Previous | Next

July 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 3 · pp. 350–51 

Book Review

A Place Called Peniel: Winkler Bible Institute, 1925-1975

George David Pries. Altona, MB: D.W. Friesen and Sons, 1975. 262 pages.

Reviewed by Herbert Giesbrecht

While E. B. Browning’s adage, “Of writing many books there is no end,” hardly applies to the Mennonite Brethren constituency as yet, the literary situation within its borders is rapidly changing. One of the more conspicuous changes, after several decades of secure existence and religious and cultural progress in America, is the increasing number of publications which record, and appropriately commemorate, stages in the experience of our brotherhood.

A significant catalyst in the crucible of Mennonite Brethren experience in America (particularly in Canada) has been the Bible School movement. And while a comprehensive and critical study of this movement needs still to be written, modest contributions towards such a study have begun to appear. Peter Penner’s Th.B. thesis (1957), “An Historical Survey of the Home Mission Work of the Mennonite Brethren Conference of Canada,” Peter G. Klassen’s doctoral thesis, “A History of Mennonite Education in Canada, 1786-1960” (1970), and, of course, John A. Toews’ new book, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (1975), all provide at least cursory surveys of the movement.

The Winkler Bible Institute, while not the oldest of the Mennonite Brethren schools in Canada (the Herbert Bible School preceded it by twelve years), has been an unusually influential one among our people, particularly during the earlier decades of our Canadian experience. Its founding father, it will be recalled, was that extraordinary preacher and teacher who did much to elevate ideals in education and to inspire youth for Christian service among us, the late Dr. Abraham H. Unruh. (A first biography of Unruh, to be entitled Stalwart for the Truth, is scheduled for publication this summer).

A new book, A Place Called Peniel, just issued in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of this Institute (1925-1975), succeeds in conveying at least some impression of its widespread influence. The book, prepared by one of only two surviving members (the other is Abram A. Kroeker) of the (very nearly) earliest faculty group of the Institute, George D. Pries, provides a richly kaleidoscopic view of the Winkler Bible Institute by means of running narrative, biographical sketch, testimonial, statistical table, program notes, and, above all, photographs. It was one of the good fortunes of the author (of his good wife, to be more precise) to have preserved from the very beginning a rare cache of photographs of people associated with the school in one way or another, and he was able therefore, to include photo sequences in the book which often span considerable periods of time. For readers {351} who may be interested in recalling earlier experiences and in searching out former teachers, classmates, or other acquaintances, the book will provide hours of nostalgic delight. It is unfortunate, however, that the biographical sketches of the school’s “charter personnel” (A. H. Unruh, Gerhard J. Reimer, Johann G. Wiens, Abram A. Kroeker, Jacob A. Kroeker, and John B. Dyck), are as brief as they are and do not begin to convey the true “measure” of these men.

As already intimated, the author of A Place Called Peniel frequently allows testimony coming directly from persons and from publications of the time to tell the story of the Institute—the story of its internal functioning and of its extending influence outwards. This approach has its advantages: it does help to give the survey a certain savour of historical reality, and is appropriate to a work which is intended to be more commemorative than interpretive in purpose. The over-all effect created by an excessive use of this approach however, tends to be one of disjunction, of fractured expanse. A Place Called Peniel suffers somewhat from this weakness; its otherwise detailed and generally ordered array of facts are not sufficiently integrated and interpreted at a deeper level so as to provide a tightly coherent and thoroughly insightful whole which can satisfy the more thoughtful reader. In terms of the more restricted purpose of the author and of the sponsoring Board, the book is clearly a success and will undoubtedly continue, long after the excitement of anniversary celebrations has subsided, to remind Mennonite Brethren of the heritage bequeathed to them in the Winkler Bible Institute.

Herbert Giesbrecht,
Mennonite Brethren Bible College
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next