A social religious history of transformation
California Mennonites is an engaging story of both cultural embrace and cultural resistance – Mennonite style. Brian Froese, associate professor of history at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, has completely reworked his doctoral dissertation (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California) in this book, narrating the Mennonite experience in California from the gold-rush days of the “Forty-Niners” (1849) to 1975.
Froese uses Mennonite newspapers and archival sources to explore the questions of cultural history regarding gender, race, conflict, religious practice and religious imagination. Based on his research, Froese argues that the Mennonites who migrated to California chose strategies that combined religious identity, accommodation and pragmatism, so that their brand of “Mennonitism” could take root in the Golden State.
According to Froese, American and Canadian Mennonites migrated to California for two primary reasons: a healing climate and fertile agricultural land. After settling, they first built churches and church networks. Then came parachurch institutions: hospitals, schools and social relief organizations.
There are chapters on Mennonite institutions like Pacific Bible Institute, Fresno Pacific University, Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Kings View Hospital and Civilian Public Service units during WWII.
Three adaptive strategies
During the 20th century, Mennonites in California responded to modernity by both embracing some aspects and resisting others in three different ways.
“Some Mennonites found a way through the transitions via conservative evangelicalism; others found it by reclaiming examples of 16th-century Anabaptists,” Froese writes. “Still other Mennonites found meaningful religious experience by entering deeper into society through social service and action to the extent that they appeared secularized.”
Froese’s project is a social religious history of transformations, documenting these different ways that California Mennonites wrestled with what it meant to be American, Mennonite and modern.
Three relevancies for Canadian MBs
So, why would Canadian Mennonite Brethren be interested in the story of California Mennonites? There are at least three reasons:
1) The story of Mennonites in California is primarily the story of Mennonite Brethren. Today, of all the California Mennonites, there are five times as many people affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, compared to those of the Mennonite Church USA.
2) The motives that drove migration to California – economic opportunity and climate – are similar to those that drove Canadian Mennonite migration from the prairies to British Columbia. And related to reason #1, of all the B.C. Mennonites today, there are six times as many people affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren church, compared to those of the Mennonite Church Canada.
3) Froese’s analysis of the ways that Mennonite Brethren have distinguished themselves in California – a mix of assimilation and of resistance – can give insight into the ways that Canadian Mennonite Brethren in B.C. have also navigated their context in order to establish themselves as significant community participants (see David Giesbrecht, “BC Mennonites: Changing Perceptions of Pilgrims in Lotus Land,” Mennonite Historian 40.3 [Septemer 2014]:2, 4–5, 10–11).
Froese uses the writings of MB historian J.B. Toews and sociologist on Mennonites James Urry to explain the Mennonite Brethren prominence in the California Mennonite story. What is it about this branch of Mennonites that found West Coast living so attractive?
Toews notes the way that Mennonite Brethren, already in Russia, were predisposed to embrace modernity, as evidenced by their close collaboration with government officials and by their experience as wealthy landowners.
In addition, Urry observes that Mennonite Brethren roots in 19th-century religious Pietism – emphasizing personal experience and individual communion with God – attracted entrepreneurs and individualists, the very ones who came to California (and B.C.) in the largest numbers.
The study finishes with an epilogue that briefly sketches further cultural and economic changes to the California Mennonite landscape since 1975. Noting the increased ethnic diversity within Mennonite churches – together with the increasingly diverse understandings of Christianity and Mennonite identity – Froese closes by wondering “whether any kind of common Mennonite identity in California will be possible, if desired, in the future.”
Sobering, insightful and witty are some of the adjectives that came to my mind as I read this book. Froese’s treatment of these complex religious transformations is well-balanced, even-handed and well-documented. I especially appreciated his familiarity with American pop culture and sensitivity to conservative Christianity as understood by Mennonite Brethren.
It is a solid contribution to the growing understanding of the ways that faith communities engage their worlds and continue to transform.
While the book is limited by its exploration of Mennonite religious institutions – church people do also live beyond the church’s institutional shadow – for anyone desiring to understand better how religious transformations occur within a particular cultural context, this will book will not disappoint.
—Jon Isaak is director of the Centre for MB Studies, Winnipeg. Previously, as professor of New Testament at MBBS-Fresno, he lived in Fresno – the Abbotsford of California – from 1998–2011.