A Good Idea Unbalanced
By Other Good Ideas

 Copyright 2004 © Barnabas D. Johnson

Prepared for presentation by Ruth Lambach at the 31st annual conference of the Communal Studies Association, held at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 30 to October 2, 2004[1] 

See, generally, Framustans, regarding the unarticulated, unenumerated, and (arguably) unarticulable major premises of global constitutional jurisprudence.


 The Bruderhof, a “utopian society” founded in 1920, asserts that it is governed by a no-gossip rule which it calls (in English) “the First Law of Sannerz.” In the original German, it was titled “Law of Sannerz — Open Word of Love.”[2] Note, however, that it was (and remains) the first and only such law.

The following English translation of the German text (plus accompanying material in italics) was obtained off the Bruderhof’s website:

Written by Eberhard Arnold five years after the founding of the Bruderhof, in 1925, our only written rule has proved easier to post than to practice. Yet without it, our movement would have collapsed long ago. For as Arnold writes, without openness and honesty there can be no loyalty, and thus no real community.


There is no law but love. Love is joy in others. What, then, is anger at them? Words of love convey the joy we have in the presence of our brothers and sister. It is out of the question to speak about another person in a spirit of irritation or vexation.


There must never be talk, either in open remarks or by insinuation, against any brother or sister, or against their individual characteristics — and under no circumstances behind their back. Gossiping in one’s family is no exception. Without this rule of silence there can be no loyalty and hence no community. Direct address is the only way possible. It is a service we owe anyone whose weaknesses cause a negative reaction in us.


An honest word spoken openly and directly deepens friendship and will not be resented. Only when two people do not come to an agreement quickly is it necessary to draw in a third person whom both of them trust. In this way they can be led to a solution that unites them in the highest and deepest levels.


Hang this reminder at your place of work, where it will always be before your eyes. EA, 1925


I was born in the Bruderhof, but was expelled at age 14 in 1958. Ex-members[3] of my generation recall that this no-gossip rule was something we “children of the Bruderhof”[4] absorbed by osmosis, as part of our general acculturation. We never saw the text, as such, during our upbringing. However, some of us, myself included, vaguely recall learning that our no-gossip rule had a name, “the First Law of Sannerz”; others do not recall this. Perhaps different hofs varied slightly on how this law was inculcated. Following the “Great Crisis” of 1959-61,[5] during which over a third[6] of the Bruderhof (adults and children) were expelled, this rule became text-dependent. I recall seeing it — as presented above — prominently displayed during my visit to a Bruderhof in Connecticut around 1968. I also recall being surprised at how much the Bruderhof had changed. Most significant, it now had an “Elder” — a term I’d never known as a lad. This leader, the founder’s second son, who died in 1982, is now venerated by the Bruderhof in ways that many ex-members consider historically inappropriate and utterly insulting to the victims of his zeal.

By most reliable accounts, this leader precipitated the Great Crisis in a power struggle with his siblings and in-laws, and most of those who were expelled as a consequence have never come to terms with his (in their view) brutal indifference to the suffering that he and his henchmen[7] caused. He always struck me as being power-hungry, spiritually-overwrought, and in delicate mental health.[8] The “youth sub-culture” I grew up with — especially young men — feared his explosive temper. My contemporaries and I witnessed incidents when he was frothing at the mouth with fury. Regrettably, we were often unkind to his son, whom we called Tehdel  (Tadpole) and considered a tattle-tale and mildly retarded. We never thought he would amount to much. I shall discuss these two men further in due course.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s my interest in this communal experiment was primarily scholarly, stemming from my comparative-law research on systems of governance, both primitive and advanced. My interest in the Bruderhof’s no-gossip rule was triggered by my study of cybernetics[9] — a theory regarding “self-corrective processes” undergirding the governance of mechanical, biological, intellectual, and societal systems. I was particularly impressed by Gregory Bateson’s book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), which examined problems associated with clogged or tangled “feedback processes” — including individual and social pathologies of a kind which, I then suspected and am now convinced, bedevil the Bruderhof. In pondering all this, I came to believe that the First Law of Sannerz — as interpreted and applied — propped up a flawed system of governance by insulating leaders from accurate membership feedback and protecting them from organized membership opposition. In short, this rule — which on its face seems benign, indeed commendable — supported an increasingly unaccountable leadership which, starting in the late 1950s, was becoming what many ex-members believe it has now become: an abusive dictatorship.

