The Hutterites of James Valley

Christopher Adam

The James Valley Hutterite colony is situated approximately six kilometers from the Manitoban village of Elie and about 40km west of Winnipeg. On September 27, 2007, twenty of us, all participants at the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association’s biennial conference, visited this small Anabaptist community to glimpse into the everyday existence of the colony’s 95 inhabitants. The Hutterite religion was established by Jakob Hutter in Central Europe during the 1520s, at the time of Europe’s Protestant Reformation. Hutterites first arrived to Canada in 1918 from the United States, after being forced to leave for refusing to serve in the US military during World War I. Several dozen colonies were established in Alberta and Manitoba during the following decades. According to the most recent estimates, there are 105 Hutterite communities remaining in Manitoba and the total number of members stands at an estimated 9,075 in this province. (1)  Colonies situated in Manitoba belong to the Schmiedeleut branch of Hutterites, while 98 in Alberta and 29 in Saskatchewan, as well as two in British Columbia, form part of the Dariusleut branch. (2)  A third branch, called the Lehrerleut, also has a fairly prominent presence in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as in a handful of Midwestern states. The James Valley colony, however, is considered to be one of the most successfully run, in terms of both its social and economic existence.

At the centre of Hutterite existence is communal living, which closely resembles the egalitarianism and sense of community that permeates life in Israel’s Kibbutzim, despite the very different religious and ideological differences that have led to the development of both types of colonies. (3)  Yet communal living within a larger society that increasingly embraces individualism has its challenges, as do occasional defections from these and the accessibility of unprecedented amounts of information through the Internet. Some scholars have argued that only Hutterites and the Kibbutzim have been successful in implementing and maintaining a communal existence and that their success can be attributed to the “cradle to grave” social and economic security that the community provides its members, the incorporation of modern technology despite the otherwise “traditional” lifestyle embraced by the Hutterites, the central role of the family as the smallest unit of the community and the effective instilment of a strong work ethic. (4)  In the case of the Hutterites, one would also have to add to these factors the control of information that enters and exits the community, which mostly involves limiting access to the Internet for members of the colony.

Occasionally, Hutterites would welcome people from the “outside” to observe life in their colony. Donald D. Huffman, a sociologist affiliated with Cedar Crest College in the United States, is among a small group of people who not only observed everyday life in a Hutterite community, but was also an active participant in it, after relocating to a colony in Minnesota during his Sabbatical, in order to conduct scholarly research. According to Huffman’s first-hand observations, genuine belief in the “community of goods” has always been the key element that created and maintained social cohesion in the colony. (5)

As our bus rolled out of Winnipeg, headed to James Valley, we caught a glimpse of Manitoba’s vast, prairie landscape. Even though it was still September, overnight frost had left its mark, with most trees already adorned in autumnal colours, summer flowers bitten by the cold, windy weather and yellowed leaves covering the ground. Upon arrival, we were greeted by John Hofer, one of the colony’s leaders, who gave us a guided tour of the community. In addition to showing us the community’s schoolhouse, church, main dining hall, kitchen and farming facilities, John provided us with some insightful information into the everyday functioning of the colony and its relationship with Elie, and outside society in general.

“Welcome to our beautiful world”—John said, smiling from ear to ear, as we stepped off the bus. The bespectacled young father serves as the community’s German and Bible teacher. As all other married men, John grows a beard and enjoys voting rights when it comes to any issue—great or seemingly small—that would impact the community’s life. This could mean anything from the acquisition of new farming equipment to a decision to divide the community down the middle in two parts and have one half relocate and settle elsewhere, as was done recently in James Valley. At the centre of Hutterian life is the concept that no one in the community can afford to remain idle, as a strong work ethic on the part of all members is the key to economic prosperity and social cohesion. As such, when a colony reaches a population of about 160 inhabitants, the situation becomes more difficult to manage and it is time to ask half the inhabitants to settle elsewhere.

As in the outside world, young Hutterite children start their education in kindergarten, where the focus is on teaching them how to play, interact and socialize with each other. Children are introduced to the colony’s communitarian values at a very young age and this outlook is reinforced in both elementary and high school. Local teachers from Elie and elsewhere in Manitoba who visit the colony, take part in the educational process, but John noted that it is ultimately in the community’s best interest to have Hutterites train as teachers in the outside world, in order to return and benefit the colony with their acquired skills and provincial certification. During our visit, young boys in suspenders, dark trousers and collar shirts, as well as girls in long skirts and with head coverings played together on swings outside the kindergarten, resembling children from the “outside” in all but their attire.

