Book review: ‘Daughters in the House of Jacob’

Jan 2, 2017 by

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Who am I? Where am I going? How did I get here? Those are common questions for anyone looking into their family history and their place in the generations. Fortunately for the descendants of Jacob J. and Anna Kehler Doerk­sen, two granddaughters traced their story through letters, pictures and interviews with remaining elders of the family. The result is Daughters in the House of Jacob: A Memoir of Migration by Dorothy M. Peters with Christine S. Kampen.

"Daughters in the House of Jacob"

“Daughters in the House of Jacob”

Writing down a family’s story is not unusual, but the resulting memoir usually does not have broad interest beyond the family or those closely acquainted with it. Where this book differs is the authors’ wider reflection on ministry and calling that transcends generation and gender. The book arose out of their desire to understand how they both came to bear the image of their grandfather Jacob in their chosen vocations.

Like their grandfather Jacob Doerksen, the two cousin authors both have chosen Bible-related careers. Peters is adjunct assistant professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and Kampen is a pastor at Highland Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C.

The two women trace their individual callings to teaching and ministry to Jacob Doerksen, their preacher/teacher grandfather. Although Doerksen died while Kampen’s mother, Betty, and Peters’ father, Len, were still teenagers, the two cousins feel they knew him through stories from their parents.

In the course of researching their family saga through letters, pictures and documents, the two uncovered some surprising stories going back several generations, including one involving their great-grandmother that might not have been uncovered except through their persistence.

Peters reflects on her growing up in a Mennonite Brethren tradition that did not affirm daughters to pursue Bible teaching and pastoring as was encouraged for sons. Her father was a Bible teacher, and she found herself wanting to follow in his footsteps but knowing it was not possible. Nonetheless, she was always interested in theological matters and pursued biblical studies in college.

While working on her master’s degree, Peters asked her father when she would be invited to speak in his church. He replied, “But you cannot preach; you’re a woman.” She was hurt, but she understood. Eventually she and her husband left the MB denomination.

As a child, Kampen was fascinated to see a picture of a shepherdess tending her flock. She had never seen a depiction of a female shepherd and found the image so powerful that she traces her interest in ministry back to that point.

In college and early career, and in volunteer experiences with abused women, Kampen became particularly interested in the well-being of women. “I was not aware of how several generations of trauma on both sides of my family may well have had a role in drawing me to healing work,” she writes. She grew up in General Conference Mennonite congregations, and after attending seminary was called to be on the pastoral team of Highland Community Church, an MB congregation. Interestingly, Jacob J. Doerk­sen had also moved from the GC to the MB conference in the course of his ministry.

The authors weave their personal journeys with those of ancestors who preceded them over several generations. Some of the stories are heartbreaking — of personal loss and the grandparents’ experience of war and starvation in South Russia before immigrating to Canada. Some anecdotes are humorous and give insight into the personalities of the Doerksen family members.

To their credit, the authors tell with honesty some things that don’t necessarily show their family members in the most flattering light but give a more complete picture of the people involved.

Images of strong women emerge across several generations. As times change and ideas about ministry evolve, women’s roles in the church broaden.

Would the patriarch Jacob J. Doerksen be surprised to learn that the eldest children of his two eldest children, both female, would be the ones to carry on his legacy of preaching and teaching the Bible?

The final chapter of the book reflects on several themes explored through the authors’ research, including pastoring, biblical interpretation, sexuality, trauma, singleness and a legacy of storytelling.

This book is an excellent read, whether one is interested in Mennonite history, women in ministry or reflecting on how one’s own family story might have influenced one’s life and those of generations to come.

Amy R. Dueckman, of Abbotsford, B.C., is provincial correspondent for Canadian Mennonite magazine.

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