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Life Among The Bruderhof

Have you ever heard of the Bruderhof? It’s an international movement in the Anabaptist tradition. They are Christians who live in intentional communities — 23 of them, on four continents — and share their lives and resources in common. Here’s an FAQ about them. [1] And here is a more in-depth exploration of those things, in what could be titled the Rule of the Bruderhof.  [2] The movement was founded in 1920 in Germany, as a Christian response to the horrors of World War I and social injustice. They eventually had to leave Germany because of Nazi persecution.

Late last week, I visited two of their American settlements, Fox Hill [3] and The Mount [4], both not far from each other, in New York’s Hudson River Valley (see a list of all the US Bruderhof communities here [5].) The Bruderhof has been fully engaged with The Benedict Option [6]book (start here to see what they think of it [7]). After spending some time with them, it’s very easy to see why. The Bruderhof has been living their version of the Benedict Option for almost a century. These two communities are full of grace and hospitality. Before I say anything else, let me encourage you to check out this link telling you where all of the Bruderhof communities are worldwide.  [8] There’s nothing like a visit to meet them yourself. This short video gives you an idea of what to expect:

I stayed at Fox Hill, a community of large, multifamily houses and buildings, including a workshop, a primary school, and a chapel/meeting room, spread across rolling farmland. Shortly after arriving from NYC with others for a Ben Op conference there (all off the record, alas), we all gathered with the entire community for a welcome. They sang several hymns. What startled me, and delighted me, was the joyful force with which they sang. I’ve never heard anything like it in a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church. It was genuinely inspiring. As with so much I saw there, it’s not my tradition, and it’s not one I’m particularly drawn to, but it’s impossible not to admire the Bruderhof.

The Bruderhof folks live radically compared to other Christians. They really do hold all things in common, meaning that nobody receives a paycheck. That requires an unusual degree of trust, obviously, but you also get a lot in return. The community cares for you. They don’t let anybody suffer. They don’t warehouse their elderly in nursing homes, for example. To join the Bruderhof, you first have to live in a community for at least a year, in a novitiate — a time of testing to see if you can live by the rhythms and commitments of the community (monastic orders have this too). They want people to be sure that this life is for them. If, after the novitiate, an adult wants to join, he makes vows in front of the entire community. In general, they are vows of poverty, chastity (including fidelity in marriage), and obedience (here are the particular vows [9]). It would not be stretching it to call them lay monastics.

They have families, but children aren’t automatically members of the Bruderhof for life. They can go to college if they like, and many do, and they do not have to embrace Bruderhof life if they don’t feel a calling to it. I talked to one man who said that he had been raised in the Bruderhof, but left it for a while. After some time, feeling far away from his own, he sold all his possessions and bought a train ticket back to a Bruderhof settlement. Now, he’s happily married. “I still have my train ticket,” he told me, saying it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

I don’t think I had any particular expectations about what I would see at Fox Hill and The Mount, but I can tell you this: it’s not like M. Night Shymalan’s The Village. You may laugh at that, but I swear, so many people seem to think that if you live in any kind of Christian community that separates itself to a meaningful degree from the world, you’re bound to turn into a freakfest. The Bruderhof people are so blessedly normal. If anybody finds them freaky, that is a judgment on that person, not on these Anabaptists. If what they have is freaky, then the world needs a lot more freaks.

The most amazing thing to an outsider’s eyes — well, this outsider’s eyes — are the Bruderhof’s kids. None of them walk around with their eyes glued to screens. They don’t have that shifty, unsettled look that so many kids do. They look grounded and happy. They actually play outside, and do chores, and talk to each other. Every single one of these kids I talked to spoke to me politely and with confidence, even though I was a stranger to them. They seem so mature and grounded. That’s the thing that has lingered on my mind since coming home: the witness of the Bruderhof children. Everybody wants to have boys and girls who are like that, but so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices that those parents do to raise them.

Someone in the community there told me that the Fox Hill Bruderhof used to send its teenagers to the local public high school, but they had to pull them out because the moral effects on their kids was destructive. In 2012, the movement bought a massive seminary built in 1907 on the banks of the Hudson by the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests. By the time the Bruderhof entered the picture, the building was in bad shape, and was home to only four elderly Redemptorists. The Anabaptists bought it and renovated it as both a high school for their community (and some kids outside the community), and as living quarters for a large number of families. It’s called The Mount [4], and I visited it.

