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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 65–66 

Book Review

History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition

Abraham Friesen. Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series. No. 7. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1994. xi + 155 pages.

Reviewed by Abe J. Dueck

This book grew out of Friesen’s Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College in October, 1992. In his Preface, Friesen states that the theme is one which he hopes to develop more completely in a study to be entitled, Rewriting Reformation History: Ludwig Keller and the 19th Century Attack on Protestant Orthodoxy.

The book is a rather interesting mix of autobiography, biography, history and theology. Although the title suggests attention to a rather broad theme of renewal, the focus is somewhat more limited. Ludwig Keller’s late nineteenth century attempt to win the European Mennonite to his view of the origins of the Anabaptists in the “old evangelical brotherhoods,” such as the Waldensians, is really the thread that ties the various chapters together.

The first chapter (Becoming Anabaptist), and the second chapter (Doing Anabaptist History), are framed in the events that led Friesen himself to an appreciation of his Anabaptist heritage and to a professional career as a historian who approached the study of Anabaptism from a broader context of Reformation studies. Of particular importance was Friesen’s contact in Germany with his great uncle, Abraham Braun, whose brother, Heinrich, was a publisher (owner of Raduga Press) and Mennonite leader in Russia. Another brother, Peter, was the Mennonite archivist whose collection was recently discovered in Odessa.

The biographical section of the book is largely devoted to the activities of Keller and his extensive contacts and correspondence with the German and Dutch Mennonites, as well as with John Horsch, the South German Mennonite and father-in-law of Harold S. Bender, who migrated to America in 1886. Keller’s larger agenda was to counter the growing orthodoxies of the state churches and to depict the early Anabaptists as undogmatic Christians who owed their origins to the “old evangelical brotherhoods.” He even attempted to persuade the Mennonites to change their name to “alt evangelische Taufgesinnte.” He was particularly fond of Hans Denck and tried to disseminate his writings among the Mennonites and also wrote a biography of Denck to promote his thesis concerning the true character of Anabaptism. In doing so, the “sectarian” character of the Anabaptists was negated. The Lutherans and other confessional groups emerged as the real “sects.”

The final chapter describes how John Horsch came into contact with Keller as a young man in South Germany and how for a time he aided Keller in promoting Denck and disseminating Keller’s thesis. Eventually, however, {66} this relationship soured, much as Keller’s relationship with European Mennonites soured. Horsch began to decry Denck’s “liberalism” and was won to an essentially fundamentalist-Mennonite orientation. Harold Bender, in turn, picked up the cause with his less polemical version of the “Anabaptist vision.”

At various points Friesen touches on, but does not elaborate on, other interesting points. In particular, again and again, Friesen makes brief references to P. M. Friesen and his book, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland (1789-1910) in Rahmen der Mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte (e.g., pp. 3, 13, 16, 78). The title, as Friesen rightly asserts, is “vintage Keller,” but P. M. Friesen makes no references to Keller! What is the nature of the connection and what are the implications? One cannot help wondering why the English translation, which Abraham Friesen helped to produce, changed the title to The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia. It is interesting to note that P. M. Friesen also wrote a small pamphlet, “Konfession oder Sekte?” which may also have owed something to the earlier debate which Keller spearheaded.

One of the constant refrains of Friesen’s book is, “Who speaks for the Anabaptists?” Friesen makes clear that he does not feel that the polygenesis approach has much to offer to those who seek renewal. But in the final analysis, it remains unclear who really speaks for the Anabaptists. We all use history to confirm our own prejudices and select our own theological heroes!

Friesen’s book should be of vital interest to Mennonite Brethren readers. Although it does not really chart a clear course for renewal, it raises very important issues as Mennonite Brethren struggle to find a way for their own history to serve the purpose of revitalization.

Abe J. Dueck
Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Canada
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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