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October 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 3 · pp. 243–48 

The History of the Bekker Manuscript

A. E. Janzen

Jacob P. Bekker (changed to Becker in America), one of the eighteen charter members of the Mennonite Brethren Church, eventually wrote a detailed account of its early history. It had become his great concern that future generations be informed about the spiritual awakening that took place in the Ukraine of Russia. He traced the sequence of the crucial initial steps, the development of the movement, and the rationale that led to the organization of a separate and officially recognized denomination.

Since Bekker himself had experienced the awakening and was elected minister by the original group (he and Heinrich Huebert were its first spiritual and organizational leaders), he must be considered qualified to “tell things as they were.” It was he who assembled and preserved all documentation, church minutes, correspondence, records and manifestos of the events and experiences of the early periods of the church’s growth. This source material was supplemented by his recollections and enlivened by many personal incidents.

REASONS FOR WRITING THE ACCOUNT

Bekker was not hasty in putting the account on paper. His manuscript was not prepared during the disturbed years of the church’s formation or during the excitement and struggles of its initial period. He waited 31 {244} years before compiling the manuscript. By that time he certainly must have gained perspective and objectivity, and he undertook the task with the humble prayer that God would provide wisdom and grace so that a truthful record would be left for posterity. The actual writing of the manuscript took place after he and his family had moved to America. He began the task around 1890 and finished it in 1894 during his residence at Hillsboro, Kansas, where he and his family lived between 1882 and 1894.

It may be significant that the delegates to the Mennonite Brethren General Conference, held at Hillsboro, Kansas, in October, 1884, went on record requesting the newly-elected Publication Committee to work towards the writing of a history of the origin and development of the Mennonite Brethren Church (see the Yearbook, M.B. Conf., 1884, pp. 25, 26, and The History of the M.B. Church by J. F. Harms, p. 264). However, nothing materialized during the succeeding years. This may throw light on Jacob P. Bekker’s statement in the preface to his manuscript where he explains that “because in 31 years nothing has been published, the author feels obligated to provide a detailed account. . . . so that the descendants of our Mennonite Brethren Church may know when and how their denomination originated and developed.” Since Bekker resided in Hillsboro during those years, he must have known about the Conference resolution, and it may have encouraged him to undertake the task when he did.

The account written by Bekker cites the names of many persons and organizations involved in the story. Since many of these people were still living, most of them in Russia where the drama had unfolded, Bekker believed it expedient to delay the publication of his account until after his decease. But the manuscript was finished around 1894 and was considered by him as ready for publication in that form.

PRESERVATION OF THE MANUSCRIPT

Bekker did not delegate his manuscript to the Publication Committee of the Zionsbote, the church paper of the M.B. Conference which started circulation in 1884. He chose rather to leave it with members of the family for safe-keeping, and he instructed them to have it published after his death. Bekker died in Oklahoma on April 12, 1908.

It is of interest to follow the providential preservation of the original manuscript, which stayed within the Becker family from 1894 to 1954. The following account comes from two of the grandchildren of Jacob P. Bekker:

Jacob P. Bekker, as stated in the Introduction of the book, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, wrote the manuscript in the hope that it would be put into print for publication. He did not wish to have this done during his life-time, however, because quite a number of the persons mentioned in the manuscript were still living. Father Bekker thus left instruction with his youngest son, Missionary Abraham J. Becker, to see to it that the manuscript be published after his death. When the time came for Abraham J. Becker to initiate the publication, the oldest son, Jacob H. Becker, in whose possession the manuscript was at the time, did not release it for publication. {245}

When father Jacob P. Bekker had been ready to start writing the narrative, he needed financial assistance to purchase paper and other materials. His oldest son, Jacob H. Becker, supplied these needs, and as a result, and being the oldest son, he claimed the manuscript as his inheritance. The manuscript, after it was completed, was often loaned to other members of the family and was read and reread very often and was always accounted for.