During my childhood, I learned that our no-gossip rule meant the following: If I had a criticism of somebody, I should bring the matter to that person’s attention, one-on-one, rather than discussing it with others. Discussing problems “behind the back” of the person(s) one was criticizing was considered highly improper. Only when “direct address” failed was it proper (indeed necessary) for the disputants to bring in a “third party” to help resolve matters.[10]

The main problem with this rule is that it is the “First Law” … yet there is no Second, let alone Third, thereby allowing a harmonic convergence of “balanced rules” which recognize that sometimes it is good, indeed essential, for members to pool their observations and insights[11] — to “gossip” — especially about their leaders: to determine whether, and if so when and how, to speak truth to power, powerfully, and thereby to confront arrogant and erring leaders effectively.

As one of my childhood friends put it succinctly during a 1991 conference of ex-members: “We think about others behind their backs, so why can’t we think together about others behind their backs?” This is the crux of the matter. And, in my view, it goes very deep, implicating the essence of what it means to be Homo sapiens, fully human: a being who generates and shares information and wisdom and meaningful options, etc., thereby converting wisdom and choice into will and action in healthy colleagueship — dare I say “community”? — with others. A community without such wisdom-pooling colleagueship is a bird caught in a crazy-mirror vacuum-chamber: it cannot fly, and it would not know where to go if it could.

The “gossip” (godsyb) was in ancient times a “god-relative” who bore a special responsibility towards his or her “syb“; this responsibility was apparently taken on voluntarily, gossips being “sponsors” and helpers … as needed. Apparently, unlike god-parents, god-siblings were drawn from ones age group and gender; they were sand-pit play-mates; they were best buddies, true friends (friends in need, the best indeed). Thus, if the village was awakened night after night because Joseph and Mary were screaming at each other, their friends and neighbors and gossips would naturally discuss this troubling fact, trying to figure out whether, and if so when and how, to help Joseph and Mary resolve their problems and thereby restore the peace of the night.

True, Henry might (without consulting others) call Joseph aside for a little chat, one-on-one, and that course (a) might be good, and (b) would accord with the Bruderhof’s First Law. But, on the other hand, Henry and Tom might discuss the problem together first, and then discuss it with their wives, and then ask James and his sister for their input, before all decide to invite Mary and Joseph over for beer and a neighborly talk tonight, and (arguably, given the value of neighborly consultations, otherwise called “gossip”) that course (a) might be even better, but  (b) would violate the Bruderhof’s First Law. Life is complicated, human relationships are deeply textured, and “talking behind the back” can constitute a conspiracy against  but can also constitute a cooperation for … in this case, for the health of the village, which depends on Joseph and Mary to pull their weight, etc., and also depends on everybody getting a good night’s rest. 

Put differently, there is good gossip and bad gossip, just as there is good cooperation and bad cooperation. Wisdom lies in balanced judgment, in the wise equipoise of “love” and “law” and other precious values. In the Bruderhof, however, “love” and “law” are seen as Manichean opposites: never the twain shall meet, let alone intertwine. As a consequence, the “loving way” is decreed by a leader who is not bounded by the “lawful way”; he is theologically and factually unaccountable (except to “God” as he interprets same), and this leader can therefore dispense unequal justice, unchecked whim, and sheer favoritism, as the spirit (he would say “Spirit”) moves him. This is dysfunctional. 

The Elder is apparently empowered to expel any member for good cause, bad cause, or no cause.[12] As members have no private property, no savings, no resumes, no references, and often no knowledge of the “outside world” (as members call it), they are reluctant to criticize the Elder one-on-one because, face it, he always wins such face-offs. Yet if two or three gather together to discuss their errant Elder, and then perhaps discuss and strategize with another ten or even hundreds before confronting the Maximum Leader, what can happen? He can cut off the first speaker in mid-sentence and toss him out for having violated the First Law! There is no Second Law. Is there a second speaker? 

