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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 91–95 

Book Review

Mennonite Idealism and Higher Education: The Story of the Fresno Pacific College Idea

ed. Paul Toews. Fresno, CA: Center for M.B. Studies, 1995. xv + 165 pages.

Reviewed by Clarence Hiebert

Seven faculty members of Fresno Pacific College (FPC; now Fresno Pacific University, FPU; “FP” will ignore the distinction) collaborated in articulating some reflective and philosophical ideas focused on what FP has been, is, could potentially be. The writers are Robert Enns, Wilfred Martens, Dalton Reimer, Paul Toews, Arthur Wiebe, Delbert Wiens, and John Yoder. Six were associated with the school for at least twenty-five years; John Yoder began later, serving as Dean of Graduate Studies since 1991. Six served in administrative roles at one time or another. All have doctorates and their graduate studies reflect the disciplines of sociology, English, communication, history, education, mathematics education, and theology. All are Mennonites, five with Mennonite Brethren moorings.

This is a unique book for Mennonite Brethren. Its eight chapters arose out of many informal and formal sessions of FP faculty, administrators, board members, and constituents. The process seems to have offered meaningful input for shaping the school. The essays are thoughtful directives that will continue to be useful.

The MB constituents and their progeny who founded and operate the school have a twelve-decade history in North America. FPU is one of two schools sponsored by less than thirty thousand members. Beginning as Pacific Bible Institute (PBI) in 1944, it was sponsored by constituents who had experienced many transitions: frontier relocations, rural to urban shifts, farming to professional occupations, Midwest to West Coast orientation, lifestyle changes accommodating more complex settings/times, language changes from German to English, cultural changes from Europe to America, lay to professional ministry-led congregations, {92} and changes from Bible school/institute/college education to Christian liberal arts undergraduate and graduate education.

Initially MBs tended to live in isolation with regard to their language, theology, and ethnicity. In adapting to America, they made many accommodations. They became increasingly involved in diverse American mainstream pursuits, including its religious pluralism, and particularly associated with “Evangelicals.” The initial MB Bible Institute seemed to be very much like other American Bible schools, such as BIOLA and Moody—schools which many MBs increasingly attended.

The tendency for some in leadership, after mid-century, was to opt for less emphasis on their Anabaptist/Mennonite roots. They moved increasingly into “generic Evangelical streams” as did others. The challenge of such change is the major theme of this book.

Fortunately many of these shifts were met with intensive, ideological reflection by some discerning leaders. Serious implications were inevitable in the increasingly fast-paced modifications and changes of this past century. Many constituents were threatened, particularly the religious conservative. From the very beginning polarizations developed. Those who valued the basic principles of their Anabaptist/Mennonite moorings actively dealt with these changes. The essayists themselves “reflect the love affair that many . . . have with this little college . . . rooted in the idealism of the ‘Fresno Pacific College Idea.’ ”

Chapter one is an historical overview. Arthur J. Wiebe, FPC President 1960-1975 and a highly-respected mathematics educator at the school, offers an overview of the shaping of the initial vision. Pacific Bible Institute began as a typical American Bible institute in 1944. By 1949-1950, the enrollment peaked with nearly two hundred students. By then, they offered four-year B.A. and Th.B. degrees.

Considerable momentum was afoot by the mid-1950s to add a liberal arts program and graduate seminary offerings. This was prompted by several developments. By then the MB constituency was no longer dominant in the Midwest as it had been since the 1870s. Tabor College began in 1908 in Hillsboro, Kansas, the center of MB constituents at that time. The “higher education” needs were met in that era in that setting. Seven decades later Fresno was increasingly deemed a better setting to accommodate the growing urban MB membership. Tabor was also perceived by some Californian leaders to be too “theologically liberal” and too provincial: not sufficiently assertive evangelistically, not evangelically “American mainstream” enough, too culturally/ethnically “Mennonite.”

The shift from PBI to FPC was accomplished primarily through the significant leadership of several aggressive, spiritually sensitive, {93} academically qualified persons. In many ways this was difficult. USA Conference support would be required. Tabor’s further growth potential in losing the needed West Coast support was problematic. The Canadians formally requested release from supporting USA educational programs in 1954. The Canadian MB constituents had become larger than the USA conference by this time. Generally Canadian MBs tended to oppose church involvement in liberal arts institutions. And they had just founded their own “higher education” institution (1944), the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The Californians who had initiated and led the “Bible institute dream” of PBI were largely stymied by some aggressive, younger academicians who were proposing that PBI become a Christian liberal arts college in addition to the Bible Institute offerings. PBI’s Christian roots were valued and deemed desirable. But the Bible institute model was regarded as inadequate for preparing the next generation.

