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Manitoba History: Book Review: Yossi Katz and John Lehr, Inside the Ark: The Hutterites in Canada and the United States

by Alvin J. Esau
University of Manitoba

Number 73, Fall 2013

Yossi Katz and John Lehr, Inside the Ark: The Hutterites in Canada and the United States. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center Press, University of Regina, 2012, 472 pages. ISBN 978-0-88977-282-3, $39.95 (paperback)

This is a revised and expanded English version of a text originally published in Hebrew. Yossi Katz is a professor of Geography at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, while John Lehr is a professor of Geography at the University of Winnipeg. The authors come to their task with impressive credentials, having done extensive field work over several decades at Manitoba Hutterite colonies. In a dozen chapters, sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue, the authors provide an informative and insightful overview of the world of Hutterites. Enhancing the text is a variety of materials in appendix form and sixteen pages of illustrations in full colour.

Hutterites in North America are traditionally divided into three tribes. The most conservative are the Lehrerleut found in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. Situated mostly in these same territories are the Dariusleut who are somewhat less conservative. The more “liberal” are the Schmiedeleut colonies found in Manitoba, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota. But the diversity between the tribes and even between colonies within a particular group―particularly Darius colonies that can span the spectrum from very conservative to very liberal ― makes generalizations about Hutterites more difficult. Most importantly, the Schmiedeleut underwent a significant schism in the early 1990s, dividing into Group One, a more liberal branch led by Jacob Kleinsasser, the Senior Elder from Crystal Spring Colony in Manitoba, and Group Two, a more traditional majority group that broke away from Kleinsasser. It is Group Two that is recognized as orthodox by the other two tribes, while Group One is considered to be out of the church. In effect we now have four branches of Hutterites. Despite the wide scope suggested by the title of this book, the authors admit in the prologue that their field work is almost completely confined within Group Two Schmiedeleut colonies in Manitoba.

The first chapter on the religious foundations of Hutterite life is not a particularly readable overview, but it does make the central point that the persistence of the Hutterite way of life and the future survival of it are dependent on the religious foundations upon which the whole edifice is built. Hutterites do not believe in the value of socialism or economic collectivism in a secular sense. Their system of communal living depends on the recognition of a supernatural realm of existence, and on the belief that the colony is an ark of salvation floating in an evil world doomed to destruction

The next chapter is a nicely written summary of Hutterite history in Europe and subsequently in North America, including several maps depicting the spread of the colonies. The authors assert that by 2010 the Hutterite population in North America had grown to over 40,000 people in 484 colonies (p. 27). It may be that the authors have underestimated the population, because the leading contemporary text on Hutterites asserts that the Hutterite population currently exceeds 49,000. [1] Appendix 1 of the Katz and Lehr text contains a helpful list of all the Hutterite colonies in North America organized by province/state, year of establishment, mother colony and leut affiliation. Unfortunately the Schmiedeleut list does not tell you whether the colony is in Group One or Group Two. [2]

In Chapter 3 the authors outline the basic organizational and legal structure of the three levels of the church: the constitutional level where all three groups are brought together to deal with common issues; the conference level of each separate leut; and then finally the colony level. The norms of collective property and the renunciation of any entitlement to a share by expelled or departing members is repeatedly enshrined in the legal documents at all three levels. The chapter concludes with an overview of the litigation involving a colony in Manitoba in the 1960s where the courts denied a claim for assets of the colony by former members who had been excommunicated when they joined a different religion. The authors fail to use proper legal citations, [3] and the extensive quotes from the lower court judgement that occupy about six pages of text might have been reduced and replaced by some discussion of more recent litigation and court decisions that impose on the Hutterites certain procedural requirements in their decision making. [4] Furthermore, the willingness of the courts four decades ago to characterize the whole colony as a church may be in some doubt today. [5]

Well written and containing six maps of the layouts of some Manitoba colonies, the next chapter provides a useful guided tour outside and inside of the various residential/ domestic buildings with appropriate references to the agricultural/economic areas as well. The chapter ends with a concise overview of the process of colony branching. The economy of a colony is driven by the need to establish a new daughter colony so that the population of any colony does not get too large. Obviously it requires considerable capital to buy the land and equipment and build the facilities to establish a new colony, whereupon the population of the mother colony can be divided. Once established, the process of amassing assets for a future division starts all over again at both the mother colony and the new daughter colony. Appendix 2 contains a chart showing how James Valley Colony, established in 1918, has branched out over time, establishing four daughter colonies, and how three of these daughter colonies have themselves branched out and established new colonies.

