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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 88–89 

Book Review

Perilous Journey: The Mennonite Brethren in Russia 1860-1910.

John B. Toews. Perspectives on Mennonite Life and Thought no. 5. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1988. 94 pages.

Reviewed by Clarence Hiebert

It is a “perilous journey” for any historian to attempt an all encompassing analysis of the 1860-1910 Mennonite experience in Russia. In a slender volume of less than 100 pages one can hardly accomplish what even P. M. Friesen attempted to do in nearly 900 pages.

Toews has introduced new perspectives by using some sources that Friesen did not offer, in particular the diary entries of a renewal-oriented David Epp who records the ongoing life of Mennonites in his time, 20-30 years prior to the 1860 schism. In Epp’s reflections, frequent references to the prevalence in the Russian Mennonite communities of drunkenness and deviant sexuality appear. The close-knit Mennonite colony villages had become Volkskirche—a kind of “theocracy.” Disillusionment overcame some who had been socialized to believe that they were “the people of God.” It took “outsiders” to bring about a renewal within the very communities which they had historically harassed.

Renewal became a perilous trek. Revival brought spontaneity and newness confirming the fears of the traditionalists. The “froehliche Richtung” (joyous enthusiasts) became clear {89} evidence to some of the accusers that feelings were given too much room. What was old, dependable, and traditional was good and reliable, even though it did not always achieve the best that one could hope for. On the other hand, the intensification of spiritual desires nurtured the revived.

Toews focuses a series of issues that grew out of the Mennonite revival. Tensions still surface on an appropriate balance of “mind” versus “spirit.” Which “heresy” is more to be feared, the lifeless, creed-propounding traditionalism or the zealous, more erratic enthusiastic Christian experience? The progeny of both exist today, a century and a quarter later.

The formal secession, though not initially unintended (the dissenters were ordered to leave by the traditionalists in 1860) engendered the major body of Mennonites (Mennonite Brethren) in the world with some 160,000-170,000 in 18 countries. Some still regard them as more Baptistic or main-line evangelical than Mennonite. Within their own ranks, however, there is considerable movement afoot to reconsider their Mennonite moorings.

Toews’ short volume is a helpful document for sociologists and historians. It depicts some of the dynamics which continue to bring life into a creative, ongoing dialogue of identity.

Clarence Hiebert, Professor of Religious Studies, Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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