California Mennonites

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Brian Froese
Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies
  • Baltimore, MD: 
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    , January
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brian Froese offers an engaging, often insightful, and thoroughly researched history of California Mennonites from the late nineteenth century to the present. He contends that Mennonites from California deserve a larger role in the narrative of U.S. Anabaptist history, noting in particular that the Mennonite Brethren have received insufficient attention.

The monograph proves most convincing in its treatment of the strategies employed by California Mennonites as they dealt with the social forces of modernity. With meticulous detail, Froese shows how Mennonites embraced evangelicalism, incorporated strands of secularism, and attempted to stay true to sixteenth-century Anabaptist values. Although communities within the Mennonite fold drew more or less on each theme at various times, frequently all three were “in play” (90).

In the midst of exploring the dynamics of modernity and sectarian accommodation, Froese sets out to address “gender, race, conflict, religious practice, and religious imagination” (xxii). Despite taking on such a broad agenda, Froese does indeed braid all these elements into his narrative. His discussion of the women who transformed sewing circles into missionary societies is deft (Chapter 6); his exploration of the church’s varied and at times contradictory response to armed service and conscientious objection is revealing (Chapter 7); and his examination of Mennonite engagement with mental health services is astute (Chapter 8).

Throughout the book, Froese draws on robust archival sources while carefully positioning his primary evidence in the context of larger religious and national trends. In the process of interpreting Anabaptist history in the Golden State, he provides fascinating tidbits of social analysis, noting, for example, that “the smaller the Mennonite group in California, the more apocalyptic their rhetoric, and the more permanent the move, the more isolated they felt” (62). Likewise, he draws attention to the irony that, among white Mennonite congregations, “the more socially progressive the group, the less likely its members were to stay in neighborhoods with a sizable influx of African-Americans” (233).

The flip side of his impressive archival source base is a muting of the voices of people of color. Although he does give pride of place to contemporary Mennonites of color in his epilogue, his discussion of “racial and religious pluralism” in “Chapter 5: New Neighbors” features many white missionaries but next to no stories, voices, or perspectives from the African Americans and Latino/as at the center of the story (91). Oral histories could have helped correct this elision, as could have more attention to collections in the archives. The voice of white pastor Leroy Bechler, for example, figures prominently in chapter five, but Bechler’s friend, mentor, and the first black Mennonite minister and bishop James Lark receives much less attention even though the ministry of Lark and his equally accomplished wife Rowena has been thoroughly documented. An exploration as to why the Larks chose to plant a church in a Mennonite mecca like Fresno, California, but not identify with Mennonites in that enterprise would have likewise added much to the racial strand of his narrative.

In a similar way, Froese misses an opportunity to fully engage the very historiography he critiques. He contends that “the California experience is more than a confection at the historical dinner; it is a significant part of the American Mennonite feast” (236). To support this claim, Froese references major works of synthesis like those penned by Leo Driedger, James Juhnke, Theron Schlabach, and Paul Toews. Yet he does not reference or engage with other Mennonite scholars who have addressed central themes of his work. He makes no mention of Felipe Hinojosa’s Latino Mennonites in his discussion of labor tensions between Mennonite growers and the Farm Workers Movement, even though Hinojosa references the California context multiple times. To be certain, Hinojosa’s work came out only a year before California Mennonites, but the failure to even acknowledge this important text is nonetheless notable. Likewise, Froese does not incorporate Perry Bush’s scholarship in Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, a text available since 1998 that centers on similar questions of Mennonite identity and modernity. Both of these monographs are featured in the same Young Center series as is California Mennonites, so their omission is all the more puzzling. Full engagement with these works and others like them would have added force and nuance to his central argument.

Despite such missed opportunities, Froese’s treatment of west/east tensions within the Mennonite community is spot on. As he sums up, “A culture of political conservatism and evangelical fundamentalism embraced by California Mennonites startled those from Pennsylvania and Indiana just as they in turn irritated some of their co-religionists by the Pacific” (229). Attending to the multiple dynamics of theology, race, geography, politics, and class that surfaced as West Coast and East Coast Mennonites came into contact requires sophistication and subtlety. Froese supplies both.

This is an essential book for those seeking to understand the full complexities of Anabaptist history in the twentieth century. Well written, carefully structured, and impressively comprehensive in its topical coverage, the book is worthy of wide adaptation in Mennonite history courses and religious studies classes focused on sectarian engagement with modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tobin Miller Shearer is the Director of the African-American Studies Program at University of Montana and an Associate Professor of History.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Froese is an associate professor of history at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


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