Ever since Christianity compromised with the Roman Empire, there have been sects who have insisted on going back to its original source, the New Testament, and its original form, the primitive Church of the Apostles. Most of these sects have been short-lived. Either they have been persecuted out of existence by the established Churches or they have themselves, after a few generations, compromised with the surrounding society and been absorbed by it. The only sects which have preserved their original character for several centuries are the two most uncompromising relics of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement: the Amish and the Hutterites.
I call both “relics,” for neither of them seeks to make converts. Both also are stubbornly retrospective: They do not believe in change but cling to their image of primitive Christianity. Yet neither is static. Both, by natural increase, are multiplying faster than their neighbors. And, paradoxically, both these heroically non-conformist, unmodernizable, unassimilable sects live, and live only, in the most conformist, most modern, most assimilative society in the world: the society of Anglo-Saxon North America. As social organisms, as practical evidence of the vitality, tenacity, and persuasive power of a way of life which theoretically would seem completely impossible, both deserve sympathetic and intelligent study. The Amish have received it in Mr. John A. Hostetler’s Amish Society. The Hutterites have now received it from Mr. Victor Peters.
THE HISTORY OF THE HUTTERITES is, in general, no different from that of other Anabaptists. It is a history of perpetual migration. Always they have moved from persecution in settled lands to welcome an opportunity in undeveloped lands; always settlement has overtaken them; and always the overtaking society has tried to assimilate these angular pioneers. Sometimes it has succeeded. But when it has failed, it has often turned again to persecution. At one time the persecution has seemed religious, just as anti-Semitism once seemed to spring from religious antipathy. More recently it has found other forms. What is constant is the pattern: a social pattern.
With the Hutterites the pattern began in the Germany of Charles V. It was repeated first in Moravia, then in Hungary and Transylvania. From all these places they were driven out once the Habsburgs—that is, Catholic society around them—insisted on religious—that is, social—conformity. Then they moved through Turkish Wallachia into the Ukraine. From that time onwards they have never lived in Catholic lands. They have thus been free from religious persecution. But this religious freedom has only obliged social pressure to assume other forms. In particular, it has assumed the form of opposition, in time of war, to their pacifism. It was when the Czars—that is, Russian society—insisted that they should become good Russians, speaking Russian instead of Tyrolean German and serving in the Russian army, that they left for America in 1874. But even in America the pattern was repeated. In 1917, when the United States entered the First World War, their neighbors in the Dakotas insisted that …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.