Previous | Next

Spring 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 1 · pp. 3–9 

Paul Toews: A Tribute

Kevin Enns-Rempel

This issue of Direction is dedicated in memory of Paul Toews, long-time history professor at Fresno Pacific University and renowned Mennonite historian. The issue brings together several articles written by former students and colleagues of Paul’s, all writing on topics that relate to Paul’s own areas of historical research interest. These papers touch on topics related to American Mennonite Brethren history (Brian Froese and Valerie Rempel), American religious history (Rod Janzen), Mennonite Brethren higher education (Abe Dueck), and Russian Mennonite history (James Urry and Andrey Ivanov). Paul made significant scholarly contributions in all these areas, and each of the authors in this issue have benefitted from having known and worked with him.

Paul’s life and professional career can be framed in several distinct chapters: His early life was deeply rooted in the traditions and theology of the Mennonite Brethren Church. But as a young scholar, he showed little inclination to take up the life of a “Mennonite historian.” Indeed, it appeared that he might leave Mennonite institutions entirely, and make a career as an American historian in the larger academic world. When Paul did finally decide to become part of the faculty at Pacific College (today Fresno Pacific University), he still resisted the notion that he would become a narrowly-focused Mennonite historian. But in unexpected ways, Paul found himself drawn into that endeavor, and so became one of the premier interpreters of American Mennonite history. Late in his career he began another unexpected chapter, in which he traveled repeatedly to Ukraine and Russia to locate and make available archival records pertaining to the Mennonite story in those countries. {4}


Paul was born on November 27, 1940, in Yankton, South Dakota. His father, J. B. Toews (a.k.a. JB), was teaching at Freeman Academy at the time. Paul was raised in a home in which Mennonite Brethren polity and theology were ever-present topics of conversation and matters of concern. In 1942, the family moved to Buhler, Kansas, where his father became pastor of the Buhler Mennonite Brethren Church. In 1948, JB was called to be pastor of the Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church, and the family moved to California. In 1953 they relocated to Hillsboro, Kansas, where JB became an administrator with the Mennonite Brethren Board of Foreign Missions. Paul attended high school in Hillsboro and later at Corn Bible Academy in Oklahoma. In 1957, he enrolled at Tabor College in Hillsboro, where he majored in history with a sociology minor. He graduated from Tabor in 1962, but not before marrying Barbara Reimer, in 1960. They later adopted two children, Renee (b. 1966) and Matthew (b. 1970).

After one year of teaching social studies at Hillsboro High School, Paul enrolled in a graduate history program at the University of Kansas in the summer 1963. He completed an MA degree there in 1965. Most of his coursework there focused on American intellectual history, and he showed no interest whatsoever in pursuing a career relating to Mennonite history at this time.

While Paul may have had no desire to become a Mennonite historian, he was nonetheless drawn to the idea of teaching at a Mennonite Brethren college. In December 1963, while still a young graduate student, Paul wrote to Pacific College president Arthur J. Wiebe to express his “deep appreciation for the goals and philosophy of Pacific, coupled with a personal conviction of the efficacy of such a program, [which] make it incumbent upon us to share wherever possible in the great work in which you are engaged.” He assured Wiebe that “we would welcome an opportunity to be actively engaged in the work of Pacific College.” 1

Following graduation from the University of Kansas, Paul was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Southern California, where he began studies in fall 1965. There he continued work in American intellectual history, focusing particularly on nineteenth-century American religious history.


Following completion of his residency at USC, Paul received an offer in 1967 to teach history at Pacific College. He wrote to Pacific College dean Elias Wiebe in 1967 that, “[Over] the past several months . . . my interest in Pacific College has increased. This is largely the result of an intensified dialogue with the Anabaptist tradition. My reflections on {5} Anabaptism have heightened a desire to actively relate to its continuous evolvement.” 2 In later years, Paul reflected on the many conversations he had with scholars in his graduate programs who expressed appreciation for the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Ironically, Paul may have had to leave his own tradition temporarily to recognize the value that it possessed.