Chapter 5 provides the bulk of information on the particular rules and traditions of Hutterite life, from clothing styles to worship practices and everything in between. This chapter is particularly tied to one of the most interesting parts of the book, as found in Appendix 5: a lengthy document of 162 pages of text purporting to be the ordinances and conference letters of the Schmiedeleut up to 2009, translated from German into English. The publication of this primary source in itself is worth the price of admission to the Katz and Lehr book. Readers should be aware, however, that post-schism in the early 1990s, the document contains the legislation of only Group Two, and it would have been interesting indeed to obtain and publish the ordinances of the “modernizing” Group One to compare with these “traditional” Group Two rules. Understandably, when a costly and painful schism takes place, the more conservative side tends to become more defensive and legalistic in reaction to the liberal side. On my reading of the document this seems to be born out, as repeated admonishments are made that the boundary stones separating the ark from the evil world must not be moved. For example, Group Two elders at one point admonish the flock that, “We will remain with all the customs that were in place when the community was set up. We are not smarter than our fathers and we won’t do better than what they left us” (p. 385-386).

The making of laws and the need to repeatedly revisit them serves to illustrate the fault lines of the community. The amount of legislation in more recent decades significantly outweighs, in volume and significance, the somewhat more quaint issues in earlier decades, where repeated legislation prohibited decoration on linoleum, or vacillated about whether or not parkas could be worn. While dress regulations remain a persistent issue through time, as do regulating engagement and marriage gatherings, in the last decades there are repeated rules and warnings dealing with colony defections, runaways, drunkenness, premarital and extramarital sex, private property acquisition, the use of various electronic devices, and the need to properly exercise the discipline of shunning.

I do wonder about the provenance of the document in Appendix 5, given that there seems to be a gap from 1997 to 2002, during a period when ordinances and admonishments appear to be a yearly occurrence. I am also curious about why six pages of Lehrerleut regulations, mostly on clothing, are thrown into the Schmiedeleut regulations in 1975 (p. 302-308). Readers should also be aware that the ordinances in this document do not constitute the complete legal system of the Hutterites. The most fundamental laws are found within the constitution of the church, the articles of association of the colony, the baptismal vows, and the 1545 confession of Peter Riedemann. [6] The authors make appropriate reference to many of these norms in various chapters of the main text, particularly frequent quotations from Riedemann.

The economic success of colonies, based on an admirable work ethic, self-sufficiency and a high degree of mechanized agricultural production, is the subject of Chapter 6. The authors note that there is now an increased level of materialism, driven by the desire to have nicer housing and creature comforts, rather than just amass capital for future colonies. The most persistent violation of the ‘community of goods’ ideal is the private making of money on the side so as to acquire goods or services that are not provided through the collective pot, or are even illicit goods prohibited by the colony. The authors note that some Schmiedeleut colonies have added manufacturing as a significant economic activity (p. 60, p. 100), but the authors provide very little information as to the impact of factory work on traditional Hutterite norms. The move from agricultural production to industrial manufacturing may prove to be the most significant development in recent Hutterite history, and it is regrettable that we do not have more scholarship on this. [7]

Chapter 7, on educational matters, deals with the colony kindergarten; the English public school situated on the colony; and the vital role of the German school, held before and after public school. Central to the socialization of Hutterite youth is the role of the German school teacher, who is also responsible for the supervision of young people right up to their baptism. Recently both branches of the Schmiedeleut have embraced high school (without leaving the colony), rather than ending formal education at age 15. However, much more controversial is the movement by Group One to allow some Hutterites to attend university for purposes of getting teaching credentials to teach at the public school at their own colony. On the subject of young people, we also note that in Appendix 4, Dan Katz, a religiously observant Israeli teenager of 15 years of age, gives his impressions of living and working at James Valley colony in Manitoba for a period of time. This little essay provides valuable insight into the world of Hutterite young people, from a friendly observer who is both appreciative and critical.

