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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 232–240 

A Pilgrim’s Journey

John B. Toews

I was born in Coaldale, Alberta, in 1934, the youngest child of Abraham and Helena (Janz) Toews. My parents emigrated from Ukraine in 1926 and after a short stay in Winnipeg, Manitoba, purchased an irrigation farm in the Coaldale district together with other relatives. We were a blended family of three different lineages. There was a significant age gap between my siblings and myself, which meant that I was largely oblivious to what went on in the adult world.

A Presbyterian minister friend of ours gave me a realistic perspective of what the church really was: “a hospital for sick people.” For me this was a healing moment and provided a refreshing portrait of life in the Christian community.

In my home, godly parents took the teachings of Jesus seriously but without false piety or religiosity. Father was a practical hands-on farmer, coping with a large farm mortgage and travel debt during the Great Depression. By age eleven I was a fully qualified Farmall A tractor driver, pulling an old binder intended for horses. The animals would refuse to pull when the machine was unable to cope with the heavy crops on our irrigation farm. Alas, the tractor was unaware of such difficulties, which resulted in frequent binder breakdowns. It was the only time I heard my pious father swear in Russian, an outburst for which he apologized the same evening. The memory of that incident has remained with me to this day. A tender Christian heart beat beneath that strong robust exterior. He cried more easily than my mother, whose stoic qualities enabled her to {233} face the difficulties of life in a new world without flinching. In all our times together, I only saw her cry once. She was always tender and loving, caring deeply about my spiritual and moral development.

Accustomed to their own schools in Russia, it was not surprising that these recent immigrants living in Coaldale thought of establishing a secondary school where their societal and faith values might be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps they were also fearful of a surrounding “English” world they had difficulty comprehending. During 1944–45 there were serious discussions at the inter-Mennonite meetings of the so-called Alberta Vertreterversammlung (a gathering of recent Russian Mennonite immigrants) concerning the founding of a private Mennonite high school, a difficult task for communities emerging from emigration and farm debts. The Alberta Mennonite High School began operation in 1946, and I was privileged to later become one of its students, graduating in 1953. Our teachers were young Mennonite university graduates and helped my generation make the transition from a rural, inward-looking community to the larger world.

The Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, played a similar role in my development. Here were Mennonite students from all the provinces west of Quebec. They reflected the ethos of many different Mennonite communities. Some of their families came to Canada in the 1870s, others like my family immigrated in the 1920s. There were also a number of students whose families were displaced by the horrors of World War II. Unfortunately, most of us born in Canada had little interest in hearing their tragic stories. All of us were at different stages in becoming “Canadian.”

The three years spent at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College significantly expanded my world. Ironically the process was not so much facilitated by actual course work. Rather it related more to the comradeship of dorm life, socializing with students from across Canada, and especially learning to know girls. It was here that I met the optimistic and high-spirited Lillian Konrad from Clearbrook, British Columbia. Simply put, she was “born free.”

After my graduation in 1956, I applied to Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. I have always been grateful to the faculty of 1956–57 who ignored the shortcomings of my education and inspired me in the areas of literature and history. This was especially true of professors Wes Prieb, Leonard Franz, and Harold Federau. Their supporting letters facilitated my admission to graduate school at the University of Colorado.

Following a lengthy courtship by letters, Lillian and I were married in the summer of 1957. She helped emancipate me from a pessimism that may have been genetically inherited or perhaps conditioned by the strictures of {234} the immigrant community that molded me. Energetic and vivacious, her zest for life helped sustain me in my darkest hours. Without her constant encouragement I would not have survived the rigors of graduate work. As an obstetrical supervisor in the Boulder hospital, Lillian also enabled us to survive the expenses of graduate school.


I began studies in the field of German language and literature. By the end of the first semester I knew this was not a “fit” and desperately searched for another field of study. My quest brought me to the office of a senior history professor hunched over his desk. After listening to my dilemma and inquiring about my language skills, he simply said, “I think you’ll do!” I have always regarded that moment as God’s dramatic intervention in my life. It turned out that this professor was among the most highly respected medievalists and Latin paleographers in the United States. Now came seminar work, language studies, and desperate prayers for staying power. The PhD program in history demanded competence in five fields. I selected Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the European Middle Ages, Early Modern Europe, and Russian history. The program culminated with written and oral exams combined with language tests to demonstrate competence in both French and German. Naturally the stress level was high. By comparison, writing a thesis on fifteenth-century imperial/papal relations was an enjoyable if lengthy exercise.

As a young university teacher my research focused on documents that existed in their original form and were safely secured in accessible archives. While variations in late Middle High German syntax and printing styles of copyists at times proved nerve racking (Luther had not yet translated the Bible into German), I had no reason to doubt the contents of the documents essential to my research. In my ongoing contacts with colleagues in the Classics Department who taught Greek and Roman history and literature, I found that they too were comfortable with their texts. While the classical documents were frequently recopied over the centuries, medieval monks were fanatic about accurate text transmission. Generally neither classicists nor medievalists I met doubted the authenticity of their documents. In my isolated “ivory tower,” I had no notion of the text difficulties confronting biblical scholars. Perhaps that is why my faith journey remained rather routinized. At that time the accepted biblical texts were more than adequate for me.

There was perhaps another reason for my secure sense of faith during most of my university tenure. As a young lad, I was seriously wounded in a hunting accident. Except for God’s graciousness and the skills of a Coaldale doctor, David Epp, I should not be alive. During a four-hour {235} wait for surgery, my perforated bowel poured poison into my abdomen. In what must have been a coma, I lapsed into a world of indescribable light that I never spoke about for decades. The experience marked my conversion to Christ and frequently steadied my later faith journey. No other event in my life is so deeply embedded in my memory as this one.

Faith undergirded by a dramatic conversion did not mean that my pursuit of history presented no philosophical and intellectual difficulties. Regardless of their field, historians are confronted by centuries of bloodshed, violence, and human depravity. Is there a God amid such ongoing cruelty and chaos? If so, why does he not intervene? Throughout my career as a historian I have put such questions “on hold.” Answers were difficult to find. Even the genius of C. S. Lewis’s writings did not dispel my moments of faith discomfort. Most historians have no problem with identifying sin and evil as basic to the human condition, but the “why” question always remains.

Interaction with my colleagues rarely spawned a faith crisis. They reflected a broad belief spectrum. There were agnostics, liberal and orthodox Jews, communists of various stripes, as well as nominal and serious Christians. Rather ironically, faith issues were studiously avoided in our conversations. It seemed that university professors of my generation lived in an ethos that avoided the great questions of life. I believe most of my colleagues knew I was a Christian, but I cannot recall any one of them actively engaging me in dialogue. Discussions at best related to professional advancement, illnesses, or even marital difficulties. The deaths of colleagues were dispatched with a British “stiff upper lip” approach. On the other hand, departmental politics usually involving minor issues were vigorously debated. After all they were not soul threatening. It was different with students. A slightly irate mature student wondered why I spoke so glowingly of the New Testament documents in my Medieval Church course, while another queried why he had never heard of them. In my early years at the University, I was rather concerned about my “witness” on campus. When I shared this with an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student in my office he replied, “What are you talking about? We all know who you are!” That was reassuring.


Let me go back to my faith journey. Aside from the stress of graduate school, our years spent in Boulder, Colorado, were among the most carefree days of our lives. While there we attended the Denver Mennonite Brethren Church. Our American sisters and brothers, who were not recent immigrants, had attained a far better balance between life in the church and living in this world than the narrow ethnic world we had left. We will {236} never forget the ongoing kindness of Vi and Les Fast to us “strangers and foreigners” in their midst. Our association with the Denver Church made Sundays the highlight of the week.

Our Denver experience provided us with a rather idealistic model of what a church might be. Returning to Canada meant a return to the Mennonite Brethren ethos we had left behind. I have often wondered why my experiences in the church contributed to some of the worst faith crises in my life. Perhaps the story began in my youth. The Coaldale Mennonite Brethren Church, like many other Anabaptist congregations, held to Menno Simons’s teaching that the body of Christ must be “without spot or wrinkle.” I believe it was also concerned with applying the Sermon on the Mount in daily life. Most of its immigrant members were deeply sincere but were not yet acculturated to the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture surrounding them. Sometimes biblical truth became entangled with folk customs, and piety intermingled with known forms of social deportment.

