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A long and interesting history for Hutterites in Manitoba

Few realize the challenges faced by early Anabaptist groups like Hutterites and Mennonites which brought them to North America

Selma Maendel

Selma Maendel
photo: Supplied

The late Selma Maendel was recently the first Hutterite inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame for her many long-standing contributions to agriculture in the province. Among other things she was a popular columnist for this publication, developed the Field History Manager software to computerize field record-keeping and worked with the medical industry to understand the genetic basis for many disorders found in Hutterite children and adults. Her sister Dora Maendel offered a historical perspective of the Hutterites in North America at the induction ceremony.

On behalf of our late sister Selma Maendel, I want to share some historical background, much of it taken from the Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Vol. I and II

Hutterites originated in the German-speaking countries of early 16th-century Europe — particularly Germany and Austria. It was shortly after the Reformation, which had resulted from — and was actually a manifestation of — the Renaissance, specifically in the area of religion.

It was a time of tremendous economic extremes and social upheaval, for example, the Peasants’ War (1524-25) which historians have termed an economic revolt. It was the result of grassroots desire and thwarted efforts at improving the lives of society’s most marginalized and vulnerable.

The Peasants’ Revolt — after a hundred thousand casualties — convinced some of its survivors that violence is not an effective way to improve people’s economic circumstances.

Soon, the Anabaptist Movement commenced. Radical and new, it was fuelled by humanistic ideals, emphasizing believer’s baptism, brotherhood and non-violence.

Believer’s baptism offended the state church and in 1526 was declared a criminal offence punishable by execution. Nevertheless, the movement spread rapidly and when persecution intensified, the baptizers — as they were nicknamed — fled to Moravia, part of the Czech Republic today.

In the process of developing a clear creed, but more particularly in response to dire human need, one of the Anabaptist groups in Moravia commenced living in what is known as “community of goods” — pooling all available resources and sharing them according to members’ needs. A remarkable survival tactic, it morphed into a faith tenet for this group — an expression of Our Lord’s command to “love one another.” Eventually it became their most salient tenet.

Due to the unusual degree of religious tolerance in Moravia, the Anabaptists flourished. At one point there were some 40,000 Anabaptists in Moravia. The Hutterites experienced good years of growth and building, as well as an era which historians term “the golden years.”

Craftsmen and tradesmen, the Hutterites engaged in pottery, spinning, weaving, tinsmithing and clock- and wheel-making among others. They developed a reputation for honesty and there is evidence of skilled barber-surgeons, one of whom successfully treated the emperor. They developed an excellent school system and played a significant role in the art of pottery — refining and preserving the process through turbulent, dangerous times.

Sadly, “Wars and rumours of wars” caused the Moravian lords to expel their Anabaptist tenants in 1622. The Hutterites sojourned for a time in Hungary and later in Rumania. Their communal lifestyle rendered them more visible than other Anabaptists, such as the Amish and Mennonites, so that, in addition to the hardships of persecution and natural disasters, their communities were frequently raided and plundered by marauding armies.

In 1770, Count Rumiantsev invited the remnant of Hutterites to settle on his estate in northern Russia. Secretly, travelling mostly at night, a group of 60 adults made the journey over the Carpathian Mountains — a dangerous trek that has been described as the Hutterites’ Red Sea. Despite the accidental plunge of one wagonload of goods, there was no loss of life and they arrived safely to settle at Raditschev.

Unfortunately, by this time they were completely demoralized, unable to thrive: “Spiritually and economically bankrupt” our Chronicle states. Finally, they asked the Russian government for help and after the situation was assessed, a Mennonite from southern Russia was given responsibility for them.

Arriving in Russia decades earlier, the Mennonites were successfully “dry farming” in the Chortitza area, so Johann Cornies, whose role was similar to that of agriculture minister, taught them to farm by placing Hutterite young people on Mennonite farms.

A hundred years later, the Russian government revoked the privileges granted to Mennonites and Hutterites: no more freedom from military service and no more German as the language of instruction in their schools.

In 1874, the Hutterites immigrated to North America. “We are farmers,” they told President Grant and he invited them to settle in Dakota Territory.

For the next 40 years, they engaged in agriculture, producing grain, sorghum, broomgrass and silage corn, as well as livestock, including milk and egg production.

Harassed during the First World War for refusing to participate in the military effort, Hutterite leaders petitioned the Canadian government about immigrating to Canada and were welcomed to the Prairies, settling in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Today there are 105 Hutterite colonies in rural Manitoba, situated as far north as Fisher Branch and Riding Mountain and as far south as Altona and Lauder — just minutes from the Canada-U.S. border.

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