Moving Beyond Secession: Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity, 1872-1922

Peter Penner

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (Spring 2000)

Abe Dueck. Moving Beyond Secession: Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity, 1872-1922. Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 1997.

I would like to have seen this book a decade ago. It sheds much light on the formative years of the Mennonite Brethren Church. What was its dynamic, identity, promise? What did it have to offer? Was there a convincing rationale for it? Why did the new church of 1860 have to carry the incubus of a Baptist image for so long? Why did it raise so much hostility from the Orthodox Church? These and related questions are answered in this book.

In his introduction the author, the director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, prepares the reader for the three main sections of this volume of documents. First there are maps, tables, and lists illustrating the Russian Mennonite Brethren (MB) conference structure. It encompassed all the churches to the west, north, and north-east into Siberia, the east, and the south into the Crimea. The use of Reiseprediger (itinerants) to keep the unity of faith was a practice carried over into North America. Second, there are minutes of nine MB conventions held between 1882 and 1918, some never before published. They clearly reveal what Mennonite Brethren brought with them to this continent: a sense of mission in evangelism at home and abroad. The interesting Russian MB association with the American Baptist Missionary Union, working in India, is clearly demonstrated in these documents. The MB conviction to convert Russians that landed them in trouble with the Orthodox and cast fear among the Mennonite Church during the Great War years.

Third, and most fascinating, a series of ten documents focuses on the crucial matter of identity as Mennonites and bring forward two combatants. No one was more pained by the discussions of 1910-1916 than Peter M. Friesen, who had just completed his great work Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruderschaft in Russland (1911). His “Allianz” position and his general irenicism seemed shattered. The chief protagonist on the MB side was Heinrich J. Braun. The documents make him the most prominent leader in 1910-1918. The strings of all MB activity seemed to end on his desk at Raduga Press, Halbstadt, the publisher of Friesen’s work. In 1910 Braun sharpened the focus in his “Mennonites or Baptists?” by restating the MB position on immersion, communion restrictions, and intermarriage vis-à-vis the Mennonite Church (117).

David Epp of Chortitza replied for the latter in the Friedensstimme of 1910. He felt that his church was being made into the “antithesis” of the MB Church. “How is this possible?” he asked (123). Whereas they had been “one family” they were still strangers to each other fifty years later and “the cause must be seen on both sides.” The hurdles placed before his church were great. Where was the golden rule when Braun charged the Mennonites for continuing to think of MB as Baptists, yet repeated even if in a historical fashion, the MB’s 1860 description of the general church as “decadent”?

In spite of this tension-filled debate, an earnest effort was made in 1914 to bring to the Tsarist religious authorities a common Mennonite confession which demonstrated that they together were a church and not a mere sect. However, another preacher from Chortitza, Peter Penner (no relation to the reviewer), apparently unauthorized, stated his pessimism at coming to the government with a united confession. He saw the MB continuing to endanger their Privilegium by preaching among Russians (147). This led to Friesen’s review of the whole issue in “Confession or Sect?”, including Braun’s refutation of Penner’s charges. Friesen was most upset that after fifty years he found so much intolerance on both sides. On the issue of rebaptism for admission to the MB Church, he believed that “we will proceed like Abraham and Lot, Paul and Barnabas.”

This excellent volume will clarify for both Mennonite Brethren and Conference of Mennonites in Canada readers why the differences between the two groups, so deep-seated and carried by the Russlaender to North America, took until the 1970s to find a general reconciliation.