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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 268–270 

Book Review

Inside the Ark: The Hutterites in Canada and the United States

Yossi Katz and John Lehr. Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Centre Press, 2012. 407 pages.

Reviewed by Jesse Hofer

Authors John Lehr and Yossi Katz have had considerable first-hand contact with a handful of Hutterite communities in Manitoba. John Lehr is a professor in the geography department at the University of Winnipeg whose research interests focus on agricultural settlements in western Canada. Yossi Katz is a professor in geography at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, specializing in the modern history of Israel. His background provides an interesting point of comparison between Hutterite communities and the Israeli kibbutzim.

The authors are careful to point out that Hutterites are not a monolithic group. They focus their study on the more conservative Schmiedeleut Group Two found mostly in Manitoba and South Dakota, although they make comparisons with the other Hutterite Leut at several points in the book. The Schmiedeleut Hutterites divided into two groups in 1992 over a complex set of issues related to church leadership, economics, and a disagreement over the direction of the church. In general, the Schmiedeleut are more progressive than the Dariusleut and Lehrerleut in the use of technology and the pursuit of higher education, but wide differences exist between communities belonging to the respective Leut.

The book’s stated aim is “to evaluate the effects of . . . technological intrusions, the strategies employed by the Hutterite leaders to manage the penetration of the outside world into the colony, and consider the future of the Hutterite colony systems as arks on the prairie” (xiii). It is organized into two main parts, roughly the same in length: the first part features twelve chapters dealing with various aspects of Hutterite society, including {269} chapters on legal and spatial organization, recreation, economic prosperity, the role of women, relationship with outsiders, people who leave the community, and the Hutterite education system. The second part is an appendix, which includes a list of Hutterite colonies in North America and demographic analyses. The bulk of the second part is comprised of the Schmiedeleut Ordnungen, a collection of proceedings from the annual ministers’ conference written between 1762 and 2009.

Nowhere is it more evident that the authors are working outside their field than in the opening chapter, which describes Hutterite beliefs. First, the chapter is poorly written from a technical standpoint, with numerous convoluted sentences and confusing wording. For example: “The core of Hutterite belief in the importance of communal life in the practice of true Christianity revolved around the following arguments” (7). There are also several important theological errors in the chapter. According to the authors, the Holy Scriptures—not Jesus Christ!—are the source of redemption for Anabaptists (2). Both in their description of Hutterite beliefs and in their approach generally, the authors fail to recognize that God is the source that sustains Hutterite communities.

Further, the authors mistakenly claim that early Anabaptists “denied the assumption that Jesus was flesh and blood” (3). They show a lack of historical awareness by claiming that sharing of goods is a “purely theological concept” (4), with no mention of such factors as the socio-economic influences of the German Peasants’ War or the practical necessity of sharing goods for the refugees outside Nikolsburg in 1528. Overall, the description of Hutterite beliefs and theology lacks coherence and is based on a single Hutterite primary source.

In many respects, Inside the Ark is similar to other published works on the Hutterites. A brief historical sketch is followed by familiar sociological analyses on various aspects of Hutterite life. The most significant contribution to scholarship made by this book is the publication of the Schmiedeleut Ordnungen. Although poorly translated at times (Gebet is translated as prayers, but is better translated as a church service that includes singing, readings and praying), this document sheds important light on how Hutterites have responded to new challenges, such as increased mobility, a rising standard of living, contact with outsiders, and changes in the use of technology. There is no indication that following the 1992 split, the two Schmiedeleut groups created separate sets of Ordnungen.

Given the authors’ stated aim, this reviewer expected a more sustained interaction or analysis with the Ordnungen as a means to understand how Hutterites have wrestled with the encroaching forces of modernity in recent years. Like any internal document considered out of its context, the Ordnungen are open to many uninformed interpretations. Explanatory {270} footnotes or an introduction to the proceedings would help readers place them in their proper context.

In their analysis of the Schmiedeleut church division of 1992 the authors are openly biased in favor of Group Two. Their discussion of the background of the new constitution created by Group Two is instructive, but the account of the factors feeding into the split is oversimplified. The important role of the Bruderhof relationship in the conflict is referenced but without adequately explaining how and why it became a source of tension. Ironically, the authors do not make clear that the interpretation of the role and content of the proceedings, along with the competing visions they inspired, was an important factor in the split. To their credit, they recognize that the Schmiedeleut leader Jakob Kleinsasser was “aware of the challenges facing the church” and sought to creatively “adapt [the church] to changing circumstances.” The authors might have further developed their suggestion that the roots of the 1992 split lie “in philosophical disagreements over the approach to be taken to managing the onrush of modernity” (179).

As a Schmiedeleut Group One Hutterite, I frequently felt that the descriptions of Hutterite life did not describe my own experience. Particularly in the areas of beliefs, education, recreation, and interaction with non-Hutterites, the authors’ descriptions were foreign. For example, the Schmiedeleut Group One has made a conscious effort to promote higher education through training Hutterite teachers, which has had important consequences for how they use technology, interact with the outside world, train their children, and order their lives. This study underplays these significant developments.

Despite the book’s flaws, the authors present an important challenge in the epilogue and prognosis section. Throughout the book, they repeatedly draw attention to the effects of materialism on declining religious adherence among Hutterites. Reflecting on the task of Hutterite leaders in managing change and preserving the integrity of their way of life, they diagnose that a shift in focus from economy to education is in order: “There is no doubt that a society whose way of life is rooted in religious faith must invest in its religious philosophy and develop a theological literature that addresses the spiritual issues involved in coping with modern life and the changes it engenders” (209). Hutterites must adapt to the reality of modern communications and pay more attention to the role of education in strengthening commitment to the communal philosophy.

Jesse Hofer is a member of Silverwinds Hutterite Community near Sperling, Manitoba. He teaches Hutterite history at Silverwinds School and via an Interactive Television (ITV) system serving over forty Hutterite high schools in Manitoba, South Dakota, and Minnesota.

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