Recently someone became interested once again in looking back to see what the publication of Rudy Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many meant. Since Justina and I were close to Rudy and Tina Wiebe then, I thought I would throw the following into a Post.
Ironically, the very first issue in 1962 of the new Mennonite Brethren Herald carried a notice of Rudy Wiebe’s novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, one of the first novels by a Mennonite ever to be published by a non-religious press. And he was its first editor! Hardly did we know when that issue came out that this book would ‘destroy the peace of many’. The first review of Wiebe’s novel in the MBH was written by Peter Klassen of MBBC’s music department. He believed that “many Mennonites will be disturbed to see themselves cast in this mould [of conflict]”.
Personal Visits with Rudy Wiebe:
Though I cannot remember why Rudy came to us three times from Goshen, IN, while I was pastor of the Toronto MB Church (1962-64), I entered the dates of his visits, but made no record of our conversations in my Daybook. Rudy brought Tina and did an overnight on October 5-6, 1963; he came alone December 8, 1963; with his family June 4, 1964: Tina, and children Michael and Adriane. On one occasion I remember how he sang a solo in a church service. We were together at the 1964 Mennonite Graduate Fellowship at Elkhart which featured John Yoder, William Klassen, Victor Adrian, and others.
I assume from other sources that he talked to us of his new and well-liked environment in Goshen and his opportunity particularly to get to know John Howard Yoder and the circle of friends mentioned in one of the footnotes associated with Hildi Tiessen’s 2002 tribute (see below). I also assume that Rudy and Tina at that time were as interested in the issues we were facing in Toronto: just trying to be a normal MB church congregation but discovering later that I had a church worm in my council and congregation who tattled and complained to the ever mindful home missions committee and further afield under which we operated officially. Our issues were more important to me and my family at that time because we were not only undermined but woefully underpaid, given Toronto living costs. Of these things I wrote rather profusely.
Note: While I did not make notes on our conversations at the time, I did however file away some articles about Rudy and his career.
Meanwhile, some members of the Toronto congregation, very disturbed by the virtual firing of Rudy H. Wiebe as editor of the new MBH because of the controversy caused by the publication of this novel, voiced their objections in a letter to the publications committee. It was written by Herb Swartz (now in Virginia) and signed by others. When I met J.H. Quiring at the General Conference in Winnipeg in the summer of 1963, he considered it wise that I as pastor in Toronto had not signed that letter of complaint to the publications committee. Quiring as much as told me this group really had no business writing that letter. The matter was in the hands of the publication committee, and they had done the right thing. He reflected the views of many when he said: ‘We don’t have people like the Deacon Block portrayed in Peace Shall Destroy Many in our churches!’
During my sermon in German for Remembrance Day service in November 1995 at FMC, Richmond Road, Calgary, entitled “Der Friede wird viele stoeren,” I tried to show just how PSDM became a disturbing element in Mennonite circles. His novel came totally unexpectedly as romance literature. It was pure fiction, contrived in Rudy’s mind, based in a world called Wapiti which however seemed to have many elements very similar to his family’s home in the bush of Saskatchewan. It disturbed readers as far away as Orenburg, Russia (where Rudy’s family came from) because they thought he had fabricated Deacon’ Block’s character from some controlling character in the Mennonite church in that location back in the 1920s. [See MR story from April 8, 1964]
Everyone, including Quiring, seemed turned on by the vision of Deacon Block dominating his family and his church!
The Important Sources
The most meaningful statements that explain Rudy Wiebe’s thinking and ordeal during the years of the PSDM’s incursion in Mennonite congregational life are found in the following [and most of them were brought together by W. J. Keith in 1981]:
1) Rudy’s editorial, “A Personal Word to Friends,” his last editorial in MBH (June 21, 1963) In this he pleaded for a high degree of honesty and openness, much as Frank H. Epp always demanded. Rudy feared there were many in the Canadian conference “who do not believe that frankness and openness is the way that should … be fruitfully discussed”. He was however given a warm plaudit by the conference publication committee for the “creative and imaginative and aggressive approach to your assignment.”
2) The first reviews are mentioned in W.J. Keith’s Introduction to his edition of A Voice in the Land, Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe (NuWest Press), 1981. He leads up to Herb Giesbriecht’s review and also in his interview with Margaret Loewen Reimer and Sue Steiner. Non-Mennonite critics were divided. Some liked it a lot and others did not understand his use of language, much less the Mennonites. What seems funny now is that readers west of the Red River, descendants of the 1870s immigration, saw themselves in the novel which exposed things from the inside that should never be exposed! Wiebe professed to be startled by the vehemence of the criticism. He must have struck a nerve! Many who had never read the book, only heard it second hand, were quite upset! (p 127-128)
Indeed, there was too much truth for comfort.
2) “O Life, How Naked and How Hard When Known.” This review by Herb Giesbrecht, MBBC librarian, at the request of the editor of the Canadian Mennonite, given in Keith, 50-63, brought a robust reply from Rudy. For Giesbrecht, the plot line was very clear, the gradual exposure and final disintegration of Deacon Block, but Rudy did not agree with that!
3) Rudy’s response in the Canadian Mennonite, “An Author Speaks about his Novel,” 64-68, was directed most immediately to Giesbrecht in which Wiebe presses home his main theme: what does it mean to the character Thom to be Mennonite Brethren, so to speak, in time of war? Thom’s story is intended as the main theme, and he remains somewhat confused to the end! [Cf. # 6]
4) “For the Mennonite Churches: A Last Chance,” in Christian Living, 11 (June 1964), reproduced by W.J. Keith, 25-38
5) “The Artist as Critic and a Witness,” Christian Living, 1964
6) “The Meaning of Being Mennonite Brethren,” MBH, April 17, 1970, 2-4 [was to be confused?]
