Some 34 years after the first half of P.M. Friesen’s seminal history of Russian Mennonites was published in English, the Centre for MB Studies (CMBS) has released the second – dealing with Mennonites in North America (1874–1910). Jake K. Balzer of Calgary translated the volume from German, staff at the Winnipeg CMBS contributed to the editing and layout process, and Hillsboro CMBS director Peggy Goertzen arranged financing and publication under the banner of Kindred Productions.
Peter Martin Friesen was a respected leader – teacher, minister, writer, political advocate – and bridge-builder among Mennonites in Ukraine.
A century later, Friesen’s generous ecumenism is “still instructive” suggests Winnipeg CMBS director Jon Isaak. “Friesen aimed to bring Mennonites under one banner – regardless of mode of baptism, leadership structure, or way of expressing a Christian peace witness. He found the rigidity of some of his fellow MBs in 1910 counterproductive to his vision of a shared fellowship with other evangelical groups. He himself ministered in Mennonite, MB, German Baptist, and Russian evangelical churches.”
Baptized at 16, Friesen joined the young Mennonite Brethren church, but pursuit of higher education took him to Switzerland, then Moscow, and, for a time, his commitment to personal faith faded in importance. Nevertheless, he returned to the Mennonite colonies as teacher and principal in the Halbstadt secondary school.
The death of his two-year-old son in 1884 precipitated a religious crisis resulting in renewal of Friesen’s faith. That year, he was ordained as a minister. He played a significant role in drafting the first MB Confession of Faith published in 1902, and in 1911, he completed (in German) the first – and still definitive – history of Russian Mennonites (1789–1910), including the emergence of the Mennonite Brethren church.
In addition to his active teaching and preaching, Friesen advocated for Mennonite, Baptist, and Stundist congregations when the government threatened the legitimacy of these evangelical churches. Affected by overwork, his health declined and he withdrew to the Black Sea, where his family hosted a house church fellowship, and provided a home to many students whom he counselled and advised.
Historian Abe Dueck describes Friesen as a “pan-Mennonite,” for he was passionate about bringing together various streams of Mennonites and working closely with Baptists and other evangelicals as participants in the same mission of God.
“I suspect Friesen would likely resonate well with aspects of new MB initiatives, like C2C, which work across denominational particularities for the larger purpose of God’s mission,” says Isaak. “But he might also raise questions about some trends to narrow the range of acceptable doctrinal positions and to centralize power.”
The newly released volume and the full corpus of P.M. Friesen’s Mennonite history in English is also available on CD through Kindred Productions. Optical character recognition (OCR) on the CD affords complete digital searchability