The community was naturally anxious about contact with an outside world they did not fully understand. It was important to exercise appropriate border patrol. My generation welcomed the new culture feared by my parents. Some of my more rambunctious friends overstepped established boundaries. They were excommunicated for what seemed to be minor issues. Most never returned to the church or did so late in life. These events generated my first doubts about what it meant to be the body of Christ.

We returned to Calgary in 1962. Here the Mennonite Brethren church had been recently organized and was composed of members who stood at many different starting points in the acculturation process. The majority had rather recently left rural congregations to seek employment in this central Alberta city. There were newly minted teachers in elementary and secondary schools, persons in the trades, a few farmers, and some retired persons. Others included post-World War II immigrants seeking to establish a new life in Canada. Some of these, thanks to the broad exposure of their refugee years, were possibly more tolerant and forward-looking than Canadian-born members from rural, inward-looking communities. All brought some aspects of their past to Calgary. All were engaged in an identity shift seeking to embrace a larger world. Inevitably differences emerged about acceptable leaders and lifestyles. Looking back, I think there was a fundamental underlying question, namely, “What did it mean to be the church?”

Personally, no doubt fueled by youthful arrogance, I felt that my integration into the larger university world was at odds with a conservative congregation reluctant to move forward. In frustration, I participated in a group that founded a new congregation. Initially, the experiment was exciting and invigorating. Yet it soon became evident that a common {237} cause against the perceived shortcomings of the parent congregation was not an adequate basis for unity. Eventually we left this group in search for an ideal church. Deep inside me remained a lingering distrust of all church politics. Many years later a Presbyterian minister friend of ours finally gave me a realistic perspective of what the church really was. He simply stated that it was “a hospital for sick people.” For me this was a healing moment and provided a refreshing portrait of life in the Christian community. I wish I had learned that lesson much earlier.

Academically one other experience impacted my faith perspective. In 1964, J. J. Thiessen and A. A. Wiens of the Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council requested that I examine an archive accumulated by the recently deceased immigration leader B. B. Janz. This material subsequently led me to the A. A. Friesen Collection housed in Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas) and put me in contact with the energetic director of its historical library, Dr. Cornelius Krahn. The material enabled me to discover the Russian Mennonite story related to the emigration of the 1920s as well as my Anabaptist/Mennonite roots. Not long after the results of my research were published in the book Lost Fatherland, 1 a medieval history colleague from the University of Southern California wrote, “I see you have left the faith!” It was difficult to explain to him that I had found it. Ironically, the Russian Mennonite story rather than medieval history now became the focus of my future research. 2


The final stage of my academic career began in 1988 when we left for Vancouver, British Columbia. Once settled I began to teach Reformation and Medieval church history at Regent College, a graduate theological school. I found myself in the midst of high powered and widely published biblical scholars. Often I did not understand the nuances of their conversations nor the complexities of interpreting biblical texts. How might these ancient documents be interpreted? There was talk about the ancient Near East and its impact on the Old Testament narratives. New Testament colleagues mentioned the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” the written sources behind the Gospels, and the varied interpretations of the Gospels themselves. What was the intent of the stories recorded and when were they recorded? At that stage of my life, I could never have walked through the massive biblical scholarship known to my colleagues. They had walked that pathway and still believed, and somehow I felt I could vicariously share their faith in the adequacy and reliability of these ancient documents. There were, however, moments when I impiously wondered if there were too many biblical scholars for too few texts. By contrast my interests in late medieval Europe and the {238} twentieth-century Mennonite story were buttressed by an overwhelming abundance of documents. All of these originated at a fixed time and place and could be interpreted in a known context. There was also a moment of slight discomfort when I discovered that the ethos of self-promotion also existed among biblical scholars.

