Crafts of the Hutterian Brethren

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Anyone who carries on research in the archives of Austria, Moravia, and Hungary, finds notices of the industrial activity of the Hutterian Brethren, and one who roams through the museums of those countries finds products of their industry which even today attract attention, as did the pottery in the exhibition at Troppau in 1924. The catalogs list precious "Hutterian knives," and the old manuscript hymnals are not only written in fine penmanship, but are also distinguished by the solidity of their binding.

From the specimens of these and other trades it is clear that the crafts of the Hutterian Brethren were for a long time on a high level, recognized by their friends and foes. When the Hutterian Brethren arrived in this "Promised Land" uninvited, they had to suffer the envy and persecution of the native populace, and to establish themselves and prove their good points. Wherever a patron offered them a place of refuge they settled, struggling with want and misery and subjected to manifold inner conflicts.

The Hutterites could not develop successful trades until the great persecution diminished, and first the "good age" (1554-1565), then the "golden age" (1565-1592) of the brotherhood dawned, and they were able to find a market for their products among the populace and especially the landed patrons. Those are the times in which laudatory reports were made. In fairness we must give their own report the preference, that is, the report found in their Geschichtsbuch, and shall supplement it with some citations of court record.

It sounds like a hymn of rejoicing when the Anabaptist chronicler describes the life of the Hutterian brotherhood in the last three decades of the 16th century, when God had provided "rest for his people," and they were living in the land that He had ordained especially for them, where they observed the true Christian community of goods, as Christ taught it and the ancient church observed it. Swords and spears were turned into pruning knives, saws, and other useful articles. . . . Patience was the only defense in any strife.

To the temporal government they obediently paid their dues and . . . taxes and tithes, . . . and gave them honor for their God-ordained office. In brief, all twelve articles of the Christian faith were practiced. There were deacons and teachers for their schools. They sustained themselves with all kinds of manual labor in fields, meadows, and vineyards. There were not a few carpenters, especially in Moravia, but also in Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, many beautiful and useful mills, breweries, and other buildings which they built for the barons, the noblemen, and the citizens. For every trade special Brethren were appointed who took over the work, gave directions, and settled disputes. There were also not a few millers and mills in the land taken over from the lords to manage them. They also managed the dairies and farms for the lords for a good salary, as was reasonably agreed upon by both sides.

Nobody was idle. The brotherhood maintained all kinds of useful crafts; there were masons, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, locksmiths, clockmakers, knifesmiths, tinsmiths, tanners, furriers, cobblers and saddlers, . . . weavers, tailors, . . . glaziers, . . . barbers and physicians."

Each of these trades had an overseer who took charge of the work, arranged it, paid the bills, sold the products and put the proceeds into the brotherhood treasury. "All of them, wherever they were, worked for the common welfare and helped each other wherever there was occasion. It was like a perfect body, which has only real and living members, each needing the other. Or it was like a clock, where one wheel drives and aids another." This brotherhood, says the chronicle in conclusion, became known in the world. Everyone wanted them for their faithfulness. Only in the eyes of some there were too many of them in the land "because of their religion."

What the chronicle relates about the "golden age" of Hutterite crafts is confirmed by contemporary reports. From their workshops the landlords of Moravia and beyond procured the best scythes, the most beautiful pottery, the most expensive knives, the finest hairsieves and millers' pouches. Hence the great demand for their products. Unwittingly and unwillingly their greatest adversary, the Catholic priest Christoph Andreas Fischer, sings their praise: "Do I not see on every Sunday and holiday, especially in the morning, the people come to you in droves and purchase their necessities of you? And this is the case not only here in Feldsberg, but throughout the land." The Catholic population soon began to complain that they were unable to compete with the Hutterites, who were taking their bread away before their very mouths. Therefore on 23 March 1601, a decree was issued to the barons in Upper and Lower Austria, that they remove all Anabaptists occupied in mills or otherwise. But the decree was not generally obeyed; in Moravia it was not even proclaimed.

The principal reason for the high value placed on Hutterite products was the fine quality of their work at reasonable prices. "We desire," said Klaus Braidl, "to satisfy everybody for his money, and if the people were not satisfied they would not come to us." ... "Blades that are seen to be defective shall not be sold, and imperfect work shall be sold for less than perfect work. Those responsible for the work shall, in accord with the principles and regulations of the brotherhood, see to it that good wares only are given out, so that the good and honorable name of the brotherhood be not lost or maligned and that the people be not cheated." "Cutters shall insist on good workmanship, so that people will get something decent for their money, as the price of knives is high. Hungarian and Silesian iron shall not be offered for sale in the place of Styrian iron, for defamation would follow, and it would not be right. One also ruins business thereby." The regulations for other trades are similar.

Thus each craft or trade had its own regulations (Ordnungen), which were occasionally read to the artisans, who then gave a pledge to follow them faithfully. To be sure, we are acquainted only with the rules of the later period, but there is evidence that they were observed in earlier times. Thus we find in the manuscripts the following statements: "Anno 1561, on 9 December the cobblers' regulations were recognized by the elders and deacons and were renewed in 1570." In 1571 there were rules for millers, in 1574 for carpenters. In 1591 the remark is made, "On January 8 all the overseers assembled at Neumühl; in the presence of all the preachers a discussion was held on what the cobblers, cutters, menders and buyers should not permit." From time to time reforms were necessary, and revisions became necessary and were carried through. Andreas Ehrenpreis, the leader who died in Sobotište in 1662, did valuable work in collecting all these regulations, preserved today in one codex only of the archiepiscopal library of Gran. It contains the regulations for the separate trades. For many, however, including several very successful ones like wool-weaving, no regulations have been preserved. It is important to note that the approval of the leaders of the church was required for the economic regulations.

