Manitoba History: Review: Karl A. Peter, The Dynamics of Hutterite Society

by John Ryan
Department of Geography, University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Dynamics of Hutterite Society. Karl A. Peter. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1987. 232 pp. ISBN 0-88864-109-5.

Hutterites form an important segment of the farming community in the western plains region of Canada and the United States. Over the years, they have become reasonably well known as a group of efficient farmers who live in communal villages, dress in the sombre clothing of a previous era, and practice a fundamentalist religion. In reality, however, they are a little-understood ethnic minority group, and society at large has major misconceptions about the nature of their agricultural holdings and practices, their effect on the local and regional economies, their history of persecution and discrimination, and their general lifestyle.

The Dynamics of Hutterite Society, largely written by Karl Peter but with sections in collaboration with Edward Boldt, Lance Roberts, and Ian Whitaker, is an analysis of the Hutterite population, and it constitutes an important source book for a better understanding of these people. Much of this book, however, is not directed to the general reader, but is essentially designed for the professional literature of sociology, the discipline of the authors. This is not surprising since 11 of the 13 chapters were previously published between 1966 and 1984 in professional journals and books. The author states that these chapters have been “revised, updated, and to some extent rewritten to facilitate a fluent reading of this volume,” but nevertheless the material is primarily directed to readers with a grasp of sociological theory and terminology.

Hutterite roots go back to 1528 when, in the face of religious persecution, a group of about 200 Anabaptists banded together to establish a communal society in Moravia, now a part of Czechoslovakia. Within a few years they worked out the basic tenets of their beliefs, and they have followed these with little deviation to the present day. The beliefs stem from early Christian teachings. They include devotion to a form of communal living as well as communal ownership of all property, devotion to non-violence and pacifism, and belief in adult baptism. Hutterites practice a fundamentalist religion. Also, they have retained the dress, the customs, the language, and the simple austere lifestyle of their ancestors. Now, however, they speak German and English as well. Because of their beliefs, Hutterites were subjected to periodic persecution which invariably resulted in migration. They moved from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, Romania, Tsarist Russia, the United States, and finally to Canada. They emigrated en masse to Canada in 1918 because of harassment and persecution in the USA that resulted from their refusal to participate in any type of military service. Initially, they settled in Manitoba and Alberta; later settlements were established in Saskatchewan and some were re-established in the USA. The total Hutterite population is now about 30,000—more than two-thirds of whom live in Canada’s prairie provinces, while the remainder are in America’s northern plains region.

The Hutterites are a remarkably resilient people who, during their 460-year history have survived life under mediaeval feudalism, Catholic absolutism, Muslim theocracy, East European nationalism; they weathered the Industrial Revolution, and for the last 100 years have existed in North America in the midst of rapid technological modernization under capitalist conditions. How have they survived? In this book Karl Peter deals with the dynamics of Hutterite society which have made their survival possible.

One of the common misconceptions about Hutterites is that they constitute a relatively static society that has remained changeless for centuries. In reality, Hutterites are a dynamic social group. The recognition of this fact accounts for the title of Dr. Peter’s book, and as he states in his introduction the basic thrust of his work is to show “the Hutterite phenomenon as an ongoing sociocultural entity constantly adapting to environmental, political, and social circumstances and at the same time realizing the opportunities which their particular cultural configuration offers.”

The book is divided into five parts, and the first deals with Hutterite history and religion. The detailed analysis includes a discussion of several theoretical models which may be utilized for the understanding of Hutterite cultural survival. However, for readers without a basis in theoretical sociology, this initial section makes for tedious and heavy reading—an unfortunate way to begin a book. In essence, this section traces the sources and consequences of emphasizing religious tradition while at the same time it endeavours to account for the economic rationality and continuous economic successes of Hutterite society. The section also examines religious defection in Hutterite communities. This is an interesting presentation which examines the ongoing dynamics between the power of retention of Hutterite religion and social life on the one hand and the religious attractions to which some of the Hutterites expose themselves on the other.

