A Generation of Vigilance: The Lives and Work of Johannes and Tina Harder
T. D. Regehr. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2009. 340 pages.
Ted Regehr’s biography of an influential Mennonite Brethren couple in mid-twentieth-century British Columbia is a refreshing work that not only highlights the Mennonite Brethren experience but also considers the powerful leadership of a couple, not just an individual. This book is straightforward, articulate, and grounded in primary sources. The project was begun by Jacob Loewen, who sadly became too ill to complete the manuscript himself. Thankfully, Regehr agreed to finish this, the fourth and final major project of the Yarrow Research Committee.
The book follows the lives of Johannes and Tina Harder chronologically, with each division of time characterized by a theme such as education, farming, and church discipline. This arrangement permits the story of the Harders to serve as a window into a past world. Thus the book is about this couple but it is also about Russian Mennonite immigration and British Columbian Mennonite life and religion. Over twenty chapters, Regehr demonstrates the power of the ebb and flow of history as the Harders’ world is slowly eroded and the need for a flexible religious understanding developed.
Regehr opens his study by informing the reader that the Harders’ reputation is mixed: they are remembered for hard work, fidelity to Scripture, and devotion to the church; they are also remembered for being harsh in their discipline and their enforcement of strict behavior codes. According to Regehr’s contextualization, “both are the strengths and weaknesses of the Harders [and] were rooted in their efforts to recreate in British Columbia a church and community modelled on the Russian Mennonite Brethren experience” (4). This interpretive insight serves as an effective center to the book.
Regehr incorporates larger historical themes into this biography, exposing the cultural and religious tensions faced by the Harders. For example, on issues of faith, sex, and the German language, the Harders seemingly were unable to see through culture to appreciate the adaptive quality of Christian faith and practice. The Harders also reflect the difficult transformations Mennonite Brethren throughout Canada experienced: the travails of immigration, the construction of basic religious structures, the expansion of church work and church institutions/programs, the struggle with changing social mores, and the eventual decline of German and ascendancy of English. While Regehr does well to explain theological concepts in appropriate places, in particular conversion (78) and the role of Bible schools (chapter 7), he is especially strong when describing agricultural practices and co-ops in chapter 5. In the early chapters, he also pays fair attention to Tina’s experience—especially her particular role in working with women and her own spiritual difficulties. He also provides significant context, though mostly in a footnote, on women in Russian Mennonite churches (106).
There are a few points that give pause in this biographical-historical study. In the opening chapters where the Russian-Mennonite background is being established, Regehr tends to give such summary treatments of interesting and important topics that they remain vague or unexplained. One example is his mention, without explanation, of groups such as the Templars or Movement of Exuberance (16). In some places, expanded analysis by Regehr would be welcomed. For example, unpacking the Mennonite Brethren context of Tina’s conversion beyond the brief description of the pietistic need for conversion experience would aid the reader less familiar with Mennonite Brethren history (39).
Furthermore, there is a near total absence of Tina in large portions of the book. This is no doubt due to the nature of the primary sources. But a bibliographic note addressing the issue of gender history in this sort of study would have been appropriate, given that the book is about a couple. A final minor quibble concerns the occasional presence of an editorializing voice in the text. One chapter, for example, opens with a Bible story that seems unconnected to the Harders’ story; the author seems to contrive a biblical connection for his own reasons (60). On a few occasions Regehr comments directly on the experiences of these actors: “sadly, there were moral lapses” (15) or “fortunately, his religious training . . . provided guidance” (35). In such cases, the editorial comments intrude on what should be a straightforward historical explication of people’s experiences.
These concerns aside, Regehr has ultimately done us an important service by broadening Mennonite historiography of leadership to include both husband and wife, and by drawing further attention to the Mennonite Brethren in British Columbia. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Russian Mennonite migration to Canada, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren, church discipline, congregational controversy, foreign missions, and similar topics.