Separating Church and State: Part 1, the Persecuted Faithful

This column is the first in a two-part series.

Earlier this year, the South Dakota Supreme Court found itself stuck in the middle of a religious dispute. Two factions of a Hutterite colony disagreed about their community’s direction and could not resolve their differences.

The dispute resulted in two Supreme Court opinions, the most recent of which is called Wipf v. Hutterville Hutterian Bretheren, Inc., 2012 S.D. 4.

I don’t pretend to know much about the Hutterite tradition. Thus, in order to do justice to a column about a Hutterite colony, I ambitiously checked out nine books from the library and skimmed about half of them at home.

What I learned is that there is an awful lot to learn. I also won’t pretend that I can learn everything that needs to learned from a book. However, I will share what I found because it provides a magnificent background to the recent Supreme Court cases.
What appears here today in this column is just a brief snapshot of the wealth of information out there.

Hutterites have a magnificent culture and religion with a long, proud history. Its followers have endured five centuries as permanent outsiders: persecuted, different, and seeking safety.

The history of the Hutterites begins in Switzerland, at around the same time that a Catholic priest named Martin Luther began to question the Catholic Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

It was the dawn of the Reformation: a time of religious questioning throughout Europe, where conventional wisdom was being tested in many ways.

One group in particular questioned the practice of infant baptism, suggesting instead that it should be reserved for adults, upon a confession of their faith. Its adherents were called Anabaptists. The name is a misnomer, which comes from the Greek word meaning “rebaptizers.” Early followers were “re-baptized” as symbolic of moving beyond their infant baptism, but its followers are generally baptized only once, as adults.

The idea began to evolve and spread throughout southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and northern Italy.

One feature shared in common by all Anabaptists was relentless persecution of their faithful. Followers of this brand of Christianity were considered heretics. An estimated 4,000 were martyred for their beliefs.

As a result, the movement grew relatively slowly and almost entirely out of sight, in order to escape the disapproving eyes of the government and nosy neighbors.

In addition, the movement evolved with very little centralized control (such as bishops). This resulted in a fragmented diversity of local practice and belief among the Anabaptists.

Eventually, out of this potpourri would come the modern day Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites. (And some historians also argue that the early Baptist religion was influenced by the Anabaptist movement.)

In response to relentless persecution, many began seeking safety in friendlier parts of the world. A sizeable stream of immigrants headed to a promised land called Moravia.

Moravia is a part of the modern-day Czech Republic, located near the line dividing Poland from Germany. At the time, Moravia was a very rich agricultural region that was missing one key ingredient: farmers.

In response to this need, the government of Moravia opened its doors to all comers. It was so hungry for settlers that it refused to turn anyone away based on religious differences. This was quite different than the rest of Europe, nearly all of which was governed by state-sanctioned religions. In Moravia, the idea of “freedom of religion” was gaining an initial foothold.
At the same time those Anabaptists began flooding into Moravia, a few groups of its followers began banding together and living communally.

These groups followed the leadership and teachings of Jacob Hutter, a hat-maker born in the Italian/Austrian Alps, and who learned his trade in Prague.

Followers of the Hutterite way shared three beliefs: shared ownership of all worldly goods; nonviolence; and adult baptism.

All of these principals find root in the New Testament, and many religions would later adopt one or more of them.

However, living communally in groups was a unique way of life, and one that none of their neighbors practiced. This feature of their religion provided structure and continuity that was missing from the Anabaptist view. And it would help propel the religion and culture for the next five centuries.

The very nature of an inward-turned community made the colonies easier targets for persecution. As the empty Moravian farmland began to fill with outsiders, the colonies of Hutterites began to feel pressure. Soon, Moravia had plenty of settlers and could again be choosy about who it wanted living there.

It took the Hutterites almost three-hundred years to find a permanent place to call home…which would be on the open prairies of modern day South Dakota.

Next week’s column (part 2) will follow their journey to America, and then explain the recent court cases about a local Colony.

The key legal principle in both opinions is the separation of church and state, which the government of Moravia and its Hutterite colonists briefly helped pioneer, five centuries ago.

About the author

I'm a South Dakota trial lawyer, raised on a hog farm near Lennox. My cases tend to involve corporate wrongdoing (such as insurance companies that lie or deny claims, or both). science (such as whether someone had the mental capacity to execute a Will or Trust), or technical aspects (like construction litigation). I also regularly sue public entities that refuse to pay their fair share. I studied international relations as an undergrad at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and then graduated second in my law school class at the University of South Dakota. I'm an avid runner and a "family-taught" carpenter (i.e., I learned most of what I know from Grandpa, Dad, and my brother Steve). And I'm a kid at heart, with a love for model trains and my children's Legos. Beyond the practice of law, my most passionate endeavor is The Finish Line Fund. We founded this non-profit in 2017 in order to raise funds and expand research for rare diseases, including Friedreich’s Ataxia, which affects my 17-year-old daughter. You can learn more (and give) at