by Terry M. Smith
After decades of studying wider Church and Anabaptist-Mennonite history, I suggest that a few words on any period of church history are inadequate for later generations to accurately assess the spiritual health of their predecessors. Often there were problems, yet I suspect there was also more spiritual health than is sometimes acknowledged.
Anabaptists-Mennonites lived in Poland-Prussia for about 250 years, surviving with limited and shifting legal protection while under the scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church. Today we might bring Elder Peter Epp’s assessment to mind: “Children, the only hope we have for the church is to move to Russia. Here in Danzig the church is finished; it is becoming worldly” (Harvey Plett, Seeking to be Faithful, 21). Epp knew and appraised the Danzig church; and, with that, as various people would say, there are cautions and lessons to learn. With all due respect to Epp, though, I’m reluctant to let his be the final word on the Prussian Period.
Anabaptists-Mennonites moved to Russia about 1788 where many remained till 1874-75, others stayed till the 1920s or later, and many remain today. That’s a long time. The Kleine Gemeinde, part of which developed into the EMC, came out of a larger church. How alive was the Larger Church?
Out of the Larger Church came renewal movements (the KG/EMC in 1812, the Mennonite Brethren in 1860). Renewal was needed; and yet I’m unclear how to evaluate those left behind. MB historian P. M. Friesen, who lived and died in Russia, saw spiritual life remaining in the Larger Church—Dr. Abe Dueck mentioned his view in a class I was in at MBBC more than 30 years ago.
When I move away from inherited assessments and learn more about people, it’s less easy to form a harsh opinion. I remain cautiously optimistic about the Russian Period—as fragmented, unruly, and odd as that time seems to me.
In Canada, the German-speaking KG held some views sharply different than my background: a suspicion of English-speaking cultures, other churches in general, and higher education. About 140 years ago in Steinbach, Man., this likely affected how they saw their neighbours, Scots of Presbyterian faith.
Aware of this, it’s an interesting two step for me to be partly Scots Presbyterian in background (though from Alberta) and an Anabaptist minister. Within this, it’s a privilege to supervise the translating of German letters and postcards written in the late 1800s and later and glimpse Anabaptist spiritual faith amid the messiness of life.
Here’s one story: In the 1920s a Mennonite couple lost a child to Scarlet Fever and a second child was ill and not expected to live. The writer repeated the words of Job: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” (Harvey K. Plett, translator, alerted me to this.) Presbyterians then likely had similar stories. In my view, Presbyterians and Mennonites have more of a shared faith and life than differences.
Today, professional, pastoral, and pew-sitting analysts describe the Christian Church in Canada and predict its future. At times, rather sweeping judgments seem to be made on the state of the diverse Church in Canada.
I, too, have concerns–serious ones–in looking at various parts of it: a loss of truth (1 John 5:20), a wrong focus on “an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), weak evangelism or social justice (Matt. 23:23, 28:18-20), and a decline in community (1 Cor. 12:12). Yet while doing so, I’m trying to avoid sweeping judgments on the Church as a whole.
Having a mainline background while being re-rerooted in evangelicalism and influenced by Anabaptism, I find studying church history to be humbling and helpful. Looking at the past has taught me, whatever my concerns, to appreciate and be patient with the Church of today.