“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?