When the metaphorical fumata bianca (white smoke) billowed from the Hutterite version of the Vatican on August 30th, 2017 the Hutterite world knew Schmiedeleut (Group 1) had elected a new Bishop.
Arnold Hofer, the 71-year-old minister from Acadia Hutterite Colony near Carberry Manitoba was elected Altester, Bishop of Schmiedeleut (Group 1) sparking renewed hope for resolution of a wound that’s been festering for 25 years.
Pictured: Bishop Arnold Hofer
Hofer succeeded Jake Kleinsasser from Crystal Spring Colony whose death on August 8th, at age 95 marked the end of the most internally divisive era in our 500 years of existence. Where there were once 3 distinct Hutterite groups under one church, there are now 4 groups and 2 churches.
Never has an election for Bishop been so closely watched by the Hutterite community at large.
Jake Kleinsasser (often referred to as JK) was as polarizing a figure to Hutterites as Donald Trump is to Americans. To many Hutterites, he was considered divisive and even unscrupulous, but to his supporters like Kenny Wollman (Baker Colony) Kleinsasser was a visionary who will be remembered for his tireless efforts to reintroduce the higher education standards and missionary zeal of our Hutterite forefathers. In an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, Wollman goes so far as to say that Kleinsasser “will one day be recognized as one of the greatest Hutterite leaders,” of all time. This is seen as an astonishing claim given that Kleinsasser’s internal policies had a devastating effect on the social fabric of many Hutterite communities.
For over a century there were 3 Hutterite groups in North America, comprised of the more liberal Schmiedeleut, the moderate Dariusleut, and orthodox Lehrerleut. While there were always differences between the 3 groups in matters of dress code, and interaction with the outside world the basic pillars of faith as set down by our Hutterite forefathers were the same. Consequently, a generally cohesive and respectful relationship existed amongst the 3 groups who collectively represent 50 thousand Hutterites on over 500 Hutterite colonies on the Canadian prairies and the northwestern United States. Each group has its own Bishop. Hutterite Bishops are usually advanced in age at the time of their election and serve until death.
What led to the schism began in the 1980’s with nearly a decade of long-drawn-out and complicated disputes within the Schmiedeleut group during the time that Kleinsasser was their Bishop. It led to court battle after court battle. Never in our history had the Hutterites experienced such an unprecedented use of litigation to settle internal matters. It brought Kleinsasser’s leadership into question.
At a pivotal meeting in 1992 a full conference of Schmiedeleut ministers gathered to discuss 12 points of grievances against Kleinsasser. At the meeting Kleinsasser put the issue of his leadership to the assembly saying, “It is time to make a decision and see how many accept me still as an Elder and don’t agree with those 12 points.” Kleinsasser decisively lost the vote.
The meeting is described by Jake Kleinsasser’s son Edward Kleinsasser as “a failed coup,” however at the time, Mr. Justice DeGraves from the Manitoba Court of Queens Bench ruled that Kleinsasser “put himself out of office” by asking for a confidence vote and losing it.
Kleinsasser refused to accept the results of the vote and steadfastly claimed that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He and his supporter’s broke ranks with the established Hutterite Church and started their own church. JK and his followers became known as Schmiedeleut Group 1. The larger faction became known as Schmiedeleut Group 2 and remained with the Hutterian Brethren Church which includes the Lehrerleut and Dariusleut.
The split pit family against family, brother against brother, children against parents and grandchildren against grandparents. In his landmark book, The Courts and The Colonies (UBC Press) author and law professor, Alvin Esau breaks down the court cases giving readers an authoritative account of the various misadventures that occurred during Bishop Kleinsassers tenure. Allegations of patent fraud, mismanaged millions and excommunication of those who disagreed with his ideas are just some of the accusations that were leveled against him.
“The accusations against (my dad) are false. They are totally false!” insists Edward Kleinsasser when I ask him about his father’s legacy.
“I had no axe to grind, and I tried to be as fair as possible to both sides,” Esau tells me over the phone from Victoria where he now lives. “Jake Kleinsasser may have been beyond his depth in certain financial schemes that were just terrible for everyone but as an outsider the bigger question I had is, was it right for Kleinsasser to get rid of people he didn't agree with and to use the state sword against them? There are some very bitter accounts of that.”
Esau’s query cuts to the bone and points to the heart of the matter.
The deepest wounds caused by the split is JK's policies of exclusion restricting free association between Group 1 and Group 2. Children not allowed to attend their own parent’s funeral if they happen to die on a Group 2 colony, parents not allowed to attend their own children's weddings, brothers and sisters not allowed to visit each other and on and on. In the 25 years since the split a whole generation has grown up without knowing their kin including grandparents on Group 2 colonies simply because they ended up on the other side of the dispute. It was a devastating blow to a culture built on family and community. And because Hutterites are interrelated the policy also affected the Dariusleut and Lehrerleut.
“All that was asked of Kleinsasser is to admit he made mistakes, to apologize and say he will do better. But to say he did nothing wrong, that is what really upset people” Mike Waldner, minister at Souris colony (Schmeideleut Group 2) says. (Mike is the great grandson and namesake of Michael Waldner, the original Bishop and leader of all Schmiedeleut Hutterites).
“If Kleinsasser had been a man of peace and had shown remorse he could still have been the Bishop, Waldner asserts, but is quick to add, “of course, there are the hard liners who would disagree with me, but as far as many of us can see the loss of money was not the main thing.”
