Community of Goods
The usual sources given for the practice of community of goods (communism) among Christians are the chapters in the Book of Acts 2, 4-5, where the economic practices of the primitive church in Jerusalem are described. The "having all things in common" described here was not based, to be sure, on a special commandment of Christ but represented rather a necessary makeshift according to the needs of the actual situation which arose from the presence of thousands of newly baptized Christians far away from their homes in the Jewish diaspora. Private property was not condemned in the teachings of Jesus, though also not praised. The concern for the poor was a natural outgrowth of the new law of brotherly love. Sharing of worldly goods has, to a certain extent, always been a practice of the earlier church, to the greatest amazement of the surrounding pagan world. It was what Troeltsch had fittingly called a "communism of love," something distinctly different from the practice of radical "community of goods" (see Hutterite).
The history of this idea through the ages cannot be told here. Its practice occurred mainly on the fringe of the general church development. The Gnostics and Donatists may be named here as well as some so-called "old-evangelical brotherhoods" (according to Ludwig Keller) such as Bogomiles, Waldensians, and Beghards (who maintained some common workshops). These groups, so varied in character otherwise, all showed a natural distrust in worldly possessions and an ascetic leaning toward the plain life and sharing as far as necessary with the brothers and sisters in need. But actual communistic living was practiced only by the monastic orders whose requirement of apostolic poverty led quite naturally to such practices. Yet for the monks it was less the point of brotherly love for those in need than one of escaping the temptation of "mammon" which produced these monastic forms of living.
Anabaptists who followed the idea of discipleship and of restitution of the primitive church also developed some ideas regarding the economic side of life. Their principle of nonconformity lent itself very naturally to a nonmaterialistic, puritanical concept of life in which man is but a steward of his worldly possessions which he must be ready to share at any time with others. The emphasis upon discipleship likewise brought forth the idea of caring for others and of sharing wherever a brother is in need (Liebeskommunismus). Only with the Hutterites did it also lead to a complete and nearly monastic establishment of community of goods, unique indeed within the entire history of the Christian churches on that point. The distinctly spiritual background of the entire Anabaptist attitude toward worldly economy excludes completely any characterization of Anabaptism as a "forerunner of modern socialism," as Karl Kautsky has suggested. Anabaptism can in no way be understood as a "social movement" of the poorer classes, though since the unfortunate Peasants' War of 1524-25 it was often looked upon in this way by its opponents in order to disparage the movement as a whole.
Reports of Anabaptist leaders concerning worldly goods and their use abound. In these references the emphasis will be found always to be laid upon stewardship and brotherly sharing, not upon community of goods proper. Conrad Grebel, the very beginner of the movement in Switzerland, protests distinctly against the charge that he taught "that no one should be interested in his possession" (Harold S. Bender, Conrad Grebel, 159 and 205, also the extensive footnote; 254, No. 29 and p. 276, No. 70). Felix Manz declares that he understands community of goods to be merely a willingness to aid the needy. George Blaurock, to be sure, made a written petition to the council of Zürich in which he also demonstrated "community of all things" by the example of the apostles, yet in a cross-examination he declared expressly that he did not favor community of possession. "He who is a good Christian should share what he has, else he is none." This was the traditional attitude of Anabaptists everywhere toward worldly goods.
As for Balthasar Hubmaier, he discusses the idea only once in his Gespräch auf Meister Zwinglis Taufbüchlein (1526, actually written in 1525) in the following manner: "Concerning community of goods I always taught that a man should have a concern for the other man, that the hungry be fed, the thirsty receive drink, etc. For we are not the masters of our possessions but stewards, and distributors only. No one would say, take away what a man has and make it common. Rather he would say, let the coat go together with the mantle. . . ."
