This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Hutterite elder sought progress, lamented division

Jacob Kleinsasser, a Hutterite elder whose broad vision for the betterment of Hutterite society included embracing education as a positive force, died Aug. 8 at Crystal Spring Hutterite Community in Manitoba. He was 95.

Jacob Kleinsasser

Kleinsasser initiated or played a key role in diverse projects and developments that impacted Hutterite communal life in the second half of the 20th century.

Reaching beyond Hutterite boundaries while preserving traditions and working for positive change, Kleinsasser saw his visions bear mixed results. Resistance to ideas he supported led to a 1992 division of the Schmiede­leut, one of three Hutterite groups in North America.

One of Kleinsasser’s outreach initiatives, a 1974 reunion of Hutterites with the Bruderhof communities, lasted a little more than two decades before being painfully severed again.

In the 1950s, he was instrumental in writing the Constitution of the Hutterian Breth­ren Church, providing all three Hutterite Leut with a unified voice to the Canadian government in response to anti-Hutterite legislation in the Manitoba and Alberta legislatures.

Born Jan. 2, 1922, at Benard, Man., Kleinsasser grew up in Blumengart, a Mennonite village in Manitoba that converted into a Hutterite community.

Only four years earlier, his parents, Jacob and Katherina (Wald­ner), had been part of a mass migration of Hutterites from the United States to Canada, due to harassment precipitated by refusal to participate in the World War I effort and the associated death of two Hutterite conscientious objectors.

In 1938 the family moved to Sturgeon Creek Community near Headingley, Man.

During World War II he was summoned for alternative service as a conscientious objector but due to family circumstances and community responsibilities was granted postponements that outlasted the war.

On Dec. 1, 1944, he married Katherina Hofer. They had 10 children, of whom two, Edward and Dora, survived to adulthood. They adopted a daughter, Emma. Katherina died Jan. 1, 1984, due to complications of diabetes. He married Maria Hofer on April 1, 1984.

Broad vision

Through the traditional combination of election and drawing of the lot, Kleinsasser became a Diener des Wortes, or minister, in 1946 at Sturgeon Creek Community. He was ordained in 1954. That same year, Sturgeon Creek established Crystal Spring Community near Ste. Agathe, and he moved with his family to serve as senior minister there.

Increasingly active in matters of the larger Hutterite church, he assisted Joseph Kleinsasser, the Ältester, or elder, the most senior minister of the Schmiedeleut conference, with communities in Manitoba, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Succeeding Joseph Kleinsasser as Ältester after his death in 1978, Jacob Kleinsasser initiated diverse projects linked by a broad vision for the betterment of his people. These included establishing financial and insurance institutions to help communities contend with economic challenges such as prohibitive interest rates during the 1980s.

He collected genealogical records that laid the foundation for modern Hutterite genealogy. He translated historical documents into English, especially 17th-century teachings still used in daily worship.

He assembled documents constituting the foundation of a third volume of the Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, a tradition of recording Hutterite history that began in the 16th century.

Reunion with Bruderhof

“Jake Vetter” — Vetter being the Hutterite term of respect for uncles, older men and community leaders — was grounded in the Anabaptist notion of Christi Nachfolge: Christian action testifies to Christian belief.

Unusual for his time, he was keenly interested in mission, both of a spiritual and material nature. This resulted in a cautious working relationship with Mennonite Central Committee that eventually developed into a Hutterite fund active during the 1980s to support mutually agreed-upon projects.

His willingness to reach beyond existing boundaries included efforts to renew a relationship with the Bruderhof communities. The Bruderhof, founded by German theologian Eberhard Arnold in the 1920s, had united with Hutterites in 1930, but the bond was severed in the 1950s.

The restoration of this relationship in 1974 led to two decades of interchange, with generally positive results still discernible in Manitoba Hutterite communities: increased emphasis on the joyful aspect of community life, greater consciousness of discipleship issues such as a simpler lifestyle, and striving for genuine community. But the Hutterite-Bruderhof connection was severed again in 1996.

Improving education

Perhaps Kleinsasser’s most significant legacy was his embrace of education. With his encouragement, others plowed new fields in educating Hutterite children. He saw this as a return to the ideals of an era when Hutterian education in Europe exceeded mainstream society’s. Today, a high-quality high school education is the norm for Manitoba Hutterites.

Recognizing the importance of opportunities for youth to express themselves in positive ways, he advocated choral singing, wholesome recreation and mission and study trips.

Yet his visions of progress led to conflicts. Differing ideas of what it meant to be faithful Christians, and accusations against his leadership, resulted in the formation of a fourth Leut — a second group of Schmiedeleut alongside the Lehrerleut and Darius­leut.

Consequently, Kleinsasser’s memory as a person of vision and creativity is tempered by the reality of a division that still longs to be healed. It was his hope that this would happen.

His wake and funeral were heavily attended and watched via live-streaming technology by Hutterites in the United States and throughout Manitoba.

On Aug. 30, the results of an election were tabulated, and a new Ältester for Schmiedeleut I Hutterites, Arnold Hofer of Acadia Community, Carberry, Man., was confirmed.

Kenny Wollmann is a member of the Baker Hutterite Community at MacGregor, Man. He is a student in the biblical and theological studies program at Canadian Mennonite University. This article was written with files from Ian Kleinsasser and Dora Maendel.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!