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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 31–37 

Mennonite Brethren Founders Relate Their Conversion

John B. Toews

Conversion has always been important in the theology of the Mennonite Brethren, who see themselves as the product of a mid-nineteenth century revival in Russia. Mennonite Brethren have argued that their movement was characterized by a well-defined view of the new birth, yet knowledge of the actual conversions of the eighteen dissidents who left the established church in 1860 is virtually nonexistent. The dissidents told why they withdrew from the Old Church but left few records of their personal spiritual journey. Even P. M. Friesen’s massive collection of Brethren documents contains no conversion accounts of the founding persons. There must have been a commonly understood but undocumented theology of conversion.

Bekker, Peters and Wall on new birth: a deep personal crisis . . . penitential agony . . . intense joy.

In the 1890s John F. Harms, the editor of the Mennonite Brethren periodical Zions-Bote, invited his readership to relate their conversion stories. Most of those who responded were second-generation Brethren. There were three notable exceptions--Jakob Bekker, Abraham Peters and Jakob Wall--all of whose names appear on the succession document of 1860. Of the three, only Bekker writes with the specific purpose of relating his conversion. The others, though writing for somewhat different purposes, nevertheless supply vital information about their spiritual {32} journey.

Significantly, one reads about the presence of small fellowship groups in at least some of the Molotschna villages during the 1850s. Jacob Bekker suggests the presence of such “house churches” as early as 1852 when he was spiritually impacted by singing emanating from a village home. After intense penitential agony, he joined a local Bible study group in which he experienced the full assurance of salvation. Abraham Peters credits such groups with instigating conversions in the village context. Following a lengthy conversion crisis, Jakob Wall joined a Bible study group associated with Edward Wuest and “his brethren,” an association which not only contributed to his spiritual maturation, but involved common celebrations of the Lord’s Supper as well. According to Wall, Wuest’s adherents “withdrew from our midst” when Mennonite dissidents decided to form their own church.

While all of the accounts cite Wuest as a factor in the spiritual vitality of these early fellowship groups, it is not clear whether he played the role of initiator or sustainer. These accounts of our spiritual forebears unfortunately do not allow us to determine whether the revivals which led to the eventual founding of the Mennonite Brethren were indigenous or foreign in origin. They do, however, make it abundantly clear that Wuest had an impact on the spiritual maturation of some early Molotschna leaders.

Bible Study Groups as the Setting

These founders’ accounts also provide some hints as to both the context and process of conversion in the 1850s. Conversion frequently took place in the setting of a Bible study group and if not, such a group became a primary focus for growth and maturation immediately afterwards. The new birth was viewed as a deep personal crisis, often accompanied by protracted penitential agony, but which climaxed in an overwhelming sense of salvation assurance. Such an experience was regarded as in stark contrast to the prevailing formalism and lifeless orthodoxy of the established church. Invariably the convert expected derision and ridicule from the larger village constituency.

Though information in the accounts is straightforward, a few background observations might prove helpful. Abraham Peters makes reference to the Brethren migration to the Kuban and the founding of the villages of Wohldemfuerst and Alexanderfeld. The Brethren leader Johann Claassen was largely responsible for the settlement. Jakob Wall’s mention of various early coworkers now in America reflects the spiritual intimacy which characterized the early movement. His concern with the {33} practice of closed communion mirrors a polity crisis among the Brethren at the turn of the century. Beginning in the 1890s, some leaders had been attending the annual meetings of the Blankenburg Allianz Conference. A liberal offshoot of the Plymouth Brethren in Germany, the Conference stressed open communion with all believers. The issue became a prominent agenda item at Mennonite Brethren conferences around the turn of the century; the greater majority, by far, like Wall, favored closed communion. Jakob P. Bekker, thanks to his Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, KS, 1973), is better known, though the personal element is lacking in that manuscript. The Zions-Bote article is the only known account of his conversion.

The accounts of conversion by the three leaders, translated here from the German, follow.

JAKOB BEKKER: “MY EXPERIENCE”

Since the Zions-Bote publishes many [accounts of] conversions and [spiritual] experiences which are a blessing to many, I, at the end of my pilgrimage, feel obligated to share my experiences along the way [of life].

I was raised in Sparrau at the [home of] Heinrich Dueck. In 1846, when I was fifteen years old, my guardians found employment for me in Rudnerweide. Now the time came for me to be baptized [and join] the church. I participated in all the ecclesiastical formalities but remained completely dead in sin and had no feeling of repentance about my sins until I was in my twenty-second year. Once, when I went to visit my friend, I heard people singing which so impacted me that I had to cry. These were the first tears [I cried] over my sins. I became aware that I was on the road to hell. I could no longer dispel my feelings with mirth and after that time I frequently wept over my sins, but I did not give up playing cards or dancing. One year later my stepfather lay dying and I regretted that I had grieved him so often. I went to the hayloft to pray, after which I threw the [playing] cards into the oven. My wanton life had come to an end, [yet] my sense of sinfulness intensified.

