In the Hutterite colony where Sheryl Waldner grew up, women could not vote on community issues, speak in church or drive.
Everything was decided for her, Waldner said, from when she reported for kitchen duty to what she wore.
“It came to the point where I didn’t know my own thoughts, what was in my own heart,” said Waldner, 25. “It was very oppressive.”
Waldner fled the religious colony eight years ago. She is now one of nine former Hutterites promoting two books they’ve written collectively about their experiences: “Hutterites: Our Story to Freedom,” and the follow-up, “Since We Told the Truth.”
Together they are called “The Nine.” At least five of them are scheduled to appear in Madison April 2 for a book signing at the Far West Side Barnes & Noble, 7433 Mineral Point Road. The event runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. They will not give a presentation but will be available for one-on-one questions.
The Nine are from four families and two Hutterite colonies, one near Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the other in the Canadian province of Manitoba. All left the faith within six months of each other.
Seven now live in Park Falls, a city in Price County in northern Wisconsin. The other two live in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
They come from a little-known faith. Hutterites are spiritual cousins of Mennonites and the Amish. All three movements descended from the Anabaptists, a group of Christians dating to 16th century Europe that rejected the idea of infant baptism.
Hutterites stand apart in one respect: they live communally and share all possessions and income. They believe this is the lifestyle demonstrated by Christ and his Apostles and further refined in the Book of Acts.
There are about 50,000 Hutterites living in colonies throughout the prairies of northwestern North America but primarily in South Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada, according to the website for the Hutterian Brethren, the collective name for Hutterites. There are no colonies in Wisconsin.
“Hutterites are insistent that all of life belongs under the lordship of Jesus,” according to the Hutterian Brethren. “Along with beliefs in nonviolence and baptism following confession of faith, the radical economic practice of sharing goods in intentional community stems from this principle.”
The reality of this Hutterite lifestyle is that “everything is pre-planned for you,” said Titus Waldner, 27, another of The Nine. “The way we grew up, no one ever asked us simple questions like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Jobs were chosen for us and we’d have to be content with that.”
He is married to Sheryl Waldner’s sister, Darlene. The couple live in Park Falls. Sheryl Waldner is single and lives in Thunder Bay.
Titus Waldner called his upbringing “very restrictive” and “an extreme situation.” Sheryl Waldner said “people are pretty much held against their will” because they aren’t paid wages and have no money to leave.
Still, the two do not use the word “cult.” Titus Waldner said that while some definitions of the word fit Hutterite life, the word is “too extreme” because it has become so closely linked to Jim Jones, the American cult leader who led his followers to a mass murder-suicide.
What finally convinced the two to leave was not a rejection of Christianity but a different concept of it. Sheryl Waldner said that in her colony, Jesus Christ was “a storybook character” but not someone with whom you had a personal relationship. When someone from outside her colony introduced her to the idea of Christ as one’s personal savior, “it was the most exciting thing,” she said.
“When we heard about the real Jesus, we wanted more,” she said. “It brought hope and freedom, and that was something I never got.”
Many of the rules and restrictions of Hutterite life are not based on God, Titus Waldner said. “There’s such an emphasis on a dress code, but nothing in the Bible says you have to dress a certain way,” he said. The same for communal living, which Hutterites “have made part of salvation,” he said.
True freedom comes from listening to what the Lord is saying and taking that to heart, he said. He and the others now are engaged in a Christian ministry in addition to day jobs.
Asked about the claims of The Nine, a spokesman for the Hutterian Brethren provided a statement written in 2013 by Carol Maendel, a Hutterite wife and mother. Her comments are in response to the group’s first book.
“It saddens me that people would be so naive as to base their opinion of such an incredibly complex culture on the word of nine people who say they’ve ‘escaped’ and have now written a book about it,” she writes. “While their 83-page book may contain some truth, it is also filled with straight-faced lies, omissions and inaccurate information about the Hutterites, our way of life and The Nine’s stories.”
While all Hutterite colonies follow communal living principles, they differ in many ways, including management style, dress code and interaction with the outside world, Maendel says. She takes particular exception to the way members of The Nine talk about the religious beliefs of Hutterites.
“The Nine say that they knew nothing of a personal relationship with Jesus before they left the colony and that they were taught that if they did leave, they would go to hell. This is not true,” she writes. “The entire idea of our faith is based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Reporter Doug Erickson explores matters of faith, values and ethics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6149.