7) Elmer Suderman,”Universal Values in PSDM”, probably the very best review, Keith, p. 69-78 wherein Elmer responds to Thom as the main character in PSDM.
Note: My own view is that the furor about PSDM was nothing like the uproar over Wiebe’s My Lovely Enemy (1983) and Gordon Nickel’s positive review in the MBH, where letters kept pouring in for months afterward, and many cancelled their subscriptions, bringing about the resignation of Nickel in 1984 and that of Harold Jantz a year later.
From Hildi Tiessen’s Tribute to Rudy in 2002
Rudy was born in 1934 in the rugged but lovely region near Fairholme, Saskatchewan. His parents had escaped Soviet Russia with five children in 1930, part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West, and part of a Mennonite history of displacement and emigration through Europe and Asia to North and South America since the seventeenth century. In 1947 his family gave up their bush farm and moved to Coaldale, Alberta, a town east of Lethbridge peopled largely by Ukrainians, Mennonites, Mormons, and Central Europeans, as well as Japanese, who ended up there during WW II.
Rudy Wiebe read as much as possible from an early age; his first reading materials were the Bible, the Eaton’s catalogue and the Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer; he also recalls listening to his parents’ stories of Russia. By Grade 4, he had read through the two shelves of books available in the one-room schoolhouse. Growing up, he enjoyed Les Miserables, Toilers of the Sea, David Copperfield, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Greek myths and Norse legends. Later an admirer of Faulkner, Márquez, Borges and Tolstoy, Wiebe has always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story. He believes stories should begin in the specific and local but expand into “a human truth larger than any individual.”
Wiebe won his first prize for fiction while studying literature at the University of Alberta, where he enrolled in a writing class and began producing poems, plays and stories. His winning story in a Canada-wide contest recounted a young boy’s response to the death of his sister – based on Wiebe’s own experience – and was published in the magazine Liberty in 1956. After earning his B.A., Wiebe left for the ancient University of Tübingen in West Germany on a Rotary Fellowship to study literature and theology, an experience that increased his respect for older and richer communities. Tena Isaak of British Columbia joined him there and they were married. The couple travelled in England, Austria, Switzerland and Italy before returning to Edmonton, where Wiebe completed his M.A. in creative writing. His thesis grew into his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.
In 1962 Wiebe earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College; he considered becoming a minister. He was editor of Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Herald when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published. Many conservative ministers and Mennonites in small towns objected to the novel’s frank and at times unflattering portrait of community life, and there was considerable opposition to the book. “I wasn’t exactly sacked as editor . . . but the committee came to me and said ‘Ahem.’ I resigned.” The strength of this reaction made him think hard about the power of the written word, and reinforced his sense of wanting to be a writer.
Wiebe then was invited to teach at a Mennonite college in Goshen, an agricultural town [?] in Indiana with a large Mennonite and Amish population, where he would be Assistant Professor of English from 1963 to 1967. Goshen College was a lively and stimulating intellectual community where Wiebe committed himself to writing, study, teaching and travel. “I encountered men and women of real perception . . . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus’s followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that kind of understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian. The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every two or three weeks in one home or another – seven or eight of us, a psychiatrist, a couple of theologians, a couple of literary people. There were the best theologians there, I think, the Mennonite Church has ever had.”
Wiebe has not been reticent in acknowledging the life-changing influence upon him of John Howard Yoder and others in the Mennonite academic community of Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana. In fact, he has been lavish in praising the people he became acquainted with during those four years.
In looking back at Peace Shall Destroy Many, Wiebe has acknowledged that an immature theological orientation hampered his resolution of the problem of Christian pacifism. In a 1981 interview by Shirley Neuman with Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch, Wiebe admitted that when he wrote the novel he was a “fundamentalist Christian in the sense that my major stories came from a certain kind of fairly narrow understanding of what the Bible was talking about, which is how I grew up.” But that orientation was radically changed for Wiebe at Goshen College, where he acquired a wider way of understanding the world-view the Bible presents to us. “That is due – I wouldn’t want to underestimate it – to the time I was in the United States teaching at a small Mennonite college. There, for the first time and over an extended period, I encountered . . . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus’s followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian.”
In particular, he singled out John Howard Yoder as the greatest influence upon him at that time. “There were the best theologians there . . . the Mennonite Church has ever had. . . . [John Howard Yoder] is a brilliant thinker; I think he has influenced my thoughts about what it means to be a Christian more than almost anything else.”
 PK, “Peace, and there is no peace”, MBH, 1/38 (12 October 1962), 16
 For my letter to the Publication Committee and J.H. Quiring’s letter to me on this question, see PP to Schellenberg, Dueck, and Kornelson (26 June 1963), and JHQ to PP (18 July 1963); cf. this account with chapters on “the MBC as reflected in the MBH”
 RHW, “A Personal Word to Friends”, MBH, 2/25 (21 June 1963), 3; “A note of appreciation”, Ibid., 2/16 (28 June 1963), 3; for a complete discussion of the career of Rudy H. Wiebe, see W.J. Keith, ed., A Voice in the Land (Edmonton, 1981)
 Shirley Neuman, “Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch,” in A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe,” ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), 242.