In 1852 I contracted my first marriage to a widow, Mrs. Hoge, nee Anna Goertz. Her parents lived nearby. They had a son who had worked as a hired hand for some believers and was converted. He immediately preached repentance and conversion to us. We frequently visited our parents. One Sunday afternoon a neighbour was also present and said that the weekdays were so busy that he did not even have time to smoke tobacco. Sundays, however, were so long that he could while away his leisure time with smoking. My brother-in-law, who was reading a book, now looked up and said: {34}

“That’s a fine state of affairs, serving the devil on a holy day by smoking and having him ease your boredom. I can only conclude that you are on the way to hell.

Today you live, today be saved
For things can change when morning comes
Today you are alive and well
Tomorrow you may well be dead

As long as you are not sure of your salvation, you are in a lost condition.”

The smoker began to contradict him and said that no man could be certain of his future salvation [while here on earth]. Such an assertion [he felt] was presumptuous.

Shaken by a Comrade’s Untimely Death

Next morning the landless villagers drove to the rented land in order to harvest their grain. The smoker and his brother were ploughing not far from where I was [working]. In the afternoon he was not ploughing and I wondered what had happened. Soon someone came by and said: “Buller lay down for an afternoon nap and died [in his sleep].” Yesterday he had contended against the truth and now [he was] dead! That became a doomsday messenger [eventually] instigating my conversion. Each morning I had to drive five verst to my field and [the next morning?] I wept throughout the entire journey. During the lunch hour the Spirit urged me to pray, but I could not, and I did not have a prayer book [with me]. We prayed before meals and in place of evening devotions I read in the prayer book and consoled myself that I would get to heaven in this manner, especially if I avoided worldly pursuits. I had already stopped using tobacco and so was pious in the eyes of [other] people. The Lord, however, wanted to test me and let me become proud and hence I became a sinner.

In 1853 my sister married Peter Wedel from Margenau. When they became engaged they obtained a wagon in order to drive to his parents, and I went along. Some young men also came there who guzzled brandy and sang lewd songs. I joined in without hesitation. The Spirit of God tugged at my heart but I resisted. The men left after midnight and we went to bed, but I was so drunk that I had to vomit. Then I thought: “What have you done? You have blasphemed the Holy Spirit and now you will not be forgiven.” I reflected upon this on the way home. Suddenly a bolt of fire flashed by my face and after a little while it occurred a second time. I reasoned that the Spirit of God had left me because I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Inwardly I felt extremely restless but told no one about it. When I got home I searched for a quiet place to pray and hardly dared to cry for grace and mercy. As I persisted in prayer and also used the prayer {35} book, my heart became lighter. Gradually my heart lightened and I believed my sins were forgiven.

At that time my converted brother-in-law came to us and again preached repentance. I told him to ease up because I was no longer afraid. He asked: “Has it happened to you?” “Yes,” I answered. Thereupon he urged me to join his own fellowship group. When I arrived at the Dietrich Duecks they received me very warmly. Mrs. Dueck knew how to get everything out of me and I felt quite captivated [by the group]. Through this I began to trust the children of God and attended their services from that time onward.

On the third day of Christmas in 1854 I received word that I was to come to the Abraham Mathiess’ [residence]. Some brothers were there who would lead a devotional study. As they expounded Luke 2, I experienced intense joy, for I felt absolutely certain that the Savior had also been born in me. When they sang “Ist’s auch eine Freude, Mensch geboren sein,” (Is there any joy, human to be born?) my heart leapt for joy because I knew I was a child of God.

Later, as often as pastor [Edward] Wuest drove through Rudnerweide, he first stopped at Dietrich Duecks in order to hold a devotional meeting. I was thus privileged to have a lot of interaction with Wuest and we often ate together. His devotional meetings and sermons were of a lasting blessing to me.

[Zions-Bote, vol. 16, no. 17 (April 1900), pp. 1-2]

ABRAHAM PETERS: “REPORT ON THE DEATH OF MY WIFE ON JANUARY 4, 1899”

Since we have acquaintances near and far and brothers and sisters in the Lord, I hope to provide a service of love with a short report on the life and death of my wife. We were married in Ladekopp in the Molotschna on September 23, 1852. As Mennonites the world regarded us as good people even though I, as a smithy, had, in contrast to my wife, a rather hot-tempered personality. My wife was more relaxed and so as unconverted people we happily lived together during 1853, 1854, and 1855. This was the time during which pastor [Edward] Wuest was employed by a congregation of separatists in [the village of] Neuhoffnung in the region of Berdyansk. A revival took place which impacted all of South Russia in such a fashion that many Lutherans and some Mennonites left the formalism of the church and began to read the Word of God in families and in circles of like-minded persons. Soon people were converted to the Savior. Mission festivals which pastor Wuest led and [where he] proclaimed the sweet Gospel of Christ also contributed to the revival. {36}

