“Leaders Who Shaped Us”

I will, as promised in the last post, write about Katie Funk Wiebe and her book You Never Gave Me a Name, within the week I hope, but first this….

I’m just back from the launch of Leaders Who Shaped Us, a book of 25 biographies of Canadian Mennonite Brethren. (This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren denomination, and the centennial of the Canadian part of it.) Harold Jantz (left) planned the book, served as its editor, and also wrote six of the biographies. This evening, in his usual passionate and persuasive way, he highlighted the significance of some of them. Abram Kroeker, for example, not only a key early player in the potato growing industry of Manitoba, but a tireless promoter of Sunday school in churches, so much so that he became known as Mr. Sunday School. And entrepeneur C.A. DeFehr who was always on the scene, it seemed, when it came to building up the institutions of the church. 

It was while he was on holidays, Jantz said, and thus energized, that the idea for the book came to him. He realized that he knows a great deal of early Canadian MB history, and he also knows how quickly memory can disappear. He put together a list of 25 names out of a great many he could have chosen — 25 people who demonstrate influence and “shaping” of the Canadian church in various ways over the century. A number of the biographical subjects, including Herb Neufeld, John Redekop, Nick Dyck, and others,  are still alive. David Ewert, who is also written of in the book, is unfortunately very seriously ill following a stroke several days ago.*

Nineteen writers contributed to the volume in all, and those of us from Winnipeg who were around — Ingrid Koss, Dorothy Siebert, Sarah Klassen, Doug Heidebrecht, and myself — participated by reading a portion of our piece or talking about the experience of researching and writing our particular subject. I had written the article on B.B. Janz, “Moses” to some 20,000 Mennonites who managed to leave the Soviet Union in the 1920s and subsequently a leader in many aspects of Mennonite life here in Canada. I found him quite compelling. He was intelligent, sensitive, and persistent to the point of stubbornness. I liked his position on how conscientious objectors might have participated during World War II (as non-combatants, but providing service in the interests of life even on the battle front), though he annoyed conservative Mennonites by it and had no success with the government in developing such a program either. There was even a small personal connection, as my mother whispered to remind me after my little spiel tonight; B.B. Janz had ordained my father for church ministry.

I saw the completed book for the first time this evening. It looks great and I can hardly wait to read it.

Dorothy Siebert contributed 2 biographies: on Marie Wiebe and H.S. Rempel


Ingrid Koss wrote about Anna Thiessen


Doug Heidebrecht wrote about Katie Funk Wiebe


Sarah Klassen authored the story of missionary Katy Penner

 *David Ewert died April 23, 2010. See post in his honour.

“A Generation of Vigilance”

The other evening, I attended the book launch of A Generation of Vigilance (CMU Press, 2009), the biography of Johannes and Tina Harder by Ted Regehr. Harder was leader of the Yarrow MB Church, a congregation that grew from some 200 to well over 900 members, the largest Mennonite Brethren church in Canada at that point. For several decades, he was the most influential MB leader in B.C.

The launch was rather sparsely attended, but it was a fine evening in spite of the few of us. Regehr strikes me as both gentle and suave, and I enjoyed hearing him read and talk about the project. I’d skimmed the book when it came into the MB Herald office for review and enjoyed that too. (Said review, by Abe Dueck, will appear in the November issue).

Regehr explained how he got involved in the project. Missionary/anthropologist Jacob Loewen “felt he’d contributed to Harder’s death and wanted to make amends,” so began collecting material for a biography but was unable to finish because of ill health. Regehr had “high regard for Jake,” he said, and curiosity too, “to examine some of the same forces, in a place where I knew no one, that had troubled me in Coaldale [Alberta, where I grew up].” Regehr accepted the invitation of the Yarrow Research Committee to do the biography and enlarged it to include Tina.

At the launch, Regehr read, and talked about, 3 sections of the book: the couple’s courtship, their first (Canadian) years in Winnipeg, and the “Rules” he and prominent MB leader B.B. Janz of Coaldale wrote for the Mennonite Brethren. When Janz got Harder’s draft he responded by saying he’d forgotten the most important thing: love. The Regeln (rules) became Richtlinien (guidelines) and the English version referred to “principles.”

In the discussion that followed, someone asked about parallels between Janz and Harder. Regehr explained that Janz was older and not in church office when “the wineskins burst.” (That focussed on his successor at Coaldale, J.J. Siemens.) But for Harder, it happened during his lifetime; “many things to which he’d devoted his life collapsed.” He felt he’d failed.

Harder had become increasingly insistent on immersion for membership, and when the MB conference agreed to widen the category, he went out of the meeting with a terrible headache and told J.B. Toews, “If I was younger, I would start another church.” It puzzles, that he was so adamant on this, for his wife Tina was only re-baptized after they came to Canada, and in his family of origin, some had joined the MBs and others not. His brother became a General Conference (now called Mennonite Church Canada) minister. A puzzle. Or are these explanations?