Jacob P. Bekker died in 1908. Before his passing, he requested his wife, Mrs. Margaretha Bekker, to make sure that the manuscript got into print. Mrs. Margaretha Bekker died some 17 years later, in 1925, but the manuscript had still not been published. Several years prior to her decease, she requested her youngest daughter, Mrs. Anna Becker Kliewer (Mrs. P. A. Kliewer), to be sure to see to it that the manuscript got into print.

The manuscript was considered precious in the family, but was still in the possession of the oldest son, Jacob H. Becker, in Shafter. At his decease (in 1949), his oldest son, Jake (Jacob the 3rd) claimed the manuscript.

When the P. A. Kliewers made their first trip to California in 1934, Mrs. Anna Becker Kliewer asked for and obtained the manuscript from Jacob H. Becker, in order to give her an opportunity to read it again. It was then circulated among members of the Becker family living in the Midwest—daughter, Mrs. Margaret Suderman, and son, A. J. Becker, and later returned. Mrs. Kliewer obtained the manuscript again on another visit to California around the years 1941 to 1945. While it was in her possession, she remembered her promise and, and, as a result, she made several attempts to have the manuscript published, but was unsuccessful.

In 1947, Peter A. and Anna Becker Kliewer, still living at Ulysses, Kansas, took the manuscript to Tabor College, delivering it to Professor I. G. Neufeld, who at the time was teaching Mennonite History at Tabor. He proceeded to have photostatic copies made of the original and returned the manuscript to the P. A. Kliewers. In November of 1947, the Kliewers moved to Reedley, California, taking the manuscript to Rev. J. B. Toews, who was then Pastor of the Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church and allowed him to take it to the M.B. Church vault for temporary safe-keeping.

Henry D. Kliewer, Ulysses, Kansas
Susan Kliewer (Mrs. C. C.) Neufeld

Although Tabor College, Pacific College (then Pacific Bible Institute) and the M.B. Bible College, Winnipeg, were each supplied with a photostatic copy of the Bekker manuscript in 1947, the copies were apparently not given consideration for publication.

How the original manuscript got from the Reedley M. B. Church vault to Missionary A. J. Becker in Oklahoma is not known. (Susan Kliewer Neufeld has suggested that the Reedley Church vault may have held a photocopy, not the original.) One may conjecture that the daughter, Mrs. P. A. Kliewer, was in contact with her brother, Missionary A. J. Becker, who had initially been commissioned by his father to see to the publication of the manuscript. Though Missionary Becker had not {246} promoted its publication during the years between 1947 and 1953, I assume that he obtained the consensus of his brothers and sisters that the original manuscript be committed to Tabor College for preservation and research purposes. Missionary Becker died in 1953 at Lawton, Oklahoma, where he had retired. But before his death he requested his second oldest son, W. J. (William) Becker, to carry out the agreement of the family, to transfer the prized manuscript to Tabor College and to give about $500.00, of which Missionary Becker had supplied a major portion, to establish a Jacob P. Bekker memorial. W. J. Becker had the manuscript freshly bound, for the binding of the 200 page, 8 by 12 inch note book in which the original was recorded was falling apart. He supplied it with a sturdy, hard cover in black with gold lettering and affixed a photograph of his grandparents. W. J. Becker also provided a title page as follows:

AN AUTHENTIC ACCOUNT
OF THE
EARLY HISTORY
OF THE
MENNONITE BRETHREN CHURCH

RECORDED IN THE HANDWRITING OF:
JACOB P. BEKKER
(Jacob Peter Becker)

Verified by his sons:
And his daughters:

Jacob H. Becker, Shafter, California
Rev. Abraham J. Becker, Lawton, Oklahoma
Mrs. Dan (Margaretha) Suderman, Fairview, Okla.
Mrs. P. A. (Anna) Kliewer, Reedley, California

In turning over the Bekker manuscript to Tabor College in 1954, W. J. Becker wrote the following statement on the front flyleaf:

To whom it may concern—

This book is respectfully dedicated to the research workers of the past and present who have diligently searched for the truth, and to the great Mennonite Brethren Church and the principles which it has upheld during the centuries. It was the express wish of the sons and daughters of Jacob P. Bekker that this record be placed in the custody and care of Tabor College, preferably to be kept in the Library at all times in order that the material might be available for all research workers.