Here’s a photo I took of the building:

It’s enormous! It stopped me in my tracks to imagine that there was a time in US Catholic history when a religious order felt confident enough in its future to erect a building longer than a football field, to educate its priests. And now it is home to a colony of Anabaptists, of all people! You just don’t know the way history is going to flow, do you? The Bruderhof folks have been respectful of The Mount’s Catholic heritage, and have left its chapel largely intact. It struck me that it’s a great blessing that this building, which was erected to form missionaries for the Gospel, was not sold to some hotel chain, but is forming new — and very different — missionaries for the Gospel.

I had dinner with a Mount family, and we talked about what the Bruderhof has to offer the rest of the Christian world in the Benedict Option. “If you write about us,” said my host, “please write that we don’t seek imitation, but rather are trying to be an inspiration.” He explained that theirs is just one way to live out the Gospel in a radical way. If they have something to offer others, then they’re happy to share freely. They are seeking to get to know believers from other traditions, to share friendship, and to figure out if it’s possible for us to support each other?

What do I think the Bruderhof have to offer the rest of us?

First, the idea that this kind of life is possible, even today. They do live separate lives, but they aren’t strict separatists. For example, they invite their neighbors outside the community to come over for a common meal on Saturday nights. The members all work in the community, but they do go out into the world. Again, they sent their kids to the public high school, until they concluded that the moral culture had degraded so much that it was too risky to subject their kids to it. They didn’t have an objection in principle to public school, but when it reached the point of interfering with the life they believe God has called them to live, they pulled out, and started figuring out how to do something better. All Christians can admire the sacrifices they were willing to make for their kids.

Second, the example of their children. I had just spent a good part of the week talking to different people out in the world about how damaged kids today are by constant exposure to electronic media, as well as by the deforming aspects of popular culture. These kids are the polar opposite from that!  They are wholesome, because they were raised by a community that was determined to raise them in a wholesome environment. You can tell it. Boy, can you ever. I was up for 6:30 am breakfast on Saturday, after which I had to go to LaGuardia for the flight home. It was 15 degrees outside. The oldest boy in the family finished breakfast and went to join other boys in cleaning the community’s cars — on this cold, cold morning. The other kids prepared for their Saturday chores (e.g., the girls were going to be helping their mother clean the house). I heard not a single complaint, or the least bit of whining. They just … did it, and did it not out of fear or anything like that, but because, well, that’s just what you do at the Bruderhof to make our community work.

Again: if this is freaky, the world needs a lot more freaky.

Third, confident outreach to other Christians. They can do this because they know who they are and what they believe — and they’re not mad about it. Nobody tried to talk me into becoming an Anabaptist. The only conversations I had were along the lines of, “Now, tell me what you Orthodox do when you worship?” and “How can we be your friends and your servants?” Just straightforward, plain dealing, in charity and a spirit of service. We need more of that.

Fourth, the value of simplicity. Anabaptists are very, very simple in their piety and worship. They don’t really have a liturgy. As an Orthodox Christian, I am their polar opposite when it comes to liturgy and ecclesiology, but I’ll say this for them: these are not people who are given over to innovation and trendiness in worship. Even though I was there for only a short time, I could discern how the Bruderhof weaves worship into all of life, and thus makes their entire existence a simple but effective liturgy of life.

Fifth, demolishing the concept of compartmentalization. For the Bruderhof, there is no separation between religion and life. You live your faith wholly, not just on Sundays. It’s supposed to be like that for all of us believers, but we so often fail at it. The Bruderhof has created social structures, customs, and institutions that make this easier to do.

It’s not hard to find material online criticizing the Bruderhof, written by ex-members. I wouldn’t claim that they are perfect, ever, and certainly wouldn’t make that claim after a very short visit. But I came away from my visit there inspired, not only by the Bruderhof itself, but by the possibilities of life and ecumenical cooperation in the Benedict Option. 

One last image: as I was touring the primary school on Friday morning, I poked my head into the room where toddlers are watched. I saw a little boy sprawled out on the lap of a Bruderhof woman, who cradled him in her arms.

“Oh, that beautiful child,” I said. “He’s sleeping.”

“No,” said my guide. “He has cerebral palsy.”