How the traditional, valued, PBI Christian focus could continue and be modified to accommodate the proposed academic liberal arts offerings for MB clientele became the springboard for the thematic center of the “Fresno Pacific College Idea.” At the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary, 1994-1995, Dalton Reimer reviewed the evolution of these themes. This crucial focus, the centerpiece for this book, is reviewed in the second chapter.

Seven basic ideas were first proposed in 1966 at an important stage of the process in defining their uniqueness. These became the backbone of the perspective of FPU. The six remaining essays are elaborations and modification of these theses.

Fresno Pacific College is a(n):

Christian College

Liberal Arts College

Anabaptist-Mennonite College

Prophetic College


Experimental College

Non-Sectarian College

In the third chapter, captioned “The ‘Christian College’ as Heresy,” Delbert Wiens contrasts “mainstream” views of educational ventures with a “Kingdom of God” community orientation. He explores the paradoxes of a Christian educational institution poised between ejection from Eden, with its Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the renewed mind of Romans 12:1-2 that proves the good and perfect will of God.

Chapter four, “ ‘Community’ and the Pacific College Idea: Dilemmas in the Institutionalization of Religion,” is written by Robert Enns. He {94} cites the biblical bases for “Christ-believing communities” (Anabaptist/Mennonite orientation) as seen in mainstream common goals/practices of secularization, institutionalization of religion, the ideological ambiguities of institutional identity, and dilemmas of the community’s composition posed by factors of unity and diversity.

Under the rubric of “Singing the Christian College Song in a Mennonite Key,” historian Paul Toews reflects on centuries of valued Mennonite foci and practices that need to be integrated in structuring both the curriculum and environment of FP in order to make the school authentically Christian from a Mennonite perspective. Understanding and practicing the integration of one’s faith in all of one’s living should be the goal of FP’s endeavor.

If the idea of truly being a “prophetic college” is pursued, a school stands the risk of alienating its constituents. This calls for the critiquing of the culture from out of the perspective that gives ultimate credence to biblical directives. Dalton Reimer focuses on the “persona” of the prophet and concludes by citing avenues one could conceivably use in order to make possible “God breakthroughs” at FP as a Christian institution.

Wilfred Martens offers a “contextual and linguistic interpretation” of the 1979-1982 revision process undertaken of the “FPC idea.” Various internal and external tensions had surfaced relating to FP’s purpose, what FP should be and do. The conflicts tended to center in FP’s “mission” and focus. Anabaptist/Mennonite? Mainstream American Evangelical? Constituency relationship as priest or prophet? The conferences, dialogues, papers, and responses resulted in a 1981 revision of the initial seven 1966 theses. The revision became a three-section version: FPC is a Christian College, a Liberal Arts College, and a Community. Most of the four issues omitted from the 1966 “FPC Idea” were incorporated under “Community.”

The final chapter by John Yoder is titled “From Monastery to Marketplace: Idea and Mission in Graduate and Professional Programs at Fresno Pacific College.” After reviewing FP’s historical development Yoder suggests a metaphor introducing the medieval European monastery and its relationship to surrounding culture. Monasteries were centered in the reflection of ideas and faith yet incorporated professions (“marketplace”) of one kind or another as a “locus of praxis” where they were engaged in daily pursuits. Life, monastery-patterned, was lived with ideals in piety and reflection. In this way, residents pursued professions rooted in community. Ideology and idealism functioned in a marketplace environment. Yoder sees this as a model that integrates {95} scholarship and profession—a possible “model” for the “FPC idea.”

This book will probably not attract a wide readership. It was written primarily for MB constituents who belong to or are interested in FPU. One assumes that FPU board members, in particular, would be interested in this analysis and its orientation.

It is not unusual for board members of Christian institutions like FPU to be swamped by agendas dealing with the financial issues of a school. Their concern generally tends to center in viability for would-be donors and students. There is a tendency to shape the school’s philosophy and offerings to accommodate that responsibility. From time to time, modifications proposed by board members tend to be made to “broaden the donor base” or to “compete for the needed number of students.” Mennonite Idealism and Higher Education challenges those responsible for institutional governance to remain true to their essential ideals.

Clarence Hiebert
Prof. Emeritus of Biblical/Religious Studies and History
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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