Heinrich and Maria Enns: Called to serve

Profile of an early Mennonite Brethren missionary

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“If we do not come back, if we die, then from this group there will have to be others who will follow,” Heinrich Enns said. “We have to go; we don’t have to come back.”

With these words, Heinrich and his bride, Maria Ewert Enns, boarded a train leaving Mountain Lake, Minn., on the first step of their journey to the Cameroons. It was 1896, and they were the first MB missionaries from North America to serve in Africa, though they went with German Baptists as there was no MB mission agency at the time.

Heinrich first felt called to serve as a missionary at age 16. To prepare, he attended Mountain Lake German Bible School and then the Baptist seminary in Rochester, N.Y. During occasional visits to Minnesota, he conducted revival meetings in his home church, Bingham Lake MB Church (later Carson MB Church). Fourteen-year-old CN Hiebert, who became a prominent MB evangelist, was among those who committed their lives to Christ during these services.

At 18, Maria Ewert confessed her faith and was baptized at the Bingham Lake church, which her parents helped to found. Longing to share God’s love, she trained as a nurse and took missiology courses in Germany. A shared vision to serve as missionaries brought Heinrich and Maria together.

They were married Aug.2,1896, during the Sunday morning service and were immediately ordained into ministry. The congregation shared a meal and then reconvened for the Enns’ farewell service. In Heinrich’s journal he describes feeling “torn apart” as they “waved handkerchiefs and hats” in their final goodbye three months later.

Heinrich and Maria Enns at the train depot with their family and friends. 1896

Enns updated the church regularly. In May 10, 1897, he wrote: “We here in the mission house are all very well. To the Lord many times thanks for that. We must ascribe our good health to the many prayers of the children of God that rise to the throne of grace for us. Your co-pilgrim to the Heavenly Home.”

Six weeks later, Heinrich died of “black” fever. Before the end of the year, Maria also died, as did their newborn baby. Heinrich was 29; Maria, 26.

Heinrich and Maria felt God’s call on their lives, only to lose their lives. However, this started a steady stream of missionaries sent from the Bingham Lake/Mountain Lake congregation. This joint group of mostly farmers had a strong vision for missions and ministry. They discerned the gifts of young people in the congregation, tapped them on the shoulder, provided opportunities for them to develop their leadership skills and encouraged them to serve. The church “prayed out” and supported these young people who became missionaries, pastors and Mennonite Central Committee workers.

Aaron A. Janzen was only 14 when he heard Enns’ words at the train station. He couldn’t get them out of his mind and finally yielded his life to Christ. He and his wife, Ernestina, subsequently followed God’s call to become the first MB missionaries in Congo. Today, the Congo conference is the second largest in the global MB church.

The Enns’ were not only heroes of the faith for their vision, courage and sacrifice; they were heroes to our family as they modeled service and dedication to Christ. Maria was my great aunt and Heinrich led my grandfather to the Lord.

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