Originally published in 1974, David C. Wedel’s Story of Alexanderwohl has been brought up to date to include a new closing chapter by Brian Stucky, an updated appendix listing church elders, ministers, pastors, and missionaries, and an index. The appendix supplements and Stucky’s epilogue pick up where Wedel’s original text left off and provide an account of the church and community over the past twenty-five years. Other than a few source additions that reflect the opening of records in Russia, the primary text remains unchanged from the first edition. It continues as a celebration of a church and a community for members of that community.
Presenting his story as a series of homey vignettes, Wedel divides his book topically into chapters that cover church origins and migration across Europe, settlement in Kansas, community building and issues of faith in a new land, and social life. He briefly follows the church from its earliest beginnings in the Netherlands but reserves most of his narrative emphasis to highlight the insular nature of the congregation in Kansas and the strengths such a commitment to community imparted. As Wedel stresses, members of the congregation viewed church membership as a
God-given privilege and to
be outside the church membership was practically synonymous with non-membership in the community (81).
Despite Alexanderwohl’s roots in Prussia’s Przechovka Church and subsequent fifty-four years in Russia, the bulk of the text focuses on the congregation’s experiences in the United States. Although this is reflective of the largely American source material Wedel had available, it is also part of his celebration of the church’s continuity and stability as a congregation in Kansas. Unfortunately, he presents the story as if in a vacuum and leaves the larger social and political events surrounding the Alexanderwohl community largely unexplored. While Stucky’s epilogue emulates this pattern, he makes a stronger effort to place events of the past twenty-five years within the larger context of the times. However, both authors write with the words of Reverend Ronald Krehbiel in mind. Krehbiel, in a 1974 sermon at Alexanderwohl said:
May God help us, each one of us, every one, to follow the winds of His Spirit, rather than the other winds which may be blowing at this time (198).
Although Wedel originally wrote the book as a centennial profile of the Alexanderwohl community, it is also presented in its reissue as a preservation of church history, and taken from a purely historical perspective, the text has some glaring weaknesses. Because Wedel presents the story with few references to outside events, one is left with the impression that the Mennonites who settled the Alexanderwohl Church were exceptional. Of course that was never the case. For example, although the group had the advantage of migrating as an intact community, which was not unusual in 1870s Kansas, many members still had difficulties in paying their transportation debts after settlement. The unstated reason, despite the much heralded importation and eventual acceptance of hard winter wheat, was a national decline in agricultural prices that grew steadily worse throughout the late nineteenth century. This affected all Great Plains farmers and most certainly would have given the Alexanderwohl congregation a materialist interest in the larger world around them.
What the Alexanderwohl Mennonites did have was a strong spiritual center and an unyielding faith in God. This, according to historian Robert Hine, is what enabled religious communities to survive in the American West while their secular counterparts faded into obscurity. This is Wedel’s point as well, and it is his book’s strongest argument. Nevertheless, as Stucky astutely notes in the closing epilogue, economics
are the hidden force behind church existence (217). With family farming in decline and little economic development in the Goessel area, the Alexanderwohl Church must address these new, secular realities if the congregation wants to survive into the next century.
The Story of Alexanderwohl is an amiable book that will appeal largely to current members and descendants of the Alexanderwohl community. General readers of Mennonite history should find it of interest, while historians will find the primary source notations a useful reference tool.
Gary R. Entz