Hutterite social relations and social structures are presented in Part II. This section examines the Hutterite family and community relations, childhood and adolescent socialization, and problems in the family, community, and culture. There is also an analysis of Hutterite psychophysical typologies.

Part II is a readable, interesting, and straightforward presentation. However, Chapter IV in this section contains material which the Hutterites challenge. In a lapse of scholarship, the material in question has neither documentation nor any verifiable evidence supporting the assertions. The offending section reads as follows: “Premarital pregnancies were extremely rare. During the last five years, however, as many as eighty premarital pregnancies a year were reported for one of the three Leut.” (p. 71) The reviewer, having considerable knowledge of the Hutterites, was astounded by this statement, and on checking with Reverend Jacob Kleinsasser, the spiritual leader of the Schmiedeleut clan, he discovered that the Hutterites were scandalized by this statement and considered it to be a major breach of scholarship on the part of Dr. Peter. This chapter was originally published in a book in 1971, but since Dr. Peter has stated that all sections previously published have been updated, one could assume that the 5-year period refers to the early 1980s, but with no documentation this is not entirely certain. The point of this is that if the statement actually refers to the period 1965-70, this alleged outbreak of premarital pregnancies may now have been operating for over two decades. With 80 pregnancies per year, this amounts to about 400 in 5 years in one of the three clans, and if this dates back to the mid-1960s, the incidences could be between 1,500 to 2,000 by now. In a society where pre-marital sex is strictly forbidden, such a large number of premarital pregnancies in a relatively small population is something that could not be hushed up or ignored. Furthermore, the question arises, what happened to these pregnant girls? Did they give birth to illegitimate children? Did they marry before giving birth? No matter what the alternatives, in a close-knit society, everyone would know about every instance. Reverend Kleinsasser flatly denies that there has even been one such instance in the Schmiedeleut clan, let alone hundreds. Moreover, he claims that he has checked with the leaders of the Dariusleut and Lehrerleut clans, and that they also emphatically deny any knowledge of this assertion. For Dr. Peter to make such an assertion and simply state that this was “reported,” without any documentation or at least some explanation in a footnote, is unfortunate to say the least. It is not clear who in the Hutterite community came across this statement initially, but knowledge of it is now widespread, and unfortunately because of this scholarly lapse Dr. Peter’s work, at least this particular book, is essentially discredited among the Hutterites despite its otherwise scholarly nature.

Historically, Hutterites have had one of the highest rates of natural increase in the world. In Part III, a demographic profile of Hutterite population growth developed in the 1960s is presented and contrasted with recent research which shows a decline in Hutterite birth rates in the past two decades.

Part IV deals with contemporary social change. The decrease in population along with economic pressures have necessitated structural changes in Hutterite communities. This section examines the Hutterite economy, new attitudes regarding private property, and changes in the roles of Hutterite women.

Part V, entitled “Hutterites and Ethnic Relations,” consists of a chapter that traces the history of Hutterites in Canada and the problems that they have faced in this country. Aside from a misleading statement on when the Hutterites came to Canada, i.e., the bulk of them came during 1918 and not “by the end of the 1920s,” this is an excellent concluding chapter. It clearly documents how privileges bestowed on Hutterites at one time were revoked at another. As Dr. Peter states, “Hutterites were caught in the squeeze of being accepted by Canada on economic grounds and rejected on nationalistic emotional grounds.” However, the reviewer is well aware of instances of prejudice and rejection even on economic grounds. Hutterites have faced a wide variety of discrimination, including legislation in Alberta which restricted their ability to purchase land. Even though this legislation has been rescinded, Hutterites continue to face a variety of problems.

The survival of the Hutterites and their unique way of life is largely the result of their being able to retain basic beliefs while adopting all the features of contemporary society essential to their economic and social well-being. On the basis of their history it seems that they have every reason to feel confident about their prospects.

Dr. Peter’s book is an important contribution to an understanding of Hutterite society.