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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 266–68 

Book Review

Leaving Anabaptism: From Evangelical Mennonite Brethren to Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches

Calvin W. Redekop. Telford, PA; Scottdale, PA: Pandora; Herald, 1998. 265 pages.

Reviewed by Valerie Rempel

In Leaving Anabaptism, sociologist Calvin Redekop blends sociological analysis and historical narrative to trace the changing nature of self-understanding and theological identity among a small group of churches of Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage.

Initially formed as the Conference of United Mennonite Brethren of {267} North America in 1889, this small denomination has undergone a series of name changes which Redekop suggests serve as markers for the denomination’s changing identity. Known for much of its history as the Defenseless Mennonite Brethren (1918-1937) and then the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (1937-1987), this tiny group struggled to maintain and balance two emphases which were foundational to the movement. The first was a concern to take seriously the historic Anabaptist emphasis upon discipleship and nonconformity; the second was to nurture an understanding of the need for personal conversion and an authentic gospel witness.

These dual emphases were personified in the characters of the movement’s founders, Isaac Peters and Aron Wall, who brought from Russia a concern for spiritual and ethical reform within the Mennonite church as well as a warm experiential faith nurtured through contact with the Pietist movement. Redekop suggests that as long as these dual emphases were both represented and respected the movement was able to keep its balance as a reform movement within the Mennonite family of churches. With the passing of the founding generation, Anabaptist emphases gradually faded and the movement increasingly identified itself with the Evangelical mainstream. Its current name, the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches, chosen in 1987, reflects the denomination’s movement away from historic Anabaptism and toward American Evangelicalism.

Redekop suggests that the movement’s efforts to grow numerically and to increase their missionary outreach both at home and abroad came to be viewed as hampered by traditional Anabaptist emphases. The group’s small size, always less than five thousand members, meant that it could not sustain its own training institutions and mission programs. Choosing to work through non-Mennonite mission groups and train primarily in Evangelical/Fundamentalist Bible schools in the U.S. and Canada meant that the movement’s theological orientation was increasingly shaped by the concerns of American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. The group’s alliance with a host of Evangelical and Fundamentalist mission agencies, many of which were nondenominational, tended to put them at odds with other Mennonite groups and reinforced the primacy of missions over the nurture of congregational life. Increasingly, the “ethnic restraints of traditional Mennonitism” came to be viewed as the primary hindrance to numerical growth.

Unfortunately, the name changes and the reshaping of its theological heritage have not helped accomplish the growth goals set out by the group. To that end, Redekop’s book is a useful case study for what happens as reform movements struggle both to maintain identity but also to {268} prosper in the North American religious landscape. Redekop’s book suggests that by failing to keep a balance between the group’s founding emphases, it has also failed to accomplish either of them.

Those interested in the study of reform movements will find this a valuable addition to the scholarship in this field, as will those with particular interest in the DMB/EMB story.

Valerie Rempel
Asst. Prof. of Church History and Theology
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California

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