41. The Bruderhof Communities

Marjorie Hindley

The Bruderhof Communities or Hutterian Brethren are a gathering of people from all walks of life committed to a life of Christian brotherhood. It was the search for a radical Christianity that brought together a small group in Germany in 1920, which then in 1930 united with the Church known as Hutterian, a communally-living Anabaptist group with a recorded history of 450 years Jakob Hutter, from whom their name is derived, became their leader in 1533. They stand for non-violence, community of goods, refusal to swear oaths, and adult baptism, and seek to live a life based on the gospel of Jesus as did the early Christians.

The independent beginning of a communal life in the post World War I years in Germany owes its being especially to the inner leading of Dr. Eberhard Arnold. The movement grew out of the disillusionment which followed Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, and the innermost seeking of many for the expression of a radical and genuine Christianity. Eberhard Arnold’s earlier search had already taken him on unorthodox paths. The son of a Professor of Church History, he had distressed the parental home first by his enthusiasm for the Salvation Army and later, while studying theology in Halle, by becoming involved in the revival movement there and accepting adult baptism (as did also the young woman, Emmy von Hollander, who was to become his wife).

Discharged from the army during the first year of World War 1 because of poor health, Eberhard had seen enough to become convinced that war was against the Christian teaching, a recognition that he stood by steadfastly for the remainder of his life. In the aftermath of that war the search to find a new relationship between Christianity and society was intense, among scholars, intellectuals, the “working classes” and a big proportion of lively young people. Soon it became clear that the new fire for a radical Christianity could not remain “theology”, but had to find a new life form, “a community of life, a community of work, a community of meals and of goods, and a community of faith.” Gunther Dehn, who was at that time a pastor in Berlin, a religious socialist concerned especially for working-class youth, writes, “What has come to life again reminds us of the sixteenth century–of course not of Luther or Calvin, but of the so-called fanatics, the Mennonites and other Baptizers, men like Thomas Munzer and Hans Denck, who were persecuted by the Church.”1 This was the fire that led to the founding of the small community in the Rhon district in 1920.

But Eberhard was always clear that the community he had founded was not to be his own creation. He sought for some years to link up with other groups before discovering that the Hutterian Anabaptists still existed in North America, although he had long known as a historical fact that in Reformation times a group of Anabaptists had decided to pool their goods and unite in Christian brotherhood. It is interesting to note that it was through Robert Friedmann in Vienna, a Jewish scholar of Anabaptism, that Eberhard learned that Hutterian communities were still extant. Robert Friedmann regarded Anabaptism as “existential Christianity”, and the Hutterian codices he had studied “gripped him profoundly”.

A warm friendship sprang up between him and Eberhard, which was one of a number of Jewish links forged by the European Bruderhof communities. There were many stormy and challenging years ahead for the small community. Eberhard was acutely aware of the approaching clash of powers when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January, 1933, and constantly wrote to the highest State and Church officials to make clear the stand that the Bruderhof felt it had to take — respect for the Government, but in no way able to compromise when the Government’s demands conflicted with the teaching of Jesus.2 Eberhard died in November, 1935 (under an operation for the amputation of his leg, damaged in a fall). The community, in great inner and economic need but holding on faithfully to their commitment to follow Jesus, was dissolved by the National Socialists in 1937 as “a danger, to the State”, and given 48 hours to leave the country3. They proceeded first to Holland and then to England. In those intervening years the community had grown, a second small community had been established in the Alps in Liechtenstein (initially especially to avoid the compulsory installing of a Nazi teacher in the Bruderhof school), and in 1936 a farm had been secured in the Cotswold area in England, in anticipation of a forced close-down in Germany. At the moment of dissolution in Germany there were already seventy souls in residence at the Cotswold Bruderhof, partly families and young single men from Germany, partly new English members and interested seekers. From 1936-1940 the community in the Cotswold grew, in numbers, in inner depth and economically. Seeking young people were numerous in England in those years as war loomed over the Continent, and many were asking, as Peter and the disciples had been asked in the Acts of the Apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Numbers grew to about 300, and a second community had been established a few miles away (which had to be closed eighteen months later because of the closeness of enemy action). Jewish refugees came for visits, and the community fostered several Jewish children separated from their families. It was in these years too that a group of young Zionists came to gain some experience of farming as a preliminary to their emigration to Israel. In recent times, when several of our members were able to make visits to Israel, it was a special joy to meet again some of the group, and to know that their memories of their stay were enthusiastic and heart-felt.

