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Omdahl: Former Hutterites take issues to public square

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A group of nine ex-Hutterites are going to great lengths to denounce the theology and governance flaws of Hutterite colonies in North Dakota and Canada.

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They are now touting a second book about their experiences and taking their case to the secular world.

The Hutterite religion first appeared in Europe in 1528 and was named for a dynamic leader, Jakob Hutter, in the 1600s. Believers came to America in the 1870s and settled in South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota and Canada.

In theology, Hutterites are fairly close to Baptists, except that they subscribe to communal living and strict pacifism. German is the first language in the colonies.

Since neither communal living nor pacifism sit well with the secular society, Hutterites have frequently been victims of ridicule and persecution.

North Dakota has six or seven colonies, depending on the source, with a new one being built near Hillsboro between Fargo and Grand Forks. South Dakota and Montana have much larger settlements. Each colony has around 100 members.

Farming is a significant part of their economic activities, but some colonies have gone into various types of manufacturing and commercial services.

While most of the complaints voiced by the nine breakaway book writers relate to the theology and governance of the colonies, they raise some serious legal issues that should catch the attention of civil authorities.

In their first book, they alleged that the colonies were guilty of overlooking child abuse, violating labor and minimum wage laws, disobeying school attendance laws, disregarding possible sex abuse and providing alcohol to minors.

Without receiving formal complaints, however, law enforcement agencies are hard-pressed to storm the colonies in search of violations. And because colonies are religious organizations, attempts to enforce state laws could be construed as a form of religious persecution.

In their first publication, each of the nine narrated the dismal circumstances of life in the colonies. They felt as though they were prisoners due to the lack of preparation for employment outside of the colony, shunning by family and friends that dared leave the colony, and the unknown spiritual consequences of defying authority.

Nevertheless, they used the Declaration of Independence to justify their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” not understanding that the Declaration guaranteed no rights and represented a secular argument against King George.

All of the nine professed a new “born-again” faith that, they allege, was unacceptable to colony leaders. They all seemed to find new religious, economic and social lives in the freedom of the secular world.

Even though their first book was punctuated with scriptural references, an air of bitterness and condemnation permeated the writing. It was unforgiving and vindictive.

Having been victims of heavy-handed authoritarianism, it is understandable that painful memories and loss of families could be enough to make them bitter. At the same time, however, if their newfound faith was really based on teachings in the New Testament, then they were called to meekness and forgiveness, not bitterness.

Their arguments are basically theological in nature but their writing seems to be an appeal to secular society for justification of their departure from Hutterite society.

As for the vindictiveness in their writing, I quote from Page 108 in their first book:

“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and evil speaking be put away from you with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31)

Christians should not be disparaging other Christians in the secular square. Theirs is a family argument for professing Christians and not a secular debate.

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Lloyd Omdahl
Lloyd Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.
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