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Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 231–234 

Book Review

California Mennonites

Brian Froese. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 334 pages.

Reviewed by Darren Dochuk

In the mid-twentieth century, author-activist Carey McWilliams published several pointedly argued yet beautiful expositions of California’s distinctive character (and character flaws) as it confronted a dizzying acceleration of modernity in its second century. Memorable descriptors followed. In one case he designated his home region “An Island on the Land”; in another he called it “The Great Exception.” Of his own town McWilliams proposed “that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place” like the City of Angels. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me: a ringside seat at the circus.”

Focused on this same locale and moment, displaying a similarly incisive eye for the quirky and sublime, Brian Froese does much to extend McWilliams’s renderings of the Golden State. His too is a story of exceptionalism. It was in California, Froese asserts, that frontier-minded Mennonites showed themselves to be a strikingly “dynamic people who did not simply become modern but who actively shaped their experience to do so on their terms” (242). California Mennonites, we learn, absorbed the energy of the place and shaped it into a religious fervency not seen anywhere else.

Froese’s book is, first and foremost, a rigorously researched local history that concentrates on the Mennonite experience in California. “By choosing to migrate to and remain in California,” Froese argues succinctly, “Mennonites employed several strategies to bring together religious identity, accommodation, and practice so that their Mennonitism could take root. . . . The plurality of their responses and strategies demonstrates the freedoms and concerns the far west frontier provided for a small group of ethno-religious agrarians well into the twentieth {232} century” (xii). Aware of important subtleties of difference within Mennonitism, Froese carefully charts the shared but at times divergent histories of its three largest groups—the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren—as they strove to make California home. He demonstrates equal care when accounting for key differences within this California terrain. While many of his subjects helped populate Los Angeles, it was “mostly . . . cities and towns in the Great Central Valley, where the vast majority of California Mennonites chose to live” (xiii).

Qualifiers established, Froese guides his reader through twelve meticulously assembled, chronologically and thematically organized chapters. He begins by outlining Mennonite migrations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and accounting for this peoples’ search for health, fertile land, and fresh economic opportunities. These sojourners were initially shocked by the foreignness, and discomfiting extremes of their new home; at once paradise and dystopia, God’s promised land and the Devil’s den, California appeared to them as a schizophrenic place that was to be feared, tamed, and resisted as much as embraced and tapped for collective gain (22). Whatever their worries, these pilgrims proceeded with an undying sense of mission to construct a vibrant “institutional culture” that could blanket the land in a “religious and spiritual language” of salvation (14; 21). Whereas in other North American locales the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonites boasted statistical dominance, in California it was the Mennonite Brethren that enjoyed the fullest pews, hence control of this mission and this language. More evangelical and adaptable to cultural shifts, members of this clan were ideally suited to the indigenous pressures and possibilities that confronted California’s newcomers (21).

To be sure, all three branches found California to be a “fecund garden” that nurtured growth (24). Especially in the years of California’s rapid development (1940s–1960s) Mennonites of all heritages rode waves of advancement. In chapters 6–12 of his book, Froese slows his chronology in order to zero in on the range of new strategies that his subjects used to connect with the burgeoning society around them. During this period, Mennonites adapted their communitarian values, social justice imperatives, and prescriptions for outreach to the free-enterprising, market-driven desires and demands of the Golden State’s modernizing masses. From “sewing circles to missionary societies,” charitable agencies to mental health services, advanced agricultural work in the “citrus and grapes” sector to the creation of a sophisticated private educational apparatus; Mennonites spent the postwar boom blending “piety {233} and professionalization” (and patriotism) in hopes of making their faith count in the public sphere (110; 169; 176–77).

Even as all Mennonites participated in this assimilating endeavor, Mennonite Brethren outpaced others in adaptability and impact. Always friendlier than their peers to evangelical culture (and the free-enterprising, market-driven, patriotic desires and demands that this culture has always fostered), Mennonite Brethren adherents found an especially auspicious climate in Cold War California. As Froese shows, they more than seized the moment. Their most notable engagement with California’s evangelical establishment came in private education, specifically in the founding of a Bible institute and seminary, which mirrored other evangelical schools like BIOLA. From out of the Mennonite Brethren’s Fresno intellectual hub emerged scores of ministers trained in a faith that blended evangelical boldness with Mennonite theological and cultural modesty, and ready to fill pulpits across the western United States and Canada (231).

A book for specialists in Mennonite history, California Mennonites also has much to say to students of North American religious (particularly evangelical) history. By exposing readers to a vibrant yet underestimated force within the much-written-about evangelical juggernaut of postwar California Protestantism, Froese’s addition provides a valuable service. But he does not simply add to extant narratives; he also tweaks them. Historians of Californian religion, for instance, have tended to portray their subjects in the tidy culture-war binaries (conservative vs. progressive, right vs. left, fundamentalist vs. modernist, sacred vs. secular) with which most Americans are so familiar today. Yet in the Mennonite story presented herein, historians are witness to a constituency that “blended progressive and conservative streams of evangelical theology with Mennonite historical identity,” and harbored both “religious and secular impulses” as they navigated a chaotic (and often circus-like) twentieth-century California (193; 231).

Just how much blending of this sort was distinctively Californian remains relatively unexplored in this text. Froese’s is primarily a tale of a community set apart; though there are a few tantalizing indications of how it also became a vanguard of broader trends within Mennonite and American religious orbs, Californian Mennonitism is largely portrayed here (borrowing from McWilliams) as an “island on the land.” Fully committed to their tradition, over time California Mennonites nevertheless accepted the theological and methodological innovations that defined their cutting-edge environs. To what degree did they transmit these innovations along with their lessons of adjustment to fellow believers across North America, or collaborate in such forward-looking {234} tendencies with Mennonites living in other emerging (and understudied) dynamic outposts such as Texas and Florida . . . and British Columbia? Did Canadian and American Mennonites glimpse in California happenings a future that was about to overtake them all, or did they see their Fresno, Los Angeles, and Bakersfield brethren strictly as an exception to the rule, people “erupting like lava” with strange and unusual gusto? To what degree can (should) California Mennonites be credited with fomenting a late-century evangelical movement that in the ages of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—Preston Manning and Stephen Harper—redefined U.S. and western Canadian political culture writ large?

Curiosities to ponder further, perhaps, all the result of Froese’s constructive provocations. But for now, Froese’s is a book that deserves full appreciation on its own stated and accomplished terms. Its empathetic, layered rendering of church-folk caught in the Golden State’s dizzying acceleration of modernity should remind chroniclers of all religious people(s) that easy binaries and tidy categories of identity (ethnic and regional, theological and political) are incessantly fluid, and insufficient explanatory devices when trying to make sense of the difficult exigencies disciples of any creed face when carving out meaning in their ever-changing present, and adjusting convictions in ways that honor their past.

* Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1973 [1946]), 376.

Darren Dochuk
Associate Professor of History
University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN

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