War with Germany broke out on September 3, 1939, and the future of the community was once more in jeopardy. Coldness and suspicion met our German members, and their internment seemed imminent. The Bruderhof wished to maintain its international character, and to continue to witness that it is possible for different nations (even at a time when those nations are at war) to live in brotherhood and peace; and we have always been tremendously grateful to the British Government that at that time they gave permission for all the existing members, of whatever nationality, to emigrate. Between November 1940 and April 1941 in several bigger and smaller groups, and over troubled, submarine-infested waters, the community emigrated in safety to Paraguay. For a number of the following years the communities did not suffer persecution from the authonties without. But the struggles from within were many. The history is long — a new beginning in England in 1942, British members only; outreach from Paraguay to North America, and the consequent joining of a number of seeking Americans; a new small effort in Germany — till today, when nine communities have evolved, through struggle and crises, repentance and renewal, from the small German beginning – six in USA, one in England, one in Germany and one in Nigeria. All now, except in Nigeria, derive their income from the production of equipment for the handicapped and of kindergarten and junior school furnishings and playthings (as opposed to the earlier farming activities, which were the main source of support) and they also publish under the name of the Plough Publishing House.

The community in England, the Darvell Bruderhof in East Sussex, consists of about three hundred men, women and children. Why do we as Christians, here at the Bruderhof, believe that Christ calls us to live in community, gathered together by his Spirit and sharing all material possessions after the pattern of the first Christian Church in Jerusalem? And where do we find the strength to live together as we do? For after all we remain, as all men and women, totally incapable of such a life, and could have experienced the same collapse that is the fate of all attempts at community life based on human idealism and good intentions. If we look again at the Acts of the Apostles, we read; Acts 2, v.44; “All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need.”

And Acts 4, vs.32-34; “Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was common property. . . .A wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. There was not a single person in need among them.”

This, with the Sermon on the Mount, is the basis of our life in community. Michael Harper, in his book A New Way of Living4 makes a strong call for just such a community: “This is one of the most vital things that the Church needs to learn and develop at the present time, that the power of a visible and collective community will far surpass the sum of that community as individuals… People will never see the fullness of Christ in any one individual, only fully in the community of His disciples.” In an article in the German magazine Die Wegwarte in 1927, Eberhard Arnold wrote; “An inescapable must is what makes us live in community, work in community, and let life in community determine everything we do and think. Intentions, efforts, and exertions of whatever kind have not been decisive for this way of life…. It is an exceedingly dangerous way, a way of severe suffering. And yet just this is our deepest joy; to see clearly the tragedy of life, the intolerable tension between life and death, man’s position between Heaven and Hell, and still to believe in the overwhelming power of life, in the power of love to overcome, and in the triumph of truth, because we believe in God.” And in the Introduction to his book “Inner Land”, published originally in German in 1918, Eberhard Arnold gives a direction as to how this is to be achieved; “It is an appeal for decision in the area of faith and beliefs, directed to the hearts of all those who do not want to forget or lose God and his ultimate Kingdom. Using the events of contemporary history, it attempts to point out that God’s approaching judgment is aimed at our hearts, that the living Christ wants to move our innermost being through his quickening Spirit. Through this Spirit, who moves and stimulates everything, we are meant to gain, from within, a life that demonstrates outwardly justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, a form of life shaped by God’s active love.” The direction was very clear. How then does a community fail? In one 1933 meeting Eberhard said: “If everybody wants to be in the right, or even if only one person wants to be in the right, it is impossible to live in community. That is egotism or self-love.” Our communities have sadly to witness that right through the years of our existence there have been attacks from within, failures, inner needs, guilt. We have to testify that it is only by the grace of God that we have been able, again and again, to make a new beginning. There has been on the one hand the menace of power-seeking and rivalry among leaders, and on the other luke-warmness and complacency from the members. There have been times which have been described as “arrogant communitarianism”, when we hotly represented community, community as the only right way, but overlooked Jesus as our centre. There were years when we broke away from the “old” Hutterites because we thought they were too rigidly bound by meaningless tradition. We came to see that it was we who were rigid, we who were loveless, we who were causing our brothers to stumble. In the sixties much of this came to a climax. Communication between the communities in different countries was poor. Rivalries and bitterness and misunderstandings led to a breakdown of trust. Many were asked or themselves decided to take a distance for a time. The number was large, the separations were painful, the struggle ahead was great. We are deeply thankful for each one who has in the meantime returned. In retrospect, the words of Eberhard Arnold, again from 1933, published in 1980 as a pamphlet, “Alternative Lifestyle or Complete Commitment”5 became only too true; “It is a mistake to think that the nature of evil consists exclusively in clinging to worldly riches and amassing private property, in direct, shameless lying and deception. There is more than this to the spirit of Satan. Lucifer is a light-bearer. And far more dangerous for us than thick, crass darkness is the false light that mirrors itself. The fallen light-bearer tries to mislead us by making us vain, proud of our own light, of our own holiness…. It is not by showing people how we have developed, or how our Bruderhof has developed, that we can represent something to them, but only by pointing them to the radiant majesty on the throne of God… Behind our words and our pitifully imperfect work and actions, behind our failings and all our faults, our guests must search for this reality, that Jesus Christ has entered his rulership.”

