Leading Mennonite Brethren historian dies

Fresno Pacific professor helped MBs claim their history

Dec 7, 2015 by

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FRESNO, Calif. — Paul Toews, a leading Mennonite Brethren historian who taught for 44 years at Fresno Pacific University and did groundbreaking research on Mennonites in Russia, died Nov. 27. He was 75.



“Paul’s significance to Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren Church and the larger Mennonite world is almost incalculable,” said Kevin Enns Rempel, director of FPU’s Hiebert Library and the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

Rempel said that as an instructor, Toews shaped the lives of countless young scholars. As director of FPU’s CMBS and the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission, he fostered a sense of historical identity for the denomination.

Toews wrote the fourth volume of the Mennonite Experience in America series, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970. Published in 1996, it is the best-known of his seven books and earned wide recognition among Mennonites.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Toews led 15 annual Mennonite heritage cruises on the Dnieper River, which flows from Russia, through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. Each “floating university” trip had 150-180 people.

“He would give wonderful lectures,” said Peggy Goertzen, director of the CMBS at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. “We would go around and tour the places of Mennonite significance, and in the evening he would give tre­mendous historical lectures. He was just very good at that.”

Later, at state archives, he found czarist and Soviet records of Mennonites. Each year thereafter, Toews copied documents and brought them to FPU’s CMBS, building a collection of 200,000 pages, the largest of its kind in the U.S.

“Making available Mennonite source documents in Russian and Ukrainian archives has shed new light on that significant part of Mennonite history,” Rempel said.

Toews was born Nov. 27, 1940. After attending Tabor College and earning a master’s degree at the University of Kansas, Toews joined the Fresno Pacific faculty in 1967 while finishing his doctorate at the University of Southern California.

He spent two years as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, before returning to FPU in 1971. He retired from FPU in 2013.

Toews did much to tell the story of his literal and religious ancestors and to add to it for the future.

Alongside Toews in several efforts was Peter Klassen, former FPU faculty and board member and retired history professor at California State University, Fresno.

“He has helped Mennonites understand what their background is,” Klassen said in 2013.

Toews served on the Mennonite World Review board of directors.

He is survived by his wife, Olga; daughter Renee; son, Matthew; and brothers, John and James.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Dec. 12 at College Community Church Mennonite Breth­ren in Clovis.

— FPU contributed to this article

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