Chapters 8 (leisure activities), 9 (outside relations), and 10 (women), are nicely written, providing a wealth of information and analysis within a compact space. Old Order religious communities will no doubt provide a degree of humour for outside observers. The Group Two prohibition on adult recreation like playing hockey or baseball, or going to see such games, is accompanied by the views of the elders that such activity “looks ugly when they jump and hop like simple absurd tightrope artists. Playing does not lead to anything spiritual” (p. 359, p. 397). The perceived danger of Hutterite participation at various trade and agricultural conventions is illustrated when conference delegates reportedly went to a Winnipeg Blue Bomber game where “they play with uncovered and half-naked women and hug the cheerleaders …” (p. 390).

The topic of leaving the colony is addressed in Chapter 11. While most young runaways return to the colony after a taste of freedom on the outside, the authors point out that those who leave the colony for religious reasons rarely return. In particular, conversion to charismatic evangelical Christianity centred on an intense individualistic experience of Jesus as Saviour, without the need to live in countercultural community separated from the world, is the main driving force behind many religious defections. Transition to the outside world is obviously made easier for the defector when he or she can join a new church that will help provide the material and emotional supports that make the transition easier, though the cost of being shunned by family and friends at the colony will be significant. More problematic for the Hutterites is that some of these converts will portray their conversion as an escape from cultish “slavery” and oppression, and may even institute litigation against the colony seeking compensation for past “unpaid” labour. [8] Even more problematic is the occasional “conversion” of the majority of a colony and the possible expulsion of the whole colony from the Hutterite Church, raising serious questions about the ownership of the colony assets and whether the wider church should institute litigation to retain the property, even though bringing lawsuits violates Hutterian non-resistant theology.

The authors actually question the future survival of the Hutterites when they assert that, “in recent years, the rate of defection has increased tremendously, and now the defection rate exceeds the birthrate” (p. 174). No footnote to contemporary data on defection is supplied, nor is there any analysis of different defection rates in Group One and Group Two colonies. Does the more “progressive” Group One have lower defection rates? Most of the demographic analysis of the Schmiedeleut found in Appendix 3 is based on data collected up to 2003. Notable trends include rising marital ages for both men and women, and significant declines in the birth rate (despite the prohibition on birth control). However, the data collected on defection rates ends in 1976, and we are not told why more recent data are not available. At another point in the text the authors state that, “During the years 2003-2005, defections exceeded births” (p. 207). The authors may well be right about this, but it would be nice to have some actual data on recent defection rates.

In the last chapter, dealing with some of the changes that have occurred within the Schmiedeleut in the last decades, the authors deal with the schism by providing a concise overview of the events up to about 1993. They then leave this story without dealing with all the post-schism mutual excommunications, litigations and negotiations between the two sides. Instead the authors focus on Group Two in terms of other issues involving changes in economic affairs, birth rate, loosening of traditional ways, education and exposure to the world.

