South Dakota’s Hutterite martyrs

An NFL quarteback kneels in protest, and ends up sidelined, possibly forever. Students walk out of class to express their disgust with school shootings. President Trump is booed at a World Series game.

Protests, based on religious, political or civil rights concerns, have long been an American tradition. Our nation was created by people who fought against the system.

A century ago, four South Dakotans were at the center of debate over their right to disagree with the majority. They ended up imprisoned and tortured — and two died over their beliefs.

Four residents of the Rockport Hutterite Colony, which still exists 15 miles southeast of Mitchell, were taken into custody because they declined to serve in the military during World War I.

Brothers Joseph, Michael and David Hofer, along with their brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf, were imprisoned at Alcatraz, the infamous island prison in the San Francisco Bay in 1918. Alcatraz, famed for housing gangsters and other criminals, was a military prison from 1859 to 1933 before it was converted to hold criminals.

The four Hutterites were arrested after they were drafted but declined to serve in the military and refused to wear uniforms. Pacifism is a crucial belief in the Hutterite Church, and Hutterites will not swear oaths to governments.

They were starved, beaten and chained to walls. They were in dire condition when they were released from cold, windswept Alcatraz. Joseph and Michael died a few days after they were relocated to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

A military uniform was placed on Joseph after he died, shocking his wife, who had come to the prison to see her husband, and further antagonizing the pacifistic Hutterites.

The Hofer brothers are buried side-by-side in the Rockport Colony cemetery.

David Hofer was allowed to return to the Rockport Colony. The last of the four imprisoned Hutterites, Jacob Wipf, was finally released from prison on April 13, 1919. By then, the legend of “The Martyrs of Alcatraz” was spreading through the Hutterite world.

In 2011, Joseph Wipf, the head minister at the Rockport Colony, me to the colony cemetery where Joseph and Michael Hofer are buried. They are considered martyrs, and Hutterites from across the world come to pay tribute.

New stainless-steel markers were erected at the gravesites in 2010. The word martyr appears on both markers, just as did on the original markers.

The daughter of one of Hofer brothers came to the colony in the 1980s to visit her father’s grave. Wipf said he can still see her standing by the grave of the father she never knew.

The men’s imprisonments and deaths were the climax of long-simmering tensions.

When World War I started, many South Dakotans and Americans were suspicious of the Hutterites, who spoke German and had come to the United States from Russia in the late 19th century. Their strict religious ethic, communal living and successful farming raised further questions.

Once America entered the war in 1917, things heated up dramatically. Conscientious objectors were not recognized until the closing weeks of the war.

In South Dakota, some Hutterites were seized by mobs and their hair and beards shaved. Ground glass was placed in the flour of the mill at the Bon Homme Colony near Yankton, the mother colony of all Hutterites in North America.

Local newspapers railed against the Hutterites and Rockport Colony residents were threatened and intimidated and a man was beaten.

The Hutterites spoke German less often and tried not to “look too German,” said author Juanita Kant, who has known and written about Hutterites for decades.

But trouble persisted. Livestock was stolen from the Jamesville Colony and sold at auction, with $16,831.20 in proceeds used to buy Liberty Bonds. Years later, some of the money was returned to Hutterites to pay for land in Canada.

As World War I came to a close, tensions were still high. Hutterites, who had been persecuted for their beliefs in Europe and had seen thousands killed by those who feared or hated them, planned another move. Between 1917 and 1932, 17 of the 18 colonies in South Dakota relocated to Canada, as did one of two colonies in Montana.

Manitoba and Alberta were seen as the escape lands for people who had long suffered from persecution. Indeed, the man who helped shape the Hutterite movement, Jacob Hutter, was burned at the stake on Feb. 25, 1536.

Hutter was a charismatic leader who formed the Hutterite Church in the 16th century. They are part of the Anabaptist movement, which believes in adult baptism, feeling only an adult can make the conscious, rational choice to accept Jesus. Mennonites and the Amish are also part of this segment of the Radical Reformation.

Hutter’s fiery death was just one of many for the Hutterites in the Middle Ages.

As they moved from place to place to avoid persecution, many were killed and others left the church. When they settled in the Ukraine after being offered the protection of a count who pledged to honor their lifestyle, there were only about 120 left, Kant said. There had been 40,000.

When new leaders took control of their lands, the special treatment of the Hutterites ended. They would be forced into military service and other conditions they could not accept, so they moved to the United States.

The Hutterites flourished in Dakota Territory and bought more land and spawned new colonies. But the fiery passions of World War I reminded them of their travails in Europe, and most fled to remote land in Canada.

By the 1930s, as the Great Depression devastated the Midwest, the Hutterites looked like model citizens to South Dakota leaders, Kant said. Some returned and the colonies flourished.

Today, there about 8,000 Hutterites in South Dakota, where aside from their clothing and a few lifestyle choices, they live much as their neighbors do. They are successful farmers, and no one protests their right to avoid military service.

Yet, anyway.

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