Treasury of biographies relevant to today’s church
Leaders Who Shaped Us: Canadian Mennonite Brethren 1910–2010
Harold Jantz, editor
Kindred Productions, 2010
Leaders Who Shaped Us is a collection of the stories of 25 MB leaders from the past century, gathered in honour of the centenary of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches. According to editor Harold Jantz, leaders were selected based on their lasting contribution to the culture and ethos of the Canadian MB Church.
As I read the stories of leaders like J.B. Toews, A.A. Kroeker, Katie Funk Wiebe, and F.C. Peters, it felt as if I was being given a priceless window into a historical world and a church culture that is largely foreign to many contemporary MBs.
The first thing I noticed was the strong sense of communal identity and commitment that was assumed through the experiences of many of these leaders. This is no doubt owing to the shared experience of suffering in Russia and the very different hardships of life in Canada, both of which are foundational to the Canadian MB story. People would travel extraordinary distances, often at great personal cost, to attend conferences, evangelistic meetings, or other MB gatherings. This strong sense of “family” was striking, perhaps because there is so much contemporary confusion around what exactly it is that unites us as a Canadian MB church.
This was the “age of giants” with respect to MB leaders, and while there is no effort in the book to whitewash the shortcomings of individual leaders (many wives quietly bore heavy burdens for the sake of their husband’s ministry), I couldn’t help but be struck by the esteem with which the church consistently regarded them. The words of an Abraham H. Unruh or a John A. Toews carried a weight that is hard to envision in a time like ours when spiritual leadership is seen in primarily therapeutic terms. I was struck by how these leaders were depended upon to bear the burden of the community’s identity in a time when the MBs were struggling to find their way in a new, and sometimes bewildering, context.
Struggle over acculturation
I also noted the omnipresent issues around assimilation and acculturation that confronted so many of these leaders. Whether Bible colleges struggling over teaching courses in English, or MB churches debating the validity of American evangelical theologies and methodologies, the consistent questions had to do with preserving a distinctive identity while cautiously engaging the wider world. Although the actual issues debated may strike contemporary readers as somewhat bizarre, I couldn’t help but wonder how today’s thoroughly acculturated Canadian MB church would be perceived by the faces solemnly staring at me from the pages of this book.
Finally, I noted a common narrative of crossing the threshold from an inherited or assumed faith to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Many of these leaders wrestled deeply and honestly with questions of personal sinfulness and the assurance of salvation. This “renewal story” is very evident in many of these lives, as nominal faith became heartfelt, vibrant commitment to Jesus. As the MBs enter the second century in Canada as a mature institution, we may benefit from a fresh consideration of what it means to nurture authentic Anabaptist conviction in a highly secularized and pluralistic context.
Reading Leaders Who Shaped Us was an unexpected delight. I approached this book with modest expectations, but as I entered the stories of this diverse range of MB leaders, I ended up being both inspired and challenged as I reconnected with a spiritual family of which I was, it turns out, too dimly aware. The questions that animated many of these leaders are not the same as the questions that are being asked in our churches today. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at how seeds of the issues and attitudes are just as prominent today as they were when the MBs were first finding their way in this strange land called Canada.