Despite the Hutterite colony’s traditional, communitarian lifestyle, tell-tale signs of the 21st century are everywhere. The main elementary classroom is equipped with several computer terminals, although none has internet access, in order to ensure that students are not tempted to visit websites that contravene the colony’s moral and religious values. The kitchen is equipped with the most up to date technology, and closely resembles what one would expect to find in the cafeteria of any major public institution. The colony’s farming equipment and their agricultural techniques are visibly up to par with Manitoban standards and great care is taken to ensure the health of the livestock—especially the pigs—in order to keep them disease free and maintain rigorous hygiene.

Everyone has a specific role in the community and most are assigned their duties at a young age. Members are given a symbolic, token ‘salary’ of $3 each month, but in reality cash plays a minimal role in the lives of most, as all food, clothing and other necessities are provided by the community. Most meals are served in a communal dining hall and all valuables are either shared, or divided equitably. This form of communitarian living is often referred to as the “community of goods,” and Hutterites believe that their way of life is a continuation of the authentic practices of the early Christian church. (6)

As can be expected, religion plays a very central role in the colony. As with other Anabaptists, Hutterites are baptized at a relatively late age. For most people, baptism occurs when they are between 21 and 25 years old. Marriage also tends to occur after a young Hutterite male has been baptized. While a young man is permitted to marry a girl from another colony, the approval of the community’s elders is generally required.

John also brought us into the community’s church--a small building with a very ascetic interior. When the discussion turned to morals and ethics, a number of us in the group became curious about how, or if, the colony controlled what people read, in order to ensure that no books or other publications deemed inappropriate or contrary to Hutterite values got into the hands of members. John noted that the only publications that were outright banned were “lustful magazines,” but that families were ultimately free to have in their homes any books or literature. As the community’s Bible teacher, however, John was keen to convince his students to avoid western, cowboy novels, which he felt usually involved recycled storylines and were a waste time. Instead, youngsters were encouraged to read works of non-fiction (with John specifically mentioning science books) as these served a ‘useful’ purpose and would expand one’s knowledge. Yet when it comes to reading, as well as to all other aspects of life in this Hutterite colony, the very nature of communal existence means that the inhabitants are always accountable to each other. While there may be no central authority to officially regulate books and literature, family, friends and neighbours surely play an informal regulatory role, as they persuade or dissuade others from specific activities.

Hutterites pray before each meal and also give thanks to God after consuming their food. At the end of our tour, we were invited to the colony’s dining hall and were provided with a simple lunch, comprised of homemade breads, jam, cheeses, fresh butter and coffee. Meanwhile, a group of women—all dressed in traditional Hutterite clothing—were busily preparing for dinner in the kitchen and some were engaged in storing preserves downstairs. As an indicator of self-sufficiency, entire rooms were lined with shelves holding hundreds of jars of pickled vegetables, compotes and fruits, all of which was from produce grown by the community. 

This relative self-sufficiency is one of the most concrete indications of the colony’s wish to live apart from the world, as well as limit and control contact with outside society. Since Hutterian existence is firmly based on adherence to a communal ideology that permeates all aspects of religious, social and economic life, the maintenance of clear boundaries and decreasing vulnerability to the encroachments of “modern,” mainstream Western society, is a matter of survival.  Yet breaking down stereotypes and preconceived notions that “outsiders” may have when they think of communal existence in “traditional” Anabaptist colonies as regressive and even oppressive is equally important for the Hutterites, in order to ensure that their way of life is both tolerated and respected by the majority population. Welcoming participants of an ethnicity and immigration conference to spend an afternoon in the colony was one way to build this trust with the outside.


1. CBC News Indepth: The Hutterites, CBC News, ( May 10, 2006. [Accessed on: October 6, 2007]
2. “Geographical Distribution,”, ( )
[Accessed on: October 6, 2007].
3.  Our Hutterite guide emphasized that he has been in contact with Kibbutzim, as representatives of these communities have looked to successful colonies like James Valley, in order to more effectively address challenges that face their communitarian existence. For a comparative study on collectivism between the Hutterites and the Kibbutzim, see: David Barkin, “Kibbutz and Colony: Collective Economies and the Outside World,” Society and History, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Sep., 1972), pp. 456-483.
4.  Pierre L. van den Berghe, “Hutterites and Kibbutzniks: A Tale of Nepotistic Communism,” Man, New Series, Vol. 23, No. 3. (Sep., 1988), 522.
5. Donald W. Huffman, “Life in a Hutterite Colony: An Outsider's Experience and Reflections on a Forgotten People in Our Midst,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 59, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), 553.
6. “Amish, Hutterites,” Global Mennonite Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online, Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, ( ) 1998.  [Accessed on: October 6, 2007].

Christopher Adam, "The Hutterites of James Valley." Kaleidoscope, Vol. 5, No. 6. Toronto. (Nov.-Dec. 2007), p. 27-29.