Hutterite Chronicles

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Among the many groups of 16th century Anabaptists not one was as history-minded as the Hutterites in Moravia. At the headquarters of their Vorsteher (bishops) they seem to have kept orderly archives where all material of significance was collected, incoming and outgoing epistles, official writings, doctrinal statements, records about martyrs, records about the affairs of the brotherhood itself, notes on weather, on prices of farm products, regulations (Ordnungen), speeches of elders, and all the rest. It was the fountain from which inspiration and strength could be gained and the assurance that their way was the right one. Wherever brethren were examined by the authorities they knew how to answer because they knew their history and the previous testimonies of their brethren. Numerous copies of this material were made (see Epistles), and often collected in well-bound books or codices. At these headquarters the Brethren must also have kept a small library, containing such books as Eusebius' Church History (see Eusebius), Sebastian Franck's Chronica, and other works in church  history, then all the printed books by Hubmaier, Denck, Hans Hut, and related men, and pamphlets like Michael Sattler's Epistles together with the story of his trial and end, the story of G. Wagner's or Leonhard Kaiser's martyrdom, and many more like them (see MQR, 1942, 83), then also various Bible concordances which were often carefully copied (see ARG, 1931, 225 f.), and so on.

During the "golden era" of the brotherhood in Moravia, the time of the Vorsteher Peter Walpot, 1565-1578, the idea must have arisen to collect all this material in an official "chronicle" to keep the memory of the great happenings alive, particularly the "heroic beginnings" and also to offer an object lesson to later generations. Perhaps they meant also to vindicate their peculiar way of life; and, not the least, the martyrdom of the many witnesses to truth should find a permanent record for posterity. Thus the work was begun, perhaps on suggestion of Peter Walpot, by the Diener des Wortes Kaspar Braitmichel. From the preface, where he apologizes that for reasons of poor eyesight and other frailties he could not carry on his work beyond the year 1542, we might assume that he wrote this book toward the end of his life. He died in 1573 in Austerlitz (Moravia), the seat of the Vorsteher and (probably) also of the archives. His original manuscript is no longer existent; it was copied, however, by Hauptrecht Zapft, the clerk of the next Vorsteher Kräl (1578-1583) and the following Vorsteher Klaus Braidl (1583-1611). This Zapff manuscript is still existent, incidentally also a work of outstanding penmanship and artistic illumination. After Zapff, six more scribes or annalists continued this work in the given fashion, until the year 1665, when the manuscript abruptly ends with a letter of supplication to the brethren in Holland. Only one master copy of this chronicle exists, or as it was called the Geschichts-Buch und kurzer Durchgang vom Anfang der Welt . . . , also called Unser Gemain Geschicht-Buch. It is a bulky volume of 612 folio leaves, bound in leather and with the usual brass buckles. As their greatest treasure the Brethren kept it with utmost care, carrying it along on all their pilgrimages through the ages. In 1953 it was with the Brethren in America. It is commonly called the Great Chronicle.

For about 130 years no continuation of the Zapff manuscript was ever considered. It was the time of the decline of the brotherhood. But then, the revived brotherhood, then living in Russia, had the good fortune of having in their midst a man of outspoken gift in historiography: Johannes Waldner (1749-1824), bishop of the brotherhood from 1794 to his death. Waldner, a Carinthian by birth, studied all the old records, including the Great Chronicle, and decided to write a sequel to the first chronicle. He worked on this important enterprise from 1793 to 1802; we do not know why he stopped at this year. In this book, called by himself Denkwürdigkeiten (Memorabilia), he first briefly repeated the entire story of the former book, to be sure, with new and significant additions, then he carried the story forward from the year 1665 to the moment when the Carinthian transmigrants (see Carinthia) joined the nearly extinct brotherhood in Transylvania around 1755 (getting his material from written and oral sources otherwise unknown). And finally he told in broad details all the vicissitudes of the brotherhood which he had shared himself or, at least, had witnessed. While the older book, from now on called the Great Chronicle, was fairly unartistic in its form, more annals than history, the new book, now called the Small Chronicle, Das Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder, is a real masterwork of historiography, a pragmatic account of great unity and dynamic. The manuscript consists of 370 folio leaves.