The threats to Hutterite survival identified by the authors involve erosions of traditional beliefs by Hutterites themselves, mainly by increased exposure to alternative notions in the host society. The attempt to ban internet use, except for business purposes under controlled conditions, seems largely doomed, as the world outside becomes available through cell phones and trips to the public library. Arguably one aspect of future survival that is missing in the discussion is the possibility of a much more direct interference with Hutterite life by the host society itself. The authors assume that the laws of the host society support the Hutterite colony, based on removal of previous discriminatory practices against Hutterite land purchasing, and some old precedents where the courts have refused to give assets to defectors. [9] In my view the stability of these precedents should not be taken for granted, although I would wish them to continue. We cannot presume that our legal system, based on ideologies of individual autonomy and equality, will continue to be benign towards illiberal religious groups within our liberal society, especially in regards to the traditional “inequality” of women, the “oppression” of shunning, and the “unfairness” of expelling people without compensation. There are indications that freedom of religion for illiberal groups within our society is potentially much less robust than we might wish and presume. [10]

In the epilogue the authors are willing to offer their own opinions about the future of Hutterite communalism. While Hutterites are the most successful communal society in the world, the authors assert that, “there is no doubt that today the Ark is leaking” (p. 205). Most colonies are experiencing unprecedented wealth and material comforts, but the religious foundations of simplicity, separation, and community are threatened from within and without. If religion is the foundation of the system, and the system is in danger, then only renewal of authentic religious faith in the communal way of being a Christian in the world will save the ark from sinking. The authors make the practical suggestion that the position of the Minister of the colony should be exclusively focused on religious education and concerns, leaving the economic management to others. While much greater attention to learning and imparting the theological foundations of the faith would be a good thing, there is also a thread in all Anabaptist theology that does not separate life into spheres of spiritual and temporal, and the authority of the Minister over all areas in some ways symbolizes this. Indeed the authors often mention this theme of integrating work and worship (e.g., pp. 72, 108, 116).

Overall, while the quality of the chapters is uneven, this book is essential reading for a current understanding of Hutterite beliefs and practices. Given the focus on Manitoba Group Two colonies, it will have particular relevance to scholars interested in our province. While this text was in press, another book on Hutterites was published by historian, Rod Janzen, and anthropologist, Max Stanton. [11] Combining narrative history with decades of participantobservations by the authors at many colonies within all four branches, the well written and comprehensive book by Janzen and Stanton will likely become the standard text to replace the now dated scholarly account by the late John Hostetler. [12] However, the Katz and Lehr book should also be read for the valuable perspectives and opinions the authors provide, and for the publication of the primary text in Appendix 5.


1. Rod Janzen and Max Stanton, The Hutterites in North America, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010, page xiii.

2. Janzen and Stanton provide this information in their appendix at pages 307-319.

3. The proper citation is Hofer v. Hofer, [1970] S.C.R. 958 (S.C.C) affirming (1967), 65 D.L.R. (2d) 607 (Man. C.A.) affirming (1966), 59 D.L.R. (2d) 723 (Man. Q.B.).

4. Lakeside Colony v. Hofer, [1992] 3 S.C.R. 165, reversing (1991), 77 D.L.R. (4th) 202 (Man. C.A.) and (1989), 63 D.L.R. (4th) 473 (Man. Q.B.). Also see the decision in the second round of litigation: Lakeside Colony v. Hofer, (1994), 93 Man. R. (2d) 161 (Man. Q.B.).

5. See Alvin J. Esau, The Courts and the Colonies, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

6. Peter Riedemann, An Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith, Rifton, NY: Plough, 1970. (Originally published in 1545).

7. For an interesting account dealing with the manufacturing of fire trucks at the Green Acres Colony in Wawanesa, see Bill Redekop, “Fire trucks, Hutterite-style,” The Marketplace, May/June (2009): 15-17.

8. Recently a group of Hutterite religious defectors published their opinions in a book called Hutterites: The Nine: Our Story to Freedom (Risen Son Publishing, 2013). Some of these former Hutterites are also suing their former colonies. Another example of switching religions, leaving the colony, and then demanding compensation, is found in Rebecca Hofer, Removing The Hutterite Kerchief (Kelowna: Collegium, 2009).

9. See Esau, note 5.

10. See Esau, “Living By Different Law: Legal Pluralism, Freedom of Religion, and Illiberal Religious Groups,” in Richard Moon, ed., Law and Religious Pluralism in Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008, pages 110-139.

11. Janzen and Stanton, note 1.

12. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 22 March 2020

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