(Signed) Sincerely, W. J. Becker

PUBLICATION OF THE MANUSCRIPT

In 1954, Tabor College, having possession of the Bekker manuscript, transferred it to the fire-proof vault in the recently completed Conference office building in Hillsboro. At that time, I was in the administration of Foreign Missions, and this gave me an opportunity to inspect the manuscript occasionally. Every look at the record of over 200 pages elicited respect and fascination. The contents were impressive, containing invaluable information on the experiences of our forefathers which was not known to many of their descendants.

Around 1954-55, utilizing the $500.00 donation by Missionary Becker {247} and sons, Tabor College employed Professor J. P. Rogalsky, teacher in the German Department, to transliterate the original Gothic script into the more modern (Latin) letter script. Professor Rogalsky hand-copied the entire original. This made it possible to have a typist type the German manuscript from Rogalsky’s transliteration.

By the time the Bekker manuscript was brought to the vault of the M. B. Conference building, the holding had grown to include:

  1. The original manuscript written by Bekker in Gothic script
  2. The transliterated copy by J. P. Rogalsky in Latin script
  3. The typewritten copy; (Three typewritten copies were made: one for Tabor, one for Pacific College [then Pacific Bible Institute], and one for the M.B. Bible College, Winnipeg.)

Between 1954 and 1962 little or no use was made of the manuscripts except to preserve them. In 1961, with the shift of my office from the Conference building to the Tabor College Library, the M.B. Historical Library and the museum established at Tabor College in 1936 were re-activated, and a room in the Tabor Library Building was set aside by the Tabor Administration to house the existing collections and to provide space for additional accessions. When I moved in on March 20, 1961, the scope of my research and archival services included not only missions, but all endeavors of the M.B. Conference and its subdivisions.

Steadily, historical records, documents, biographical material, genealogies, yearbooks, periodicals, magazines, books, files, correspondence, pictures, and other materials were accessioned. One important document in the possession of the historical library was, of course, the original Jacob P. Bekker account of the origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church. But students of history were handicapped in studying Bekker’s account since it was written in the German language. This began to trouble me. Should the experience of the birth of our church remain inaccessible to many of the modern generation because of a language barrier? It became evident that in order to make Bekker’s work available to our younger generation, it would need to be translated into English.

When I shared this concern with Dr. L. J. Franz, then member of the M.B. Board of Publication and of the Board of Christian Literature, he suggested that I go ahead and do the translating. Just then my time was tied up for about a year in other projects. But in January of 1968, Daniel E. Pauls of Marysville, Washington, chanced to visit the Historical library at Tabor. In our conversation he expressed interest in translating some M.B. Church historical records, both for his own interest and to help make them available in English. I mentioned the need of having Bekker’s manuscript translated. By February 13, 1968, at the annual meeting of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, I supplied Pauls with the transliterated copy of Bekker’s original, done by Professor J. P. Rogalsky. By the end of 1969, D. E. Pauls completed the translation and mailed it, together with the German version, to my office.

On March 5, 1970, Dr. Franz reported that the Board of Christian literature had earmarked $500.00 towards the eventual publication of {248} the Bekker book. By this time I was formulating my own translation and, in the process, combined Pauls’ and my translations. By July 26, 1971, I had typed the combined version. It was then submitted to a number of persons who suggested improvements (see the Introduction to the published text). Various members of the Board of Directors of the Historical Society, members of the Board of Christian Literature, and a few ministers spot-read portions of the finished translation. After the suggestions made by critical readers had been inserted, the draft was once more re-typed and then submitted to the M.B. Publishing House for publication under the title Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church. The first printed copies were released on December 21, 1973. I believe it was God’s leading that enabled us to have the English version ready for 1974, the centennial year of the arrival of our forefathers in America.

A. E. Janzen is chairman of the M.B. Historical Society of the Midwest, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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