“Ok, what did my dad do wrong?” Edward Kleinsasser demands when I confront him with the question. “We are the ones who were ausgeschlossen locked out. We are the victims.”
Eventually Edward admits that his father did make “some mistakes”. But that those mistakes “did not warrant my dad losing his position and for him and his supporters being kicked out of the church.”
Edward doesn’t see any changes in Schmiedeleut Group 1 policies or direction now that his dad is gone. “We’re going for education and in our church, there is a lot more spirituality, there are missions, these are the things we are pushing,” Edward tells me.
Unlike other Hutterite groups whose young people often quit school at age 15 to join the adult work force, Jake Kleinsasser required his young people to stay in school and even attend university. He is largely credited with reintroducing the scholarly traditions of our early forefathers to his Hutterite communities. His efforts in mission work, another mandate of our forefathers, yielded mixed results.
But the narrative that the split was caused in large part because other groups did not share JK’s vision for advanced education and mission work is not widely held.
To many Hutterites Arnold Hofer’s win comes with an unmistakeable message not lost on the new Bishop. “I feel people want change,” he tells me when I ask him why he thinks he was elected by an overwhelming majority.
Word of Hofer’s election spread like a prairie grass fire across Hutterite colonies. It was a hot topic of conversation on the Lehrerleut and Dariusleut communities I happened to visit on my way home from a speaking engagement in Swift Current.
“They (Group 1) are dumber than a Nuckela (dumpling) if they think that education is the answer and yet they rip families apart. If they want to go to the mission field they should start in their own backyard,” said one of the women flailing Jake Kleinsassers tribute letter in the air.” “We heard Arnold Vetter (the new Bishop) is Christliche (Christian) and open-minded,” another woman added hopefully.
Soon after Bishop Kleinsasser died stories circulated that he had left a letter requesting his son’s ascension. A fact Edward strongly disputes. “Kola schichtle (just stories!)” Whether or not JK hoped his son would follow in his footsteps, Edward won only 5% of the vote which some regard as an indictment of his father’s controversial legacy.
Bishop Hofer’s election is all the more remarkable and the message of a new direction accentuated because he had so recently been disciplined by Jake Kleinsasser for defying his orders. Last fall Hofer refused to quarantine a Dariusleut bride who wanted to marry a young man from his colony. Jake Kleinsasser’s policy dictates that brides from other groups be quarantined and live at a designated Group 1 colony for 8-12 weeks ostensibly to learn her new Glauben (beliefs) before being allowed to marry into Group 1. As minister, Hofer refused to quarantine the bride and went ahead with the marriage. JK disciplined him by banning him from preaching in church. It was only after Hofer and his whole colony, women included, apologized that he was allowed to have his preaching job back.
“Its very obvious that those that voted for Arnold Hofer want a different direction than we had til now. Very obvious,” says Mike Waldner (Schmiedeleut 2). “I’m very glad that Bishop Hofer got this position because he looks at things from our true beliefs as Hutterians,” he adds striking a concilliatory tone.
Waldner’s words resonate with leaders of the other groups.
“I don’t agree that our church was ripped apart! It should not be this way and it would not have to be this way,” exclaims Lehrerleut representative Jacob Hofer the minister from Garden Plane Colony. “The rest of us consider ourselves one group. We consider ourselves different but the same. Why is the Schmiedeleut 1 a separate group? I can’t wrap my mind around this travesty.”
“We all know that JK did wrong in this split so there has to be admission before there can be reconciliation. But we’re not getting involved,” says Dariusleut Bishop Joe Wurz. “If they (Schmeideleut Group 1 and Group 2) get together and mochen Frieden mit sich (make peace with each other) then there will be no problem with us.”
Asked about his leadership goals, Bishop Hofer answers my questions like a man weighing his every word. “We want to be that city on the hill, we want to be that light to the world and salt to the earth. So, give me time,” he says.
When Michael Waldner, the original Schmiedeleut Bishop lay dying on October 13th, 1889 he summoned his entire community to his side at the historic Bon Homme Colony in South Dakota. “I have given you a good example,” he told them. “Guard yourself against strife and disunity which is a shattering of love,” he urged as they stood around his deathbed and wept.
Bishop Hofer may have to rely on the example of leaders like Bishop Waldner along with Hutterite Leaders from the 16th and 17th century like Peter Walpot and Andreas Ehrenpreis who were not only visionaries in education and mission work, but inspired our communities in Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary to stick together when a myriad of external and internal forces threatened to tear them apart.
“Its going to require the grace of God and great leadership on both the part of Schmiedeleut 1 and Schmiedeleut 2 to bring about healing and reconciliation,” said one Elder from Group 1. “Perhaps then the true vision of the greatest missionary of our people (Jacob Hutter) can be re-ignited.”
“I don't know the man, but I have to say to Arnold Vetter, (Bishop Arnold) the Lord bless his efforts and make it (the Schmiedeleut) whole again," says Lehrerleut representative Jacob Hofer. "I’d like it whole again and I wish him God’s blessings.” It is a sentiment shared by many others.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her national best selling books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite
Authors note: Bishops from Schmiedeleut Group 2 and the Lehrerleut are not quoted in this story as both Bishops have age-related health issues.