Previous | Next

April 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 2 · pp. 35–38 

J. A. Toews: Tribute to a Leader

David Ewert

John A. Toews suffered a heart attack on January 12 while preparing to leave for a day of teaching at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. He died the next day, at 66 years of age, after more than 38 years of service to the Mennonite Brethren Church and to the wider Mennonite fellowship. Since 1975 he had been the moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America.

After schooling in Canada and at Tabor College, he taught at the Coaldale Bible School six years and then, for twenty years, at the Bible College in Winnipeg. For eight of those years he was President of the school. Between 1967 and 1976, when he returned to the Bible College, he lectured and preached in many countries, pastored the Fraserview Church in Vancouver, taught at Trinity Western College, and lectured on Mennonite Brethren history at the Seminary in Fresno where, in 1974, he wrote A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

David Ewert, Professor of New Testament at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, has penned the following tribute to his long-time friend and colleague. Herbert Giesbrecht, Archivist and Librarian at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, has compiled a bibliography of his writings.


I was 17 years of age when, having dropped out of high school, I enrolled at the Coaldale Bible School for my second year. The new teacher on the faculty that year was J.A. Toews—recently graduated from Tabor College. Naturally, we looked him over rather carefully. Two things struck us: his curly hair and the ease with which he laughed.

I. Teacher

For two years I sat under his teaching, quite impressed by his well-prepared and well-organized lectures, and by the speed with which he spoke. Under his instruction, the Life of Christ, Missions, and Church History came to life.

J.A. (we never called him that, nor could I ever bring myself later to address him by his initials) was an open-faced man. We could always tell how he felt by watching his face—particularly obvious when {36} the Bible school choir which he directed failed to produce the harmony he was looking for.

His interest in evangelism and missions (including outreach into the non-Christian community) occasionally brought him into conflict with some of our church leaders (something we as teenagers thoroughly appreciated).

Teaching Bible school was not a year-round occupation, and so Brother Toews worked for local farmers during the summer. Blessed with a strong physical constitution, I was happy to overhear a neighbor’s comment that Toews was a hard worker.

While the educational demands put on teachers were minimal in those days, Toews early came to the conviction that a teacher must keep on learning, if he is to remain fresh. And so he enrolled at the university to earn his B.A.

Shortly after the Bible College in Winnipeg was established, Toews was asked to join the faculty. In the 20 plus years as college teacher scores of students sat in his classes in history and theology, and many of them today are serving the Lord in many parts of the world and carry happy memories of their teacher.

II. Colleague

In 1953, after teaching in Bible schools for several years, it was our privilege to join the college faculty in Winnipeg, and Brother Toews, my former teacher, was now my colleague. He never let me feel that he was still my teacher, but accepted me as a yoke-fellow in the work of the Kingdom.

By then Toews had earned his B.D. and was working on his Masters in history at the University of Manitoba. He was dean of students in the early 50’s and seemed to enjoy it tremendously, although, because of his openness, students weren’t always sure that he could keep secrets.

For 14 years we labored together as teachers at the college, preachers of the Good News, conference workers and friends. We travelled together, conducted countless Bible conferences together, and even quarrelled with each other. In a letter which I received from him several years ago, he wrote: “Brother Ewert, there is no one with whom I agree as much as you.” It was the voice of a friend.

Toews tried to be at college in good time every morning and before we went into class he would usually make the rounds to see if he could put his foot in the door of some faculty member and have a little chat with him before the bell stopped the conversation.

As the college grew the academic requirements of faculty and students rose also. With encouragement from his colleagues, Toews decided to get his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. In order to meet the foreign language requirements, Toews and I drove out to the {37} University of Manitoba every Saturday for a year, he to brush up on his Russian and I to study Hebrew.

He completed his Ph.D. work in a relatively short period of time—a rather outstanding feat for a fifty-year old. Toews had a great capacity for work and we got the impression that he never tired.

One incident—a magnificent display of collegiality—will always remain in my memory. I was doing a year of graduate work in Chicago, but was asked to come home for college registration (since I was Registrar at the time). Due to mechanical troubles my flight was delayed and we did not arrive in Winnipeg until 2:00 A.M. And who should be there to meet me at that unearthly hour, but J.A. Toews?

III. Preacher

Toews’ messages in his earlier years carried a strong evangelistic note. Frequently he was invited to lead in evangelistic ‘campaigns’. He preached with great fervor, and occasionally his emotions got the better of him and he would break out in tears. Many people in Canada, Paraguay, and other parts of the world, were saved under his preaching. It was a source of great satisfaction to him that shortly before his death he had the privilege of preaching the Gospel in Russia.

Having listened to Toews’s preaching on countless occasions, I became well-versed in his style. He would regularly expound a passage of Scripture, deriving both his topic and his major headings from the text. Since he organized his material well it was easy to listen to him, for one knew that after ‘firstly’ there would be a ‘secondly’. He tried hard to bring the text from the 1st century into the 20th and to apply it to the needs of the church, using illustrations, quotations, personal observations, and the like, to underscore and clarify the truth.

IV. Churchman

Brother Toews took an interest in everything that went on in the life of our brotherhood. For many years he served on the Board of Reference and Counsel of Manitoba, of Canada, and of the General Conference. Having served with him on these boards for many years (the last 10 years on the Board of Reference and Counsel of the General Conference), I knew of his concern for the spiritual welfare of our brotherhood.

His great concern was that the MB Church not become a ‘faceless’ evangelical church, reflecting only the changing moods of American evangelicalism. He labored for the ‘recovery of the Anabaptist vision’. For those who think lightly of militarism Toews was often a thorn in the flesh. Separation of church and state (he cringed when he saw the American flag in MB churches), costly discipleship, {38} integrity in business, deep concern for the needy, a believer’s church constantly renewing itself and growing, and similar emphases were often the subject of his speech or his pen.

It was a source of great satisfaction to him when the General Conference finally adopted the present Confession of Faith, after so many drafts. Whereas he was never overly enthusiastic about a joint seminary, he was very pleased when the Conference in 1975 accepted the theological framework within which the new seminary was to operate, namely with a strong emphasis on our Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.

When it came to ethical issues he was generally conservative, but he had the courage to re-think former positions. It disturbed him greatly when he wanted to discuss the use of TV in our homes, and B.B. Janz (for whom TV was a non-issue, since it was wrong) threatened to walk out on the Board of Reference and Counsel. Toews had great faith in the brotherhood process. Divorce and remarriage, the ministry of the woman in the church, social drinking to mention only a few sticky issues—were some of the questions he was willing to work through with us.

With his great appreciation for our Mennonite heritage it was only natural that he also found great interest in inter-Mennonite ventures. Some of our leading brethren—for whatever reason—were critical of his participation in the Mennonite World Conference, but certainly he was an ambassador of good will among the Mennonite churches.

It is hard to put in capsule form memories which span nearly four decades in which J.A. Toews’s life intersected with mine, but space forbids me to say more. Like Elijah, he was a man “of like nature with ourselves”, and that includes weaknesses and failures—which he would readily admit. God in his mercy gives us memories which strain out what was faulty and leaves us with the good and the noble.

Fellow-students, present and former colleagues, co-workers in the cause of the Kingdom will join me in the affirmation that J.A. Toews, although he is dead, “through his faith he is still speaking” (Heb. 11:4).

David Ewert

Previous | Next