The conference known today as the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches came into existence in 1889 as the Conference of United Defenseless Mennonite Brethren in Christ of North America. The conference was originally a reform movement within the North American Mennonite churches that had immigrated from Russia in the 1870s. The United Defenseless Mennonites sought to recapture both a rigorous adherence to Anabaptist-Mennonite ethical ideals and also a renewed emphasis on personal salvation and regeneration.
Today, the conference is known as the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (FEBC), and willingly reveals little of its original Mennonite identity. Firmly identifying itself with the evangelical world, the FEBC seems to view its Mennonite origins as a liability and even an embarrassment. How could a group so firmly rooted within a Mennonite faith tradition, in less than a century, almost completely reject its original identity and adopt a new one? This is the basic question that sociologist Calvin Redekop sets out to answer in this book.
Given the small size of this conference (less than 4,000 members in 1998), one might legitimately wonder what relevance this story has for the larger Mennonite world. Redekop, however, persuasively argues that
this story is one instance of that archetypal story experienced by hundreds of other Christian reform movements which have made the long trek from protest and renewal to loss of direction and loss of the bond of unity (p. 13). The FEBC is not the first such group, and presumably not the last, to follow this path. For that reason alone, an analysis of their story is instructive for the larger Mennonite and even Christian story.
The FEBC came into existence in North America, but its roots lie in the Russian Mennonite context. Its founding members had all migrated from Russia in the 1870s, and so that setting provides much of the impetus for the new movement. Redekop appropriately places the early FEBC into the context of religious renewal among the Mennonites in Russia. Both of the group’s founders, Isaac Peters and Aaron Wall, were converted under the preaching of Lutheran evangelist Eduard Wüst. They were both strongly influenced by the Pietistic teachings of Wüst, and sought to incorporate these emphases into their Mennonite belief system.
Following migration to North America, Isaac Peters became a minister in the Bethesda Mennonite Church of Henderson, Nebraska. Aaron Wall, meanwhile, migrated to Mountain Lake, Minnesota, where he also became a minister. Both eventually found themselves at odds with some fellow church members over issues of lifestyle and expressions of personal salvation, and both eventually led schisms out of the existing congregations.
Recognizing a commonality between events in Nebraska and Minnesota, Peters and Wall soon began discussing the possibility of creating a new Mennonite conference. They did so in 1889, when the Conference of United Defenseless Mennonite Brethren was founded. A few other like-minded congregations soon joined the conference, and others came into existence when conference members moved to new communities across western North America.
In chapter three Redekop defines the basic ideology of the young conference. Among the most important articles of faith were an emphasis on salvation and regenerated life, the maintenance of a strong spiritual life, the obligation of evangelism and missions, nonresistance, and nonconformity. Despite a commonality of vision, Redekop discerns divergent tendencies within the United Mennonites. Whereas Isaac Peters
tended to focus on nonconformity to the world . . . and recovery of traditional Mennonite ethical life, Aaron Wall’s
orientation emphasized the experience of personal regeneration and the pious humble walk through intimate acquaintance with Jesus and the Bible (p. 57). While these differing emphases were hardly contradictory, Redekop does note that the conference would eventually find it difficult to hold onto them both. It is in this difficulty that Redekop finds the most telling explanation for the conference’s eventual movement away from a Mennonite self-identity.
In chapter four Redekop describes the conference’s efforts to establish new congregations across the West. While numerous such congregations were established, a surprisingly large percentage failed to survive. Today only fourteen of the forty-two congregations established between 1889 and 1950 still remain in the conference. Since 1950, the conference has been more successful in establishing congregations that survived. Even then, however, the numbers are striking: out of seventy-eight total congregations established, only forty-one remain in the conference today. Total membership of the conference also remained low: 952 members in 1920, 1919 members in 1950, and 4380 members in 1990. For a group so devoted to evangelism and saving
lost souls, such numbers must have been reason for concern. Some conference leaders blamed a Mennonite ethno-religious identity for the failure to grow, thus hastening the movement away from that identity, both culturally and theologically.
By the 1930s, the conference was beginning to seriously question its religious influences and identity. Most of the founding leaders had by this time died, and a new generation of leaders had taken their place. These men did not, for the most part, share the cultural and religious context of their predecessors. Most had been born in North America and had absorbed the religious environment of that culture. These new leaders were particularly influenced by the rising evangelical and fundamentalist movements of the time. These younger leaders were moving in a religious direction that had less and less to do with the vision of Aaron Wall and especially Isaac Peters. It seems clear that the 1937 decision to change the conference name to Evangelical Mennonite Brethren arose largely out of this growing identification with the evangelical movement.
