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by Bryan R. Wilson, Reader Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Oxford Among the minority religions with which I have become acquainted in the course of my studies is the body known as the Bruderhof. I have read much of the available social science literature on this movement and on the history of the wider Hutterite fraternity. On two occasions, I have visited the Bruderhof community at Nonington in Kent, and am acquainted with some of their leading members. As will be apparent, my approach to the Bruderhof and to all other minority religions is objective and ethically neutral. I am not and never have been a member of the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof can claim to inherit the authentic spirit of the radical Reformation, and shares with others in the Hutterite tradition (the name derives from Jacob Hutter (d.1536)) the commitment to a simple communitarian way of life in which basic Christian virtues and values are cherished and nurtured. The members of the Bruderhof espouse a Protestant ethic with an emphasis on the shared possession of the necessities of life. They are committed to non-violence and the endeavour to promote peace and goodwill among all mankind. Their communal life certainly differs from the life-style of most citizens, but it is generally recognized by scholars to be a way of life informed by wholesome ideals and conscientious concerns. The general evidence concerning such communities is that they are of long-term benefit to the societies in which they are established. As self-regulating bodies they are virtually crime-free, and such are the standard held up to their young people that they are unlikely to be involved in vandalism or any other form of anti-social behaviour. A Bruderhof community requires no police surveillance, and might have the direct or indirect effect of reducing the policing costs of the wider society. Similarly, the strong family values which pervade the community encourage its members to look after one another, and this is of considerable importance to the elderly, who are so well cared for in the community that even in extremis they are unlikely to become a charge on local or state government finances. The Bruderhof community succeeds in maintaining control and mutual support because its members have permanently in mind the teachings to which they are committed and the need to be seen to live up to their professed standards. Members keep themselves generally to themselves but, when occasion demand, they show themselves to be good neighbours by participating in local schemes for social improvement, recently exemplified by devoting labour to maintain a tidy environment and by providing swings for a children’s playground. Whilst members undertake much of their own maintenance work, it is also true that the existence of the Bruderhof from time to time, present employment opportunities for non-members resident in the neighbourhood. There is no reason to suppose that the Bruderhof would ever pose a threat to those living and working in its locality. In recent years, the widespread diffusion throughout western societies of new religious teachings, and the proliferation of the organizations that have come
into being to purvey those teachings, or variants of them, has led journalists and some public figures to make comments concerning minority religions which have been ill-informed and distressing to some members of the public. Chief among the miss-directed assertions has been the tendency to speak of new religious movements as if they differed very little, if at all, one from another. The tendency has been to lump them altogether and indiscriminately to attribute to all of them characteristics which are, in fact, valid for only one or two. In point of fact, minority religions represent a wide variety of beliefs and practices. The tragic history of five small movements: the People’s Temple in Guyana; the Branch Davidians at Waco; the Solar Temple, in Switzerland, France and Canada; the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan; and the believers in Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, captured the attention of the Press in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and induced an indiscriminate fear of minority religious movements among some members of the general public. It should be pointed out, however, that these are five isolated instances among an estimated 2,000 religious bodies operating in western countries. Public fears have thus led to unfounded rumours and ill-informed allegations against many sincere, innocent, and altogether blameless believers, belonging to religious fellowships uncontaminated by the self-destructive theories of so-called “salvation” canvassed, in one form or another, by these five movements or so-called “cults”. In the popular press, the word “sect” and, even more especially (at least in English), the word “cult” have now been extensively used to categorize reputedly “dangerous” religious movements. These words lack stable definitions but have taken on pejorative and derogatory connotations, which in the popular mind suggest that cults in particular are organizations that use methods of deceptions, fraud, mind-control, exploitation of converts, among other malefactions, and that converts are likely to have their lives endangered. Typically, the cult is presented as being under the control of one or a very few powerful leaders; to have drawn its teachings from eclectic, arcane, and often occultist sources, and usually sources other than the indigenous religious tradition (i.e. in the West, Christianity). If these characteristics are accepted as the popular understanding of what is meant by the term “cult”, then it must be said that the Bruderhof in no way approximates “cult” status. Its goals and values are positive and life-affirming, and it maintains non-violence as a basic principle. The first Hutterite communities come into being well over five hundred years ago, and since that time these religious believers have attained and recurrently enhanced a reputation for diligence in work, integrity in personal relationships, peaceable living, and good neighbourliness. The two English Bruderhof communities maintain these traditions and give them manifold expression. Given this 27th day of April 2001, and signed
