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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 243–45 

Book Review

Crossing the Divide: Language Transition Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren, 1940-1970

Gerald C. Ediger. Winnipeg, MB: Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2001. 236 pages.

Reviewed by Walter Unger

Crossing the Divide has been drawn from Gerald Ediger’s Ph.D. dissertation, Deutsch und Religion: Ethnicity, Religion and Canadian Mennonite Brethren, 1940-1970, Toronto School of Theology, 1993. Ediger is a longtime professor in the history of Christianity and teaches at Canadian Mennonite University.

The core of the book delineates three case studies of churches transitioning from German to English. Each of these core chapters has rather dramatic captions and chapter divisions which express Ediger’s sense of the conflictual nature of the transition. The Winkler case study is captioned “To the Brink of Schism,” with one section given the particularly strong pejorative heading, “Denial, Suppression and Manipulation.” The Winnipeg North End-Elmwood chapter is titled “Resisting the Tide of Change,” again with a strongly worded section, “Frustration, Alienation and Malaise.” The Winnipeg South End-Portage Avenue case study is labeled “From Denial to Suppression” with sections on “Schism” and “Suppression Fails Again.”

Ediger’s overall analysis shows how essential the language issue is {244} to a balanced understanding of Mennonite Brethren ethno-religious identity. Key factors contributing to the language transition process were education (with children being educated in English), the desire to move out missionally into English speaking communities, and the role of leadership (199-202). While many leaders were not militantly pro-English, they saw the transition as inevitable.

Ediger states that the coming of the Russländer in the 1920s “delayed and profoundly shaped the course of Canadian Mennonite Brethren language transition” (203). During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s at least some members believed German deserved a sacred status and reflected “a natural extension of the chauvinistic attitudes of many, if not most, Russländer immigrants for their adopted German heritage” (204). German was seen as a hedge against corruption and a positive gift from God. In the 1950s the youth expressed the concern that their elders were ethnocentric and not bibliocentric in their faith (205).

The sources Ediger used in his analysis were congregational records, conference proceedings, and periodicals. Congregational minutes and weekly church bulletins were heavily relied upon in the three case studies. The research does not include material from oral sources. It is the opinion of this reviewer that with so many of the leaders who walked through the transition in the three case studies still living, it was a grave omission not to have interviewed them. In reading private correspondence and through personal interview (by this reviewer), one leader who was a major player in the Winkler transition pointed out numerous discrepancies in Ediger’s account, faulting him for making far too many judgments based on church bulletins and congregational minutes. The latter usually did not give the background nor record the prevailing mood nor take into account that the secretary was a Russländer and strongly pro-German. The minutes reflected this bias, according to this leader.

To his credit, Ediger does admit that congregational minutes, official conference proceedings, and denominational periodicals are under the control of primary opinion leaders. He writes: “This resulted in the pro-German side of the debate receiving a disproportionate share of exposure compared to the pro-English side” (7). The use of oral sources could have given a more accurate view.

By 1970, most MB churches in Canada had “crossed the divide,” transitioning to English. This did not resolve all the tensions, but demonstrated the capacity to change. Canadian MB congregations are now more open and inclusive of diverse cultures, ethnic groups, and languages. In 2000, Canadian MB churches had 34,000 members {245} meeting in more than 220 congregations. MBs in Canada worship in more than a dozen different languages.

Walter Unger
President Emeritus
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia

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