After these general statements some details on specific crafts are in order. Not all crafts and occupations were permitted, several were indeed prohibited, and others permitted conditionally. On these points Riedemann's Rechenschaft gives some information: "Merchandizing and shopkeeping we allow to none among us, for it is a sinful trade, as the wise man says 'A merchant or trader can hardly keep himself from sinning, and as a nail penetrates between a door and hinge, so sin enters between buying and selling.' Therefore we permit no one to buy anything for the purpose of selling it, as merchants are accustomed to do. But one who sells to provide for the needs of the household or to obtain material for his trade, and sells the article he has made we regard not as doing wrong, but as doing right. But we consider it wrong (Sir. 20) if one buys an article and then sells the same article and takes his gain, thereby making the article more expensive to the poor and taking the bread from their mouth, and thus the poor man must become nothing more than the servant of the rich man."

Conditionally permitted was tailoring. "Christians shall not apply their industry on outward ornamentation to please the world. Whatever tends to create pride, haughtiness, and vanity, ... we permit no one to make, in order that our conscience be preserved spotless before God." Sword and knife making were similarly restricted. "It serves mostly only for killing, injuring and ruining human beings: therefore we make no swords, spears, guns, or similar weapons or arms. But what is made for the daily use of men, as breadknives, axes, hoes, etc., we may and do make. But if one would say one might possibly injure another with them, they are nevertheless not made for this purpose."

The wool-weaving craft was on a high plane with the Hutterian Brethren; their products were so highly prized, that after the expulsion of the Anabaptists the government sought to fill their place by skilled Belgians. In the crafts permitted, native trade had sharp competition, which it was naturally not capable of meeting because, aside from the much simpler living conditions and customs of the Hutterites, their methods of production in the individual trades were much simpler and the great profits of the middlemen were eliminated. For here the individual trades were coordinated to aid each other. It was strictly forbidden to get raw materials outside the Bruderhofs if they were available there. Thus from the slaughterhouses the hides were sent to the tanners and from them to the saddlers, harness makers, and cobblers. A similar relationship existed between the production of wool, weaving, and tailoring. Only a few raw products, like iron and fine oils, were bought from the outside. The miller's trade had an excellent reputation. We know from an epistle that millers were sent into Switzerland to learn various methods of milling. On the other hand, in 1560 millers came to the Brethren from Bellinzona (Italy) to get the plan for an ox-power mill.

Great stress was laid on proper training for a trade. Young people were to be led to industry, honesty, piety, and manual skill. They should not be beaten nor treated rudely. The overseer must see to it that they did not forget how to read and write, and that they did not dawdle. "The young smiths shall be trained to work well and skillfully and to learn to do all kinds of neat work, so that the smith's craft may not deteriorate."

This was the character of the handicrafts of the Hutterite brotherhood in its best days. Unfortunately it could not remain so. At the end of the 1570s the terrible Counter Reformation set in in the West, and took possession of a good part of western, southern, and southeast Germany, and was also victorious in the country that had previously been considered a mighty fortress of religious tolerance, Moravia. There the "recurrence of sorrow" took place, the Bocskay forces came, then the events of the Bohemian War, the outbreak of the Bohemian revolt which brought on the Thirty Years' War; all the tribulations that fell on the beautiful Bruderhofs, as the attack on Pribitz, the arson of wild war hordes, and finally the expulsion of the Brethren from Moravia in 1622. It was inevitable that all of this would affect the inner life of the Brethren, thus having a harmful effect on the development of Hutterite craftsmanship. The old zeal of the brotherhood was cooling, the old, strict rules were disregarded if not forgotten; economic deterioration followed in its wake, which the capable Ehrenpreis tried in vain to stem.

See also Habaner; Ceramics; Folk Arts


Beck, Josef. Die Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertaufer in Oesterreich-Ungarn. Vienna, 1883.

Der Communimus der mährischen Wiedertäufer. Leipzig, 1927.

Correl, Ernst. Das schweizerische Täufer-Mennonitentum. Tübin­gen, 1925.

Friedmann, Robert. Die Habaner in der Slowakei. 1927.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 105.

Hruby, F. Die Wiedertäufer in Mäkren. Leipzig, 1935.

Loserth, Johann. Der Anabaptismus in Tirol. Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1892.

Rideman, Peter.  Account of our religion, doctrine and faith. Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton in conjunction with Plough Pub. House, 1950.

Wolkan, Rudolf. Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Macleod, AB, and Vieena, 1923.

Author(s) Johann Loserth
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Loserth, Johann. "Crafts of the Hutterian Brethren." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 27 Jan 2021.

APA style

Loserth, Johann. (1953). Crafts of the Hutterian Brethren. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 728-730. All rights reserved.

©1996-2021 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.