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July 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 2 · pp. 217–23 

Reflections on Mennonite Brethren Historiography

John A. Toews

Reluctantly I have complied with the request of the editors of Direction for an article in which I would discuss “the kinds of decisions necessary for one writing a history.” The “agonies and ecstacies” of such an experience cannot easily be described, although it might be less difficult to write about the former than the latter.

I would like to state at the outset that what I have to share must be considered descriptive rather than prescriptive, since I do not think that my experience is necessarily normative or applicable to others. Writing about the faith and life of the brotherhood to which one belongs, and in which one has been an active participant, creates special problems which are probably not encountered by the historian who writes about early Greek architecture or about some aspect of the papacy of the Middle Ages. During my research and writing the truth of James 3:1 has often come to mind—a truth which is applicable to writers as well as to teachers: “. . . for you know” James reminds us, “that we who teach (or write!) shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Before I discuss some of the problems I have endeavored to resolve in my work, it might be appropriate to raise the question whether another history of the M.B. Church was needed at this time. A little less than twenty-five years ago J. H. Lohrenz wrote The Mennonite Brethren Church, and just twenty years ago (1954) A. H. Unruh’s Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde was published. Why another book at this time?

Several answers might be given. Let me state the obvious reason first: the history of the Mennonite Brethren needed to be brought up-to-date, especially in view of the fact that the post-war period (since 1945) has been one of dynamic growth and dramatic changes in our North American brotherhood. Moreover, Unruh’s German version of the story is not readily accessible to the younger generation nor to people coming into our congregations from a non-German cultural background.

Another and more important reason must be added. Although the sources of historical material have remained basically unchanged, the questions asked of these sources vary from generation to generation. In his introduction to The Western Experience, Eugene Rice gives the following illuminating answer to the question why new histories have to be written from time to time: “Historical writing is in constant flux,” he observes, “because historians ask their sources questions {218} newly shaped by social and cultural needs.” 1 It is precisely these “changing social and cultural needs” of the last three decades which called for a new analysis and treatment of the old (as well as new) sources. Whether the author of the new book has asked the relevant questions of his sources he leaves to the judgment of both the general reader and the critical historian.

The issues that will be raised in the following pages are not necessarily given in the order of their importance.


Objectivity in historiography is an ideal that is hard to attain and perhaps even harder to maintain. Objectivity does not mean that the historian should be a man without personal convictions or commitment to a clearly-defined world-view. But he must have a conscious awareness of his intellectual biases and limitations, and he must make every effort to transcend these biases and limitations by drawing upon all available sources and all current viewpoints.

Various pressures may tend to weaken or distort objectivity. P. M. Friesen tells us that when he began his work of research and writing he was approached by a member of the church who suggested to him that he write a history which would be an apology for the new movement and which would prove conclusively the “rightness” of the Mennonite Brethren. Friesen categorically rejected such a partisan approach. Very sound advice was given to him by the aging Jakob Reimer, one of the founding fathers of the new church: “Write the truth, good and evil, as the Bible about David.” This, Friesen observes, was “right, but oh how difficult!” 2 On the basis of my limited experience I find it easy to share in this confession.

One area in which an objective analysis is of crucial significance is the treatment of the underlying cause of events that led to the “secession” of 1860. Here, I am inclined to believe, my general knowledge of Anabaptist-Mennonite history helped me to see events in historical perspective. From such a perspective, the charges made by the Brethren in the “Document of Secession” were too sweeping and too severe. The best proof for that is found in the fact that the renewal movement in the “old” church continued after the establishment of the new church.

