Diener der Notdurft

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Diener der Notdurft was the title used by the Hutterites for their elected and ordained managers or stewards of their Bruderhofs who took care of all temporal needs of the community of each colony. The title was also used to some extent by the Swiss-South German Anabaptists for the deacon. Since the Hutterites lived and still live by the principle of community of goods, an elaborate organization of their establishments became necessary. It was based on the idea of Christian brotherhood, which means voluntary cooperation in all work, absence of "bossism" or paternalism, trusteeship, and acceptance of responsibilities for one another. For this organization to be efficient, it had to operate smoothly, economically, and above all cheerfully. At one place the Hutterite Chronicle compares these Bruderhofs with the work of the bees. In spite of all good will there was still much need for alertness against selfishness (Eigennutz), lust for domineering, and the tendency toward laziness. Much exhortation was needed.

From the very beginnings in the days of Jakob Hutter the main principles of such an organization were established: there were first the Diener am Wort, who took care of the spiritual needs, and then the Diener der Notdurft, who were responsible for the smooth functioning of the Bruderhofs in all practical regards. Peter Riedemann states in his great Rechenschaft of 1540 the basic organization of the leadership in the chapter on "Differences of Ministries" (p. 82 of English edition): ". . . There are rulers (Regierer) who order and arrange the house or church (Gemein), putting each in his place that everything may go properly and well. They also see that the church is cared for in temporal distribution, and are also called ministers of temporal needs." The Chronicle, too, once describes in detail the functioning of the church (Chronik, 430f.), and here again we learn something about this office of stewardship. The main source, however, for all further details is found in but one manuscript of 1640, containing a summary of all previous Gemeinordnungen (regulations or ordinances) with added new material; its author is the Vorsteher Andreas Ehrenpreis, who was eager to have his people stay strictly in the old tradition. Later Ordnungen of this kind were published by Zieglschmid in his edition of the Klein-Geschichtsbuch (1947), 519-565, but they are less elaborate than the one yet unpublished manuscript of Ehrenpreis (a transcript in the Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Indiana). The following description is based exclusively on this document.

In general the Diener der Notdurft were active in four different functions or offices: (1) the most important office was that of Haushälter, general manager or steward of the house; (2) other brethren were Einkäufer (buyers); (3) again others were Fürgestellte or foremen of the different trades and shops; while (4) a last category, the Meier, were overseers or heads of the farms. Actually, still more subdivisions were named under the title Diener der Notdurft; for instance, there was the Weinzierl, who was the assistant to the Haushälter and in his absence his deputy; and then the Kellner, originally the manager of the vineyards and its revenues, later about the same as Meier, general steward. Another helper of the steward was the Kastner, originally the caretaker of the flour bins, and so on.

Each office had its distinct duties. (1) The Haushälter managed, so to speak, the Bruderhof on the top level. He took care of all material needs of the brethren and sisters, including even the clothing and bedding, he distributed all work and supervised it, and he was also in charge of the general demeanor and discipline of the group, mainly at work. For smooth functioning of the whole, the brethren had to submit to his orders and arrangements. He assigned each person to his place, be it workshop, farm, or home duty. He had to be the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night. He kept an eye on the fireplaces to prevent harm. The sick, the old, and the children were under his general care. He was responsible that everybody got what he needed, and yet that nothing be wasted. If any major purchase was due, a committee of elders and the chief steward made the decision. He had to watch the economy of the Bruderhof, to be careful in the administration of the money, and to keep an account of all transactions. From the craftsmen and shops he claimed revenues about every other week, and he watched also that they supplied the Bruderhof with all things needed. If one considers the rather large size of most of these Bruderhofs (200 to 500 persons), it becomes quite obvious that this office of Haushälter was a difficult and responsible one, and that he certainly was in need of an assistant (the Weinzierl). To fulfill these duties with tact and modesty a high standard of Christian character was needed, and only the best fitted were elected and ordained (after a time of probation) to this office. The flowering of the entire church depended, at least partly, upon his work, and thus he was in need of spiritual support by the bishop and the Diener am Wort.

(2) The Einkäufer or buyer was, so to speak, the liaison man with the "world" with which he had to deal. He, too, had to be careful with all his purchases, and "should not fall into the tricks of the traders, butchers and Jews." When in doubt he was to ask the counsel of the elders. The funds which were entrusted to him he did not dare leave with the women but he might deposit them with the elders or the general steward.

(3) The Fürgestellten or foremen of the shops and the different trades (smiths, cloth makers, tanners, shoemakers, cutlers, etc.; see Folk Arts) took care of their particular business, bought whatever material they needed, and sold on the market whatever was not needed on the Bruderhof itself. The profits were handed over to the Haushälter and represented the major revenues of the entire closed economy. All the necessary regulations of the trades and crafts were discussed with these foremen.

(4) The Meier and Kellner, finally, were responsible for farm, orchard, vineyard, fields, barns and cellars. These men were particularly appreciated by the noble lords as stewards on their estates. No more expert or reliable men could be found among the peasants. It was a position of trust which these men filled in accordance with their Christian conscience. They had to have their eyes at many places, watching for any fire hazard, and be on the alert regarding the upkeep of buildings, fences and roads.

In view of the great number and size of the Bruderhofs the number of stewards must have been quite considerable. Beck's Geschichts-Bücher (pp. 193-195) records that in 1548 four Diener am Wort were elected and 14 Diener der Notdurft; two years later the text lists a total of 17 ministers and 31 stewards (p. 195). Without doubt this number increased during the next generation, the "Golden Era" of the brotherhood. Around 1600 decline set in, due to persecution and wars, and the stewards carried much of the responsibility for salvaging whatever was possible. Plundering made a sound economy next to impossible, yet the Bruderhofs survived somehow, and were estimated at the moment of complete abandonment in 1622 to be worth more than 364,000 Talers.

Naturally temptations were ever present, yet seemed to have become more noticeable in the later (17th century) period. Hence the repetition in the Gemeindeordnungen of exhortations and admonitions to these stewards. "If a Haushälter does not comply with the orders of the ministers it is no small wonder that the Lord withholds His blessings." Or we read about dubious manipulations with material and money which are strongly reprimanded and cut short. Yet this was the failing of only a few, within a group which could exist only if strong Christian principles governed its entire life. The fact that this particular type of community life did survive is proof that these principles were more dominant than the human failings which could be more or less successfully kept in check.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 438-440.

Author(s) Johann Loserth
Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1956

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MLA style

Loserth, Johann and Robert Friedmann. "Diener der Notdurft." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 24 Jun 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Diener_der_Notdurft&oldid=120142.

APA style

Loserth, Johann and Robert Friedmann. (1956). Diener der Notdurft. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 June 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Diener_der_Notdurft&oldid=120142.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 54-55. All rights reserved.

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