Peter M. Friesen (1849–1914) is a towering figure in the Mennonite Brethren story. He wrote a monumental historical work on the Mennonites in Russia and in 1902 authored the first recognized Mennonite Brethren confession of faith. But perhaps his most important contribution was on behalf of those who had no voice in Russian society.
Friesen lived in a time of religious and political turmoil in Russia. The dominant religion in the country, Russian Orthodoxy, was closely linked to and protected by the government, headed by the Tsar (emperor) or Tsarina. Government policies granted special rights and privileges to designated groups, while others suffered because of poverty and lack of power.
Russian peasants, religious dissidents and Jews suffered greatly. Friesen, although he was a member of a group that received special privileges, often spoke up and even risked his life for the weak and oppressed.
A period of crisis characterized the years 1904-1905. Russia had lost the Russo–Japanese war, and dissatisfaction with the government led to an attempted revolution. Some blamed the Jews for the misfortune. Violence broke out in Sevastopol, where Friesen lived at the time. The press issued inflammatory articles, and public speeches aimed at inciting violence.
Despite being ill and confined to bed, Friesen felt constrained to intervene on behalf of the Jews. One morning he told his wife, Susanna, that he had received an assignment from God and asked her to bring his clothes. Although Susanna realized the extreme danger her husband might face, she consented. Expecting he might be killed, Friesen put his name and address on two cards in his coat and trouser pockets as identification on his body. He asked his family to pray and hurried to the marketplace, where a mob of several thousand listened to inflammatory speeches.
Friesen forced his way to the center of the crowd, where he summoned all his energy to climb onto the seat of a vehicle to address the crowd. With eloquence that could only be explained as a special gift of God, he reminded the people that they called themselves Christians and that Christ had come in love to give his life for the people. Through Christ’s death all humanity could become brothers and sisters. Certainly none of those present would want to soil their hands with their brother’s or sister’s blood.
Friesen continued for about an hour while the people listened in rapt silence. Then, seeing a dusty Russian worker nearby, Friesen pulled him up and, in full view of the crowd, kissed him on both cheeks in true Russian style.
“And now we will all go home or to our work,” Friesen called out. The people obeyed as if under command by the authorities. According to reports, Jews were no longer molested in Sevastopol.
Many times in his life, Friesen interceded on behalf of the weak. In this instance, as in others, his advocacy for the oppressed captured the essence of the gospel.
Abe Dueck was the director of the Centre for MB Studies (1991-2003) and a MB Bible College faculty member (1971-1991). This is an edited version of a full-length profile published by the MB Historical Commission as part of Profiles in Mennonite Faith.
The Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission is responsible for fostering historical understanding and appreciation within the Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada and the United States. It fulfills this goal by: coordinating the collection, preservation and cataloging of Mennonite Brethren conference archival records and publishing books and audio-visual material relating to the history of the Mennonite Brethren Church.