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Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 99–100 

Book Review

The Ältester—Herman D. W. Friesen, A Mennonite Leader in Changing Times

Bruce L. Guenther. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2018. 308 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Doerksen

When I first learned of Bruce Guenther’s new book, my interest was piqued, and for two reasons. First, while I did not grow up in an Old Colony Mennonite Church tradition, I did grow up in the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference (recently renamed as Christian Mennonite Conference), which was very similar in its religious and social conservatism and in the structure of its leadership. Second, I work in a public school division as a liaison with conservative Mennonites who have returned to Canada, many of them from Mexico. The families in our school division come from a variety of conservative Mennonite traditions, including Old Colony Mennonite, whose church leadership still includes an Ältester (“bishop” or “elder”). Being familiar with conservative Mennonite traditions, I was interested to see what Guenther would have to say about his maternal grandfather, Herman D. W. Friesen, who served as a key leader in the Old Colony Mennonite Church in Canada.

Guenther’s interest in writing this biography had to do with both his relationship to Ältester Friesen and his interests in Mennonite history. Guenther the grandson had a desire to know more about his grandfather and his influence in the Old Colony Mennonite Church. Guenther the historian wanted to draw more scholarly attention to the somewhat neglected story of those Old Colony Mennonites who, in the early 1920s, stayed in Saskatchewan instead of emigrating to Mexico and Paraguay with other members. This biography both fills some gaps in the story of those who remained in Canada and reveals what Guenther learned about “the life and times of my grandfather . . . and his choices and impact” (140).

The book’s introduction briefly acquaints readers with Ältester Friesen and reviews the story of how Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870s (and again in the 1920s) from southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). In the first of four chapters, Guenther writes about his grandparents’ homesteading years and early childhood experiences. Included are historical maps and charts that locate where the Mennonites first settled in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Friesens lived on the Rosthern (Hague-Osler) Reserve in Saskatchewan. Guenther also discusses the public school education controversy that arose because of provincial government pressure on Mennonites to send their children to province-run schools. This was what provoked many Old Colony Mennonites to leave the province and, in substantial numbers, Canada itself.

In the second chapter, Guenther looks at the central place of the church in the lives of Old Colony Mennonites. He discusses the structure of {100} leadership in the Old Colony Church, the importance of baptism, and church life in general. The church’s conservative attitude toward change is also explored. Accommodating to broader social norms and new technologies has historically been, and still is, difficult for conservative Mennonites.

Farm and family life are the focus of the third chapter. Here Guenther gives us a more personal glimpse into the life, family, and work of Herman and Margaretha Friesen. He relates some of the most difficult life experiences of the Friesens, such as the death of their first child and running a farm during the Great Depression. Also challenging was adjusting to new technologies such as the telephone and electricity.

In the fourth and last chapter, Guenther writes about his grandfather’s community and church leadership, including his work as a public school trustee, municipal councillor, his election as a minister in the Old Colony Mennonite Church, and then his work as Ältester. Two appendices list Friesen’s ministerial activities and provide a sample of seven of his many sermons, to which Guenther was able to gain access after the death of his grandmother.

With this book, Guenther has achieved his two goals of learning more about his grandfather and contributing to a fuller knowledge of the history of Old Colony Mennonites in Saskatchewan. Anyone interested in conservative Mennonite history will be the richer for having read Guenther’s book, for his willingness to share his grandfather’s life journey. The pictures, maps, and charts help readers visualize the life and ministry of Ältester Friesen. I also appreciated Guenther’s openness and honesty in describing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of his grandfather, a man who did much good but also made mistakes.

There are complex factors that might cause people to approach change with fear and trepidation. In the case of Old Colony Mennonites, Guenther argues that their aversion to change was “in part the by-product of a history of persecution, in part the result of geographical isolation, and in part an attempt to comply with biblical injunctions to avoid worldliness” (58). His book illustrates how a gifted and sensitive leader can guide a religiously conservative people through a time of unprecedented change with their faith intact.

This book resonated with me because of my similar upbringing and my liaison work with conservative Mennonites. But readers born and bred in another Mennonite tradition, or interested in the history of Mennonites, or those just hoping to better understand conservative Mennonites will likewise find much to appreciate in Guenther’s fine book.

Dan Doerksen is the Low German Mennonite Liaison at Palliser Regional Schools in Lethbridge, Alberta.

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