Another problem which called for an impartial and objective approach was the relationship of the two major conferences involved in this history, the United States and Canadian area conferences. In dealing with this problem I became especially grateful for my years of residence and study in the United States. Earlier I had the opportunity to spend three years at Tabor College where I learned to know our brotherhood and its leadership in the South; later I did graduate work at the University of Minnesota and gained a better understanding of American history in general. I consider it also providential that I was invited to come to Fresno and do my research and writing at the Seminary and on the adjoining campus of Pacific College. There I had the privilege to share my findings and test my views with brethren who had a better knowledge of the U.S. {219} constituency than I had. The “Committee of Readers” composed of brethren from Winnipeg, Hillsboro, and Fresno also gave helpful suggestions, enabling me to see things in proper historical perspective.

Although I have seriously endeavored to follow the principles of historical objectivity (or, to use B. H. Unruh’s phrase “historische Sauberkeit”), I realize that the ideal may not always have been attained. One thing I confess unashamedly and without apology, however: I have written this history with a loving concern for the brotherhood and with a deep appreciation for its spiritual heritage.


Historical writing is selective writing. Not all that has happened can (or should!) be recorded. This means that the historian constantly has to select from the mass of material that is available to him those events, men, and movements which he considers most significant. This process of selection is much more difficult than it may appear at first glance. Only the constant exercise of severe self-discipline, guided by commitment to specific goals and objectives, will prevent the historian from following interesting by-paths which his research may provide. The discipline to which I had been subjected in working on several dissertations helped me to avoid some of the usual pitfalls.

The selection of material was partly determined by the scope of the book. A “committee of consultants” which met for orientation and “brain-storming” in the early days of my work in Fresno had agreed that the book should deal primarily with the history of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, but that it should also trace and describe the European antecedents. This meant that part one had to be limited to approximately 100 pages, whereas P. M. Friesen gives this story in 776 pages, and A. H. Unruh devotes 410 pages to the European background.

The selection of material was also governed by the level of treatment. In its corporate life, our brotherhood operates on various “levels”—the local congregational level, the provincial or district conference level, the area conference level (United States and Canada), and the General Conference level. The “consultation committee” (mentioned above) agreed that the scope and purpose of the book would not permit the treatment of developments on a local church level. Although most, if not all, local congregations in the North American constituency have been mentioned in connection with the expansion of our conferences, relatively few have received special consideration. As a general rule, I have described in greater detail the origin and development of those churches which served as centers of organization and expansion during the pioneer period in a given area. The Winkler M.B. Church, for instance, has been given fuller treatment that any other church in Canada for the simple reason that it was the first M.B. Church established in this country. Special consideration was also given to those local developments which were significant for the larger brotherhood.

The above guidelines were also applied in including brief biographical {220} sketches of certain leaders. Many more should have received “honorable mention,” but within the limited scope of the book this was impossible. We recognize the fact that there are literally hundreds of other fine Christian workers who have served faithfully in our local congregations and whom the Lord has used in building His Kingdom. Those whose ministry has been described in some detail must be considered as representative of the larger “company of the committed” in our brotherhood, past and present. I should add here that those men and women still active in the arena of conference ministries have, for obvious reasons, been largely excluded.


The primary sources of Mennonite Brethren history in Russia as well as in early America are all in German. (The Historical Commission of our General Conference is making arrangements for the translation of P. M. Friesen’s magnum opus. If successful, this would make the best primary source available to English readers.) Up to World War II most conference minutes on the area and general conference levels were recorded in the German language. This also applies to the official and semi-official Conference periodicals such as the Zionsbote, the Friedenstimme, the Mennonitische Rundschau (still being published in German), and the Konferenz-Jugendblatt. This meant that I had to work with German sources in preparing the major part of the manuscript.

Proper translation requires more than a thorough knowledge of the language from which the translation is to be made. To know the etymology of a word, its dictionary meaning, is not enough. Words receive their meaning through usage in a given historical and cultural context. Hence a knowledge of that particular history and culture, in which words or terms have been used, is essential for making correct translations.

