Getting away from 'the world' Hutterite-style

Hutterite girls

North America is home to many religious communities, one of which - the Hutterites - believe that living communally and separately from what they refer to as "the world" will secure them a place in heaven. A film crew was allowed to observe them at close quarters for four months.

Imagine living your whole life with the same 100 people.

Mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents, distant relatives.

That is what life is like for the Hutterite community in Maple Grove, Canada, on the remote prairies of Manitoba province.

There are 500 similar "colonies" across Canada and in the American states of North and South Dakota, home to a total of 50,000 Hutterites.

Hutterites are an Anabaptist sect, founded by Austrian preacher Jakob Hutter, in the 16th Century. They fled to North America in the 19th Century to avoid persecution, but many Hutterites still speak with a heavy German accent and they mostly talk and pray in a German dialect.

"We want to avoid temptation and everything like that... What the eyes see and what the flesh wants, that is what we want to avoid," says the minister at Maple Grove, Zach Waldner.

The Hutterites offer a "cradle to grave" community, centred around worship of God and helping their family and neighbours

"If you see it then you will probably be lost forever, just like it happened with our first parents Adam and Eve. They looked too much, they saw it was nice and it looked good, but it was their downfall."

Their life is built around the Bible and their community ethic is very much one of "love thy neighbour".

Everything from food, clothes, spectacles and other accessories are provided by the community and in return the menfolk are expected to offer their labour to build homes and do other work required in the colony.

But not all Hutterites can cope with such an insular and claustrophobic life.

Film-maker Lynne Alleway followed Mr Waldner's nephew, Kelly Hofer, 19, as he prepared to "run away" from a colony called Green Acres to a new life in the big city.

"In a Hutterite colony being an individual, a 'me' or an 'I', is very difficult. Everyone is encouraged to have their interests, but it is also encouraged as being for the greater good, and not for ourselves," Kelly says.

Hutterite rules

Portrait of a family
  • Land and property are owned by the community - Hutterites receive no pay for their labour
  • Hutterites have embraced technology and use tractors to tend the land and computers to conduct business with the outside world
  • Day-to-day decisions are made by "the elders" while bigger, long-term decisions are made by all the men of the community (no women)
  • Women cook, clean, sew and care for children while men work on the farm and in workshops
  • Hutterites who leave can only return to visit their families with the permission of the elders

For Kelly, aspiring to a career as a photographer, this was a problem.

"People see photography as something self-centred or individualistic. They see photography as non-essential, non-useful, irrelevant to our daily life."

One of the Hutterite rules is that a member must ask the permission of an elder to step outside the community, so most of those who leave do so in the middle of the night, leaving only a note behind.

"Every year around 10% of Hutterites leave," says Alleway. "It is described as 'running away' and they talk about it quite openly."

Kelly has now set himself up as a photographer in Calgary, Alberta.

Unlike the Amish, another Anabaptist denomination in the US and Canada with whom they have much in common, the Hutterites "selectively embrace technology" Alleway says.

Start Quote

Obviously it is a very limited gene pool”

End Quote Lynne Alleway Film-maker

They use tractors to farm the land and computers to conduct business with the outside world - while the Amish have been prosecuted for eschewing even smoke alarms.

"What intrigued me was that they are a group of people who have separated themselves from the world. They have removed themselves from what they describe as the evil forces of the world," says Alleway.

Although they may be old-fashioned and dogmatic - women play a very traditional role as child-rearers, cooks and cleaners and the major decisions about the running of the colony are taken by elders, who are all male - Alleway came away impressed by their sense of community.

"Old people, for example, don't get put in old people's homes. They are looked after by their families. They live a very communal life and they have retained something that we have lost in the outside world," she says.

Kelly Hofer's pictures of Hutterite life

In today's world, buffeted by the economy and the threat of redundancy and homelessness, this "cradle to grave" culture may seem attractive she says.

But isolation has its downsides.

"Obviously it is a very limited gene pool," says Alleway. "To find a spouse they have to go to another Hutterite community. It is always the women who move away to live with their husbands and their families."

How to get to Heaven with the Hutterites, is broadcast on BBC2 at 21:00 GMT on 7 March.

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.