Sermons, Hutterite

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The existence of a large number of written sermons of Hutterite origin, mostly of the 17th century, was completely unknown until the publication of the Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder in 1947. Even since the printing of excerpts in the Klein-Geschichtsbuch, no publication offers any reference or information concerning this material. When around 1800 Johannes Waldner, then bishop of the Hutterites in Vyshenka, Ukraine, decided to provide his brotherhood with another "Chronicle," summarizing the contents of the old (called "big") Chronicle and continuing it up to his own day, he felt that some of the sermons found at Vyshenka should also be included to give posterity an adequate picture of the spiritual life of the brotherhood in its best time, the era of Andreas Ehrenpreis. Thus shorter and longer excerpts of not less than 26 such sermons are given in the text of the Klein-Geschichtsbuch (pp. 204-14, and 218-21), all of them deriving from 1652-59. Most of these texts originated at a Bruderhof at Kesselsdorf in Slovakia, where apparently a kind of seminary for preachers existed. Even though Waldner does not mention names, at least six Hutterites are known who composed these sermons: H. F. Küentsche, who was the major contributor, Caspar Eglauch, Mathias Binder, Johannes Milder, Tobias Bertsch, and Benjamin Poley. But there were also other sermon writers, above all Ehrenpreis himself.

In 1954 Robert Friedmann visited a number of Hutterite colonies in Canada and the Northwest of the United States, and was shown the originals from which these sermon excerpts had been taken. Between 300 and 600 original sermon booklets exist, dating from the early 17th century to 1665 (not one later), modest notebooks written in pencil or poor ink, which have been reverently preserved by the brotherhood through the centuries.

In the 18th century Johannes Waldner and several co-workers decided to revive the time-honored custom of reading sermons during the worship hour, and thus they began collecting the contents of most of these booklets in carefully written sermon books, many of them of considerable size. The oldest of these volumes, still extant, is of 1786; then follows one of 1789 (the Mathias Müller book), and so on up to 1804 and slightly later. All this material, old and new, was brought to America. When a brother is elected preacher it is his first duty to make for himself as complete a copy as possible of the entire sermon material. Each of the hundred-odd Bruderhofs today has a collection of 30-60 carefully handwritten and well-bound books of sermons for all occasions. None has ever been printed, and it is the pride of each preacher to keep adding new sermon books to his bookshelves, written in excellent penmanship. All the long winter days are filled with this work. The selection changes slightly depending on whether he belongs to the Dariusleut, Schmiedeleut, or Lehrerleut; some of them have more, some less. All are written and read in High German, even though the Hutterites speak a sort of Tirolean-Bavarian German dialect among themselves. Why are only old sermons read among the Hutterites today? The brethren would answer that these sermons are so perfect that no one could improve upon them. More likely is the assumption that the tradition-minded Hutterites are simply continuing a custom which was widely accepted in all churches during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The oldest exegetical books of the Hutterites, as far as is known, date back to the later part of the 16th century: 1566 and 1579 (both codices in Budapest), 1593 (in Esztergom), 1598 (in Brno), and 1599 (Bratislava). Although these codices were known to European scholars they were never recognized as the prototype of the later (not known) Hutterite sermon books. There are about 15 codices in European libraries, containing such exegeses ("Erklärungen") of different books of the Old and New Testaments (including the Book of Revelation, see Olivi), which are rather similar to the "Lehren" (homiletic instructions) as practiced by the brethren at least since 1629 if not earlier. After that time the datable production increased tremendously up to 1665 and then suddenly stopped. Innumerable undated sermons which to all appearance belong to the same period—that of Ehrenpreis—are also extant. A rigid series of pericopes for the entire church year, including holidays, provided the texts for most of these sermons. To these must be added sermons for other church events, such as baptisms, weddings, or funerals, for which also standard texts were and still are being used. The sermon production then worked around this program, interpreting the texts from many angles, but always in a conservative Biblicistic way, rarely indulging in the fashion of budding Pietism. Thus the sermons lack emotional elements and are distinctly more hortatory than edificatory. The style and ideas of these sermons would deserve a detailed analysis, but in the absence of this no final appreciation can be offered.

Hutterite sermons are basically of two types: Lehren and Vorreden. The Lehr' is usually an exegetical sermon interpreting a certain chapter of the Scriptures verse by verse, often very long-windedly, and (at least today) rarely read in its totality. In former times, to be sure, sermons lasted two hours or more. This Lehr' always occupies the second part of the worship program; the first part is filled (besides prayer and hymns) by a Vorred. This is a general expository sermon centered around a special verse. Also the traditional ceremonies of the church, such as baptism, have this dual type of homiletics.

