Fall 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 2 · pp. 96–98 

Book Review

Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community

Paul Toews. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1996. 440 pages.

Reviewed by Perry Bush

As the fourth and final volume in the two-decades-long Mennonite Experience in America (MEA) series, Paul Toews’ fine new book finally completes the foundational synthesis constructed in this series. Toews’ assignment was to navigate the shifting seas of Mennonite history from the 1930s through the 1970s, accounting for the widely disparate experiences of all Mennonite groups in this complex period. While not without problems, Toews has accomplished this task with skill and care overall, resulting in a book that should be of immense interest to the professional scholar, the college student, and the general adult reading public.

Toews’ book can be somewhat awkwardly summarized by reviewing the conceptual and historiographical approaches he chooses. He classifies all Mennonite-related groups into two basic ethnic divisions: one Swiss/South-German (MCs, Amish), and the other Dutch/Russian (GCs, MBs). Yet whatever their ethnic inheritance, he argues, all Mennonites have faced the pressures of “modernity”—an impinging national society threatening to erode all subcultures and subloyalties and absorb all such groups into the sociocultural mainstream. Mennonites have offered two contrasting but equally successful responses to these “acids of modernity,” providing Toews an even more basic conceptual division. One group, the Old Order “traditionalists,” have resisted these pressures by reinforcing cultural boundaries that stand between them and outside society. Taking his cues from the work of Amish sociologists like Donald Kraybill, Toews maintains that this strategy was accomplished not by being “antimodern,” but by creative negotiations with outside society. The Amish have not totally forbidden modern technology, for instance, but have allowed it in certain contexts and for certain purposes.

Yet Toews’ heart is really with the other response to modernity: that of people he names the “progressives.” In contrast to the traditionalists, “progressives” (comprising the bulk of the GC, MC, and MB laity and leadership) felt that a legitimate sense of Mennonite peoplehood could {97} exist nearer to the center of society rather than on its margins. In doing so, they preserved their sense of community through ecumenical, institutional and ideological means.

While capable of solid and engaging social history, it is especially this third means that is developed most carefully because of the author’s basic approach as an intellectual historian. In the bulk of this book he traces in great detail the contours of progressive Mennonite thought in the twentieth century. His chapter on the Mennonite experience in the depression, for example, presents vivid sketches of the tensions between tradition and change in several representative Mennonite congregations, and also summarizes what the economic crisis meant for Mennonite women and youth. Yet Toews’ predilection for intellectual history soon reasserts itself as he turns to examine, in separate chapters, Mennonite fundamentalism and the “search for a usable past.” To Toews, Mennonite fundamentalism was a “transitional theology.” Churches would build stronger doctrinal foundations than fundamentalism could afford; they were soon to substitute ideological boundaries for vanishing social ones.

This ideological flowering was best represented by MC leader Harold Bender’s statement of “The Anabaptist Vision.” Through it, Toews argues, “Anabaptism rather than fundamentalism came to define the center of twentieth-century American Mennonites” (pp. 86-87). This vision, along with accompanying statements by Guy Hershberger (War, Peace and Nonresistance), provided a center place between complete social engagement and complete social withdrawal, where these progressives could root the new Mennonite community. Though not without challenges (Toews is careful to explore the critique of the Concern pamphlets movement, for instance), such statements represented the triumph of the progressive Mennonite vision.

Toews is also careful to explore the ecumenical and institutional expressions of this vision. They were manifested in exemplary fashion in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) system of World War II, a development he analyzes with care, and also in later efforts evolving from the CPS system: Mennonite Voluntary and Disaster Services (MVS, MDS), Mennonite Mental Health Services, and the postwar growth of Mennonite Central Committee. When he bends to the task of social history, Toews is very good at it. He touches on the experience of Mennonite women during the war, and sketches out something of the postwar socioeconomic revolution that transformed the Mennonite world. Yet his narrative proceeds primarily along the level of intellectual developments. He provides a careful treatment of how Mennonites conceptualized their service in the war and brought forth a new service consciousness from it. {98}

The war reinforced patterns of Mennonite deference to the state but also provided “greater ideological particularity” (p. 182). In the immediate postwar years, Mennonites tried to balance separation and engagement through new institutional and ideational means—the Mennonite community movement, mutual aid, new Mennonite schools. He devotes an entire chapter to the postwar Mennonite relationship to Evangelicalism, and another to “expanding inter-Mennonite relationships” that were expressed in ventures like MVS, MDS, and the new joint seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. After a single chapter on the Old Orders, Toews finishes the book with a chapter on Mennonites in the tumultuous 1960s, with a particular focus on that decade’s impact on Mennonite thought.

In conclusion, Toews’ book is not without shortcomings. Because of his dominant focus on intellectual developments, Mennonite subgroups whose history is not as easily intellectualized may feel a bit left out of the text. Mennonite women have criticized the work, a criticism that Old Order observers may echo. Toews provides them with one chapter and parts of a couple of others, while his treatment of the “progressives” comprises the entire rest of the book. Social history in general receives short shrift. Toews devotes as much space to the Concern pamphlets movement (five pages) as he does to the entire sweeping series of social-economic-demographic changes that transformed the post-WWII Mennonite world. Finally, one wishes that Toews had managed to extend his analysis, even briefly, beyond the early 1970s.

Nonetheless, these problems do not overshadow the larger contributions of the work. In providing a detailed summary of developments in twentieth-century Mennonite thinking, Toews has not only capped off the MEA series in impressive fashion, but he has provided a real service to the church. One hopes that Mennonites read the book in large numbers, and think and talk deeply about what they find.

Perry Bush
Associate Professor of History
Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio