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July 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 2 · pp. 207–9 

Book Review

Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church

Jacob P. Bekker. Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, 1973. 215 pages.

Reviewed by Herbert Giesbrecht

During the course of his painstaking preparation of Die Altevangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der Mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte, P. M. Friesen was often asked, “Was tust du?” His answer to the question about what he was doing, he remarks in retrospect, might well have been: “Ich suche meine Brueder in einem besonderen Sinne. Ich wollte auch nicht ein noch so mageres, noch so fernes, noch so kleines and noch so entfremdetes Glied unserer Menno-Familie ungennant lassen” (p. vii of the Preface to his book). A similar impulse to “search out my brethren . . . . lest . . . so slight and estranged a member of our Menno-family would remain nameless,” must also have prompted Jacob P. Bekker, one of the eighteen founding fathers of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia, to preserve a variety of documents and more personal notes dealing with the origins and early development (1857-1864) of this church and, later, to incorporate them within a more ordered “Tagebuch” (a “journal” or “diary”).

Although intended (as appears from his own Preface) for a wider public among “the descendants of our Mennonite Brethren Church,” Bekker’s “Tagebuch” remained strangely silent for some four decades after his death in 1908. The precise date of its “rediscovery” (whether in the late 1940s or in the early 1950s) is still a matter of debate but for nearly three decades now, the manuscript has been safely lodged in the archives at Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas) where it has been available to those researchers at least who became aware of its existence and who could still navigate the German language.

Abraham H. Unruh evidently drew freely from the “Tagebuch” in the writing of his own work, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde, a history which, despite its rather disjointed and inchoate character, remains the most capacious account of the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Unruh continues Bekker’s quest for the Brethren in the spirit of genuine sympathy and with frequent flashes of perceptive insight into the very heart of their religious experience. {208}

Now, however, thanks to the patient labours of Abraham E. Janzen, longtime Archivist for the Mennonite Brethren at Tabor College, and Daniel E. Pauls, who translated it into English, and thanks to the encouragement and financial support of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, Bekker’s work has been made more accessible and will, hopefully, draw many more among us into a serious “search for our brethren.”

Bekker’s “Tagebuch,” renamed Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church in its English garb, consists largely of documents which were crucially involved in the “birth throes” of the Mennonite Brethren Church within the context of the Mennonite communities in South Russia. Bekker has introduced and supplemented these documents at relevant points with his own interpretive comments.

Although most of these documents are included in P. M. Friesen’s massive history, several of them—in particular certain letters exchanged between the District Government at Halbstadt, Taurien, and the Mennonite elders Bernhard Fast (Tiege) and Johann Harder (Blumstein) here make their first appearance in published form. It is interesting to note (this merely as a whispered aside) that Friesen spells Bekker’s name as “Boecker” throughout his book, justifying his practice with a footnote explanation that while Benjamin Bekker used the double “k” in his surname, Jacob P. (his brother) did not. It is more important to note, however, that Friesen’s version of these documents frequently differs in detail from Bekker’s version as it appears in Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Indeed, a close comparison of corresponding documents suggests that insufficient care was taken by the translators of Bekker’s “Tagebuch” to secure utmost fidelity to both the content and characteristic style of the original records. Perhaps a more careful editing of the entire translation, by one and the same person, would have eliminated many of the conspicuous inaccuracies of translation and infelicities of style.

A comparison of Bekker’s recital of certain events and Unruh’s reiteration of them in Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde also reveals some disparities. In this case we must, I think, conclude that Unruh was quoting from some earlier, and abbreviated “diary” of Bekker and that this earlier work was later expanded by Bekker himself.

In any case, the expanded accounts which appear in Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church often afford more intimate glimpses of both individuals and events. Bekker’s references to his personal association with Pfarrer Wuest and comments upon the last years of his ministry reveal Wuest to have been a thoroughly human figure who, while he contributed very significantly to the “spiritual renaissance” which we associate with the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church, could sometimes be quite partial towards individuals and less than wise in his appraisal of certain developments in his own church. Bekker’s own account of the introduction of baptism by immersion, an event in which Bekker was himself so crucially involved, is more detailed and informative than that supplied in Friesen’s book; indeed, virtually the same account of this particular {209} event appears twice in Bekker’s work. The same thing may be said about Bekker’s discussion of the relationship between the Mennonite Brethren and the Baptists of South Russia during the earliest years (1861-65). The witness of Mennonite Brethren leaders among their Russian neighbours, and the consequences of such witness in the trial and brief imprisonment of several of them (Heinrich Huebert, Peter Berg, and others) also receives more detailed treatment than in Friesen’s work, as does the relationship of the Brethren to such religious sects as the “Saturday Christians,” the Templars (“Jerusalem’s Friends”), the “Jaeckel brethren” from Saratov, and the “Molokan brethren” (the latter had seceded from the Greek Orthodox Church.)

There are other details supplied in Bekker’s forthright chronicle which, in one way or another, sharpen and enlarge the picture of the Brethren which emerges in Friesen’s more ambitious work. And not always do these recorded details enhance our present estimate or appreciation of the Brethren, particularly when they point up so vividly certain extremist tendencies among them during those early years—tendencies at times towards “religious enthusiasm” (the “Froehliche Richtung”) and at other times towards undue ethical severity and rigidity. Though Bekker’s presentation of these less happy experiences of the Brethren does not always bespeak the mind of a highly dispassionate and disciplined historian, it does reveal this self-taught preacher to have been a person whose desire it was to be as honest about the “facts” as it was possible for him to be.

Bekker’s brief introductory accounts concerning the life and ministry of Menno Simons and concerning the experiences of the Mennonites in Prussia prior to their migration to Russia sometimes blunder, as might be expected, into historical inaccuracies and oversimplifications. In an appendix, Bekker carefully delineates his own understanding of the “last things” (eschatology). It is a most interesting and revealing treatise which, if it is at all representative of the views held by the Brethren generally, suggests that our Mennonite Brethren forebears interpreted the books of Daniel and Revelation in a strongly literal manner.

Several “small failings” in the preparation of Bekker’s Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church for publication must be noted in conclusion. There are numerous errors and inconsistencies in the spelling of words, particularly of proper names; indeed, there are so many of these that it was pointless to begin to list them here. The subject index is an altogether inadequate one which fairly bristles with inconsistent, illogical, and even useless headings. A second edition should by all means remove these minor yet conspicuous blemishes from what is otherwise an attractively printed and altogether absorbing record on one man’s “search for his brethren.”

Herbert Giesbrecht is Archivist for the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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