The information as to the number of existing written sermons varies greatly: the late bishop Elias Walter of the Dariusleut counted 196 Lehren and 25 Psalm interpretations (a total of 221) besides 55 general Vorreden and 25 Vorreden for holidays, making a grand total of 301 sermons. The Lehrerleut, however, claim 250 Vorreden and 350 Lehren, while another preacher claimed 180 Vorreden and 230 Lehren (totaling 410). One of the preachers added the information that some of these sermons are said to have been copied from the Jacob Denner sermon collection (German editions since 1730), which most likely explains the difference in the counting of the existing written sermons.

The prevailing church tradition concerning sermons includes the following. Christmas being celebrated for three days requires three Lehren; New Year's Day needs one Lehr, and Epiphany (6 January), another. Palm Sunday, the usual day of the baptismal ceremony with its elaborate, prescribed ritual (see Taufreden), requires one Lehr. On Good Friday another Lehr is read, while Easter, celebrated for three days, requires four Lehren (Sunday morning and afternoon; the Easter Sunday morning sermon deals with the Lamb of Exodus 12 as its traditional theme); Easter Monday is the day for the Lord's Supper with a lengthy sermon, usually lasting two hours; Tuesday is celebrated as resurrection day. Ascension Day requires one sermon, while Pentecost, celebrated for three days, has three Lehren. The Day of Annunciation (Mariae Verkündigung) is celebrated by the Schmiedeleut only, who use one Lehr for the morning worship; in the afternoon everyday work is resumed. There are also sermons for weddings (Ephesians 5), funerals, election of ministers, confirmation of ministers, election of bishops, a total of at least 21 standard sermon assignments.

At this place no complete list of the Bible chapters and verses used can be offered. A scrutiny of the datable sermons shows, however, that of the Old Testament most-used books were Isaiah (predominant), Ecclesiasticus (their favorite Old Testament book), Jeremiah, Psalms, Proverbs, and Tobit. In the New Testament preference is given to the Gospels, Acts, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, John, Peter, James, and Hebrews.

The entire worship of the Hutterites, as it developed during the Ehrenpreis era, is strongly ritualized and formalized. When the preacher reads the Scripture text of his sermon, the congregation rises; the reading itself is done in chanting fashion. Since the daily prayer hour comes after a long day of hard work, it should not be surprising that now and then a member of the congregation falls asleep. Actually some of the sermons which Johannes Waldner collected in the Klein-Geschichtsbuch contained a complaint about "the sleepy audience" (206), and quote the admonition "that one should not sleep even if the sermon should last for two hours" (207). The reading of the sermon (at least today) sounds often more as a ritual than as a living instruction or exhortation; certain passages are most likely no longer fully understood. Due to the uncompromising Biblicism of all sermons they call their reading "sharp preaching" in contrast to the "soft preaching" in other churches (compare Klein-Geschichtsbuch, 577). The brethren are very fond of this "sharp" preaching, that is, of the outspokenness of the instruction concerning the meaning of the Scriptural text and its application in everyday life, realizing that it is this Biblical radicalism which distinguishes their piety and life from all their surroundings. Hence they like their worship period, with its sermons, prayers, and singing, both on workdays (daily at 6 p.m.) and on Sundays. Needless to say that perfect attendance by all is taken for granted.

The minister, wearing a black frock coat almost down to the knees, enters the meeting room (usually, but not always, the schoolroom) first, then follow slowly the elders and those who have any office, taking their seats next to the preacher, facing the congregation. Next the congregation enters, men right (from the view of the preacher), women left, children in front, again boys separated from girls. At the conclusion of the worship, the exit takes place in the reverse, children first, and the minister last, who then locks the house. In 1957 the average Sunday service lasted 1½ hours, the Lord's Supper service lasted 2½ to 3 hours, and the ordination of a minister sometimes up to 4 hours.

The facts here described in no way exhaust the meaning and character of the Hutterite devotional life. Closer study of this subject would be needed, foremost by analyzing the sermon texts proper and comparing them with earlier and later texts from elsewhere. Therefore the material given above should not be taken as the final word.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Friedmann, Robert. "Sermons, Hutterite." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 15 May 2021.,_Hutterite&oldid=112294.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1959). Sermons, Hutterite. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 May 2021, from,_Hutterite&oldid=112294.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 504-506. All rights reserved.

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