Again the miracle happened. “Behind our failings and all our faults…Jesus Christ entered his rulership.” The call to repentance came clear. Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal; a turning anew to our centre, Christ. In every community a new beginning was made, true discipline was re-established, and with it a true love for those who had fallen by the way. As we look back through the years, the mystery remains. Visitors have come and have written of our “strength”, even at times when we have had especially to recognise our weakness. We have to say, “To God be the glory.” There has been a striking growth in the number of seekers (especially in America and Germany) who have made the decision to unite with us, often after a painful struggle to understand just these same issues of the inadequacy of human endeavours and good intentions. Our contacts with Jewish friends and with Israeli kibbutzim have made a real contribution to our inner thinking, and a challenge to our search for roots right through the years, though more evident at some periods than others. Yaacov Oved, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and head of the programme on communal history at Yad Tabenkin, has made a factual and very interesting study on the relationship between the Bruderhof and the Kibbutz6. In this he has traced associations with the Jewish Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer as well as with early Zionist groups from the mid-1920s onwards.

In the communities in America the contact was characterised by the visit of several public figures from Israel, such as Yosef Baratz, one of the Kibbutz Movement’s founding fathers. Always the point of attraction has been the similarity between the Kibbutz way of life and the Bruderhof. Always the Bruderhof has attempted to make it clear that for us such a life is only possible when it is Christ-centered. Always our Kibbutzim friends have struggled to find the key somewhere else in their hunger to build again their disintegrating communities at home. We are indebted to Yaacov Oved for bringing to light some of the thoughtful and perceptive reactions of members especially of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. In 1957, after a visit to our then community in Uruguay, Mordechai Nissim reported, “Thoughts keep coming and never let go, mainly from the religious point of view. Here too people are basing their way of life on religious convictions, and perhaps they are in fact patterned upon the model of an Essene sect?” In 1964 Moshe Unna, “spiritual leader” of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, who had been in touch with the Paraguayan communities, wrote; “…These people showed great strength indeed, a kind of strength that causes amazement… .What was the source of their indestructible strength? Of their ability to rise and begin all over again? To my mind the answer lies in their indomitable will to realise the commandments of their religion, to realise them together because only thus, together with other people, will their realisation be a real one.” During the eighties Oved himself visited several of the Bruderhof communities, and encouraged other kibbutz members to visit. The ties were especially strengthened through the efforts of our Swiss brother Hans Meier (who passed away on Christmas Eve, 1992, at the age of 90), and in 1985, when the first “International Conference of Kibbutz and Communal Scholars and Practitioners” took place in Israel, six Hutterians including Hans Meier were able to take part. Fifty people from the Kibbutzim had over the years visited the Bruderhof communities, but this was the first visit in return. Since that time there have been a number of exchanges of both younger and older members, sometimes extending over several months. Has the gap narrowed? Perhaps an exchange of correspondence in 1989 best describes the situation. Yaacov Oved wrote to Hans Meier: “If I may use a metaphor, I would say that our worlds are as two banks of the river in which the communal life flows… The banks are close but parallel and therefore cannot meet. Only bridges can join them… Mutual understanding will buttress the bridge.”

Hans Meier replied; “Your comparison of the kibbutzim and the Bruderhof as two shores of the same stream which run parallel but never come together intrigued us very much… .You are right, when we follow the stream downwards the two shores separate more and more. But when we return to the source of the stream, the two shores come together and unite. It is a question of swimming upstream to arrive at the source.”

Swimming upstream to arrive at the Source. That is the task, the struggle and the joy for us all.


1. Dehn, G., Die alte Zeit, die vodgenjahre, Munich, 1962, p.231

2. See M.Hindley. ‘Unerwunscht, One of the Lesser Known Confrontations with the National Socialist State. 1933-37; German History Journal, Vol.11, No.2,1993, pp. 207-221, for a fuller account of the stand of the Bruderhof during these years.

3. See Hans Meier, ‘The Dissolution of the Rhonbruderhof in Retrospect, Plough Publishing, 1979, Pamphlet ‘g’.

4. Hodder & Stoughton, 1974 p.120.

5. Plough Publishing, Pamphlet 80/9 1980.

6. Distant Brothers, Yad Tabenkin Dept. for International Relations, Israel, 1993.

(Reprinted, with minor editorial changes, from Tishrei Vol2, No 4, Summer 1994, Community)



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