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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 119–21 

Book Review

None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889

James Urry. Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion, 1989. 322 pages.

Reviewed by Abe J. Dueck

In many respects this book about Mennonites in Russia comes from a very unlikely source. The author, James Urry, is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. He was born in London, England, and received his D.Phil. degree from Oxford University. Neither of {120} these factors point to a likely involvement with and interest in Mennonites. And yet those who have come to know Urry through his frequent contacts with North American Mennonites have come to respect him as perhaps the most knowledgeable scholar of Russian Mennonitism today. None But Saints contains much of the material that was originally part of Urry’s dissertation (“The Closed and the Open,” 1978), but it also represents a considerable improvement, revision, and refinement of the dissertation.

Mennonites who have written their own history of the Russian experience have usually written from what might be labeled a “triumphalist” perspective. The Mennonite colonies which were established in the Ukraine were seen as models for the rest of society to emulate. Mennonites were a hard working people who sought to retain their special religious privileges, such as exemption from military service. Although religious life was often not what it should have been, new movements such as the Brethren brought religious vitality and, essentially, the Mennonite commonwealth emerged and developed with its integrity intact. Urry, an “outsider,” challenges the traditional picture, although perhaps not as radically as is suggested by David G. Rempel in the Foreword. Urry seldom challenges other interpretations directly and is fairly cautious in his conclusions. But he does succeed in placing the Mennonite experience into the larger context of Russian and European social, economic, and political transformation. “Mennonites,” he states, “provide a special view of the larger transformation of European society” (23). Nevertheless, Urry does not argue that Mennonite transformation was similar to the transformation of other European societies. Rather, Mennonites maintained a distinctive identity as a “commonwealth” while permitting much variation within and while adapting to forces of change.

The book is about a people whose faith formed the primary basis for self-definition. And yet the nature of their religious faith is not a prominent theme in the book. Economic and social factors are seen as very significant in shaping the community and determining its actions. Mennonite life is examined in its very mundane aspects and all is not “saintly.”

The extensive documentation reveals tremendous depth and breadth of research, even though Urry laments his lack of knowledge of the Russian language. Despite this, however, {121} many Russian sources are cited. Urry regards his work as only the beginning of a huge task which must be done as more archival sources and Russian-language materials become available. It is interesting to note, however, that despite the repeated calls by Urry (and Rempel) to move beyond the narrow base of interpretation represented by P.M. Friesen, the abundance of references to Friesen are still a credit to the enduring significance of that work.

Very noteworthy also are the various tables, maps, several appendices (including one on Mennonite population growth), extensive bibliography, and a number of reproductions of the paintings of Henry Pauls, which are scattered throughout the book. Many will also welcome the easy access to footnotes at the bottom of the pages rather than endnotes after each chapter or at the end of the book.

Urry’s book is a “must” for everyone interested in the Russian phase of Mennonite experience and its formative influence on many Mennonites in North and South America in particular.

Abe J. Dueck
Mennonite Brethren Bible College,
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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