That child abides in the cradle of a community that loves him and his parents. That child abides in grace and light.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Life Among The Bruderhof"

#1 Comment By mrscracker On March 21, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

JonF,
No, I realize that there are situations where professional skills may be needed to care for elderly or disabled family members. But nursing homes shouldn’t be the norm. I used to visit a couple ladies in our parish who’d ended in very dismal nursing homes and could easily been cared for at home had their families wanted to. One lady had either 10 or 12 children and spent her whole day in bed offering up rosaries for them and others. You would like to think that out of a dozen children, one might have had room for her.
The other lady just had enough arthritis to not be able to turn the knobs on her stove, etc. The nursing home she lived in had staff that beat up residents in the shower if they reported thefts. She had a wealthy brother who’d call her from the airport when he was in town but wouldn’t bother to visit.
It was an experience I won’t forget.

#2 Comment By Eric Korn On March 21, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

I wonder if the Ave Maria, Florida community has any similarities to what the Bruderhof’s are doing in terms of raising children according to a unified vision. Ave Maria is a somewhat isolated Catholic community outside of Naples (only 9 years old) and I would think that the Catholic population has to be over 90%. I have no idea if there is any intentional or unintentional application of the BO in Ave Maria.

#3 Comment By Mia On March 21, 2017 @ 8:21 pm

“A lot of Christians adhere to the rules of sexual morality, but are overly concerned with money, with accumulating wealth. The “Prosperity Gospel” is a perversion of real Christianity.”

There are a few problems with this statement. One is that the world unfortunately runs on money. Just try living without any. Have you ever been homeless? Maybe a few centuries ago when more of the world was at least interested in Christian living, you could maybe trust the secular world to give alms and not take advantage. In the modern world, you might find yourself shoved into a brothel or taken advantage in other ways by everyone around. Poverty is a very scary thing modern America, especially if you are a woman. Certainly, I have heard conservatives who think poverty is some sort of proof of moral fault anyway.

But as for formal teaching, even the Catholic Church was not greatly enthusiastic about Francis of Assisi’s extreme form of poverty, and there had to be limits on how many people could live holy poverty because someone still had to support them! So we’re still back to the reality that someone, somewhere needs money and the ugly truth of the old saying that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Do you think it’s an accident that so many of the people pushing the new revolution against conservative positions are millionaires? How will you fight them if you have no money? They’ll eat your lunch and throw you to the dogs if you don’t have some sort of resources. Plus, a lot of Old Testament figures were quite rich, and they also needed it since many of them were surrounded by pagan nations. Context is everything, and we aren’t living in heaven yet where we don’t have any earthly needs.

#4 Comment By M.V Clarke On March 22, 2017 @ 1:32 am

I have read ex members concerns and with similar communities if you question the regulations, vows or rules you can find yourself on the outside looking in. Some people have been separated from family and that’s a huge concern as it’s a hallmark of a cult. All cults focus on separating family members who leave from those who stay. Overall it seems a healthy, contended lifestyle.

#5 Comment By M_Young On March 22, 2017 @ 11:16 am

“Hmmm…. Wouldn’t this style of living be the specific definition of Socialism?”

As HBDers have been saying for years, socialism works pretty well in ethnically homogenous societies. This fact is not lost on the more radical libertarians, some (e.g. Jeffrey Tucker) cheer the fact that immigration is breaking the welfare state in Sweden and like places.

And yes, these ‘Anabapists’ are an ethno-religious group — and a lovely one at that, can’t see why Hitler would persecute them.

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 22, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

And yes, these ‘Anabapists’ are an ethno-religious group — and a lovely one at that, can’t see why Hitler would persecute them.

Well M_Young, that just goes to show that there are real differences between your thinking and Adolf Hitler’s. I mean that as a sincere compliment.

Hitler persecuted them because they would not cater to the unity of the German Aryan state, because they were pacifist and he was gearing up for a gotterdammerung, and because they declined to be anti-Semitic, among other things.

#7 Comment By JonF On March 22, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

Mia,
Poverty may be a scary thing (though scarier than a century ago when the safety net was non-existent and people still abandoned unwanted infants? I don’t think so), but that does not make the Prosperity Gospel, by which God rewards the faithful with material riches, any less heretical.

