In honour of David Ewert

Today I want to say a few words in honour of David Ewert, longtime Bible teacher, preacher, and writer, who died Friday, April 23, in Abbotsford, B.C. (Winnipeg Free Press obituary here.)

I was not a student of Dr. Ewert. My interactions with him were mainly during my years at the MB Herald, in the capacity of editor to writer, and in this capacity I found him not only willing to serve whenever asked, but wonderful to work with as well. His copy was always on time or early, and so precisely written it needed virtually no editing at all. Last year, when we asked to reprint an article, “Does the resurrection make a difference in everyday life?” which had first appeared more than 20 years earlier, and said that we needed to shorten it and also update bits of the language here and there, he readily granted permission, and trusted us to make the changes. To my recollection, he said he didn’t even need to see the revised piece, although we sent it to him for his review anyway. He was polite and somewhat formal in his correspondence, but he never failed to include some affirming or grateful word about the ministry of the magazine, and coming from him, this was valued encouragement indeed. 

But my larger gratitude concerns David Ewert’s place in our denomination, where he was known not so much personally as broadly, by all of us, for his many contributions. He was born in 1922, served the Mennonite Brethren and wider church some 70 years: 25 years at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, and also as professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, and as visiting teacher in other schools in North America and internationally. He preached in many churches, and wrote more than 20 books.

According to the short biography of him by Bruce Guenther with Kevin O’Coin, carried in the recent Leaders Who Shaped Us, Ewert’s influence and leadership were particularly significant in the transition of Mennonite Brethren in North America out of “their isolated, often rural, ethnically homogenous communities” into a more urbanized and outward-looking ethos. He “defined and embodied the convictions of the Mennonite Brethren church,” write Guenther and O’Coin, but “helped to move [it] away from both a particular, and often exclusive, German-Russian ethnicity, and from aspects of American fundamentalism that some had found attractive.”

Some years ago I read, and enjoyed, David Ewert’s autobiography, A Journey of Faith (Kindred, 1993). I want to mention two things that I’m grateful he impressed upon the MB denomination. One concerns his influence in weaning us away from the dispensational approach to the Bible and into a sounder understanding of the Book of Revelation. No question, he admitted, caused as much controversy in his experience as teacher and preacher.

Having discovered the wonderful continuity of God’s saving plan for humankind in the Bible, I lost interest in the eschatological intricacies of the dispensational school. I had disposed of Larkin’s eschatological charts long ago…. Since I found no evidence from the New Testament for dividing up the return of Christ into two “comings” (the rapture and the Day of the Lord), and that, in fact, the “last days” had begun in the first centurey, I was spared speculating about which current events might be signs of the imminent return of our Lord. As far as I was concerned, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 had nothing to do with the blessed hope of the believer. However, for such views I was called interesting names. I still have a folder full of letters denouncing my “heretical” views on eschatology. My book “And Then  Comes the End” allayed some of these criticisms, when it was discovered that I held to every fundamental teaching of the New Testament on eschatology. What was missing was the nonsense that goes under the guise of “prophecy” (such as date-setting, or determining from political, sociological and economic developments how close we are to the end.)

I’d grown up with those charts too but was not sorry either to see their demise. A large one drawn on cloth hung on the wall of the conference archives room for some time, where it recalled for me, whenever I saw it, the intensity of this interest in the past. But its being there also symbolized the move away from the “nonsense” that had beguiled and consumed us for a time.

The other item of gratitude I want to mention concerns Ewert’s attitude about study and the life of the mind, which may currently be suffering some loss of emphasis in our denomination, and of which he wrote: 

I have found that one can bury one’s head in a lexicon and come out with the glory of God…. It didn’t happen over night but I see it more clearly now than in my younger years, that intense academic efforts do not endanger a person’s devotion to God. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true. When one offers one’s academic activities up to God as a daily sacrifice, they become a means of grace. My patience tends to wear thin when I encounter students who in the name of piety shy away from the rigors of study.

May the work and memory of David Ewert continue to be blessed among us.

“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.