Yielding our freedoms: The ‘Russian Colonist’ menace

One of the issues the South Dakota Council of Defense devoted “considerable time” to during its World War I existence was what it called the “Russian Colonist problem.” Evidently, these outsiders claimed their religious convictions forbid participating in or supporting a war. Given the U.S. was at war with Germany, though, the Council said such principles were “subversive” and a “menace to the state and nation.”

Who were the dastardly, treasonous Russian Colonists? According to the Council’s post-war report, it was 17 “so-called Mennonite societies,” mostly located in southeastern South Dakota. Actually, the colonies were part of the “Hutterische Brüder”(Hutterian Brethern), who first settled in South Dakota in 1874. Both Hutterites and Mennonites were Anabaptist sects. Nonviolence was a fundamental precept of the Hutterites, forbidding them from not only participating in military activities but also contributing to war taxes. Daivd Laskin’s The Long Way Home is one of a handful of books telling the story of four conscripted South Dakota Hutterites imprisoned in Alcatraz after refusing to wear uniforms or obey orders. Two were tortured and died. Their antiwar stance was perceived as such a threat that they were the subject of the Council’s second order, the first having set seed corn prices. (The breadth of this perception is reflected in what happened to four South Dakota Hutterites who were conscripted but refused to wear uniforms or obey orders. They were sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz, where two died after being tortured.)

“Order No. 2” allowed the Council’s Executive Committee to require anyone associated with the colonies to be examined under oath by it or a county defense council. They could be questioned about “any information within the[ir] knowledge” and required to produce any documents under their control. A formal complaint could initiate such proceedings or the Council could simply decide to start an investigation and order hearings. In either case, a resolution had to be adopted “specifying in general terms the nature of the investigation to be undertaken.” Failure to appear or otherwise comply with the order was punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. (Any subpoena to appear before the Council had to be issued by a court. In 1920, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a criminal contempt conviction of someone who refused to obey such a subpoena. The case dealt solely with failure to comply with a court’s subpoena, not the legality of the Council’s investigative or other powers.)

In explaining the order, the chair of the Executive Committee, wrote, “These people attracted attention by reason of their avowed hostility to all war activities.” Yet the next sentence recognized the Hutterite stance was “founded upon a fundamental principle of their doctrine, which opposes all war.” Despite that, the Executive Committee launched “an informal investigation” but it wasn’t prompted solely by Hutterite religious tenets.

Each colony was part of one of four Hutterian Brethren religious corporations formed under laws that predated statehood. Their articles of incorporation declared they were formed for the purpose of “promoting, engaging in and carrying on the Christian religion, Christian worship, and religious education and teachings” based on the principle that all property was owned in common. The problem, at least from the Defense Council’s standpoint, was that the activities listed included farming and agriculture and manufacturing articles from agricultural products. According to the Council, this made them secular, not religious, organizations. Moreover, some colonies had indicated they’d sell their property and move to Canada to avoid being forced to support the war. The Council thought it “unfair to permit these people, after prospering under the protection of our laws and government and accumulating vast wealth, simply to depart, taking their accumulated property with them, as soon as the government called for their assistance and support.” (Ultimately, a significant number of Hutterites moved to Alberta, Canada.)

The Executive Committee’s investigation looked into how the colonies operated, how they were governed and what property they owned. The chairman’s report on the examination of a number of the groups’ officers observed: “These people all speak German, although many of them also speak good English. They profess to be governed by the rules, regulations and doctrines embodied in a small volume printed in German and entitled: “Rechenschaft, Unsrer Religion, Lehrer und Glaubens von den Burdern die Mann die Huterischen Nennt.” The only testimony quoted in the report was that while the Hutterites followed the law of the land, they felt their religious beliefs regarding war took precedence over secular law. The Committee said its investigation “established … that these societies in fact had a government of their own, distinct from the laws of the land.” As a result, the Council brought lawsuits to dissolve the four corporations and cancel their articles of incorporation.

The lawsuits and how the Hutterites’ sincerely held religious beliefs fared in court are the subject of my next post.

[The Hutterian Brethren] were willing to take war prices for the products of their farms, they rejoiced in all the advantages offered in America for their prosperity, but they claimed an allegiance to their church doctrines as superior to and independent of any loyalty to the State or Nation.

Report of the South Dakota State Council of Defense

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