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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 113–14 

Book Review

The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists

Rod Janzen. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999. 326 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

The Hutterites are well known and much studied, largely because they have been the most successful communal group in history. But was this commitment to community of goods essential to Hutterite identity? Was the communal arrangement so central that without it survival as a distinct people was impossible? This volume focuses on such questions. And in doing so, it introduces us to a noncommunal form of Hutterites, usually called the “Prairie People” or “Prairieleut.”

The author, Rod Janzen, is a professor of American history and social studies at Fresno Pacific University. He has written two other books on related Hutterite subjects. Moreover, he has lived and taught in South Dakota, the area populated by the Prairie People. Thus the documentation includes a number of personal interviews with the Prairie People. The book also contains numerous photos, illustrations, and tables.

The Prairie People takes something of a dual focus. On one hand, the author documents that noncommunal Hutterianism existed for a substantial part of Hutterite history. In fact, in America a majority of the Hutterites transplanted from Europe did not live communally—the characteristic commonly connected with Hutterianism. Moreover, these noncommunal Hutterites preserved essential Hutterian social and theological traditions, save for the community of goods. Indeed, they regarded themselves as true Hutterites.

On the other hand, as Janzen points out, in contrast to their communal cousins the noncommunal Hutterites failed to maintain the Hutterian distinctives. They lacked a communal structure to buffer them from American culture. And progressively they embraced the American society, Evangelical Protestantism, and a more individualistic approach to the Christian faith. In fact, a large number have gravitated toward the Mennonite denominations.

The Prairie People fills an important gap in Mennonite studies. As one member of the “Prairieleut” community said to me, “We now have a book that tells our story.” Today many of the Prairie People are Mennonites. And it is commonly assumed that such Mennonites with a Hutterite background come from a communal group. Not so, as Janzen points out. They come from the little known noncommunal Hutterite community. Indeed, as the subtitle aptly indicates, the Prairie People are the forgotten Anabaptists.

The Prairie People is an original study, utilizing a good balance of {113} primary and secondary sources. It is a well-researched book that should be read by anyone interested in the Mennonite experience in America.

Richard Kyle
Professor of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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