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Spring 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 1 · pp. 97–99 

Book Review

Bridging Troubled Waters: Mennonite Brethren at Mid-Twentieth Century

ed. Paul Toews. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1995. xvi + 296 pages.

Reviewed by Wesley J. Prieb

During the last three years of the twentieth century, many books will be published examining the shifting cultural trends of this era and how they have impacted the church. The Mennonite Brethren have already published such a book, Bridging Troubled Waters, edited by Paul Toews, professor of History at Fresno Pacific University. Fourteen essayists reflect on the years 1940-60 as the pivotal shifting point for many dramatic changes.

In July of 1951 the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches met in Winkler, Manitoba, a small, rural, and mostly Mennonite village, for its forty-fifth convention in North America. The delegates, all male, came almost entirely from similar villages and rural towns. Guests stayed in the homes of the host congregation. All meals were served either in homes or at the church. The business, preaching, and singing were done in English and German. Paul Toews says, “If the convention setting and hospitality suggested continuity with the past, elements of the program pointed to an emerging world that was different” (p. iii). The German-speaking Mennonite immigrants from South Russia were a bit “troubled” by the rapid changes.

Here are a few issues they faced: Leadership formerly selected from the bosom of the church was being replaced by professionals. The one-man pastorate was replacing multiple lay ministers and elders. Individualism was eroding the communal nature of the church. Pluralism endangered the unity of the former ethnic churches. Ethical, social, and spiritual standards seemed to be bending. Theological diversity was eroding MB solidarity. Rapid urbanization encouraged accommodation to the main stream of social and religious life. Separation from the world was more difficult to justify and define. The unity of rural Mennonite culture was ruptured. MBs were living in troubled waters. {98}

Most of the essays in this book were presented at a symposium entitled “North American Mennonite Brethren at Mid-Century (1940-60),”which took place at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, during February 1993. The symposium was sponsored by the Historical Commission of the MB Church. The following quotes are selected from a few of the fourteen speakers.

Concerning church and state issues, Abe Dueck cites with approval the statement by Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill that the most significant shift occurred after World War II when North American Mennonites moved “from passive nonresistance to assertive peacemaking” (p. 5). Dueck concludes that in MB circles the debate was choosing between “historic nonresistance and a complete rejection of nonresistance” (p. 17). John Redekop sees the two decades as a period of political transition: “Mennonite Brethren subjects had become citizens and the citizens were rapidly becoming politicized” (p. 38).

In economics, T. D. Regehr observes “. . . the old separatist and isolationist economic institutions gave way to new integrated ways of dealing with economic problems. Mennonite Brethren offered little resistance, and their intellectual and church leaders paid little attention to this rapid integration into the economic system of the world” (p. 114).

The role of women in the church changed. Valerie Rempel notes that “Mission personnel and pastors regularly exhorted WMS members to serve, but often questioned women’s desire to be part of decision-making bodies” (p. 164). Katie Funk Wiebe says, “At first the women gave missionary reports and the men preached at these rallies. As one woman wrote me, ‘We still prefer men preachers!’ ” Wiebe continues, “In many congregations, women are still the main overseas mission supporters, but I see a slight movement towards becoming more involved with peace and social justice concerns” (p. 180).

In ecclesiological developments, Richard Kyle believes that the MB attempt to bring about an Anabaptist-Mennonite revival has met with only partial success: “Many Mennonite Brethren feel quite at home in the theological hodgepodge that makes up modern evangelicalism . . . . Thus Mennonite Brethren, particularly in the United States, will probably continue to live with a muddled theological identity” (p. 212).

With reference to musical transitions in Canada, Doreen Klassen notes: “Most striking among Canadian MB musical transitions of this era were the shift from gospel songs to worship hymns and the professionalization of music evangelism” (p. 246).

Gerald Ediger reflects on the traumatic shift of language from German to English. “By the 1960s the fight to retain the High German as the {99}language of MB piety and religious practice had ended and the process of Mennonite Brethren becoming ‘verenglisched’ was all but complete” (p. 248).

These rapid changes and many more have indeed troubled the waters for a small group of German-speaking immigrants from South Russia who have sought to retain their identity and mission in a rapidly changing urban and pluralistic social order in North America. Are we ready for the twenty-first century?

Wesley Prieb
Professor Emeritus of English
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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