Book Review: "A Generation of Vigilance: The lives & work of Johannes and Tina Harder".
Roots and Branches: Periodical of the Mennonite Historical Society of BC, vol. 16(2), pages 13-14, May.
Reviewed by Elmer G. Wiens
In A Generation of Vigilance, T.D. Regehr expands on his biography, "The Ministry of John and Tina Harder in the Yarrow Mennonite Brethren Church, 1930-1949," that appears in Windows to a Village: Life Studies of Yarrow Pioneers, published by the Yarrow Research Committee (YRC). While the book's Introduction states that John and Tina Harder were "perfectly ordinary, perfectly remarkable people," their influence was neither ordinary, nor perfectly remarkable on the members and attendees of the Yarrow MB (Mennonite Brethren) Church, and on the residents of the Yarrow settlement. Furthermore, the authority and leadership of John Harder extended beyond Yarrow by way of membership on boards of the BC, Canadian, and North American (General) MB Conferences. He also served and advised churches and missions projects in BC, South America, and Europe, as well as World War II conscientious objectors.
A Generation of Vigilance divides roughly into three parts. Chapters 1 to 4 describe Johannes and Katharina (Rempel) Harder's Russian Mennonite roots, parents, courtship, and immigration to Canada soon after their marriage. Chapters 5 to 10 portray their destitute arrival in Yarrow, struggle to make a living, raising of a family, advancement in the hierarchy of the Yarrow MB Church, and "vigilance" over the souls of its members. In the remaining chapters, Regehr provides details, previously unavailable, about Harder's work in BC, Canada, the US, Latin America, and Europe on behalf of various Mennonite Brethren programs. Regehr ends the book with John and Tina's three-year tenure serving the Black Creek MB Church on Vancouver Island, and their retirement years in Clearbrook, BC.
In the chapter "Watchman, 1945-63," Regehr relates how Harder read Nehemiah 2:17-18 to the Fuersorgekomitee (Committee of Reference and Counsel) of the Canadian Conference, putting these verses forward as a metaphor for Harder's vigilance "to preserve and strengthen the faith and life of church members." Nehemiah, the King of Persia's Jewish cupbearer, having obtained the king's permission to rebuild Jerusalem, finds its walls in ruin and meets with the city's officials. In the New International Bible these verses read: "You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace."
According to Regehr, Harder "sought to reinforce and maintain the walls designed to separate the [MB] churches from the outside culture and its influences." In autocratic Russia, these walls of Christian conduct allowed a measure of democracy within the Mennonite churches. Within the democracies of the West, however, these strict codes of behaviour, autocratically imposed and enforced, hindered the development and assimilation of the Mennonite Brethren churches into the civil society surrounding them. Harder's interpretations of the Scriptures were founded "not necessarily in eternal and unchanging biblical truths," but on his own "old-world cultural heritage," conditioning his judgement not only of spiritual matters, but also of cultural and social matters.
Did Harder consider Ezra's chronicles of the enmity the Jews aroused some years earlier, when the Jews returning to Palestine refused their neighbouring Samaritans' assistance to rebuild the Temple cooperatively? If he had, Harder could have lessened the subsequent tensions between Mennonites and non-Mennonites in Canada, and particularly in Yarrow. Rather, Harder might have followed the example of the scribe Ezra who returned to Judah from Persia some half century after Nehemiah. Appalled at the unfaithfulness of Jews who had assimilated with their neighbours and married foreign women, Ezra ordered the men of Judah and Benjamin to separate themselves from their neighbours and foreign wives, and to exile these women and their children.
Was there a belief among Mennonite people and their leaders that their version of Christianity was special within God's grace? Might the Mennonites actually be a special race, somewhat like the holy race of Israelites of the Old Testament? Apparently.
Growing up in Yarrow, one could easily develop the notion that only good Mennonite Brethren went to heaven after death. Or at least, that there would be a special place in heaven for us. Even the Eckert Road General Conference Mennonites (now MC) might not make it, given that some members smoked cigarettes. A member of the MB Church who married an unbeliever, someone who was "not saved" or "born again," was excommunicated. Furthermore, Regehr claims that a member of the MB church who married someone whose church did not practice adult baptism by immersion was excommunicated. "Be ye not unequally yoked together" was a verse often quoted. Children of parents who were non-members could attend Sunday school and church services, but sometimes children of MB adherents were warned not to play with them because "they were bad." During the 1950s and early 1960s, the church-run Sharon Mennonite Collegiate (SMC) practised separation of its students from grades six onwards. Elementary school friends suddenly became strangers, having contact with each other only at church functions. Perish the thought that a boy from the public school on Wilson Road might have a girlfriend attending SMC on Stewart Road. Meanwhile, young adults trod carefully through a minefield of forbidden activities, places and friendships, and some parents warned of the difficulties inherent in an MB-MC marriage, or even in a Russlaender marrying a Kanadier.
Regehr praises Harder's administrative and organizational skills. The Yarrow MB Church's administrative structure created by Harder was still in place 10 years after he left office, as is illustrated in the table of "Church Ministry Workers" on the web page cited below. About thirty names appear among the Church Council Members, its governing body. Another diverse list of members appear among the thirty committees and groups with church responsibilities. To name just a few, these committees include the Sunday School, Saturday Religion School, High School, West Coast Children's Mission, and Library. The Yarrow MB Church was run efficiently. When Harder helped to establish the Vancouver MB Church, he naturally wanted it to follow the model of church organization, governance and discipline adopted in Yarrow. Undoubtedly, the political and interpersonal skills Harder acquired with this Vancouver venture served him well some years later when he was asked by the General MB Conference to "visit, preach, and gain insight into the life and work, the joys, sorrows, and difficulties of all Mennonite Brethren churches in South America."
Since the Church Council (Vorberat) excluded women as members, Tina Harder "exerted considerable unofficial influence" by persuading Johannes to express her opinions. While she held girls and women to strict codes of behaviour and dress with concerns about the "lusts of the flesh," Tina "provided strong emotional and practical support for widows," organized church support groups, and generously offered her time and energy during crises.
According to Regehr, John and Tina Harder "provided strong leadership" during a difficult time of transition, as Mennonites relocated from their Russian enclaves to their new Canadian homeland.
Regehr, Ted. "The Ministry of John and Tina Harder in the Yarrow Mennonite Brethren Church, 1930-1949." Windows to a Village: Life Studies of Yarrow Pioneers. Eds. Robert Martens, Maryann Tjart Jantzen, and Harvey Neufeldt. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2007. 81-119.
Regehr, T.D. A Generation of Vigilance: The lives & work of Johannes and Tina Harder. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2009.
"Yarrow Mennonite Brethren Church: Baptism, Membership, Transfers, and Deaths." Yarrow, British Columbia. Eds. Esther Epp Harder, Edwin Lenzmann, and Elmer Wiens. Retrieved 5 November 2009. http://www.yarrowbc.ca/church/mbmembershipbaptism.html.