The master narrative of Canadian Mennonite history has been dominated by the great waves of migration from Russia to Canada in the 1870s, the 1920s, and the 1940s. It is a history of challenge and response, of suffering and survival. The experience of overcoming great obstacles produced strong leaders, two of whom were David Toews (1870-1947), the "Mennonite Moses" of the 1920s migration, and Jacob Johann Thiessen (1893-1977), Toews' successor as head of the Board of Colonization. Both Toews and Thiessen were powerful patriarchs who helped establish new church denominational institutions for a migrant people in the Canadian environment.
These two biographies chronicle a time of moral earnestness. Although J. J. Thiessen smiles somewhat impishly on the cover photo of his biography, his sterner preaching image with forefinger raised in admonition (p. 251) seems to capture more closely the broader life-spirit and tone of both men. Toews and Thiessen did not have time or inclination for frivolity. Epp-Thiessen writes that J. J. Thiessen's life "lacked the balance that would be considered important today." (132) These leaders discerned God's will and worked hard to achieve it.
In our twenty-first century era of increasing separation and distancing of Mennonites in Canada and the United States, the multi-lingual and multi-national character of these men seems impressive. They both spoke high German, low German, and English. They both had been at home in Russia and in North America. David Toews' experience in crossing boundaries was especially interesting. He was a young lad when his parents took the family on the ill-fated "Great Trek" to Central Asia, led by Klaas Epp. The family then migrated to Kansas, where David attended the Mennonite institute at Halstead. After his great life work of organizing the migration of Russian Mennonites to Canada, Toews received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Bethel College in Kansas.
The drama of difficult decisions to emigrate from Russia forms some of the most interesting chapters of these biographies. Harder gains imaginative access to the Toews' family experience on the Great Trek to Central Asia by quoting from the fictional account by Dallas Wiebe, Our Asian Journey. Epp-Thiessen effectively describes the harrowing attack by Nestor Makhno's forces on the village of Tiegenhagen, and the narrow escape from rape and death by Tina Thiessen and her husband. Thiessen's ability to overcome his guilt for having survived when so many others died, and to develop a theology of suffering, was important for his preparation as a leader of his people.
Authors Helmut Harder and Esther Epp-Thiessen both write in direct straight-forward prose, not keyed to irony or paradox. They both have a fine balance of praise and criticism of their subjects. While they celebrate two great lives, they also celebrate community and peoplehood. Epp-Thiessen is especially sensitive to the limitations placed on women in Mennonite communities. She tells us that J. J. Thiessen could aspire to higher education but "his sisters could not." (20) When J. J. decided to move his family from Waterloo, Ontario, to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, his wife Tina was eight months pregnant, yet "her personal wishes may not have entered the picture at all." (92) Later Tina suffered a total physical collapse and illness with breast cancer, and Epp-Thiessen reports, "If there had not been such social silence about the female body, the Thiessen family would likely have received more practical and emotional support at this time of crisis." (108-9)
These biographies remind us of an era of early denominational development when church leaders held onto positions of power for long decades into old age. Helmut Harder notes that the average age of the nine people who in 1902 attended the first meeting that led to the founding of the Conference of Mennonites in Central Canada was about thirty-eight. David Toews was thirty-two at the time. Not until four decades later, in his seventies and in declining health, did Toews relinquish his offices of authority. J. J. Thiessen also was in his seventies when he stepped down from his positions as church elder, as chairman of the board of Canadian Mennonite Bible College, and as member of the Mennonite Central Committee executive committee. Harder and Epp-Thiessen are quite generous in their assessment of leaders who hold onto power.
Both of these biographies contain a great deal of information about the people, places, and events in the lives of their subjects. Unfortunately, neither of the books has an index, and the information is far less accessible than it should be for readers and researchers. An errata sheet in the biography of David Toews informs us that Maria Wiebe Toews, David's mother, is mistakenly identified as "Anna" in every reference throughout the book. Such an embarrassing error, and the absence of indexes, suggest that the editors should have taken more time to complete these excellent biographies with the distinction they deserve.
James C. Juhnke
North Newton, Kansas