Bryan R. Wilson
Bryan Ronald Wilson is the Reader Emeritus in Sociology in the University of Oxford. From 1963 to 1993, he was also a Fellow of All Souls College, and in 1993 was elected an Emeritus Fellow. For more than forty years, he has conducted research into minority religious movements in Britain and overseas (notably in the United States, Ghana, Kenya, Belgium and Japan). His work has involved reading the publications of these movements and, wherever possible, associating with their members in their meetings, services, and home, and critical appraisal of the works of other scholars. He holds the Degrees of B.Sc. (Econ) and Ph.D. of the University of London and the M.A. of the University of Oxford. In 1984, the University of Oxford recognized the value of his published work by conferring upon him the Degree of D. Litt. In 1992, the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, awarded him the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. In 1994, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. At various times he has held the following additional appointments: Commonwealth Fund Fellow (Harkness Foundation) at the University of California, Berkeley, United States, 1957-8; Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, 1964; Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, at the University of California, Berkeley, United States, 1966-7; Research Consultant in Sociology, University of Padua, Italy, 1968-72; Visiting Fellow of The Japan Society, 1975; Visiting Professor, The Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium 1976; 1982; 1986; 1993 Snider Visiting Professor, University of Toronto, Canada, 1978; Visiting Professor in the Sociology of Religion, and Consultant for Religious Studies to Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand, 1980-1; Scott Visiting Fellow, Ormond College, University of Melbourne, Australia, 1981; Visiting Professor, University of Queensland, Australia, 1986; Distinguished Visiting Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A., 1987;
Visiting Professor, Soka University, Hachioji, Japan, 1997; For the years 1971-5, he was President of the Conference Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse (the world-wide organization for the discipline); in 1991 he was elected Honorary President of this organization now renamed as Socioto Internationale de Sociologie des Religions. Council Member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (U.S.A.) 1977-9; For several years, European Associate Editor, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; For six years, Joint Editor of The Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion. He has lectured on minority religious movements extensively in Britain, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan and the United States, and occasionally in Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. He has been called as an expert witness on sects in courts in Britain, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa and has provided evidence on affidavit for courts in Australia, Latvia, Russia, Spain and in France. He has also been called upon to give expert written evidence on religious movements for the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. Among other works, he has published eleven books devoted in whole or in part to minority religious movements:
Sects and Society: the Sociology of Three Religious Groups in Britain,
London: Heinemann, and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961; reprinted, Westport, Conn., U.S.A.; Greenwood Press, 1978)
Patterns of Sectarianism (edited) London: Heinemann, 1967 Religious Sects, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson; New York: McGraw
Hill, 1970 (also published in translation in French, German, Spanish, Swedish and Japanese).
Magic and the Millennium, London: Heinemann, and New York: Harper
and Row, 1973
Contemporary Transformations of Religious Movements (edited) New
York: Rose of Sharon Press, 1981
Religion in Sociological Perspective, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982 (also
published in translation in Italian, Romanian and Bulgarian. Japanese translation in preparation)
The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990 A Time to Chant: The Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Britain, [with K.
Dobbelaere] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994 (Japanese translation 1997)
New Religious Movements; Challenge and Response, [co-edited with Jamie
Cresswell] London: Routledge, 1999
Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhists in the World, [co-edited with
David Machacek] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000 He has also contributed more than thirty articles on minority religious movements to edited works and learned journals in Britain, the United States, Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway and Japan. He has contributed articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica; the Encyclopaedia of the social Sciences; the Encyclopaedia of Religion, Encyclopaedia des religions (Paris) and Encyclopaedia Italiana (Rome).