I and my wife were drawn into this movement until the year 1860, when eighteen brethren left the Mennonite Church and founded their own congregation with the name “Mennonite Brethren Church.” This happened in the face of all sorts of antagonism and opposition in the region. I too belonged to that group. In the face of manifold threats and actions, by the Church as well as civil authorities, we searched for a refuge where we could live our faith without being disturbed, [a venture] which the Lord allowed to succeed. Higher authorities granted the growing number of Brethren permission to purchase land in the Kuban region. In 1863 five brethren, some with families and I without mine, moved into the region as the first pioneers and vanguards. In 1864 I returned for my wife and family and together with other families settled on our designated lands and began to build our homes, until we completed the plan for two villages in 1866. I built my house in that year and my wife had to work as my full-time assistant since I contracted a climate illness which kept me in bed for nine weeks. Amid these difficult circumstances in a strange land, it was so soothing and comforting when husband and wife could bend their knees in prayer together.

Since then we have walked hand in hand for another 30 years. During the past two years she was bed-ridden with rheumatism in her joints but was even more plagued with headaches until her death. As I cared for her day and night, led her and carried her, she often expressed her submission to the will of God with the words: “When is the hour? When can I go?” Or she would say: “How soon will it be before Jesus takes me home?” Finally the parting hour came. How difficult it was for me. Only those who have experienced it can empathize. Though I happily grant the departed one her freedom from pain and rest eternal, it nevertheless marks the end of 46 years of togetherness. Even though I am surrounded by two married sons and a married daughter with their children, something like this does not pass without pain, brings feelings of longing and arouses the desire to also go home. My wife was 66 years of age and I recently celebrated my 74th birthday. I greet all my brothers with Psalm 23 and sign myself as your fellow brother. —Abraham Peters, Velikoknyaschesk, February 4, 1899.

[Zions-Bote, vol. 14, no. 11 (March 13, 1899), p. 3]

JAKOB WALL: “REMINISCENCES AND FAREWELL”

How dark things were among us some 50 years ago. The Lord’s first call to my heart occurred when one of my comrades was snatched from the card table into eternity. Another became ill but died with the assurance of salvation. When I stood at his deathbed he said to me, “If you could die {37} with the assurance of salvation—would you?” Many of the neighbours were present. His question cut to the core of my being, but for several years I remained unchanged. I was jolted by an unconverted comrade a third time. Whenever he saw pious people he ridiculed [them] in every which way and once said: “There go the saints!”

The Lord confronted me in the midst of my sinful pathways and I fell at the Savior’s feet. After six weeks of [penitential] agony I found peace. My first word of comfort was 1 Timothy 1:13, “Even though I was once a blasphemer . . .” etc. Pastor [Edward] Wuest visited us and we rejoiced together with him and his brethren that we had a Savior. We also celebrated the Lord’s Supper together with them. The Lord took dear brother Wuest far too soon.

We continued to make [spiritual] progress and were baptized upon faith. In Elisabethal we decided not to celebrate communion with the unbaptised [unbelievers]. Wuest’s supporters withdrew from our midst. Today it seems as if the children of those dear Wuerttemburgers, who then possessed so much spiritual life, have again fallen into ecclesiastical formalism, a danger to which we too are not immune. Our [practice of] closed communion has served as our protection and as an inspiration to others. This is also the case with our other regulations (practices) which have proven themselves well, but which people now wish to set aside in order to make the church more appealing. I think the departed brother Johann Wieler did much good in St. Petersburg with his decisiveness. When he refused to celebrate communion with the unbaptised [unbelievers], he instigated much study and searching of the Scriptures.

Dear fellow believers, I wish to say goodbye with these lines for my days are numbered. You, dear brothers Schellenberg and Regier who visited us from America, move forward with courage. God bless you for everything you have done for the church, especially when you supported dear brother Hiebert in the absence of brother Jakob Jantz. Greetings with Daniel 12:3. I think of the departure [to America] of you, dear brother Peter Unruh—yes, of all of the dear believers in Klippenfeld. Greetings with 2 Peter 3 :17-18. Are brother Johann Penner formerly from Pastwa and sister Anna Martens from the Kuban still alive? I still recall that evening in the house of your mother when I felt so terrible because I had made fun of the believers, and how your mother so tenderly comforted me. I also have to think of the former schoolteacher Peter Neufeld, how you [Peter] became a sinner and how we agonized together until you found peace. Oh what a movement [of the Spirit] we had in Klippenfeld at that time. Dear brother Heinrich Voth, may the Lord continue to bless you among our people. —Jakob Wall, Klippenfeld, Russia, November 1900.

[Zions-Bote, vol. 16, no. 50 (December 19, 1900), p. 1.]

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