Menno Simons, in his book A humble and Christian justification and replication (Works II, 309) replies in detail to his opponents who "imagine and say, we have our possessions in common." "This accusation," he says, "is false and without all truth. We do not teach and practice community of goods but we teach and testify the Word of the Lord, that all true believers in Christ are of one body (1 Corinthians 12:13), partakers of one bread (1 Corinthians 10:17), have one God and one Lord (Ephesians 4). Seeing then that they are one, as said, it is Christian and reasonable that they also have divine love among them and that one member cares for another, for both the Scriptures and nature teach this. . . . They show mercy and love, as much as is in them. They do not suffer a beggar among them. They have pity on the wants of the saints. They receive the wretched. They take strangers into their houses. They comfort the sad. They lend to the needy. They clothe the naked. They share their bread with the hungry. They do not turn their face from the poor nor do they regard their decrepit limbs and flesh (Isaiah 58). This is the kind of brotherhood we teach, and not that some should take over and possess the land, soil, and properties of others, as we are falsely maligned, accused, and lied about by many. . . . Furthermore, this love, mercy, and brotherhood they teach and practice, and have taught and practiced for seventeen years in such form and manner in perpetual thanks to the Lord that although we have been-robbed of a great part of our possession and are still daily robbed and taken, and many a pious, Godfearing father and mother is killed with fire, water, and sword, and we may have no safe and free place of abode, as can be seen, and the times are hard; nevertheless none of the pious nor the children left behind by the pious, who are willing to adapt themselves among us, have had to beg. . . . See, my dear readers, this accusation is fundamentally false and unjust, as are the others also. For although we know that the apostolic church had this practice in the beginning, as can be seen in the Acts of the Apostles, nevertheless we note from their epistles that it disappeared in their time . . . and was no longer practiced. Since we do not find it a permanent practice with the apostles . . . we have not taught or practiced community of goods, but we urge earnestly and zealously to practice liberal giving, love, and mercy, as the apostolic writings teach and testify abundantly. . . . And even if we had taught and practiced community of goods, as we are falsely accused of doing, we would still not be doing otherwise than the holy apostles, full of the Holy Ghost, themselves did in the former church at Jerusalem in the beginning of the holy Christian Church, although they stopped the practice as has been said."
This represents certainly the general Anabaptist position everywhere, except for the Hutterites. In the Frankenthal disputation of 1571 the question of community of goods came up as a special point. The Anabaptist leaders declared unanimously that they were opposed to this tenet of ill repute. "A Christian may buy and sell goods whenever it suits him." Strangely enough, Peter Walpot, bishop of the Hutterites, who was also present, did not specifically react to this discussion, apparently in order not to become a party to a dispute in this matter (see Wolkan, Lieder, 52).
All these quotations and many more are ample proof that no communism but only brotherly sharing was in the minds of those Brethren who took the evangelical advice seriously and tried to practice discipleship. And yet the Anabaptist repute was badly soiled for centuries by one single event which, strictly speaking, does not belong at all into the story of the evangelical Anabaptism but rather in that of the fanatical fringe of the "Left Wing" of the Reformation (which only too often is erroneously identified with Anabaptism in general). It is the Münsterite experiment of 1534-35, so violently repudiated by all peaceful Anabaptists of North and South alike. Here in Münster, it is true, a sort of wild communism was established and, strangely enough, justified on the basis of the old authorities. No doubt it was a tragic confusion of mind. Bernhard Rothmann taught actually a radical communistic sharing of all things. In his Bekenntnis von beiden Sakramenten (1533), signed by the six elders, he quotes as his major authority (besides the Book of Acts) the spurious Fourth Epistle of Clement which deals, at least partly, with the community of goods among the first Christians. Rothmann learned of this source from the Chronica of Sebastian Franck, 1531. Franck on his part had taken this quotation from a 1526 Latin edition of the Clementine Epistles. H. von Schubert followed up the story of this strange crowning witness to primitive Christian communism (which was actually a forgery of the 8th century A.D.), and found its origin in Plato and the Stoics. Franck, however, who was deeply impressed by this document (which he took for genuine), claimed that community of goods is a prime divine law and for that reason also a Christian law (Schubert, 15). Das Gemein is rein, das Dein und Mein is unrein, Franck says again in his Paradoxa of 1534. (See Clement, Epistle IV.)
Rothmann, whose motives were certainly religious and not economic, became step by step more radical as is evident from his later book Restitution of 1534. His teachings led eventually to a compulsory community of goods (later even of wives), thus making a caricature of Christian living and discipleship. (Of course this had nothing to do any more with Franck's idealistic statements.) How the ideas of Rothmann and his collaborators were carried out and practiced and how this tragic experiment ended is told in the article on Münster. The event brought much harm to later Anabaptism and gave an excuse to increased persecutions. It had no relationship with genuine discipleship and its corollary, sharing of worldly goods with the brother and concern for the needy ones, principles which remained leading in all evangelical Anabaptism.
Notwithstanding the general hostility of 20th century Mennonite denominations to community of goods, several "intentional communities" developed as an outgrowth of a 1950s-1970s renewal movement in the church related to the house church movement and the "Concern Pamphlet" group that provided a "neo-Anabaptist" critique of the H. S. Bender school of Anabaptist historiography (which is reflected in the bulk of this 1953 article by Robert Friedmann). Some of these communities practiced community of goods as part of their discipline. The best known of these groups is Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. Similar communities were established in Canada, but did not survive as part of the organizational church.
Very different from the interpretation of Christian community of things temporal as expressed in the first section of this article is the position of the Hutterite brotherhoods who have been practicing full community of goods most successfully for more than 400 years (established in 1528), with some decades of interruption in Russia in the mid-19th century. Except for the monastic way of community living with its totally different spirit this is the only example in church history (and secular history as well) where a group (once about 50,000, in the 1950s 10,000) has successfully carried out such an organization of complete community of goods for so long a time. Whenever the Brethren gave up this form of living due to tremendous pressure from the outside they declined whenever they organized again they thrived. Still today their Bruderhofs are shining examples proving that, on a right foundation, such a life is not only possible but very satisfying to its participants.
In the first section it was said that the true Christian idea of fellowship works toward sharing and caring (Liebeskommunismus) but not necessarily for full community of goods. In fact the Swiss Brethren and the Dutch Mennonites expressly declined such a radical interpretation of the Christian message and did so on good ground. In contra-distinction, the Hutterites are emphatic that their point of view is the only true Christian one, that community of goods is the direct outgrowth of Christian love and that all other forms lack the character of true discipleship. "If Christian love to the neighbor cannot achieve as much as community in things temporal, in assistance and counsel, then the blood of Christ does not cleanse a man from his sins" (Ehrenpreis, Sendbrief of 1652, 49). And again "to give up the true Christian community means to give up God" (Riedemann, 1545). Or also, "private property is the greatest enemy of love."
It would be misleading to assume that the Hutterite way of community living started as a measure only of mere emergency and situational need, comparable to that of the first Christian Church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and Acts 4). Perhaps this was true in the earliest years (1528 ff.) prior to the coming of Jakob Hutter (1533), but when this truly charismatic leader took up the reins and established a Gemeinschaft on strictly Christian spiritual foundations it became much more than an emergency experiment. It was a holy beginning, a radical actualization of the Christian commandment of love as Hutter and his fellow workers understood it. Here was Nachfolge, the practice of brotherly love by overcoming selfishness (Eigennutz) and the entering into complete brotherhood and unity of the spirit. Without giving up private and personal possessions, the leaders claimed, such a unity could never be achieved. To the Hutterite this way of life was his religion proper and within the community there could be no distinction between sacred and secular. God has commanded this way of life in which the total of man's sanctioned activities are sacred rather than secular. For this way they were ready to suffer martyrdom. "God helping we are ready rather to die than to give up the community," says a brother in 1540. It is important to point out that the German term Gemeinschaft as used by the Hutterite has a double connotation: brotherhood or fellowship, and community of goods.
From all this it becomes clear that the Hutterite Bruderhofs cannot be compared with Catholic monasteries. Not retreat from secular temptation brought the Brethren together but the conviction that only thus does Christian love become a reality. It is true that today one may hear a Hutterite brother justifying this life by reference to the story in the Book of Acts (4:32-37; Acts 5:1-11) and that obedience to the Scriptures cannot mean anything else but community. But that is a rather external interpretation. In the 16th century such Scriptural "literalism" was certainly not the chief motive and could have easily been defeated. There is very little if anything legalistic among the Hutterites (at least in the first 150 years) and the reference to Acts 4 is more a Scriptural corroboration than the true ground for the practice of community of goods.
