Previous | Next

July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 42–44 

Book Review

Pilgrims and Strangers: Essays in Mennonite Brethren History

ed. Paul Toews. Fresno, CA: Center for M.B. Studies, 1977. 183 pages.

Reviewed by Abraham Friesen

These essays, most of them papers presented at a symposium held in Fresno, California, on the occasion of the publication of J.A. Toews’ A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, are both a celebration and a criticism of that book. It is a healthy sign that the criticism came primarily from within the ranks of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

Introduced by Paul Toews with an essay dealing with the polarities of the Mennonite experience, the essays are divided into four major categories dealing with: I. “The Shapes of Mennonite Brethren History”; II. “1860: Origins of the Mennonite Brethren”; III. “Mennonite Brethren and Other Religious Traditions”; and, IV. “Mennonite Brethren in the Twentieth Century.” The first section is largely philosophical in nature, the second historical, the third theological, and the fourth a call to historical and theological discernment combined with a call to a renewed commitment and action.

The first essay, by Frank Epp, is a call to keep “body” and “soul” together in writing the history of the church. By “soul” Epp means the spiritual life of the church and by “body” the social context. In general, Epp concludes that Toews has accomplished this, though he is critical of the second section where Toews has organized his material around a series of topics which are relevant but not in any comprehensive way as, for example, around a central theme.

The second essay in this section is by Delbert Wiens; it deals with the central issue of the church’s attempt to define itself in ideal terms {43} and the attempt to embody this ideal in the institutions it creates. The description of ourselves in terms of our ideals only is a half-truth Wiens states; we have a tendency to write the “official” history as manifested in conference decisions, etc., and leave the “inner” history out of sight.

The second section contains an essay by C.J. Dyck and another by John B. Toews of Calgary. In the first, Dyck points to the restitutionist impulse in the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church going back to Menno—and the similarities between 1525 and 1860. The irony of 1860 was that the Mennonites of 1860 had recreated the very conditions in Russia against which their Anabaptist forebears had rebelled in 1525 and 1536. The second essay is much more concerned with 1860 as such, the nature and availability of the evidence concerning 1860 and the motivation of the secessionists. Taking a broader view of these origins than J.A. Toews, John B. Toews points to the growth of an economic and ecclesiastical elite become increasingly authoritarian against which parallel rebellions take place: on the economic level, the landless, and on the ecclesiastical, the Brethren.

In the third section, Clarence Hiebert argues that Toews views the history of the Mennonite Brethren Church too positively. He illuminates, with random examples, some of the more negative aspects of that history, tracing some of the influences that have brought us where we are, not all of which were intellectual or theological. He implies that Toews has not paid enough attention to what he calls the Sitz im Leben in his analysis of Mennonite Brethren history. J.B. Toews, in the second essay of this section, traces some of the extraneous, i.e., non-Anabaptist-Mennonite, influences on the current theology of the Mennonite Brethren Church, influences which have in large part eroded our Anabaptist-Mennonite concepts of discipleship and the Believers’ Church.

The book concludes with a call to assess where we are theologically, first of all, by a return to New Testament-Anabaptist principles, and secondly, by means of a critical analysis of where we have come from, what we now are, and what we should be. The first is by John E. Toews, and the second by J.A. Toews. Perhaps the first essay in this last section should have been placed last.

One could say much more about each essay; one could also say some critical things. One of the main concerns of all the essays seems to be how we conceive ourselves. A second is whether or not this conception—or these conceptions—are adequate, not to say misleading. Are we really what we say we are, and can we content ourselves with writing our history from those official—or unofficial—pronouncements {44} about ourselves? Have we in fact been influenced more by the mundane than we care to admit? Do we embellish the positive and downplay the negative? And in spite of the best of good will on our part, can we really write the history of the struggle between the real and ideal life of the Mennonite Brethren Church as “insiders”? Here are searching questions we all need to face. But here is also a birth of that interest in our own history—an interest, which, if encouraged to mature—can only enhance our understanding of ourselves and of those influences that are impinging upon us from without. And unless we have such an historical understanding we will continue, as some of the essays make clear, to be at the mercy of those contemporary social, economic, and especially intellectual forces. This volume calls us to such historical awareness.

Abram Friesen
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California

Previous | Next