“We dont’ whack people on the head with Bibles,” David Hibbs chuckled as he poured a second round of coffee and pondered the Hutterian concept of mission. “But we do want to he a city on a hill rather than a village in the valley. It’s people seeking God who end up coming to us. Our mission is to care for the whole person, in community.”
A “village in the valley” is quite literally what you find if you visit the Darvell Bruderhof (Hutterian) community at Robertsbridge in East Sussex. Some three hundred men, women and children constitute this largest group of Anabaptists in the UK. Stuart Murray and I spent a day there in September 1993, and enjoyed coffee in the home of David and Fiona Hibbs after a tour of the grounds. Whilst many members of the Darvell community trace their roots back through North or South America to Germany, the Hibbs are English and joined the Bruderhof four years ago.
“We found something really worth following”, Fiona said. “We wanted to live with people who were obedient to Jesus.” Having participated in several conventional and charismatic churches, with mixed experience, David and Fiona first visited the Bruderhof when they saw the sign while passing through Robertsbridge. They were impressed by the warm hospitality they experienced and the deep commitment of community members. After several periods of residence as guests, they asked to move into the community with their two children on a more permanent basis.
A life-long commitment to community
Quite against the counsel of Bruderhof members, the Hibbs sold their house to make a clean break with their past life. It is understood, of course, that Hutterians relinquish personal possessions and share all goods in common. But membership in the community is a life-long, total commitment – and sometimes newcomers, in a burst of enthusiasm, want to join prematurely. “They were right about us not selling the house so quickly,” David Hibbs said ruefully. “Nine weeks after we arrived here we had to leave! We were still too concerned with materialism and power.” Eventually the Hibbs returned, found their place in this deferential community, and now interpret the Bruderhof to others through hospitality and public relations.
There’s a lot to interpret. Why would three hundred Christians live in what looks like monastic isolation in the quiet countryside? Why the uniformity of dress (men: beards, braces and black trousers; women: conservative, dark dresses and polkadot head scarves)? Why do they educate their own children until the age of fourteen? Why do they eat most meals en masse, and how do family units function when all money and possessions are shared in common? How do women feel about living in a community where men hold virtually all key positions of spiritual and administrative leadership’?
David Johnson, one of four ministers (“servants of the Word”) for the community, fielded our questions with the soft-spoken conviction of a man who has thought things through. “The Bible is the centre of everything we believe”, he explained, “and church happens whenever Christ is present among people who are willing to obey.” David Johnson took us into the community meeting room, a spacious and simple hall with several hundred chairs in concentric circles. A table on one side marks where leaders and their wives sit. Above the table hangs an oil lamp that burns continuously as a reminder of God’s presence. “The Holy Spirit is the ‘wild card’ in our worship and group decision-making,” David Johnson explained. “We like to go into worship or meetings with some plans, but we always want to be flexible so we can respond to what God might be saying.”
To follow Jesus “unconditionally”
It was this sort of openness to Spirit-led group process that inspired formation of a Bruderhof (“Society of Brothers”) in Germany in 1920. Three young Christians (Eberhard Arnold, Emmy von Hollander (later Amold), and Else von Hollander) founded an independent community with the intention of following Jesus “unconditionally”. Only later, after the group expanded, did they make common cause with centuries-old Hutterian communities that had emigrated to the United States from Russia in the nineteenth century. Thus there came to be “old Hutterian” communities in America that trace their lineage back to the Anabaptist Jacob Hutter (died 1536), and “new Hutterian” groups with twentieth-century roots in Germany.
The Darvell community belongs in the “new” category, but its members identity with the saga of Hutterian witness and suffering that goes back to the sixteenth century. A long time-line wraps around a classroom in their well-ordered primary school at Robertsbridge. Pre-Reformation heroes of nonconformist witness appear first on the sweep of history, including Waldo, Wyclif, and Huss. The chart becomes dense with data starting at the
Reformation. A prominent figure, of course, is Hutter, who took up leadership of a persecuted Anabaptist group in the Tyrol in 1529 and urged his flock to follow literally the communitarian model of church found in Acts 2 and 4.