Paul began teaching at Pacific College in fall 1967. Pacific, under the leadership of President Arthur J. Wiebe, was at the time actively recruiting many young Mennonite Brethren academics to teach there. Paul joined the ranks of “Arthur’s kids,” many still working on the completion of their graduate studies, who helped shape the idealistic new college in the 1960s and early 1970s. But Paul’s time at Pacific seemed destined to be brief. After only two years there, he had decided to move on. In February 1969, he wrote to President Wiebe,

Enclosed please find returned an unsigned contract of reappointment to the Pacific College faculty. . . . I feel that at this early stage of my historical career broad exposure and dialogue within the discipline is vital. Because of these considerations, I have decided to accept a position with the University of Wisconsin, Parkside. . . . Our leaving Pacific College at this point is done with considerable regret and hesitancy. . . . I should be very happy to return to an institution like Pacific College after several years of broader professional exposure. 3

Paul would, many years later, refer to his time at Parkside as an attempt to “run away from home.” 4 He was clearly drawn to the ethos of a small Mennonite liberal arts college, but also felt the call of the larger scholarly world. Which of those two destinies would prevail remained an open question. While his trajectory at the time seemed to be pulling Paul away from the Mennonite world, he did not entirely forsake Pacific College during his time at Parkside. In spring 1970, he taught a one-week course in “American Social and Intellectual History” at Pacific, and remained in dialogue with college administrators about possibly returning there.

In 1971 Paul did indeed return to Pacific College, where he would remain until his retirement in 2013. At Fresno Pacific University, as it later came to be known, he would teach courses such as American Civilization; American Intellectual History; American Religious History; American Ethnicity, Racism, and Pluralism; Twentieth-century American History; and Mennonite History. Later he would also regularly teach Modern Civilizations, a global history survey course. He was chair of the history department from 1974 to 1996 and chair of the Social Science Division from 1976 to 1978. Paul’s skill as a lecturer was legendary, and he was an influential mentor to many students at FPU. Paul was a respected {6} leader among the FPU faculty, and was a source of insightful historical perspective to his colleagues and many administrators. Regarding his time at FPU, Paul would later note that, “In my own mythological understandings, I embraced FPC because it was a place to perpetuate the Mennonite ethos. It permitted me . . . to live somewhere between the Mennonite and university worlds. The Mennonite world in its village and unreflective posture seemed a bit too constraining and the university maybe too skeptical and detached.” 5

When he first returned to Pacific for good in 1971, Paul had no intention of being pigeon-holed as a “Mennonite historian.” As he recalled in an interview many years later, “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to teach at this little Mennonite college, but I’m going to keep my interest in 19th century U.S. religious history.’ ” 6 In that context, Paul’s priority was to complete the dissertation he had begun several years before at USC. Entitled simply, “Josiah Strong,” the dissertation was completed in 1972. It led to two chapters published in a book about the Social Gospel published by Temple University Press in 1976. 7


Despite his reluctance to become a “Mennonite historian,” Paul found himself nonetheless drawn into that world shortly after his permanent return to Pacific College. In 1975, he received an unexpected telephone call from Robert S. Kreider, then president of Bluffton College. Kreider asked Paul if he would be open to participating in a proposed book series project that would later be called “The Mennonite Experience in America.” That Kreider would have approached Paul in this way is perhaps surprising. Paul had no reputation whatsoever as a “Mennonite historian.” He had done no course work in that area during either undergraduate or graduate studies, his dissertation was unrelated to Mennonites, he had taught no courses in Mennonite history, had published nothing in that field while at either Parkside or Pacific College, and claimed to have no interest in any such thing. Paul himself certainly recognized these limitations, noting to Mennonite historian C. J. Dyck at the time that “I am uncertain as to what gifts I currently have in Menno history but would enjoy the dialogue about projecting such a work.” 8

Paul participated over the next two years in various meetings and events to prepare for the project, and in 1977 was formally asked to be the author of the fourth and final volume in the series. The MEA project was originally envisioned to be completed by 1983, but it took much longer than that. The first volume by Richard MacMaster did not appear until 1985, and Paul’s fourth and final volume was published in 1996. 9 {7}

While working on the MEA volume, Paul was increasingly drawn into Mennonite historical studies of other kinds. He edited a collection of essays on Mennonite Brethren history in 1977, 10 and published numerous articles in journals such as Mennonite Quarterly Review and Mennonite Life. He began teaching a Mennonite history course at Fresno Pacific College shortly after becoming involved in the MEA project. In 1982 Paul became Director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Fresno, a position he held until his retirement in 2013. In that context, he oversaw the archives and historical library, organized academic conferences, and published several books. He also became Executive Director of the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission in 1986, and served in that capacity until 2003.


