Influential leader took hard line

A Generation of Vigilance: The Lives & Work of Johannes and Tina Harder
T.D. Regehr

CMU Press, 2009
334 pages
A Generation of Vigilance is the fourth and final volume in a series initiated by the Yarrow Research Committee, focusing on the well-known Mennonite community in the lower Fraser Valley. Although never a resident of that community, Ted Regehr was invited to write the story of the Harders after Jacob Loewen, who had begun the task, passed away.

Yarrow, B.C., was one of several rural Mennonite (predominantly Mennonite Brethren) communities where Russlaender Mennonite immigrants of the 1920s established themselves in large numbers. (Coaldale, Alta., where Regehr grew up, was another such community, thus he has a good understanding of the dynamics that prevailed.) Strong leaders emerged within the churches, and these leaders were often very influential in the provincial, national, and international Mennonite Brethren constituencies and organizations.

The book tells the story of both Johannes and Tina Harder, although the predominant emphasis is on Johannes. The first chapters deal with their family backgrounds in Russia and the Soviet Union prior to their migration to Canada in the 1920s. Abraham Harder, Johannes’ father, established a well-known orphanage in Grossweide in 1906, which was closed after the Soviets came to power.

The pioneer years in Canada were difficult for the Harders, but after brief sojourns in other provinces, they eventually became well-established in Yarrow, and by 1930 Johannes was the leader of the MB congregation. He continued in that role until 1949. Johannes and Tina earned the reputation of authoritarianism, severity, and legalism in the church and in their broader ministry. In this respect, they were typical of many other leaders of that generation – hence, “a generation of vigilance.”

This book makes a significant contribution to understanding the issues and cultural climate of the first 50 years of the Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1920s. Harder clearly was a predominant figure in the Yarrow community and church in the 1930s and 1940s, including his involvement in the failed attempt to establish a Mennonite high school. He both shaped and reflected the religious understanding of the majority of recent Mennonite immigrants.

Harder’s involvement in the broader constituency was less central. Regehr documents, in considerable detail, the work of the Fuersorgekomitee (Reference and Counsel) of the Canadian conference, as well as various organizations in which Harder was involved. Several chapters tell the story of the mission board during the time he was a member, but these sections often see Harder as having a relatively minor role. “But Harder was not extensively involved,” Regehr writes, and “but he had only a limited understanding.” Nevertheless, these sections contribute significantly to an understanding of the broader context of the Mennonite Brethren story.

Regehr’s book is required reading for all who wish to understand an important era in Mennonite Brethren history as well as the forces at work in a close-knit Mennonite community such as Yarrow.

Abe Dueck is interim executive secretary of the Historical Commission of the Mennonite Brethren Church

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