As noted, as a lad I never saw a formal text associated with “the First Law of Sannerz”; children learned this no-gossip rule by osmosis until around 1960. Indeed, an ex-member (recently deceased) who was once a “Servant of the Word” or minister, was adamant that he had never even heard the term “Law of Sannerz” (or “First Law of Sannerz”) until after the Great Crisis. I find this claim hard to believe, as his wife was a Bruderhof child in the late 1920s when this no-gossip rule was almost certainly known — and named — and displayed (in German). But the fact that I cannot find this claim impossible to believe speaks volumes: the First Law clearly took on a new significance — becoming almost the Eleventh Commandment — following the Great Crisis. As we shall see, whether or not the First Law was born  out of the first crisis of 1922, it most certainly was elevated out of the Great Crisis of 1959-61, and (many ex-members believe) the First Law’s implementation since then has been focused on averting crises or, more precisely, protecting the dictatorship from successful challenges.[13]

When I visited a Bruderhof in Pennsylvania for several weeks in 1973, my main purpose was to probe Bruderhof governance. By then I had read everything I could find by and about the Bruderhof, and I was therefore not surprised to see the First Law displayed in living rooms and work places throughout the hof. And I knew this accorded with the explicit instructions of the founder, Eberhard Arnold (hereinafter, “Eberhard”). The fact that during my childhood I had only learned this rule by osmosis was offered by members in 1973 as evidence that the Bruderhof I had grown up in had degenerated following Eberhard’s death in 1935. Indeed, I was told, the Great Crisis — which I had long considered a calamity — was in fact a “rebirth” during which the founder’s second son, Heini,[14] had wrestled the community back to its original, Christ-centered foundations.

Everybody seems to agree that Heini brought about major changes, starting around 1956-57, which precipitated (a) many expulsions or departures, (b) closing of all Paraguayan hofs and the main British hof, (c) major leadership upheavals, (d) elevation of the First Law of Sannerz, explicitly thus named, to its current textual (as distinct from “osmosis”) form, and (e) elevation of Heini to the new position of Elder. Members and ex-members disagree, naturally, as to whether these changes were good. Members’ adulation for their beloved “Opa Heini” balance evenly, it appears, with ex-members’ bafflement that “history” seems thus far to be getting things so absurdly wrong. To ex-members, Bruderhof “histories” are insulting idealizations — hagiographies — that raise up Heini by trampling upon his victims.[15] 

Such ex-member bafflement pales, however, in comparison to the bemused amazement many express that Heini’s son Christoph, who replaced his father as Elder following Heini’s death in 1982, seems to have become something of a hot item, having apparently written numerous books — one of which is reportedly referenced favorably in President Clinton’s autobiography. Christoph’s ex-member contemporaries (myself included) have long felt confident in predicting that Christoph would make an awful mess of things; indeed, we think he has; but, to date, on member-waxed wings, he rises undaunted by our doubts, flying ever higher, ever more spectacularly, now as “Senior Pastor” (another term we never knew in the Bruderhof of long ago). 

So, how does all this relate to the First Law of Sannerz?

About a decade ago, another of Eberhard’s grandsons, now an ex-member, suggested a very different purpose undergirding the First Law and Heini’s elevation of it. According to this account, the Bruderhof, which started in Germany in a rented “guest-house” called Sannerz[16] in 1920, experienced its first crisis in 1922 when participants rebelled against Eberhard while he and his wife were vacationing in Holland.[17] He returned, a showdown ensued, the “plotters” departed, and only a small core of mostly Eberhard’s immediate family remained. According to this account, the First Law was the founder’s means of ensuring against any repetition of such “disloyalty” by forbidding others from discussing him and his leadership behind his back. That is, the First Law was (according to this grandson) intended  to protect Eberhard from members’ pooling of information, sharing of insights, comparing of grievances, and strategizing on remedies. This interpretation is arguably buttressed by the (otherwise somewhat obscure) phrase in the First Law: “Without this rule of silence there can be no loyalty and thus no community.”  

Now, upon examining this matter, I have come (on balance) to doubt this grandson’s explanation. I do not believe, all things considered, that this was the First Law’s original purpose. Yet I have become convinced that this was its result — and possibly, indeed quite probably, was also Heini’s purpose in “resurrecting” and elevating the First Law as part of his 1961-63 effort to consolidate his power after he had wrested control of the Bruderhof from his brothers, his brothers-in-law, and other Bruderhof leaders, including those non-Germans who in the 1930s were instrumental in “rescuing” the German members and helping them relocate first to England and then, after World War II started, to Paraguay.