After Waldner's death very little was done to carry on this kind of work, and later notes are scanty and poor. This manuscript also exists in only one master copy in one of the Bruderhofs in Canada.

These Chronicles then are the two major source books of our knowledge of the Hutterites whose story thus became better known and more easily accessible than that of any other Anabaptist group. However, they represent by no means the only historical material from this group. It is highly characteristic for the history-mindedness of the Hutterites that many a brother undertook similar literary enterprises though on a smaller scale. These books were usually called Denkbüchlein or memorandum booklets, sometimes also simply Chronicle. To a certain extent they are but excerpts from the "larger" chronicle, omitting much of the non-annalistic material, but partly they are original works with their own (unknown, mostly oral) sources. They partly overlap and have the same contents, but partly they bring new data otherwise not available, enriching thus our knowledge in many a detail. Of these smaller chronicles we know about 19 different specimens. Joseph v. Beck gives an account of them in the introduction of his remarkable edition of these chronicles, published under the title Die Geschichts-Bücher (note the plural) der Wiedertäufer in Österreich-Ungarn). He enumerates them as codices A to T. The best known of them is perhaps the codex "A," the "Resch-chronicle" (named after its writer who carried the work on until his death in 1592, while later brethren continued it until 1639), entitled Ein klein gründliches Denkbüchlein darin wird begriffen und angezeigt was sich seit dem 1524 Jahr mit den rechten christgläubigen und frommen Menschen hat zugetragen, und wie die Gemein Gottes wiederum hat angefangen (meaning the restitution of the primitive church after 1400 years of decline) und vermehrt hat. Another remarkable book is codex "I," Beschreibung der Geschichten . . . wie und was Gott mit seinen Gläubigen . . . vom Anfang der Welt gehandelt und bis auf die jetzige Zeit sich kräftig in ihnen bewiesen . . . durch Kaspar Braitmichel oder Schneider gestellt, und jetzt (that is, 1591) wieder angefangen zu schreiben . . . CK. Only part of the first hundred leaves seems to go back to Braitmichel,  the rest  (200  leaves) are a copy of the Resch codex. Whether Braitmichel himself made excerpts from his own "larger" chronicle or, what is more likely, whether this book represents a preliminary experiment in chronicling (and also in church history—as the title indicates), must remain a moot question.

These codices are usually octavo size, comprising between 200 and 300 leaves, produced in beautiful handwriting. Seven of them begin with a brief summary of the history of the church from the time of Constantine (when it was considered that the true church began its decline) up to about 1520. This part is but an excerpt from Seb. Franck's popular Chronica. In the Great Chronicle this introduction is more elaborate and takes up 32 (or 44) pages in print. Most of these chronicles continue their story almost to the end of the 17th century, several authors working successively on them similar to the way in which the Great Chronicle was composed. A complete comparison of both the Great Chronicle and these 19 smaller ones has never been undertaken. Much material is identical but quite a bit is also new and different. In completeness and spiritual intent the Great Chronicle is certainly superior to the others.

More than one fifth of this Great Chronicle is made up of inserts of doctrinal statements and epistles (Sendbriefe); among the latter we find some of the finest ever written by Hutterites, such as those by Jakob Hutter, Peter Riedemann, Peter Walpot, Paul Glock, etc. (see MQR, 1945, 27 and following). From Hutterite epistle books existent (see Epistles, Anabaptist) it becomes apparent that also a great part of the remaining story was drawn from these unusual prime sources, a point to which particularly Wolkan called attention in his edition of 1923. Likewise hymns, so numerous among Hutterites, have served as a welcome source mainly for the stories of martyred brethren. The Great Chronicle contains also most welcome doctrinal material taken from proceedings of religious debates or from other documents in the archive. For instance, only the Great Chronicle has the Five Articles of the Greatest Disagreement between Us and the World of 1547 (see Article Book), written most likely around 1570 by Peter Walpot, or the Brüderliche Vereinigung zw. uns und etlichen Brüdern am Rheinstrom of 1556, written by Hansel Raiffer. At the year 1571, a lengthy insert describes in detail the organization and the work of the brotherhood (written perhaps by Peter Walpot), a major source for our knowledge of the life of the Hutterites.

