Fall 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 2 · pp. 106–8 

Book Review

A Man of His Word: A Biography of John A. Toews

Elfrieda Toews Nafziger. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1992. 183 pages.

Reviewed by Wesley J. Prieb

Elfrieda Toews Nafziger, eldest daughter of John A. Toews, has combined family perspectives with scholarly research in this biography. She has revealed the clay feet of her father along with his many special gifts. This biographical portrait is required reading for people interested in preserving Mennonite Brethren identity as part of the Anabaptist movement.

John A. Toews was born in the Mennonite village of Ruekenau, Molotchna Colony, South Russia, August 15, 1912. John was two years old when Russia declared war on Germany. For the next twenty years, his life was shaped by the red horse of war, the black horse of famine, and the pale horse of pestilence and death. In 1922 he observed the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) feeding operation on his grandfather’s farm. He always remembered how good the MCC buns tasted. In 1926 the Toews family migrated to Dalmeny, Saskatchewan, and later homesteaded on a 320-acre farm near Namaha, Alberta. He married Nettie Willms, an orphan emigrant, November 9, 1935, during a blizzard. In the 1979 obituary, John, Jr. writes,

For members of our own somewhat pampered generation the energy and optimism with which father attacked, overcame, or simply ignored economic hardship and courted mother, set up a family and pursued his education, seem quite incredible.

Mennonite Brethren Peoplehood. Toews was a blue-collar scholar who combined work, studies, teaching, and leadership in preserving the heritage of his people, often referred to as “People of the Way.” Three years in the Coaldale Bible School immersed him in Canadian Mennonite Brethren culture and vision. Three years at Tabor College in Kansas exposed him to the ethos of the United States. Of Tabor, he said, “I learned to appreciate our spiritual heritage . . . and the balanced emphasis on evangelism and social concerns.”

From 1940-46 he served as teacher in the Coaldale Bible School and developed skills in preaching and conference leadership. After completing his B.A. degree at the University of Saskatchewan in 1947 with a history major, he started a twenty-year span of service at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC, now Concord College) in Winnipeg. His first love was teaching Mennonite history. For seven years he served as president. Somehow he found time to earn the M.A. in history at the {107} University of Manitoba and a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota at the age of 52 years.

With incredible diversity of gifts—scholar, teacher, administrator, preacher, evangelist, conference leader, and writer—he helped the North American Mennonite Brethren constituency clarify its identity as a Mennonite people. His knowledge and passion were encapsuled in A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, published in 1975. “People without roots suffer from an identity crisis,” he often said.

Inter-Mennonite Cooperation. Toews sought to heal the wounds created by the Mennonite Brethren renewal movement of 1860 in South Russia. He had close connections with the Alliance movement both in Russia and Canada. He was a strong advocate of inter-Mennonite cooperation, especially in the ministries of MCC and world missions. He served as counselor in the Conscientious Objector camps during World War II and as MCC ambassador in South America, seeking to help the new Mennonite communities there. He was a speaker at many peace conferences, always seeking to maintain a strong balance between the peace witness and evangelism. His book True Nonresistance Through Christ (1955) was widely used in the larger Mennonite community and by peaceloving people around the world.

Toews attended four gatherings of the Mennonite World Conference and served on the Presidium. He was often criticized for his ecumenical spirit, but through gentle tenacity he helped both the Mennonite Brethren and the larger Mennonite community work together in the Name of Christ.

Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Inter-Mennonite ministries inevitably led Toews to Harold S. Bender and his pivotal essay, “The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision.” More than any other person, Bender inspired Toews to recover that vision for the Mennonite Brethren fellowship. He understood the great pressure of cultural accommodation and theological drift in the free society of North America. He was clearly a corrective force in defining the Anabaptist concept of church.

The Anabaptist vision, as Toews perceived it, defined the church as a community of believers, Bible readers, stewards, disciples and witnesses. . . . Only those who had experienced the new birth and had voluntarily entered into a covenant with other believers belonged to the church. . . . The Bible was not only a book of doctrine but also one of ethics. Christ and the New Testament were the final authority; the Old Testament was interpreted in light of the New . . . a community of stewards must be a brotherhood where mutual love and concern for every member found a clear expression in a community of disciples. . . . Baptism was seen as the initiation into the fellowship and nonresistance as an expression of discipleship. . . . The ethic of love and nonresistance were [sic] now an integral part of the Gospel he preached. (p. 56) {108}

After his resignation as president of MBBC, Toews shared his gifts through varied ministries: conference moderator, world traveler, teacher abroad, pastor (Fraserview Church, BC), teacher at Trinity Western College for four years, research-writer in Fresno for one year, and speaker at numerous conferences and workshops. Always the Anabaptist vision focused his varied ministries.

It was this vision that led him to spend his last years at MBBC. His final call was to help establish the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, another attempt to honor the God of history. On January 1, 1979, on his way to the college and classroom he suffered a heart attack. The next day he died. But the witness of John A. Toews continues to serve as a reliable compass for “People of the Way.”

Wesley Prieb
Past Director of Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies
Tabor College
Hillsboro, Kansas