A sampling at almost any point along the time line reflects the long sojourn that ensued:
- 1640s: Only 1000 Hutterites left (persecution and hardship)
- 1700: Severe persecution; Last Bruderhof gives up community of goods
- 1750: Increased persecution. Book raids, children taken, houses sealed
- 1820s: Internal conflicts/divisions led to steady decline of community life
- 1860: Renewal and re-establishment of community of goods
- World War 1: Communities move from United States to Canada
- 1990s: Community founded in Nigeria
The modern sojourn of “new” Hutterites
The struggle for identity and survival that pervades much of Hutterian history also is characteristic of new Hutterites in twentieth-century Europe. The Bruderhof in Germany, with its peace witness and radical commitment to Jesus, was bound to come into conflict with a Nazi government. Ousted from Germany in 1937, the group moved to southern England. When war broke out, however, social and political pressures militated against the German-speaking community. After a period of hardship and struggle in an isolated region of Paraguay, the Bruderhof eventually settled in the United States. Today there are nine communities of new Hutterites (six in the United States and one each in England, Germany and Nigeria). The Darvell community at Robertsbridge was founded in 1971, when a group of Hutterians moved to England and purchased a manor house and adjacent buildings that had served as a tuberculosis hospital. Today the group owns eighty acres of pasture and fields.
Darvell has a living arrangement that is typical of most Bruderhof communities: nuclear families each have private living space in which they eat daily breakfast and two evening meals a week; each home also has its own family time in the middle the day and before the evening meal. Beyond these designated family times most of daily life is communal. Small children receive care in the “baby house”; children to the age of fourteen attend the Bruderhof school where teachers come from within the community. Older children attend local secondary schools, after which most go on to some further education. The group does not baptize children, and usually not adolescents. Membership is an adult decision to be made after the candidate has had opportunity to leave the Bruderhof and experience life elsewhere.
Each Bruderhof is financially self-sufficient, and members of all ages have daily tasks. At Darvell the economic engine is a medium-sized industry producing wooden toys and equipment for the handicapped. There is no hesitation about using modern technology: a craftsman in the shop deftly entered instructions into a computerized router that produces intricate wooden parts with speed and precision.
Community life is difficult
“Touch only your own pot!” warns a sign in the children’s pottery shop at the Bruderhof school, a reminder that communal life has its hazards. As David Johnson took us on a walking tour of the scenic grounds, we came across an abandoned bicycle lying in wet grass. “This is the problem with living in community,” he said. “If it’s not mine, why take care of it? We have to work on stewardship.”
Tranquility and peace are genuine at Darvell, and the community appears to function smoothly. Members insist, however, that such harmony comes through a lot of effort and conflict. “Communities in general have a very short half-life,” David Johnson observed. Fifty years is a long time for any community to survive, he said, and many Christian communities disperse after just a few years. Fiona Hihbs agreed that relationships require constant attention: “Imagine the conflict that happens just in one family. We are three hundred people trying to live like a family!” She noted that usually it is not underlying theological or doctrinal issues that lead to conflict; it is trivial disagreements, personality differences, or debates over little privileges that can destroy communal life.
To prevent any individual or small group from dominating the Bruderhof, there is a strong emphasis on mutual accountability and group process. On the morning Stuart and I arrived at the community, an elderly member told us “the brotherhood” was deciding that day whether he and his wife should go to assist a Bruderhof in America. This is not a decision the couple could or would have made by themselves, even though they were free to express their preference. By noon “the brotherhood” had decided, and our friends were leaving for America the next day. They seemed happy with the decision.
It is this measure of submission to group process that startles a visitor. Members do what the group decides, whether that involves a work assignment, living arrangements or role in the community. The demeanour of members is one of deference and cheerful self-depreciation. David Hibbs smiled as he borrowed an image from the wood shop to describe Bruderhof members: “We’re the offcuts of society, the little bits that are left over”. Those “offcuts” now function as an organic whole, with worship and Bible teaching at the centre. There is no frenetic activity, but the place is busy and everybody has a task. Children hike to a hillside at mid-afternoon, sickles in hand, to cut weeds; women prepare the noon meal and men wash up afterwards; the wood shop is efficiently organized with ideas borrowed from the Japanese.