This view of matters will doubtless be contested by the Bruderhof, for which Eberhard and Heini and Christoph have attained saintly, even semi-divine, status. So be it. Past is prologue. Bruderhof members are indeed “loyal” to a fault. Their loyalty to their trinity has trumped their capacity for loyalty to that “true openness” which “true community” implies. In this connection, I recall the name their First Law first had: “Law of Sannerz — Open Word of Love.” The Bruderhof’s interpretation of this “law” has contributed mightily, I believe, to creation of a closed society in which an “open word” — indeed, a simple friendship[18] — among ordinary members is often dangerous. Arguably, however, the Bruderhof is correct in asserting, in its preface to the First Law (as interpreted and enforced by its leaders), that “without it, our movement would have collapsed long ago.” The question asks itself: Would the “collapse” of this dysfunctional society be a bad thing?

I have devoted my professional life to understanding and advancing Open Society values, including freedom of expression and association, periodic elections for choosing accountable governments, and equal justice under history-illuminated law. Working for the past 15 years on law reform and legal-education reform in the former Soviet Union, I have come to treasure the lessons of history — true history, warts and all, told with fidelity. I shall leave hagiography to others. It is worthless for purposes of building healthy, accountable governments that cultivate and harvest “self-wisdom” — the good, the bad, the ugly, the true, and hence also the transforming.

As modern Russia shows, merely turning away from something bad is not enough; there has to be something better to turn towards. And that is complicated because “the good society” is less a noun than a verb. It is not a “plateau of perfection” ever reached, it is a process of reaching, of becoming, of coevolving. It is — to the extent that words can suffice — a constitutional democracy, a learning organism, an activity, a gerund.  


Balancing majority rule with minority rights, balancing individual opportunity with equal justice, balancing, ever balancing … it seems to me that an evolution-affirming good society “reveals itself best” as it becomes a self-rediscovering, self-governing experiment in which ordinary people — no less than extraordinary people — can speak truth to power, powerfully.

A true utopia is never finished, is always young. It is interesting, filled with good gossip. It is not what the Bruderhof has become. The Bruderhof I grew up in might have had the potential of becoming truly interesting. Now it is merely a boring example of a good idea unbalanced by other good ideas. That is a terrible idea!

The worst enemy of democracy is a lousy “conception” of it which, when tried, fails, thereby causing people to give up on “democracy” without having ever tried a competent conception of it. The same might be said of any “utopian society” conception.

To those who would improve our world, I would propose that you balance “love” with “law” — focused on doing justice, focused on enhancing Open Society values, and focused on learning from history … told with unvarnished fidelity.


[1] This essay was prepared for presentation by Ruth Lambach at the 31st annual conference of the Communal Studies Association, held at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, September 30 to October 2, 2004.

The title of that presentation was: “‘Healthy Gossip’ and Democratic Governance.” I have made changes since, namely, I have added internal hotlinks and have extended several footnotes.

I have written extensively about the Bruderhof over the years, and plan to write more. The Bruderhof has sued several critics, thereby silencing many more. As a lawyer, I have been involved (mostly behind the scenes) in defending against suits and threats that I am convinced have been without just cause. The ever-present threats and retaliations have had a chilling effect on critics and potential critics, and I am not immune from fear in this regard.


2008 Note: My 1992 essay honoring Miriam Brailey’s courageous stand against Bruderhof despotism is available here. (Go back)

[2] In German, Gesetz von Sannerz — Offenes Wort der Liebe. I think the English translation of this document is faithful to the original German.

