Previous | Next

Spring 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 1 · pp. 121–123 

Book Review

Paul Tschetter: The Story of a Hutterite Immigrant Leader, Pioneer, and Pastor

Rod Janzen. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Papers, 2009. 304 pages.

Reviewed by John J. Friesen

Hutterites are usually associated with communal living. However, when they immigrated to North America in the 1870s, about two thirds of Hutterites were not communalists. This book by Rod Janzen tells the story of the non-communalists, or Prairieleut Hutterites, and in particular the contribution of their immigrant leader, Paul Tschetter.

In the first part of the book Janzen provides a helpful history of the Hutterites from their origins in the sixteenth century as one wing of the Anabaptist movement, up to their settlement in Ukraine, Russia in 1819. From a total of 20,000 people in the sixteenth century, their numbers decreased to less than a hundred due to persecution in the following century.

By the 1860s, when Hutterites had lived in Russia for almost a century, and were struggling to recover from the legacy of persecution and internal dissention, a few members tried to reestablish communal living. Since Hutterites had not practiced it for about forty years, most Hutterites were no longer convinced communalism could work Furthermore, government regulations made establishing this economic lifestyle difficult. Thus the majority, led by Paul Tschetter, did not return to this historic practice.

When the Russian government in the early 1870s proposed reforms that threatened the Hutterite schools and required military service, Hutterites, together with Mennonites, looked for emigration possibilities. In 1873 Paul Tschetter, and another Hutterite, joined a Mennonite delegation to the USA and Canada, and selected land north of Fargo in the Dakota Territory that he thought would be suitable for his group.

When the first group of Hutterites, without Paul Tschetter, arrived in 1874, they were mislead by railway agents, and ended up buying land in the southern Dakota Territory, near Yankton, many miles from Fargo. When Tschetter arrived, he chose to settle in that same area to maintain group cohesion. Thus both the communalist and non-communalist Hutterites settled in what is now South Dakota, arriving in the years 1874 to 1879.

In total about 1,200 Hutterites immigrated, of whom about 400 were communalists. The communalists settled in three colonies that became the mother colonies of the groups that still exist today: Bon Homme colony started the Schmiedeleut, Wolf Creek the Dariusleut, and Elmspring the Lehrerleut. The non-communal Hutterites settled on individual homesteads, and were referred to by the communalists as Prairieleut “people of the prairies” (108).

Most of the book discusses the life and contribution of Paul Tschetter, the recognized spiritual leader of the Prairieleut Hutterites. He helped establish the largest non-communal Hutterite church: Neu Hutterthaler. Two other churches formed: Hutterthal and Hutterdorf. All three were named after villages of origin in Russia.

According to Janzen, Tschetter was a strong, wise, principled leader who worked hard to maintain historic Hutterite beliefs and practices. Organizations for mutual support were established, the traditional sermons (Lehren) were read Sunday mornings, peace was emphasized, and young people were nurtured in their faith pilgrimage. Tschetter used church discipline to maintain a consistency of faith and practice. He developed good relationships with both the communalists and the neighboring Mennonite churches.

Within a few years after immigration, the Mennonite influence that Tschetter had feared, materialized. That is, the nearby Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church (KMB), which had formed in Russia as a result of Pietist influence and whose members had settled in the same area a year earlier, began to “evangelize” the Hutterites. Since the Hutterites’ piety, worship, and church practices followed their historical patterns, Mennonite churches considered them lacking in true spirituality. According to the KMBs, Hutterites lacked assurance of salvation, an emotional direct relationship with God, a definite conversion experience, and a zeal for evangelism. A General Conference Mennonite missionary, Samuel Haury, referred to the Prairieleut as “spiritually dead” and “one big mission field” (144–45).

Janzen helpfully discusses the different pieties and understandings of faith in order to explain why Hutterites were condemned so harshly. He also tells the heartbreaking story of how, over the next decades, the KMBs managed to convert many Hutterites, including all but one of Tschetter’s children, to their church. The immigrant leader, who migrated to save the faith and heritage of his people because of threats in Russia, lost many of his people to a rival church with a different emphasis. Janzen describes the pain and disappointment Tschetter experienced when this happened.

Paul Tschetter died in 1919, having served as leader of the Neu Hutterthaler church for about 44 years. In his conclusion, Janzen says Tschetter was the “most influential non-communal Hutterian of his generation” (224). Tschetter’s life, he says, illustrates how difficult it was for an immigrant religious or ethnic group to reestablish in the new world the same kind of society, with the same kind of belief patterns, as in the old (224). He adds, “Paul Tschetter gave it his best shot” (225).

The book is well researched and informative. It provides insight into the life and struggles of an immigrant people, the Prairieleut Hutterites. It also explains why this group did not leave a strong distinctive legacy. In contrast to the communalists, who upon immigration experienced a revival and renewal of communalism and developed a strong identity, the non-communalists lost most of their distinctive faith heritage and were largely absorbed into the Mennonite and evangelical piety of the society around them.

The book provides an example of the conflicts that developed among many immigrant Mennonite and Hutterite groups between their historic understandings of faith, which usually included coming to faith through a process of nurture, and a strong experience of community and mutual support, and the Pietist/revivalist understandings which usually included more individualistic emphases of assurance of salvation, a personal, climactic conversion experience, and an aggressive evangelism.

Toward the end of the book, Janzen provides a brief overview of the continuing legacy of the Prairieleut people and lists churches that have sizeable numbers of Prairieleut descendents, ten congregations that are either independent or have joined Mennonite conferences, and four KMB, now Mennonite Brethren, churches.

Janzen’s book makes an important contribution to a little-known story. As he says, Paul Tschetter was a strong leader who tried to walk the line between communalism on one hand, and the revivalism of the KMBs on the other. The author suggests that the balance he tried to find eluded him and his descendents, and the book ends with a sense of regret and loss.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos, maps and charts, and its extensive appendix includes numerous documents.

This fine biography of Paul Tschetter is highly recommended for understanding the Prairieleut Hutterites and for seeing the struggles immigrant church groups faced in North America.

John J. Friesen
Emeritus Professor of History and Theology
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next