Mealtime nourishes both body and mind. Members gather quietly in the spacious dining hall and sit together in family or household units. Announcements, a welcome to visitors, and blessing on the food come by way of public address system. Serving dishes arrive at each table from the kitchen (hearty potatoes and meat on this occasion). This was the week Israel signed a treaty with the PLO, and a professor from Hebrew University in Israel was visiting. The noon reading that day was a ten-minute survey of the history of the city of Jerusalem (from king David to the present), and all ages listened attentively as we ate.
Working down on the ladder
“Our whole life is church”, explained one member. “We’re all brothers. There is a ladder of power here, but you work down on it. We must become powerless, so God can use us.” God’s presence usually is felt in group silence or in the process of discussion and discernment; “charismatic” gifts of prophecy, tongues and instant healing normally play no part in Bruderhof life. Such gifts can lead to spiritual pride or individualism, and may distract members from more difficult and urgent matters of discipleship and obedience.
Ask members of the Bruderhof if they are “saved”, and they likely will change the terminology to say “I try to follow Jesus”. Among Hutterians there is a gentle disdain for theological discussion that is academic or theoretical. “We don’t even want to do Bible study unless there’s a commitment to act on what we learn”, a leader explained. This straightforward determination to do what the Bible says explains why women wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11), why only men hold positions of leadership in the church (1 Cor. 14), why members wear unique attire as a symbol of submission to the community and nonconformity to the world (Rom. 12).
Other Christians favour a more nuanced interpretation of scripture that might, for example, encourage women to preach because certain bible passages infer that women taught and took leadership in the early church. This strikes Hutterians as little more than fancy footwork to avoid the plain message of the Bible. Bruderhof members are quick to emphasize that there are true Christians in many churches outside their own, but they also have a conviction that apostasy is rampant in the larger church.
A living model of Kingdom values
How do Hutterites do mission when the entire “saltshaker” is at one spot? That is a slightly sensitive question, and members have heard it before. “A few weeks ago we had an Open Day here,” David Johnson said, “and seven hundred people came and visited. That’s mission.” In addition to such structured contacts with the immediate neighbourhood, hundreds of people visit the community each year from far and wide. Very few are able or willing to make the life-long commitment that membership requires. But sometimes visitors end up becoming members, and the Bruderhof serves as a living model of people who seriously intend to embody Kingdom values.
In the centre of the Darvell community rests a large container being tilled with clothes, equipment, food and medicine for a new Hutterian community taking shape in Nigeria. Several years ago an indigenous group of Nigerians began to live in community with all things in common. Thinking at first they alone had rediscovered a New Testament model of church, they eventually made contact with Hutterians in the America and England. Now several Bruderhof communities have pooled resources to help the Nigerian group build and plan, and people from Darvell are in Africa today. This new focus for ministry has energised the Bruderhof and brought a new cross-cultural dimension to their identity.
Stuart Murray and I left Robertsbridge on separate trains, symbolic perhaps of the more individualistic lives we lead. The rails took us from a quiet, rural community to the chaotic maze of London, where members of our churches scatter far and wide each week. We carried with us the warmth of love and hospitality that members of the Bruderhof had extended all day.
The Anabaptist congregation to which I belong has different ways of putting into practice our convictions about property, male-female roles, and accountability. But sisters and brothers at the Bruderhof inspired me to take discipleship more seriously and to think anew of practical ways to make community an integral part of church. Their radical economic sharing is a reminder that material goods belong to God and the Kingdom rather than to me. Their humility reminded me that Jesus’ way of powerlessness is a far cry from the status-seeking of a world that is too much with us. Above all, their holistic ministry highlighted the importance of bringing every area of personal and corporate life under the gracious Lordship of Jesus Christ.
To find out more about the Hutterites, the Hutterian Brethren, and the Bruderhof communities, see the Amish, Hutterites, and Conservative Groups page in our Anabaptist links.