[3] By “ex-members” I refer to those who left after becoming full, baptized members, as well as to those who grew up as “children of the Bruderhof” — whether or not they underwent baptism prior to their departure. Almost all such ex-members were expelled, essentially penniless, following many years (often their entire lives) within Bruderhofs in Germany, England, Paraguay, the United States, and elsewhere. In my case, I was born in the Primavera Bruderhof in Paraguay in 1943, lived during 1947-55 in the Wheathill Bruderhof in England, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1955, where I lived on three U.S. “hofs” before my expulsion. My parents and siblings were expelled in 1961. Following my father’s death in 1979, my mother eventually returned to the Bruderhof (Darvell, England) where she spent her final five years until her death in 1991. My only close relative in the Bruderhof is my mother’s twin sister, now 91 years old. [2006 Note: She died on April 21, 2006, aged 93.] Most ex-members have relatives in various hofs. Ex-members are often reluctant to criticize the Bruderhof, partly because they do not want to lose contact with family members who are in the Bruderhof. For example, some ex-members have had no contact with aged parents for many years. Also, in 1997 the Bruderhof brought a $15 million defamation suit against critics (ordinary members remain unaware of this fact, apparently); as a lawyer, I helped to formulate the defense; the suit was later dropped. Many ex-members fear the Bruderhof’s vengeance. This is a huge subject which this essay can only touch upon.

[4] Several ex-members were sued a decade ago by the Bruderhof for calling their support-group “Children of the Bruderhof”; the upshot was a consent decree in which they agreed not to use this name. I am not bound by that decree. Indeed, I tend to doubt it could withstand an attack based on constitutional grounds. In any event, however, I here use the phrase “children of the Bruderhof” merely as a descriptive one, denoting “ex-members” (see Footnote 3) who grew up on various hofs of the Bruderhof.

[5] There is much difficulty dating this crisis. It is fair to say that from around 1956 to around 1963 the Bruderhof underwent fundamental changes, and that these were concentrated around 1959-61. The leader who initiated these changes became “Elder” in 1962, I’m told. Prior to this, the office of Elder did not exist.

[6] By some accounts, more than a third were expelled. Thus, Roger Allain, in his book, The Community That Failed (1992), asserted: “Eleven Bruderhof communities, counting over fifteen hundred people in five different countries, were reduced to three with five or six hundred people living in a pietistic ivory tower in the U.S.” (at p. 322).

[7] In the late 1980s, the chief henchman (by his own account) wept bitterly as he begged my forgiveness for his abusive treatment of my family during 1959-61, but he insisted that his venerated Elder (as he would later be called) was blameless during the Great Crisis. The Bruderhof’s own “official history” keeps changing, but at various times it has taught that this man did not venerate that leader and, starting around 1959, was “using” him to oust inner-circle rivals. In any event, in the late 1980s I told this disgraced henchman that my focus was on a system of governance that drove top leaders insane by depriving them of anything but yes-man sycophancy. He disagreed, saying that he personally was to blame for those Great-Crisis excesses, not his beloved leader. I never saw a man more convinced of his own evil. His conduct during the Great Crisis was indeed evil. But in my considered opinion his worst offence was that, until he tried to overthrow this leader some years later, he was seen by others, including that leader, as a loyal yes-man and (in a manner of speaking) hatchet-man. That leader would never have been crowned Elder in 1962 if he had not surrounded himself by such first-tier sycophants and emissaries. [Since this paper was delivered in 2004, I have seen much startling evidence that the Bruderhof’s “official history” is once again undergoing a re-writing, sliding ever further from truth.] 

[8] According to what I deem reliable accounts, his father (the Bruderhof’s founder) instructed, apparently in contemplation of his death in 1935, that this son should never be burdened with Bruderhof leadership, citing his delicate mental and emotional makeup. I am told that there is (or was) documentary proof of this in Bruderhof archives. Needless to say, on this and so many other matters one must rely on accounts by ex-members who, in many cases, are no longer living. My father, E. Guy Johnson (1913-1979), served until around 1956 as the Bruderhof’s lawyer; he was one of the founders of the Woodcrest Bruderhof in 1954, which later became the chief hof (the Elder’s residence). My father’s views on matters, including which members’ and ex-members’ accounts of documents and events were (are) reliable, constitute only one of many elements of my own views on these matters. In fact, my father listened intently yet said little during all discussions of these matters that I participated in. Modern internet-mediated “round-robins” among ex-members have unearthed many documents and recollections of great value. There is ongoing research, aided by continuing “departures” from the Bruderhof. One must trust that truth will continue to emerge. More articles and books will be added to what is already a considerable literature. 

[9] I use “cybernetics” in its broadest sense, originating with the ancient Greek “kubernetes” — from which we also get the word “governance” (and its variants). Socrates said we should know ourselves well so that we might govern ourselves wisely. Modern cyberneticians focus on understanding and “advocating” coevolving, feedback-dependent, significance-generating systems of control, of governance, of self-governance, and of socio-political reconceptualization and transformation. Thus, for example, a “system of governance” without feedback (including a free press) is a contradiction in terms, akin to a fish without water. See Cybernetics of Society

[10] A corollary of this rule was that when members found themselves disagreeing, they should do so quietly, not loudly, not “wholesaling” their problem in ways that made others aware of it. This essay cannot detail all elements of this rule; it confines itself to the most problematic. A major issue not detailed here is that, arguably, the leader who “elevated” this First Law was himself the worst violator. According to apparently-reliable accounts, for example, he often discussed adult-members’ faults with his own children present. And many ex-members (myself included) recall occasions when his own disagreements with others were “wholesaled” in a loud and public manner. In recent years, moreover, “public humiliation” of full members — apparently in the presence of children and non-members — is said to have become fairly common. I’m told that there are (or were) tape recordings evidencing such public humiliations. Indeed, a major theme not touched on in this essay is the way in which “church discipline” has become increasingly abusive and psychologically damaging. This subject is likely to be examined in future scholarly writings, I believe. According to one account, a previous scholarly treatment touching on this topic was, in effect, “withdrawn” under Bruderhof pressure. Suffice it to say that it is exceedingly difficult to sort among truths, half-truths, differing perceptions, and sheer (often self-serving) fictions. I have attempted in this essay to offer what I consider to be a fair and accurate account of matters regarding which there are deeply-held disagreements. In my view, the Bruderhof has repeatedly frustrated efforts aimed at genuine truth-seeking — and efforts at reconciliation based thereon — but, in fairness, the Bruderhof also appears to have been acting on the advice of legal counsel which (I am inclined to conclude) advised against admissions of past abuses for fear of opening floodgates of litigation initiated by those who might assert their victimization, etc.

[11] The Society of Friends, or Quakers, have a (mostly tacit) “direct address” rule which is far more sophisticated, as interpreted and applied, and is nested within many other “rules” considered when Quakers discuss their “queries” in monthly, quarterly, and yearly “meetings for business”; such “jurisprudence” was taught as a required course at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, when I attended in 1958-61.

[12] According to reliable sources, the Bruderhof’s “constitution” apparently gives the Elder or “Senior Pastor” (as he is now called) unrestricted power to oust any member, whereas it takes a vote of all full members (including, apparently, the Elder’s wife) to oust the Elder. This feature may have changed. There is some evidence of recent upheavals that might have resulted in modifications of this rule. While the Senior Pastor appears to be in full, effective control, his current status is not entirely clear.

[13] There have been several “plots” over the past four decades, the “plotters” having (apparently) been crushed.

[14] He was always called “Heini” when alive; later, the Bruderhof called him “Heinrich”; a new hagiographic treatment apparently refers to him as “Heiner” (see next footnote). This essay will use the name that Heini was universally known by among all who vividly recall him, recalling also how instrumental he was in their lives — for good or ill, depending on strongly-conflicting perspectives.

[15] For example, Peter Mommsen’s book, Homage to a Broken Man (2004), has enraged several ex-members. According to them, it idolizes Heini (now called “Heiner”) and demonizes those who opposed him. I have not read this book.

2006 Note: I have since read Mommsen’s book. Here are my further thoughts:

The previous “official history” celebrating Heini was Merrill Mow’s Torches Rekindled (1989). A major basis for praising Heini in that book was his spearheading of the 1970s “reuniting” with the Hutterites; Mommsen, writing more than a decade after that reuniting blew up around 1991-93, ignores the topic. Truth to tell, in my view neither Mow nor Mommsen evidences devotion to history told with fidelity.

Let’s be clear: Many had opposed the “uniting” which had waxed and waned during the quarter-century following Eberhard’s death in 1935 but had seemed “secure” following the 1970’s “reuniting” (as it was then called). Possibly it was not all that secure after Heini died in 1982, and perhaps Mow’s book was intended (in part, at least) to cement the relationship between the Bruderhof (Eastern Brothers) and Hutterites (Western Brothers). 