For a long time the Great Chronicle was not known to European scholars, since it existed only in a faraway colony in Russia and was then taken to America. Only the chronicles which had been confiscated by Jesuits in the 18th century and kept in different libraries of Europe were known. Joseph v. Beck assiduously collected and copied most of them and then undertook the difficult task of combining all his material mosaic fashion. He added whatever pertinent material he could get hold of otherwise and thus produced an admirable and still very usable work, the Geschichts-Bücher (1883). of about 700 pages.

In 1908 Rudolf Wolkan of Vienna, Austria, learned through John Horsch for the first time of the existence of the original chronicle and from a transcription received from the brethren in America prepared an edition of this volume entitled Geschicht-Buch (note the singular over against Beck's plural) der Hutterischen Brüder (Vienna, 1923) in 750 pages. The language of this edition is adjusted to the present-day usage of High German. In footnotes much valuable material from epistles is added. It can be safely said that the Beck and Wolkan editions well supplement each other.

In 1943 another edition of the same book was published, this time in America, entitled Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder (Carl Schurz Foundation, Philadelphia, 1943). It was prepared by A. J. F. Zieglschmid (then professor of German literature at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois) and was brought out in a letter-perfect edition of the original text (spelling, punctuation, etc.). It is a bulky volume of more than 1,100 pages and 20 plates (with samples of the handwriting). It contains many valuable helps—glossary, bibliography, and so on.

Four years later, in 1947, Prof. Zieglschmid published the sequel, the Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder (again Carl Schurz Foundation). It is a first edition taken from the hitherto unknown Denkwürdigkeiten of Johannes Waldner, which was kept in custody on a Bruderhof in Canada. Though called Small Chronicle, the volume is almost as bulky as the Great Chronicle, having 856 quarto pages. This edition is done in modernized language like the Wolkan book, and contains again an extensive apparatus. Its bibliography of more than 300 items was by far the most exhaustive one on the Hutterites in existence at that time. As was mentioned above, Waldner's text goes only as far as 1802. From 1802 to 1947 very few notes are found in the manuscript, and the editor was compelled to supply supplementary material from even the remotest sources attainable (pp. 410-500). In an Appendix (500-686) a nearly complete collection of Gemeinde-Ordnungen (regulations or ordinances for the brotherhood) from 1651 to 1873 is published, further the revealing travel diary of Paul Tschetter (1873) while on a search for a place of settlement in America, then Canadian documents (since 1872), list of colonies, preachers, etc.

Waldner's text of the Small Chronicle gives more than mere annals. Skillfully he emphasizes the dynamic evolution, condensing the earlier story to what is of true significance and adding material not known heretofore. Of great value are inserted selections of sermons which were to help revive the former spirit and strengthen the loyalty to the original institutions (204-214). They were taken from one of the remarkable sermon collections which up to this day have been preserved in the colonies and are still in use at their worship services. An ordinance of 1633 by Ehrenpreis concerning nonresistance is another welcome insert into the text (translated in Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1951). Since Waldner's description of the sufferings in Transylvania and the exodus to Russia (1767 and following) is based on his own experiences, the last part of his "memorabilia" is particularly dramatic and well written, proving that these Carinthian newcomers had certainly grasped something of the spirit of the Hutterite forefathers.


Published editions

Beck, Josef. Die Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer in Oesterreich-Ungarn. Vienna, 1883; reprinted Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1967.

The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren. Rifton, N.Y.; Ste. Agathe, Man.: Plough Publishing House, 1987-1998, 2 vols.

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

Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: Ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1943.

Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Das Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder. Philadelphia, PA: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1947.

Also see

Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1931): 225 f.

Friedmann, Robert. "The Epistles of the Hutterian Brethren." Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (1946): 147-177.

Loserth, Johann. "The Decline and Revival of the Hutterites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 4 (1930): 93-112. (Re. Waldner's Chronicle).

Waltz, J. A. Journal of English and German Philology (October 1944).

Zieglschmid, A. J. F. "The Hutterite Chronicle"American-German Review (1942).

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1953

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MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Hutterite Chronicles." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 2 Dec 2023.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Hutterite Chronicles. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 December 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 589-591. All rights reserved.

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