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. Continue reading Spiritual Health and Patience with the Church→
When is a bishop not a bishop? First, within Anabaptist-Mennonite circles in Poland-Prussia when the Roman Catholic Church did not allow the Mennonite Church to have leaders called bishops (Darryl Klassen).
The church chose Elder (Aeltester) as an alternate title, yet much of the authority and functions of a bishop remained: to oversee churches, ministers, and deacons; to baptize and serve communion; and to ordain. Unlike a Catholic bishop, though, whether a Mennonite bishop had individual authority to excommunicate seems to have varied in history (Henry Fast).
Second, when a bishop resigns. The fourth KG bishop Heinrich Enns (1807-1881) began serving a “reform” group in Russia in 1866 and then, only two years later, resigned amid a lack of confidence by others. There was no indication or allegation of any immorality by Enns. Historian Delbert Plett says that Enns remained respected until he died.
Enns moved to Canada in 1875. Two years later he wrote two letters from Kansas while visiting a son. Plett says, “These writings provide an appropriate farewell to a man who had served his God and [Community] with great fervour.”
Perhaps they were, but what might Delbert have thought of a third letter that Enns wrote from Kansas? Plett seemed unaware of it. It seems to have gone untranslated until recent work within the EMC Archives, and more of its significance was realized when I worked with it on June 27, 2018.
Earlier this year historian Henry Fast had turned over to the EMC Archives a collection of about 80 letters sent to minister Peter B. Kroeker (1873-1955), some dating back to the 1890s. They were given with the support of Kroeker’s family, and are valuable. Lee Toews, a relative of Kroeker’s, had earlier rewritten some letters into modern German. Harvey K. Plett and Esther Wiebe, and more recently Ellen Stoesz, Ann Fehr, and Sara Peters have been translating the collection into English.
Yet one item dated April 30, 1877, didn’t fit into Kroeker’s period of correspondence, and a note, likely by Toews, said it appeared to be a letter to a church community. It was the letter by Enns, and an extraordinary acquisition. He wrote it shortly after the KG moved to Canada in 1874-75 and just four years before his death.
Enns, according to Plett, was “a strong willed man whose determination and one-mindedness sometimes hindered his effectiveness.” In a writing attributed by Plett to him, the former bishop held that the baptism of an adult “in an unconverted condition” and without “the right understanding” has “no more value than an infant baptism” and “can even be dangerous” for its misleading consolation. Was Enns wrong or right on this?
In his letter of April 30, 1877, Enns was highly conscious of his weaknesses: “A martyr worries as he is in prison and thinks about his former life and things come to mind of his former life and how he always had failed and it even saddened him in prison. Yes, I, miserable person, I have and still have lots of responsibility and have to be careful how I handle them.”
Enns struggled in leadership, felt keenly his weaknesses, had strong convictions, sought to be conciliatory, and looked to God’s grace. Would we expect less of any bishop?
Harvey K. Plett and Esther Wiebe are doing what they can in a race against time. Working under the EMC Archives Committee, they’re translating letters in German written to Peter B. Kroeker, who was elected to the Steinbach ministerial, first as a deacon and then as a minister, on Jan. 23, 1918.
Family and friends located in Meade, Kansas, and elsewhere wrote Peter B. Kroeker (1873-1955) about 88 letters, some dating back to the 1890s. Lee Toews, Peter’s son-in-law of Winnipeg, Man., later rewrote some of the letters into modern German script. Through the generosity of the Toews family, Henry Fast, EMC historian, recently offered them to the EMC Archives (and provided the outline of Peter B. Kroeker’s history).
Harvey and his sister Esther began using copies of the originals and the work by Lee Toews to render them into current English. In doing so, the past and the present pilgrimages of believers meet in a rich way—and in the middle is Harvey himself. He, though, wants his sister Esther to be mentioned and for God to receive all of the glory.
You see, Harvey has his own stories to tell. Years ago he consented to fill in briefly overseas when there was a need. He ended up serving as a cross-cultural worker in Belize and the Bahamas from 1969 to 2001 with Gospel Missionary Union. His areas of work were as diverse as maintaining buildings, bookkeeping, and coordinating Bible correspondence courses.
