MANY PEOPLE HAVE COME TO AMERICA SEEKING RELIGIOUS freedom. The Puritans did so, then promptly placed restrictions on religious practice in their own colony. Quaker Mary Dyer and others who objected paid with their lives. Eventually, as our nation of immigrants became more diverse, dozens of faiths found their place in the American patchwork.
Even though the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of religion, a number of groups have suffered persecution for their beliefs. Many Native Americans, for example, were forced to abandon their traditional religions, and only recently have some tribes won the right to follow the old ways. The religion commonly known as Mormonism originated in the United States, but its followers faced violence and exile before they found a home where they could live in peace.
Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, evangelical Christians—almost every religious group has experienced some form of intolerance. And yet, systematic persecution of religious groups in American history is relatively rare. One group who became victims of organized intolerance was the Hutterites.
In the 1870s, a group of German Christians known as Hutterites began immigrating into the northern Great Plains. For more than 300 years, the Hutterites had endured intolerance in Europe. Now they hoped to establish their agricultural “colonies” on the open prairie and live in peace.
Neighboring farmers quickly became suspicious of the newcomers. At that time, it was not so unusual that the Hutterites spoke German or wore plain clothes. But the fact that they lived communally, rejecting the idea of private property, was another matter. And so was their disregard for the outside world.
That world erupted in war in 1914, and the U.S. entered the conflict three years later. The Hutterites numbered nearly 2,000, spread among 17 colonies in South Dakota and two in Montana. As pacifists, the Hutterites had no use for the Liberty Bonds their neighbors were buying to support the U.S. Army. As these same neighbors sent sons off to fight the German Kaiser’s troops, the Hutterites refused.
Claiming it was in the name of patriotism, farmers vandalized Hutterite buildings and raided the colonies’ herds. Ordinances were passed to limit the use of German on the telephone and in schools and other assemblies. Some young Hutterite men were arrested for evading the draft. A court sentenced three brothers in the Hofer family to 20 years in the federal prison at Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay. They were later moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where John and Michael Hofer died as a result of physical abuse. Before sending the bodies back to South Dakota for burial, prisons officials dressed one of the brothers in a military uniform.
South Dakota conducted an investigation of the Hutterites during this period. The State Council of Defence called the Hutterite communal organization “un-American” and recommended dissolving the colonies. Courts declared that the colonies were not religious bodies but corporations operating for economic gain. The application of corporate property laws forced most of the Hutterites to leave for Canada.