Several examples may help to illustrate the problem. How does one translate the term Fuersorgekomitee when used of a government-appointed “committee” with administrative and judiciary powers over the affairs of foreign settlers in the Ukraine? In an otherwise respectable translation of a historic document I found that the term had been rendered as “Committee of Reference and Counsel”—the term we use in our conference for an elected body of church leaders and for which the German equivalent had been Fuersorgekomitee. However, this rendering does not at all describe the nature and function of the group of government officials in Odessa. In the Mennonite Encyclopedia (Vol. II, p. 556), C. Krahn translates the term as “Guardians Committee.” I found this translation somewhat inadequate. The Fuersorgekomitee’s function was not merely to “guard,” but to supervise the administration of the colonies. Moreover, it was really not a “committee.” Members of a committee are usually responsible to the people who have elected them. Members of a “commission” are generally responsible to the officials who have appointed them. Hence I have translated the term as “Supervisory Commission.” {221}

A similar problem arose in the translation of Oberschulze, the man who had administrative responsibilities over a number of villages which comprised a district or volost. How is the functional role of this official best described in a translation? Krahn uses the term “district mayor.” But a “mayor” is usually thought of as the chief administrative official of a city or town. Hence I have translated Obershulze as “Colony Administrator” to indicate both the scope and nature of his responsibility.

And what about Froehliche Richtung? How does one properly describe the movement that was characterized by excessive emotionalism, fanaticism and false freedom? To render it as “Happy Movement” misses the mark; to call it the “Enthusiastic Movement” is also unsatisfactory. I began describing it as the “Joyous or Hilarious Movement” but “Exuberant Movement” would probably have been better. Perhaps it would have been best to call it Froehliche Richtung throughout, with a comprehensive paraphrase or explanation after its first occurrence. Similar problems were encountered in the translation of many other idiomatic terms.


One of our leading evangelicals in Canada stated some time ago that the hardest thing in life is to keep a proper balance. (This statement was made in reference to theological balance.) To maintain a proper balance of emphases or interests is also extremely difficult for church historians. In F. Oehninger’s Geschichte des Christentums, which was published in 1897, the expansion of Christianity on the North American continent is barely mentioned! We have also seen standard works on the Reformation in which the Anabaptist movement is given the status of a footnote! Historians must resist the tempation to ride their hobby horses or to yield to the pressures of special interest groups.

One balance which I diligently sought to maintain was the balance between the two area conferences: their institutions, their missionary endeavors, their church expansion. Much has happened in both Canada and the United States during the past century (1874-1974). Relatively speaking, much more happened in the United States during the first half of this century than in Canada. Hence early M.B. history on this continent centers largely in the United States. Canadian M.B. churches were small and few in number, dependent on the older and larger brotherhood in the United States.

As a result of the large-scale immigration from Russia in the 1920’s the Canadian Conference began to grow rapidly. By 1951 the membership of the Canadian Conference had surpassed that of the U.S. Conference, and a new “balance” emerged. The establishment of churches in rapid succession and the proliferation of institutions (especially Bible schools and Christian high schools) made it extremely difficult to assign equal space to both areas. On this point I beg for the reader’s indulgence.

Another aspect of the problem of proper balance I constantly faced in connection with the various phases of Conference work. Should {222} publications, for instance, be given more space and stronger emphasis? The members of the “Readers’ Committee” who were involved in the publishing enterprise probably thought so, but this opinion was not shared by those involved in education. Should music be incorporated into the chapter on “The Ministry of the Church” or should a separate chapter be devoted to this important phase of our church life? I decided in favor of the latter approach. The space devoted to various institutions and agencies depended to a large extent on the “level” of their administration and operation. Institutions such as Tabor College, Pacific College, Mennonite Brethren Bible College, and the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, which are presently administered by area conferences, were given fuller treatment than Bible schools and Christian high schools operated by provincial or district conferences or societies.

I fear that many leaders involved in some phase of Conference work will be disappointed when they leaf through the pages of the new book and discover that their particular institution, organization, or ministry has been given scanty treatment. I trust the reader will remember that the purpose of the book is not to serve as a promotional book for certain causes but to present a balanced and comprehensive account of the church’s faith, life, and work in broad outline. How well I have succeeded in “seeing the whole and seeing it steadily,” I leave to the judgment of the reader and to the verdict of history.