While at Regent I occasionally felt uneasy about my colleagues’ concern with exhaustive language analysis and almost microscopic preoccupation with texts. What of the many centuries when tribal societies of early Medieval Europe only heard the gospel via storytelling? Persons like Columbanus and Boniface must have told the “stories of Jesus” to oral cultures given to this form of communication. Perhaps my concern came from studying the ninth-century Old Saxon gospel text known as Heliand. Here the translator, presumably a monk, re-imaged the Mediterranean Jesus as a North European heroic saga in the form of seventy-one songs. They were possibly sung or recited in some northern longhouse to assembled warriors. Some obviously understood the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection and, once converted, the Saxons became stalwart Christians, including a much later one called Martin Luther. When a graduate student of mine, born and raised in Africa and familiar with several tribal cultures, described the sharing of stories around a campfire as an effective means of sharing the gospel, I realized that my fascination with Heliand had contemporary equivalents. Missionary stories, especially Vincent J. Donovan’s account of his work among the Masai in Tanzania, convinced me that perhaps I was not a heretic after all. He wrote his bishop that he planned to go to Africa in order to “talk to them about God and the Christian message.” That was almost exclusively the method of evangelism in Medieval Europe. You told the story to a largely illiterate audience and later created a translated text to solidify that story. The Holy Spirit did the rest. In the end, I left the New Testament and its texts to my colleagues. Perhaps I was entitled to a few heretical thoughts without their knowledge.

The highlight of my Regent College experience related to my interaction with highly motivated students. Though my lectures on early church history and medieval monasticism were far removed from contemporary Christendom, the students were deeply engaged, asked penetrating questions, and wrote insightful papers. The students came from every walk in life and from varied cultures. My contacts and conversations with them were among the most meaningful experiences of my forty-year university career. They taught me more than I ever taught them and made me aware of the worldwide expanse of Christ’s church. {239}


In retrospect, I believe long-term health issues have been among my greatest faith challenges. In 1987, I was plunged into a disease cycle that periodically subsided only to return. I have always been grateful for a University of British Columbia internist who attended my Regent College church history class. Noticing my limitations, he initiated a long-term intervention that made my sojourn at Regent manageable. Unfortunately two potentially fatal cancers were added to the mix. Following each major operation there were periods of anxious waiting. In each case there was an “all clear” signal. There were dark days when I feared that every new pain signified a return of cancer.

During the early post-surgery stages of recovery, well-meaning friends asked the usual “How are you doing?” questions. I tried to give an honest answer and said, “I am floating.” Looking back, I think it had something to do with letting God take care of the situation. Perhaps it was a kind of early Anabaptist Gelassenheit, a resignation to whatever God allowed. For me it was a curious combination of serenity and anxiety. People walk the cancer pathway differently. I think I have learned to dialogue with fellow pilgrims in similar situations. With regard to my health, I’m not sure I always fought the good fight of faith successfully, but I do know I have “kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).


  1. John B. Toews, Lost Fatherland: The Story of the Mennonite Emigration from Soviet Russia, 1921–1927 (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1967).
  2. Here are some of my articles and books, in order of publication: “Dream and Reality in the Imperial Ideology of Pope Pius II,” Medievalia et Humanistica 16 (1964): 77–93; “Pope Eugenius IV and the Concordat of Vienna (1448): An Interpretation,” Church History 34, no. 2 (1965): 178–94; “Pope Sixtus IV and the Empire: A Study in the Politicisation of the Later Fifteenth-Century Papacy,” Canadian Journal of History 1, no. 1 (1966): 1–21; “Formative Forces in the Pontificate of Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455),” Catholic Historical Review 54, no. 2 (1968): 261–84; “The View of Empire in Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II),” Traditio 24 (1968): 471–87; With Courage to Spare: The Life of B. B. Janz, 1877–1964 (Winnipeg, MB: Christian, 1978); Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1982); Perilous Journey: The Mennonite Brethren in Russia 1860–1910, Perspectives on Mennonite Life and Thought 5 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1988); Letters from Susan: A Woman’s View of the Russian Mennonite Experience (1928–1941), Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series 4 (North Newton, KS: Bethel College Press, 1988); Journeys: Mennonite Stories of Faith and Survival in Stalin’s {240} Russia, Perspectives on Mennonite Life and Thought 14 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1998); ed. and trans., Mennonites in Ukraine amid Civil War and Anarchy (1917–1920): A Documentary Collection (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2013).
John B. Toews is a graduate of Tabor College (Hillsboro, Kansas) and earned his doctorate in history at the University of Colorado (Boulder). He taught at the University of Calgary (Alberta) for twenty-seven years and at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) for thirteen years.

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