Community of goods, as Hutter and all the other leaders understood it (and defended it against all odds), is the direct outcome of a deeper interpretation of Christ's teaching of brotherly love. Love is no sentimental affair but a total giving of oneself to the fellowship. A true disciple cannot do otherwise. In 1652, Andreas Ehrenpreis published a booklet (reprinted 1920) entitled Ein Centuries, Gemeinschaft, das höchste Gebot der Liebe betreffend (An Epistle Concerning Community of Goods, the Highest Commandment of Love).
There is yet another point suggested by the brethren, that of true Gelassenheit. (The word is hard to translate, perhaps best by "surrender" or "yieldedness" or even by "conquest of self.") Human nature in general is imperfect and a far cry from anything Christian. Natural man is selfish, selfcentered, self-willed, which explains our basic estrangement from the Divine above us and from our fellow men next to us. In the great Article Book of 1547 stands the following statement: Gottes Wort wär nicht so schwer, Wenn nur der Eigennutz nicht wär. (God's word would not be so difficult [to carry out] if there were no human selfishness.) In order to become a true disciple of Christ (after an inner rebirth) man needs most of all a way that will assist him in his "conquest of selfishness." This they call Gelassenheit, yieldedness, giving up self-will, and committing oneself to God's will, i.e., brotherly love and community. One must not hang one's heart upon earthly goods but rather become free from that propensity. This can be achieved best by the voluntary practice of community of goods where nothing is one's own private property any more, not even one's own garment or walking stick. Thus the way of discipleship begins.
Living co-operatively--that is the Hutterite alternative to the "holy poverty" of the Franciscan movement, which latter, to be sure, is foreign to Anabaptism although both principles derive from the same spirit of search for a practical and concrete expression of love and discipleship.
It is not the purpose of this article to tell the story of the Hutterite experiment in detail. That Hutter's motives were exclusively spiritual has already been emphasized; that they were sound is proved by 400 years of experience. Many collaborators and followers shared his views. Apologies for the Hutterite way abound; all authors on this subject quote from the rich and high-level Hutterite literature ample arguments for such a form of living, beginning with Hutter's epistles (1533-36) and ending with Ehrenpreis' Sendbrief of 1652. In general these arguments are much the same as those presented above. The Hutterites have two great doctrinal books which serve them as a foundation and justification for this life: Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft (1545) and the great Article Book of about 1547, written most likely by Peter Walpot. While Riedemann devotes but four pages to the exposition of his arguments, Walpot devotes one whole article (of five) to this subject in his great doctrinal work. In abbreviated form it appears also in the Great Chronicle. Here the third article concerning "community of goods" covers pp. 285-96 in the Zieglschmid edition. "Love is a tie of perfection. Where she dwelleth she does not work partial but complete and entire community. To such a Gelassenheit (yieldedness, resignation) you have to adapt yourself; you must give up your own and become free from it if you want to become a disciple. Love does not seek her own profit, hence she seeks certainly communion (Gemeinschaft). Communion is nothing else but having everything in common out of sheer love to the neighbor."
It is interesting to note that among the church historical arguments which Walpot adds to prove his points we meet again the Fourth Epistle of Clement (discussed in the General Section). It is found in the great Article Book, Art. III, item 148 (quoted in full in Archiv f. Reformation.-Geschichte, 1931, 235). Beyond doubt it was borrowed from S. Franck's Chronica (Ed. 1531, for. CCCCXCV; ed. 1536, for. CCXLIIII). Certainly this (forged) epistle did not prove anything but could to some extent at least undergird the Hutterite position.
Perhaps the strongest argument for full communion of goods was found in the early Christian document, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or Didache (about A.D. 120), where a novel interpretation of the Lord's Supper is presented. Since this argument is used time and again by the Brethren, also by Ehrenpreis in his Sendbrief (ed. 1920, p. 42 f.) and is even today quoted in Amish sermons (though without drawing the consequences), it is presented here in full. "As the grain-kernels are altogether merged, and each must give its contents or strength into the one flour and bread, likewise also the wine, where the grapes are crushed under the press and each grape gives away all its juice and all its strength into one wine. Whichever kernel and whichever grape, however, is not crushed and retains its strength for itself alone. such an one is unworthy and is cast out. This is what Christ wanted to bring home to his companions and guests at the Last Supper as an example of how they should be together in such a fellowship."