My interpretive stance with regard to the real meaning of 1860 and to the theological issues which have arisen in the course of our history is reflected throughout the book. In the chapter “Understanding Biblical Revelation” I have explicitly stated my views (based on the confessional and historical documents available) about the religious influences that have shaped Mennonite Brethren theology and ethics. It will perhaps be helpful to draw attention to two major perspectives in my interpretive stance.

In the first place, I consider the emergence of the new church in 1860 primarily as the result of the “Great Awakening” of the 1850’s. In other words, it was a new life movement. Through the study of the Word and the preaching of Pfarrer Wuest, many people came to a personal and experiential faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. This primary and basic fact of a genuine spiritual renewal must not be obscured by considerations of secondary influences in the origin of the M.B. Church.

This stance implies that we reject the so-called socio-economic theory of the origin of the Mennonite Brethren—a theory which claims that the religious agitation and protest of the early Brethren was merely an extension of their economic problem. I think I have shown rather conclusively that the new movement did not have its adherents “chiefly in the lower strata of society,” but that many of them were landowners and well-to-do businessmen. That the Mennonite Brethren did not chiefly belong to the proletariat or landless group can be seen {223} from a resolution of the church which stipulated that members should abstain from any involvement on either side of the landless-landowner conflict. 3

In the second place, I consider the new movement basically an Anabaptist-Mennonite movement. I do not question the great influence of German Pietism on the new life movement, but in their confessional documents the early Brethren repeatedly identify themselves with the teachings of Menno Simons. I believe Krahn is correct in the following observation: “They did not want to be Pietistic, nor Baptist, but rather Mennonite. They wanted to be and remain historical and consistent Mennonitism, a pure Mennonitism that was based not upon birth, but upon rebirth.” 4 Pietism revived the early Anabaptist emphasis on personal faith and commitment, but it lacked the concept of a believer’s church. Pietism had settled for the concept of “ecclesiola in ecclesia,” a concept which it has not abandoned in Germany (with some exceptions) to the present day. The believers who remained in the old church were probably more in conformity with pietistic tradition than those who seceded. The concept of a “believers’ church” of the early Brethren was a recovery of the “Anabaptist Vision.”

The Mennonite Brethren movement was also not a Baptist movement. In the areas of church polity and church administration the Brethren (especially in Chortitza) received valuable advice and help from the Baptists. But confessionally as well as organizationally they never identified with the Baptists, even though they maintained cordial relations with them both in Russia and, later, in America. My research has confirmed the view expressed by F. C. Peters some years ago: “It seems rather clear that the Mennonite Brethren Revival was meant to be a return of the Anabaptist Vision, rather than a deviation from it.” 5

In concluding my “reflections” I would like to state that to bring a history up-to-date is always a hazardous undertaking since it involves reference to people who are still active in the conference and to institutions and movements which are still in the “process of becoming.”

The recent past will have to await a more objective and definitive appraisal by future historians. Hence the opinions I have expressed about contemporary trends and developments must be regarded as provisional. And finally, there are many aspects even of our past history which call for further research and study.


  1. Chambers, Grew, Herlihy, Rabb and Woloch, The Western Experience (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), Vol. I, p. xiv.
  2. P. M. Friesen, Geschichte der Alt-Evangelischen Mennoniten Bruederschaft in Russland, p. iii.
  3. J. F. Harms, Geschichte der Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde, p. 61.
  4. C. Krahn, “Some Social Attitudes of the Mennonites in Russia,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XI, (1935), p. 173.
  5. F. C. Peters, “The Early Mennonite Brethren Church: Baptist or Anabaptist?” Mennonite Life, XXV (October, 1959), pp. 176-178.
Dr. Toews is Professor of History at Trinity Western College, Langley, British Columbia. He is a member of the M.B. Historical Commission.

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