Len Barkman, a missionary in the Bahamas and later EMC general secretary, tells of how one of his young sons threw a snake that landed on Harvey, who was nearby. Harvey calmly removed the snake from around his neck and kept on going.
The names of Harvey K. Plett, mostly the missionary, and Harvey G. Plett, mostly the minister and educator, get mixed up at times (at least when I communicate by e-mail). The confusion is perhaps somewhat understandable: one Harvey was out of the country for many years while the other was active in Canada. Besides much of their names, though, they share a faith and a willingness to serve.
Now Harvey and Esther translate the life experiences and faith of Christians of past generations. Because they do so, we can look over the letters for personal and wider benefit. Themes emerge as I do so: health concerns, family connections, farming, and faith. These are not unusual. Health, family, work, and faith remain common concerns.
What is served by reading these letters? Partly, they remind us that life and faith in difficult times are not new to Christians in the 21st century. They have been constant challenges throughout history. The letters remind us of the legacy of faith (Heb. 11) and of our need to persevere as followers of Christ (Heb. 10:32-39).
The preserving of these letters, their translation, and their study are important. Harvey and Esther’s teamwork is unique in the EMC; they are currently the only translators working in the EMC Archives. They serve as volunteers, which means as health, time, and interest allow.
Meanwhile, the EMC Archives has hundreds of German documents, only some of which have been translated. The EMC Archives Committee has for years operated on a pittance and with little more than a handful of volunteers at one time. Does anyone else see a need for more volunteers and more funding?
Meanwhile, Harvey and Esther do what they can, and we are grateful to them for it.
Is it important to tell others of Christ’s grace in our lives as Christians and churches? Does it matter if we preserve EMC history? Should we help others to learn from our history?
Scripture says, “In the future, when your child asks, ‘What is the meaning of what the Lord has commanded you?’” (Deut. 6:20), what are we to do? “Tell them” (Deut. 6:20). We know this how? Because an ancient page was preserved, translated, printed, and made available to us.
The EMC Archives Committee thinks it’s important to share the story of Christ’s grace within our conference. That’s why it’s worked despite few committee members, a tiny budget, and limited other resources. And it does so with the clock ticking on some major projects. Your help is needed.
Don Kroeker (Fort Garry), a City of Winnipeg records manager, has served on the Archives Committee since the mid-1990s—longer than my nearly 21 years as executive secretary. Loren Koehler, who has served as an EMC missionary, has assisted for two periods as a volunteer in the archives and since 2007 on the committee. Dr. Glen Klassen (Steinbach EMC), a scientist and a professor, has served for several years. Cyndy Warkentin (SNC), a voice teacher and a pastor, became involved in 2017.
Among the tasks of the committee, three projects have priority and urgency. Time is not on our side to complete these projects successfully.
The EMC, thanks to EMC Project Builders, is a partner within the Mennonite Archives Information Database (MAID), a photo- and text-sharing research service. While our photos have been transferred from print to a digital format, work is needed to adjust the descriptions so that researchers will benefit. Volunteers are needed to assist with this.
The EMC stores archival materials at the Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA) on the CMU campus. Half of our holdings’ descriptions are in a format that researchers can use; half are not. A volunteer worker is needed to complete this project.
The archives contain what Dr. Royden Loewen has called a “treasure trove”: sermons, diaries, letters, records, ministerial documents, and much more. Some of these are written in gothic German script known to fewer members. There is a need to select documents that have priority and to translate them into modern German and English. Volunteer translators are needed.
The Archives Committee, which serves under the Board of Church Ministries, has a budget of $1,900 per year. Out of this come a fee and some delegate costs related to the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, an EMC archival storage fee with MHA, and a MAID maintenance fee. As a staff person who has worked with the committee in various ways for nearly 21 years, I can say there isn’t much left for any project.
The Archives Committee’s work isn’t flashy. It doesn’t attract the attention of foreign missions and church planting. How can it? Yet as memories fade, language changes, and voices within the EMC Archives are silenced, there is a loss to our children, our grandchildren, and us.
The testimony within history matters! Some volunteers and some project funds could make a real difference. Meanwhile, the committee is doing what it can in your name out of service to Christ.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference