Wilson and the Hutterites
"Opposition to religious persecution is one of this country’s most important founding principles."
The crimes that President Woodrow Wilson’s administration perpetrated on the Hutterites of the upper Great Plains is a story largely forgotten, but one so unforgivable that it deserves a retelling. How can lessons be learned from events if we flush them down the memory hole?
Some of the ancestors of these quiet, hardworking citizens with German accents made the Treasure State their home more than a century ago.
The Hutterites derive their name from founder Jacob Hutter, a 16th Century Anabaptist leader from the Alpine region of what is now western Austria and southern Germany. Fleeing one repressive regime after another, they moved around Europe before migrating to America in the late 1800s. The wide-open, sparsely settled Dakotas and eastern Montana were especially attractive to them because there they could establish rural, self-sustaining farm communities and practice their faith unmolested.
For decades, the Hutterites lived in peaceful isolation. Other Americans may have thought them odd, but they posed no danger. Indeed, a core element of their faith was (and remains to this day) a radical pacifism. Hutterites will not take up arms. “A basic tenet of Hutterite groups,” writes John A. Hostetler in his definitive book, Hutterite Society, “has always been non-resistance, forbidding its members from taking part in military activities, taking orders from military persons, wearing a formal uniform (such as a soldier’s or a police officer’s) or paying taxes to be spent on war.”
Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Service Act into law in May 1917, setting the stage for the administration’s inevitable conflict with conscientious objectors, for whom no provision or exception was made. A quarter century later during World War II, objectors were offered alternative service, but not under Wilson.
At induction centers where young men reported for military duty, Hutterite men were pressured both physically and psychologically. They were thrown into cold showers, dragged along the ground by their hair and worked to utter exhaustion, to mention just some of the milder indignities.
A delegation of Hutterite ministers traveled to Washington in August 1917, hoping to advise President Wilson personally of their concerns. The most they got was a meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, who blew them off with meaningless assurances and did nothing.
At Fort Lewis, Washington, four Hutterite men reported as ordered but refused to sign admission papers or put on army uniforms. For their sincere, faith-based convictions, they were tossed into the guardhouse for two months, then sentenced to 37 years in prison.
Two of the men—brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer—became so ill from the experience they required hospitalization. Their wives, suspecting the worst, traveled by train to Kansas to see their husbands, only to find them dead.
Nearly the entire population of Hutterites in America—an estimated 11,000—finally fled the country and emigrated to Canada. Most of the forebears of today’s Montana Hutterites moved back to the Treasure State in the 1940s. Photographer Laura Wilson’s 2000 book, Hutterites of Montana, documents everyday Hutterite life through text and photographs.
When businessman Theodore Lunde published pamphlets about what the U.S. government had done to the peaceful Hutterites, President Wilson tried to silence him and the journalists he was collaborating with.
Opposition to religious persecution is one of this country’s most important founding principles. Religious liberty is embedded in the Constitution, which Woodrow Wilson swore an oath to uphold but didn’t. It was a sad and shameful episode we should never forget.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.