John B. Toews: Church statesman

Profile of a U.S. Mennonite Brethren leader

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J.B. Toews speaking from the floor at the 1975 General Conference convention. Photo: CL archives

John B. Toews (Sept. 24, 1906–May 9, 1998) was one of the most influential Mennonite Brethren church leaders of the 20th century. His influence spanned 60 years of ministry as pastor, teacher, college and seminary administrator, mission executive, theologian and historian for Mennonite Brethren around the world.

“JB,” as he was popularly known, is perhaps most remembered for his inspiring, motivational speaking about missions, theology and history. Fluent in Dutch, German, Russian and English, Toews was articulate and well read on the latest trends in missions and historical theology. He influenced thousands of people to follow Jesus in church and missions.Born to Johann A. and Margaretha (Janz) Toews in Ukraine, Toews graduated from the University of Ukraine in 1926, studied in the Netherlands and then immigrated to Alberta, Canada, in 1928. He studied at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, Western Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1933, he married Nettie Unruh. They had three sons.

Toews taught New Testament theology and doctrine at Bethany Bible School in Saskatchewan, and later served as president. He was director of the Bible department at Freeman College, Freeman, S.D., president of MB Bible College in Winnipeg, and president of the MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, followed by several years as adjunct professor of missions, practical theology and history at the seminary. He pastored MB churches in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Buhler, Kansas, and Reedley, California.

Toews rose to international prominence as a leader and inspiring speaker during his 10-year term as general secretary of the MB Board of Foreign Missions. His travels on behalf of the board established him as a missionary statesman among all Mennonites.

Toews helped shape the MB church and its agencies, often at the cutting edge within the institutions he served. He guided the seminary to an Anabaptist approach in its interpretation of Scripture and was instrumental in bringing in new faculty to teach and re-invigorate the leadership of the MB church.

Toews moved MB missions from a paternalistic worldview into a new era of international indigenization. Missionaries and long-time mission supporters were slow to understand the changed thinking, growth, vigor and restlessness of new MB adherents in other countries. It was hard for the North American church and its missionaries to understand that the people they had brought to faith were now ready to take over the leadership of their national churches.

Having taught history and theology until his retirement in 1980, Toews remained active within the MB church, its agencies and institutions by encouraging Mennonite Brethren to remember their theological and historical roots within the broader Anabaptist vision. He served as the first director of the Center for MB Studies in Fresno, California, and he pushed to establish similar centers in Hillsboro, Kansas, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. His vision gave rise to the MB Historical Commission, of which he became the first executive secretary.

Ken Reddig is a longtime archivist and historian for the Manitoba government and two Mennonite archives. The full-length version of this Profiles in Mennonite Faith can be read online on the MB Historical Commission website.  

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