In essence, opponents urged that, while we had much to learn from the Hutterites, we would hurt them and they would hurt us if we “became” Hutterites. It was a matter of mixing oil and water, most opponents believed. Well, as it happens, they were proved right, albeit almost all had been expelled and thereafter demonized years or decades before that (re)uniting fell apart “finally” (I assume it will never be resuscitated). Of course, I hasten to emphasize (as detailed in this essay) that the causes of the Great Crisis of 1959-61 went far beyond the problems of Bruderhof-Hutterite relationships.

Mow’s book was hagiography, not history, and was deeply unfair to Heini’s critics, who deplored the zealotry, bullying, and wholesale expulsions with which Heini and his (mostly recently baptized) supporters “re-made” — critics say “destroyed” the Bruderhof during 1959-61. For example, Mow quoted (as I recall) from 1960-61 correspondence by Gwynn Evans, without mentioning that Gwynn later repudiated same in the very strongest terms. His repudiation letter should be required reading for every prospective member. It includes the following:

“Perhaps you will forgive my use of an analogy, which no doubt will seem to you very harsh, but which is true to the experience of many of us who are now outside the community after having gone through some of the terrible events of the last years in the community. We feel like people who are just being restored to sanity after a serious delirium of the mind resulting from an epidemic of brain fever which infected our whole frenzied society, and we do not want what little sanity seems to have been restored to us impaired again. In this connection I wish to say that I now regard the letters which I wrote to Heini, Mark and the Oaklake brotherhood of June 3rd and 4th 1961, as well as my letter of August 30, 1960 to all brotherhoods, as products of that frenzied condition and I feel that I must now renounce them.” (Letter dated July 20, 1963.)

Mow’s purpose in 1989 was to prove that Heini was right (in various disputes during the 1940’s, 50s, 60s, and 70s), and that all who had opposed him were wrong. This rubbed salty bilge into the still-festering wounds of many who had been trying to heal since their expulsion. KIT, an ex-member support group started around 1989, helped some to heal their reopened wounds. Not for nothing is Mow’s book still called Tortures Rekindled by many KIT-folk. Piling injustice upon injustice, the Bruderhof went on to demonize KIT. By doing so, the Bruderhof widened the gulf of its disconnectedness from vital self-knowledge, thereby further degrading its capacity for healthy self-governance.

Again, Mommsen’s book ignores the reuniting (and many other “details”). Gone are Mow’s seemingly-indelible images of Western and Eastern brothers embracing! What Mow praised, Mommsen ignores for one obvious reason: the reuniting became an unmentionable embarrassment. Heini’s hubris led to Christoph’s (and his church’s) excommunication by the Hutterites, although this painful reality has been airbrushed “out of the picture” by Mommsen … not unlike the way in which official photos of the USSR Politburo’s hierarchy kept getting airbrushed to suit Stalin’s whims. As wags said: “The past isn’t what it used to be!”

[16] The Bruderhof recently purchased this “historic” property, which it has apparently turned into a sort of Bruderhof museum and conference center. (2022 Note: Since sold.)

[17] He was also fundraising. This essay can only summarize historical highlights. Unfortunately, as already suggested, all the Bruderhof’s own “histories” are essentially hagiography and most unreliable — according to my personal recollections and, far more significant, the recollections of many others. Some ex-members have made extensive efforts to obtain and preserve the recollections of now-deseased members and ex-members. More such materials will be published in due course. As already noted (Footnote 3), the Bruderhof has sued its critics. If the 1997 suit had come to trial, the defense would have asked Bruderhof leaders tough questions under oath; this would doubtless have unearthed significant historical materials. Notwithstanding, criticism of the Bruderhof is a frightening prospect for many, especially those who wish to maintain contact with family members still within the various hofs.

[18] My father told me he rediscovered the pleasures — and importance — of “simple friendship” after being expelled from the Bruderhof. Many ex-members have made similar observations. I find this especially interesting in light of many accounts from Soviet times, when truly close, long-term, candid friendships flourished. A friend with whom one could be truly candid, who had not (over years or decades) turned one in to the KGB for being disloyal to the USSR, was especially precious. In successfully curbing such true friendship, the Bruderhof seems to have succeeded in becoming more totalitarian than the USSR.

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