Re: Do you think it’s an accident that so many of the people pushing the new revolution against conservative positions are millionaires?

Huh? Certainly there are exceptions, but from what I can see, Conservatism (TM) is very much the lapdog of the 1% types– notably but not limited to the guy in the White House.

Re: Plus, a lot of Old Testament figures were quite rich, and they also needed it since many of them were surrounded by pagan nations.

Not sure who you are referring to specifically, but even “good” kings like Solomon are morally fraught figures in Scriptures. And bad kings like Ahab and Manasseh– or, later, Herod– are presented as thoroughly detestable figures. (I am having trouble thinking of anyone in the OT who rich but not royal. Maybe Job, before and after his Time of Troubles, qualifies?)

#8 Comment By JonF On March 22, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

Re: I wonder if the Ave Maria, Florida community has any similarities to what the Bruderhof’s are doing in terms of raising children according to a unified vision.

What what I have read Ave Maria had (has?) lots of problems with its über-rich founder meddling in its affairs. The community as such has also taken on one of the worser aspects of the medieval Catholic world: a powerful lord giving orders.

#9 Comment By Macaire Osmont On April 9, 2017 @ 10:23 pm

I am a Catholic, which is one of the reasons I hesitate to join a community like the Bruderhof. However, I don’t believe there is any Catholic community like it, except maybe for monastic and religious orders. I have been to Ave Maria (Naples area, FL), but it’s different: There is no shared wealth. It is rather upscale and amenity-oriented. I have also looked into the Focolare Movement, based in the USA at Mariapolis Luminosa in Hyde Park, NY. Seemed rather vague and lacking in true community. I have yet to find anything that compares to the Bruderhof. All that said, could I really leave “father, mother, sister , brother, (grown children)” for the sake of the faith, of really living out that faith? Not sure, but I am very attracted. Please pray for me.

#10 Comment By Brudertology Critic On May 17, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

Although at first glance a Bruderhof community seems to fulfill the dream of a dedicated Christian life, many sad stories exist of emotional abuse of their young people, and a totalitarian rigidity to the leadership. For those looking for more than the Bruderhof’s excellent PR, I would recommend both the Facebook ‘Afterhof’ page and the articles at [10]
Parallels can be drawn between them and such high-control cults as Scientology.

#11 Comment By Ruth Baer Lambach On May 17, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

I left the New Meadow Run (formerly called Oaklake) Bruderhof at age 16. Before I was taken to Pittsburgh, dropped off on the street by two members of the commune, I was isolated in a third floor locked room for a couple days during which I was to make up my mind about whether I would go live with another family on the compound or go out into the world. Having been raised Hutterite, I could not imagine living on the compound without my family. I opted to leave, given $20 and until a year later, lived like a zombie in Pittsburgh. My family, unbeknowns to me as I did not communicate either by letter or phone, left the next day for the world and my father, having searched for utopian Christian community all of my life up to this point, never looked back but took his incredible energy and entrepreneurial skills to making a living “on the outside” for his fourteen children. I am the oldest of this tribe. I am left with an unusual capacity to go inside and operate in dangerous places like a zombie. This is sometimes a valuable skill.

#12 Comment By Ruth Baer Lambach On May 17, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

I have great memories of my childhood among Hutterites and of my teenage years, a couple of them, as a novice in the Bruderhof. In my opinion, it ought to be compulsory for the children from the Bruderhof to attend public high schools. This is a vital time of life during which people seriously consider and are alert to various ways of getting ready for their future. Why not subject people during this ‘heightened awareness’ time to the world so they can really experience both cultures – the one they are rooted and protected in as well as the one that could be open to them if they so choose. To demonize the world is wrong. To prohibit and protect people from experiencing the world is wrong. It cripples the individual. I have survived in the world but I have not been prepared for it. By going to public high school and interchanging with peers, I could have been better prepared. I graduated from high school at 15 and had two years total in high school. The rest was correspondence. There is much to be learned from engaging with people from radically different cultural and religious persuasions. It causes you to think and ask questions. By keeping students isolated for so long, they can probably barely really consider any other way of life than the one they were raised in. Saying that they have the ‘freedom to choose’ is technically not true. Among Anabaptists each person has to be baptized before they get married. Imagine the motivation if a young person is madly in love with another but they can do nothing about it until they are baptized.