For a time, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren was satisfied to maintain this dual identity--both Mennonite and evangelical. By the 1960s, however, its leadership had come to believe that only one identity could survive, and that the conference would have to choose between the two. The 1968 decision to withdraw from Mennonite Central Committee reveals clearly the EMB dissatisfaction with the larger Mennonite world, as did the first discussions during this decade about dropping the word
Mennonite from the conference name. Though the debate over a name change would continue for more than two decades, the conference did eventually formally terminate its public identification with Mennonites in 1987, when it became the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches.
Redekop describes this transition as
The Great Change. He notes that
a great ideological struggle had been taking place in the soul of the Peters/Wall movement soon after it began, and that this struggle eventually resulted in its rejecting a Mennonite identity (p. 164). This struggle was epitomized, Redekop suggests, by the differing visions of the two founders. Though Peters and Wall considered themselves to be kindred spirits, their visions for the ideal church were strikingly different. Elements of Wall’s vision, more compatible with American evangelicalism, survived long after his death. The influence of Peters, however, rooted more firmly in a distinctive Mennonite ethos, fared less well over the long run.
Despite tentative efforts to align itself with other Mennonite groups, the EMB came to exist largely in isolation from the larger North American Mennonite world. Too small to maintain its own institutions and identity, the conference turned increasingly to American evangelicalism for that identity. Influenced by evangelicalism, the EMB came to see its Mennonite identity as merely a cultural/ethnic liability and therefore something to be abandoned in the name of evangelism and church growth. Ironically, as Redekop notes at various places, this rejection of a Mennonite theological orientation has not resulted in the rapid growth that many conference leaders claimed would occur. Indeed, the FEBC has lost membership since abandoning a public identification as Mennonites (from 4366 members in 1987 to 3563 members in 1998).
In Redekop’s concluding chapter he most clearly outlines the trajectory that transformed the United Defenseless Mennonite Brethren in Christ into the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren and then the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches. The early movement received much of its vitality and purpose from combining an
Anabaptist stress on discipleship and nonconformity to the world with the invigorating pietist renewal, which emphasized heartfelt conversion and living and sharing of personal spiritual experience (p. 184). Unable to hold together these complimentary yet different visions, the conference moved increasingly in the direction of the latter vision during the twentieth century. As Redekop concludes,
The Peters/Wall movement embarked on a pilgrimage determined by its original evangelical Anabaptist commission. However, because it lacked a self-correcting mechanism, it became disoriented by the ubiquitous attraction of individualistic religious movements and lost its sense of direction and history. Meanwhile, it is tending not to meet its own central goals of evangelism and growth (p. 194).
Redekop’s analysis of the FEBC is both insightful and helpful in understanding the religious pilgrimage of that conference. While some earlier interpretations of the movement (including my own) have tended to interpret the story as one of rejecting one religious tradition in favor of another, Redekop more helpfully locates the tension within the very roots of the conference itself.
This difficulty of holding Anabaptist/Mennonite emphases in tandem with pietist/evangelical ones is a valuable case study for many Mennonite groups today. The FEBC is not the only group to be born out of such multiple motivations. Others, such as the Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite Church, also share these dual emphases, and have also struggled with how to hold them in creative tension. Redekop’s analysis will provide a helpful interpretation for members of those groups trying to understand their own story.
Few books are without flaws, and this one is no exception. More care should have been given to the editorial process. There are several instances of words run together, omitted letters, and even a line on p. 106 that was deleted in my copy with adhesive tape. The bibliography, furthermore, attributes one article to me actually written by H. F. Epp.
Not all the chapters seem to promote the main argument of the book equally well. Chapter six, which addresses political, economic and social issues, is perhaps the best example of this shortfall. While Redekop briefly discusses the ways in which these contexts changed for the Peters/Wall movement, he fails to show how these changes affected the unique development of that movement. The way in which the conference experienced these social phenomena seems to have been typical of most Mennonite groups, and so the analysis lacks any useful explanatory value for the book’s larger thesis.
These relative minor criticisms aside, Redekop’s book is a valuable and important contribution not only toward understanding one particular Mennonite group, but also in understanding the forces influencing many religious reform movements.