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The Hutterites

by Victor Peters

Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Over four hundred years ago the Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, wrote a book, Utopia, in which he described an ideal society. In this society there would be no poor and no rich, everyone would have enough and to spare, the people would work together and enjoy their leisure together, At about the same time when More wrote his book a group of people in Southern Germany, who knew nothing of Sir Thomas More but who were motivated by the same Christian ideal, set about to realize such a society. Their inspiration was the teaching of Christ, as they interpreted it, by which every man was responsible for the well-being of his fellowman.

One of the early leaders of this group was a man by the name of Jakob Huter, who died a martyr's death at Innsbruck, in Austria, in 1536. From Huter the group took its name, the Hutterian Brethren, otherwise known as Hutterites. They were Protestants, but their doctrine differed from that of most Protestants in some ways. They accepted into their church only members who were baptized as adults. They also refused to swear oaths, holding that a truthful "yes" or "no" was sufficient, and opposed military service in any army. But their most unusual practice was that the church members held all property in common.

Because their beliefs differed from those of the people around them, the Hutterites were persecuted, and finally migrated to Russia. Russia at that time needed settlers for its unpeopled steppes, and Catherine the Great was willing to accept these immigrants because they were good farmers and skillful craftsmen.

For over one hundred years the Hutterites lived in Russia. But in 1873 that country introduced compulsory military service, and since the Hutterites objected to this they left their homes and moved to the United States. Settling in the Dakota Territory they shared the hard-ships of the early pioneers of the West. After World War I, most of the Hutterites left the United States to settle in Alberta and Manitoba. The reason for this migration was that the United States had, at that time, made no provision for conscientious objectors. (During World War II both, Canada and the United States, offered alternative service for conscientious objectors.)

For centuries it had been the Hutterite practice to live not in individual farm homes, but in small colonies. Today Manitoba has over thirty of these colonies, most of them located along the Assiniboine River in the general area from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie. Alberta has almost twice as many colonies as Manitoba, and Saskatchewan has five of them. In their customs and dress the Hutterites are very conservative, and changes are introduced only very gradually. Most of the clothes worn by the men, women, and children are cut after age-old patterns and sewn on the colony. The male members of the colony are required to have beards.

A Hutterite colony consists of about ten to fifteen families, but because these are large, the population may range from one hundred to two hundred people. Agriculture is the main pursuit of every colony. However, they engage in a very diversified way of farming. Thus a colony may have 3,000 acres or more of land, thousands of turkeys, chickens, geese, and ducks, a large herd of cattle, and hundreds of pigs. Each of these enterprises is operated on the most modern lines, automation having largely replaced manual labour in feeding and the cleaning of barns. The enterprises are headed by men elected by the congregation. Besides these heads two other people are elected on every colony. One is the minister in charge of the spiritual welfare of the colony, and the other is the steward, or householder, who is the co-ordinator of all the enterprises and the treasurer as well. The ad-ministration of every colony follows old democratic routines. Major decisions are made by the congregations, others by an elected committee of five or six, of which the minister and steward are automatically members.

The Hutterites observe strict family life, but from their infancy are taught to play and work together with others. At the age of two infants are enrolled in the kindergarten, where they remain from morning to late afternoon. Here they play and learn prayers and songs. Their teacher is a colony woman elected to that position, and she in turn has two or three teenage girls to help her.

Photo: Grade 8 pupils at the New Rosedale public school, south of Portage la Prairie. Most Hutterian public schools compare favourably with other rural schools in Manitoba.

During the years between the ages of six to sixteen the Hutterite children attend public school. In almost all cases their teachers are non-Hutterites. Before and after regular school hours these children are taught German and catechism by their own Hutterite teacher. Few of the children continue with their education beyond grade eight. Instead, after they leave school, they are apprenticed to the colony enterprises. A Hutterite boy may spend in succession some time in the carpenter's shop, with the turkey or cattle enterprises, and then learn to handle the colony power machinery. By the time he is of age he is generally familiar with the operation of various departments and may be elected to head one of them.

All children up to the age of fifteen or sixteen eat their meals under the supervision of their teacher in a common dining room. The adults also eat in a community dining hall. No Hutterite home has a kitchen, as all food is prepared in a community kitchen. The fare is plain but wholesome, with most of the food grown or raised on the colony.

The women are also elected to their positions. A colony will have a head cook who plans the meals, a head seamstress, a Gartenfrau in charge of the gardens, and others. The other women work in rotation, in the kitchen, the bakery, or the garden, so that none of them will be required to do a monotonous household chore for too long a period.

Photo: Hutterian girls at the spinning wheel at the Blumengart Colony, near Plum Coulee, Manitoba.

Every evening immediately after supper there is a very short church service in the colony, and the rest of the day is spent by the whole family being together. Almost their only recreation consists of singing, visiting, or reading. Children may read books from their public school library, or they may browse in the old Hutterian chronicles that relate the history of their people through the centuries. Boys may make their own toys, and girls may spin, knit or sew. Radios and television are not permitted on the colony as the Hutterites feel these would introduce a spirit of worldliness and restlessness into the colony that would disturb their way of life.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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