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July 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 3 · pp. 36–37 

Book Review

Die Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde in Russland, 1925-1980: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte

Heinrich Woelk and Gerhard Woelk. Fresno, CA: Center for M.B. Studies and M.B.B.S., 1981. 229 pages.

Reviewed by Hans Kasdorf

Although the book under review is not an academic history, it is a most valuable contribution to history, as the subtitle has it. In fact, it is a primary source book vital to the more sophisticated historian who may soon render it into English as an actual history.

In its present form, the Woelk book is a unique example of a series of publications dealing with the martyr church in Russia. For one thing, it is an eyewitness account by a father-and-son team committed to shepherding their flocks at high costs. Furthermore, it is an authentic account that was not only observed but also lived and experienced, by the authors. Moreover, it is the first account that deals exclusively with the Mennonite Brethren Church under Russian Communism. As such it presents undeniable witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is, indeed, building His Church and that the powers—both ideological and demonic—cannot overcome it. Finally, it is an interesting book. That fact has its positive as well as negative consequences. The positive consequence is that it is read by Mennonite Brethren, non-Mennonite Brethren, and even by non-Christians (as I have seen in Latin America); the negative is that the first publication was sold out in less than six months, thus becoming unavailable to many would-be readers.

In terms of format and content, the book consists of valuable introductory materials, an appendix, a postscript, and six chapters (or parts), each divided into short sections. The first chapter title promises a historical overview of the Mennonites from 1560 to 1860, but the chapter in actuality does not give that. It picks up the story in 1788 when the Mennonites began to settle in Russia, and it ends with the dispersion and fate of the believers in 1925.

Chapter two speaks more to the point, dealing with the persecution and dissolution of the local churches under Stalin’s regime from 1925 to 1941. These years are characterized by internal spiritual renewal and external political pressure which forced the people to seek refuge in different parts of the country and outside of it. The entire chapter is a detailed account of oppression, persecution, executions, and the triumph of faith that refuses to be overcome by brute force.

The next chapter is a compilation of letters, testimonies, and {37} accounts written almost exclusively by women who tell the fateful story of their husbands and fathers and other loves ones. The author comments:

Torn from their families because of their faith or their ethnic identification and sent into labor camps: such was the fate of our fathers, our men, and our brothers in those places where there are no volunteers. This happened in the forties when the victims were generally not preachers for they had already been exterminated in the thirties. These were now simple children of God, members of Mennonite Brethren Churches who had come to faith during the last spiritual awakening during the twenties. They had barely begun to work for the Lord when powers of darkness quenched all spiritual life. (p. 73)

Chapter IV describes the Mennonite Brethren Church and its relation to the registered Baptist Church. There is a struggle for Mennonite Brethren identity that is not altogether unlike the struggle of the 1860’s. A clear statement of the church concept (pp. 93-94) and a timetable of events (1929-1957) help to crystallize Mennonite Brethren identity.

In chapter V the authors delineate with great care the development of events that eventually led to official recognition of the Mennonite Brethren as a legitimate church body independent of the Baptist Union. The registration procedures took five years and were completed in 1977. The chapter is packed with data and provides a gold mine for the historian.

The last chapter deals with Mennonite Brethren church life in Russia today. A deep sense of concern for a biblical understanding of the church undergirds the entire book. Life and action are based on faith, but faith finds expression in obedience to God. In short, the faith and life of the martyr church is rooted in its understanding of God’s grace and justice, love and holiness.

Those who read German must read this book.

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