Paul’s father had been born in Russia and lived through the years of revolution, civil war, and famine there before escaping from the Soviet Union in 1926. Under those circumstances, the Russian Mennonite story had played a significant part in Paul’s upbringing. It had not, however, been a part of his academic studies or subsequent scholarly career. He was an American historian, and his work in Mennonite history shared those same geographic boundaries. His growing interest in the Mennonite story, however, did play a part in him beginning to lead study tours to various parts of Europe and then the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1970s. But it was another surprise phone call, this time in 1995, that pulled Paul into the last phase of his scholarly career. This call was from Marina Unger, a Canadian travel agent and tour organizer, asking him to be a leader with something called the “Mennonite Heritage Cruise.” These cruises took participants along the Dnieper River in Ukraine, from where they visited many places significant to Mennonites who had once lived in the region. With other leaders, Paul gave lectures during the cruises to provide historical context for the places they would visit. He served in this capacity annually until 2010.

During the 1996 tour, Paul began exploring Ukrainian archives for documentary records of the Mennonite story. Little was known about what Mennonite resources might still exist there, but Paul discovered that the documentary record was enormous. On each of his return trips to Ukraine, Paul identified and arranged to make copies of documents running into the hundreds of thousands of pages. He worked tirelessly to convince Ukrainian and Russian archivists—many of whom had little inclination to provide open access to any government records—that they should make microfilm and, later, digital copies of the records relating to the Mennonite story, so that they were more easily accessible to scholars {8} around the world. By the end of his life, Paul, with the invaluable assistance of his second wife Olga Shmakina, had arranged for the copying of several hundred thousand pages of these documents.

As with his initial venture into Mennonite history, Paul seemed at first to have few credentials that qualified him to gather Russian and Ukrainian archival resources. He was unable to read or speak either language, and had no record of researching or publishing in the field of Russian Mennonite history. But as in the mid-1970s, Paul proved himself remarkably proficient at developing the body of knowledge and skills needed to excel in this new field. Paul’s growing reputation in Ukraine led to a Fulbright Visiting Professor appointment at Zaporizhzhya National University in 2003–2004, and then an appointment as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the same university in 2005. He taught courses there in both American and Mennonite history.

Paul retired from Fresno Pacific University in spring 2013. He anticipated an active retirement, with a particular interest in writing on the history of Mennonite Brethren higher education. But illness prevented Paul from completing many of things he hoped to accomplish, and he died on November 27, 2015—his seventy-fifth birthday. His loss is felt deeply by his many colleagues at FPU, in the larger community of Mennonite historians, and the many people around the world who benefitted from his interpretive insights. With this issue of Direction, a few of his many friends and colleagues wish to honor his remarkable achievements and influence on so many of us.


  1. Paul Toews to Arthur J. Wiebe, 14 December 1963, Records of the Provost, Fresno Pacific University, Mennonite Library & Archives, Fresno, CA (hereafter FPU Provost records).
  2. Paul Toews to Elias Wiebe, 28 February 1967, FPU Provost records.
  3. Paul Toews to Arthur J. Wiebe, 23 February 1969, FPU Provost records.
  4. Wayne Steffen, “Carrying the Torch of History: Toews Enlightens the Future,” Pacific Magazine 26, no. 1 (May 2013): 18.
  5. Paul Toews, Faculty review self-evaluation, 1981, FPU Provost records.
  6. Steffen, “Carrying the Torch,” 18.
  7. Ronald C. White and C. Howard Hopkins, The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976).
  8. Paul Toews to C. J. Dyck, June 25, 1975, MEA correspondence, Paul Toews Papers, Mennonite Library & Archives, Fresno, CA.
  9. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930–1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community, Mennonite Experience in {9} America, vol. 4 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996).
  10. Paul Toews, ed., Pilgrims & Strangers: Essays in Mennonite Brethren History (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977).
Kevin Enns-Rempel is the Director of Hiebert Library at Fresno Pacific University. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California, Riverside, and San José State University. From 1984 to 2012 Kevin was the archivist at FPU. He worked closely with Paul Toews during those years.

Previous | Next