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July 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 3 · pp. 36–38 

Memoirs of and by Mennonite Brethren

David Ewert

It has been said that every individual has at least one story hidden away inside—his or her own. Our Mennonite Brethren history provides us with a rich source of biography and autobiography, if for no other reason than that many of us have been caught up in the turbulence of the last century. Yet many intriguing stories lie buried in the grave because they never get told.

Fortunately a number of memoirs have been published in the last few years. Our Board of Christian Literature deserves credit for getting us started on biographies. In 1974 the first volume in the Trailblazer series was published. Katie Funk Wiebe wrote the story of Paulina Foote’s nineteen years of missionary labors in China in Have Cart, Will Travel (86 pp.). This was followed in 1975 by David Ewert’s biography of Dr. A.H. Unruh, well-known teacher and preacher in Russia and North America, under the title Stalwart for the Truth (148 pp.). In the same year the story of the life and ministry of Elder Heinrich Voth was written by J.A. Froese and published under the title Witness Extraordinary (60 pp.). More recently Betty Klassen has provided us with a more comprehensive work on Johann Klassen, one of the founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church, in Trailblazer for the Brethren (Herald Press, 1978, 309 pp.).

Just off the press is Cornelius Wall’s As We Remember, published by the Tabor College Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Hillsboro, Kansas (1979, 178 pp.). This is a fascinating story of the life and ministry of Cornelius and Agnes Wall. The book reflects a depth of commitment to Christ and His way such as one rarely finds. Having known the author for many years, this reviewer was moved to tears by the spirit that breathes through the pages of this book.

Covering roughly the same period in our Mennonite history is Anna: From the Caucusus to Canada, written by Anna Reimer Dick, of Niverville, Manitoba, and translated and edited by Dr. Peter Klassen (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1979, 215 pp.). This is the story of the Wilhelm Dyck family (he was for many years a leading minister in the Manitoba conference); it described their childhood and youth in Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the trauma of {37} emigrating to Canada where, in God’s providence, they were given a new lease on life.

In a somewhat similar vein is the story of the H.P. Isaak family. Our Life Story and Escape was written by H.P. Isaak, translated by Reuben M. Baerg, and published by the author in 1977 (181 pp.). It begins in the Soviet Union, continues with an account of a miraculous escape from Russia via China, and ends with the settlement of the family in California. Those of our Mennonites living in Paraguay and Canada who came via Harbin, China, will identify easily with this account.

In both of these biographies the terrors of the Revolution in Russia are described, but not in the detailed fashion as in the book written and published by Gerhard P. Schroeder, Miracles of Grace and Judgement (1974, 266 pp.). This book consists largely of personal reminiscences by the author of the years 1914-1923, when the Mennonite community of Russia was thrown into a cauldron of suffering and disorientation. Schroeder concentrates particularly on the horrors of the Makhno period and gives witness to God’s grace in the midst of the awful judgements of those years. After coming to Canada, Schroeder served for many years in Baptist churches in the United States of America, finally settling in Lodi, California.

Margaret Epp, a well-known Mennonite Brethren writer, has given us a volume that is very different from the ones just mentioned. It is the story of Mennonite Brethren mission efforts in Europe, particularly of the church in Vienna known as: 8 Tulpengasse (Canadian Board of Christian Literature, 1978, 276 pp.). Tulpengasse’s story is intimately tied up with the lives of Abe and Irene Neufeld and their family and so, quite appropriately, a major part of the book is biographical. It tells the story of the childhood, youth, schooling, and marriage of Abe and Irene in Manitoba and of their call to mission in Europe. The author has given us a fascinating story of a miracle of modern missions.

While on the topic of missions, we should also mention the book Shadowed by the Great Wall (Board of Christian Literature, 1979.). It is a slender volume of 118 pages but provides us with a chapter in the history of missions which Mennonite Brethren do not know much about. The book captures the missionary spirit of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren who pioneered in Mongolia. The story is told by Mr. and Mrs. A.K. Wiens and was edited by Laurene Peters. It surveys a 30-year missionary venture under the most difficult circumstances. This heart-warming history is woven round two missionary families, the Frank Wiebes and the A.K. Wienses, and is a story of courage, of dedication, and of obedience to the Great Commission. {38}

The spirit of missions breathes also through the pages of Ruth Klassen’s How Green is My Mountain (InterVarsity, 1979, 162 pp.). This volume opens up to us the problem of adjusting to a foreign culture and seeking to transmit one’s Christian values in strange settings. Ruth’s husband works with the Rice Institute in the Philippines as an entomologist. She surveys the years of preparation at McGill University, where her husband earned his doctorate, and the spiritual and emotional struggles that she faced when they settled in the Philippines to carry out a witness for Christ. This is good preparatory reading for those who intend to serve abroad.

The Board of Christian Literature has done our Brotherhood a good service by publishing John B. Toews’ biography of the well-known Mennonite leader, B.B. Janz (1978, 185 pp.). The title With Courage to Spare appropriately captures the spirit of this “Moses of the Mennonites.” One can only speculate whether the great immigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union in the 1920’s would have taken place had it not been for Janz. He was a complex person and Toews has given us a reasonably accurate portrait of this great Mennonite leader.

Perhaps no servant of the church was so widely known and so greatly loved in our entire Brotherhood as was C.N. Hiebert. Esther Horch, his eldest daughter, has given us a delightful introduction to his life and service in C.N. Hiebert Was My Father (Canadian Board of Christian Literature, 1979, 196 pp.). There is much in this family history that makes one laugh as well as cry—and much that we all need to ponder.

What made some of these men great was the fact that God has blessed them with unusually able and devoted wives. We are reminded strongly of this in the recent publication Women Among the Brethren, edited by Katie Funk Wiebe (Board of Christian Literature, 1979, 197 pp.). Various writers have given us portraits of fifteen women: some were great mothers, others were pioneer missionaries, still others were poets—but all of them were women of great faith.

All fourteen books mentioned in this essay make good reading. My apologies to those whose memoirs I have overlooked. As one reads this kind of history the words of Goethe come to mind: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern, erwirb es um es zu besitzen.”

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