Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 73–74 

Book Review

J B: The Autobiography of a Twentieth-Century Mennonite Pilgrim

J. B. Toews. Fresno, CA: Center for M.B. Studies, 1995. 208 pages.

Reviewed by James C. Juhnke

The autobiography of J.B. Toews, twentieth century leader of the Mennonite Brethren Church, is squarely in the literary tradition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the seventeenth century. He wrote it for his people, the Mennonite Brethren, that his own story might point the way for spiritual renewal in the twenty-first century.

Toews’ theme is “the sovereign providence of God revealed in the life of an individual . . . a testimony to the faithfulness of God in the various circumstances of an exciting journey . . . ”(ix). Most of the book consists of briefly related stories, one to three pages long, of the most significant events of Toews’ life from birth to old age. The stories or sections almost invariably conclude with faith statements of how God’s providence was revealed—in getting an education, in escaping death at the hands of anarchists, in rain on the wedding day, in health crises, in vocational decisions, in criticism of Toews’ leadership, and much more.

Although Toews is as persistent as Bunyan in religious moralizing, his narrative is powerful and riveting, again like Bunyan, because he is a good story-teller. Toews’ life embraced the anguished collapse of Mennonite community in Russia, the struggles of first-generation immigrants adapting to North America, and the confrontations of rapid modernization in religion and society. The author is able to make each crisis seem real and almost insurmountable—acute adolescent insecurities, engagement to a beloved girl who was trapped in Russia, the unwelcome poverty associated with ministerial vocation, the inability of missionaries to overcome their colonialist mentality, and finally, the apparent capitulation of modern Mennonite Brethren to individualism, dogmatism, and worldliness. But always there is the concluding confidence: “My God is a God of the impossible!” (206)

As literature, the first half of the autobiography is more successful than the second. Toews is more psychologically insightful about his own coming of age and quest for vocation than he is about the dynamics of his own role as a powerful institutional leader. A recurring biblical image in the first part is that of the potter molding the clay for service. There is no equivalent image for Toews’ mature work in behalf of the denomination. He strove mightily as executive secretary of the MB mission board in the 1950s to rescue the church from its colonialist mentality, and as president of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Fresno) in the 1960s to rescue the church from fundamentalistic narrowness and loss of historic, biblical, Anabaptist consciousness.

At one or two points, Toews seems on the verge of adopting an ironic {74} viewpoint, which would contrast goals personally (or denominationally) projected on one hand, with limited or unanticipated achievements on the other hand. But the author always steps back from irony and takes the stance of providential vindication. Although he did not always completely reach his high goals, by any ordinary and reasonable standards J.B. Toews was very successful in whatever public endeavors he undertook—as evangelist, pastor, administrator, historian, archivist, and finally, as autobiographer.

A popular theory of ethnic leadership holds that strong leaders usually live on the margins of their groups. They typically have spent formative time away from home, have absorbed insights and tasted of the outside world, have made a difficult decision to return to their communities to share selectively from what they have learned on the outside. J. B. Toews, as he reveals himself in his autobiography, is not such a marginal man. The creativity and productivity of his life did not come from insights gained on the outside and then applied at home. They came rather from a passionate embrace of the contradictions and possibilities within the Mennonite Brethren biblical Anabaptist tradition as it adapted to a rapidly changing world.

James C. Juhnke
History Professor
Bethel College, N. Newton, Kansas