in Europe.
The North American colonies were each members of one of three subgroups. The Bruderhof became a fourth.
In a letter to Emmy, Arnold rejoiced at being affiliated with the Hutterites and praised their “spiritual vitality, a strength to work and organize among communal lines that comes from the creative Holy Spirit and is certain to be equal to the cunning and violence of any hostile powers for several generations to come.”
Arnold didn’t return to Germany until May 1931, a couple of weeks shy of a full year away. His trip had a second purpose: securing economic support for the financially struggling Bruderhof. For that, Arnold had to make another tour of the North American colonies, with mixed success.
The union of the Bruderhof and the Hutterites also had mixed success. While the Hutterites were ethnically homogeneous, relatively insular and more tradition-bound, the Bruderhof drew adherents from a wide range of backgrounds. Many of its members were well-educated and emphasized mission and social justice.
In 1955, shortly after the Bruderhof started its first U.S. community, in New York, the majority of a Hutterite colony voted to leave its subgroup and join the more progressive Bruderhof. That generated outrage among the Hutterites, and they broke formal relations.
But in 1974, the Bruderhof asked for forgiveness for its role in the switch and were readmitted to the Hutterian Brethren. But that didn’t last long either. The gulf between the Hutterites and the Bruderhof continued to widen, and by 1992, the Hutterites had again expelled the Bruderhof.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.