The most interesting fact of the Hutterite way is the unique compromise between community and family living, thus overcoming the pitfalls of monastic asceticism. To be sure, such family life has little room for romanticism, but it is nevertheless solid and healthy. Outstanding were the schools in these colonies, also the hygienic and medical achievements. Their crafts stood in high repute during the 16th and ]7th century (cutlery, ceramics, etc.). Trading was completely excluded as a sinful business, "As the wise man saith: it is almost impossible for a merchant and trader to keep himself from sin. As a nail sticketh fast between door and hinge so cloth sin stick close between buying and selling" (Riedemann, 126 f., quoting Ecclesiastes 26:29 and Ecclesiastes 27:1-2).
Of course, the temptation of selfishness is always present and we read many complaints about a decline of the original principles. That was the reason why the leaders enjoined the ideas ever and anon, and why ordinances and regulations were issued by the elders, with the consent of the entire brotherhood, to insure the basic standards. But by and large, after many slumps and deviations the brotherhood returned to its former status, and is far as can be observed today, it is certainly ready to continue its way in the old pattern, even though the spirit of mission (once so strong among them) has died out. The principle that no one should have anything in private, neither clothing nor bedding, neither books nor any niceties, has in recent times been somewhat relaxed though more by indulgence than by approval. In times of crisis the old spirit of perfect brotherhood has always stood the test.
No visitor at such a Hutterite Bruderhof can help being deeply impressed by this object lesson. This is as true today as it was in the 16th century when the communities flourished in Moravia and Slovakia under the protection of the nobles. The fact that even today but few Hutterites leave this kind of life seems to prove that it has a high appeal to each member. Strict regulation and discipline are practiced but since everything is done voluntarily and after common counseling, it is done cheerfully, and in the right spirit. The fact that in the 1920s a new Bruderhof (Society of Brothers) of this type sprang up in Germany and soon joined the wider Hutterite family, may further illustrate the vitality and appeal of the idea.
Kautsky, Karl. Vorlaufer des neueren Sozialismus. Stuttgart: Verlag von J.H.W. Dietz, 1895., also English translation.
Kautsky, Karl. Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. New York: Russell & Russell, 1959.
Schubert, H. v. "Der Kommunismus der Wiedertäufer in Münster und seine Quellen," in Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie, 1919.
Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. German edition, 1912, English translation, N.Y., 1930.
Among Mennonites, no special study had ever been undertaken in this field prior to 1950. See:
Bender, Harold S. Conrad Grebel, C. 1498-1526: The Founder of the Swiss Brethren Sometimes Called Anabaptists. Goshen, Ind: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950., index under "Community of Goods."
Fischer, Hans G. Jakob Hutter. Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Publishing Org., 1955.
Friedmann, Robert. "Eine dogmatische Hauptschrift der Hutterischen Täufergemeinschaften." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1931-1932).
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 201-210.
Horsch, John. The Hutterian Brethren, 1528-1931: A Story of Martyrdom and Loyalty. Goshen, Ind: Mennonite Historical Society, 1931. Reprinted several times.
Hunt, R. N. C. "Communist Experiments of the 16th Century." Edinburgh Review (April 1927).
Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv für österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895).
Muller, Lydia. Der Kommunismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer. Leipzig, 1927.
Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, held at Freeman S.D., 1946 (in particular an article by Marie Waldner).
Riedemann, Peter. Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith. London: Hodder and Stoughton in conjunction with Plough Pub. House, 1950. Reprinted: Rifton, N.Y: Plough Pub. House, 1974.
Cite This Article
Friedmann, Robert. "Community of Goods." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 18 Nov 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Community_of_Goods&oldid=144954.
Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Community of Goods. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 November 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Community_of_Goods&oldid=144954.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 658-662. All rights reserved.
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