Rudy Wiebe’s influential first novel, with the enigmatic title of Peace Shall Destroy Many, describes the lives of the inhabitants of the small, isolated, fictional community of Wapiti located in Northern Saskatchewan. Published in 1962, Wiebe’s book introduces readers of Canadian literature to the experiences of the Mennonite people living on the Canadian prairies during the Second World War, who are striving to maintain their spiritual and moral values, notwithstanding challenges from the external secular society, and from within their religious group. The methods by which Wiebe’s characters respond to their physical and spiritual dilemmas illustrates the comportment of Mennonites in many of their communities in the early and mid-twentieth century.
The older generation of Wapiti Mennonites, who remember intensely the physical deprivation and persecution they underwent in Russia following the First World War and the Communist revolution, maintain their commitment to their traditions of peace, love and non-violence. Through the leadership of elders as expressed at church meetings, these beliefs translate into practices and conduct around an agricultural life style. While the determinations of the church members appear consensual and even democratic, some younger members feel increasingly uncomfortable with the conclusions and even with the process by which decisions are made. When their disquiet causes them to question their elders’ codes of belief and to act in unacceptable, non-Mennonite ways, Wapiti’s seemingly idyllic, peaceful everyday life is disrupted.
Since arriving in Canada in 1925, Wapiti’s founder, de facto leader, store owner, school trustee, and church deacon, Peter Block, has stuck to two goals with passionate, perhaps fanatical intensity. His first goal is to have “a colony of true Mennonites” like the enclaves of Mennonites that existed in Imperial Russia. His second goal is to establish a moral and spiritual utopia among Wapiti’s residents, where they can live separate, secluded lives while preparing themselves “for the world that is coming” when Jesus Christ returns to claim his flock of true believers. Whether these dual goals are attainable or are out of reach for imperfect, sinful, mortal human beings is the crux of Wiebe’s book.
Like his Biblical, doubting namesake, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Wiens begins to have qualms about the Mennonites’ agenda of Christ as he becomes aware of his responsibilities as a citizen of Canada during a horrific war in Europe, and as a Christian beyond the margins of the Mennonite community. How will he respond when he receives his draft notice? Thom cannot serve in a fighting capacity in the military and remain true to the Mennonite principle of non-violence. Why should all church services, including a young people’s meeting attended by youths who do not understand German, be conducted in German? While the church supports missionaries in India, why does Deacon Block thwart any attempt to convert their native neighbours on a nearby reserve? Can only people of a Mennonite heritage join their church? How should Thom handle his attraction to young Mennonite women in the community, or cope with the allure of the young teacher, Razia Tantamount, who is “English”? Can Thom keep his temper and not respond physically to the taunts of his neighbour Herb Unger, a local nonbeliever? Crucially, does Deacon Block’s secret, dark character and past transgressions give him the moral right to make all of the important decisions for the community? Having passed through his “valley of the shadow” of spiritual death, will Thomas embrace the culture, and assume and undertake the Mennonite fathers’ historical rules of “the right moral and spiritual action”?
The interaction between these two strong characters, the naive, young Christian, Thom Wiens, and the experienced, battle scarred, veteran Christian, Deacon Peter Block, provides the novel’s dynamics and plot arc. Other characters support Wiebe’s narrative and concerns with the Mennonite religion as articulated and lived in Wapiti.
The story’s tragedy falls onto Deacon Block’s hard working, spinster daughter, Elizabeth. When she was younger, Elizabeth was in love with Herman Paetkau, a bachelor farmer and church member in good standing. Obstinately, Block refused to bless the marriage, disallowing their union because Herman was born out of wedlock to a Mennonite woman, fathered by the Russian farmhand of her father, and adopted by the Paetkaus before immigrating to Canada. Ironically, Elizabeth suffers the same fate as Herman’s biological mother. She dies in childbirth along with her premature baby conceived during a furtive affair with Louis Moosomin, her father’s half breed farmhand.
Meanwhile, the church excommunicates Herman Paetkau because he has married Louis’ sister, Madeleine, in a civil ceremony. Members of the Wapiti Mennonite church cannot be married to non-Mennonites, even if they are Christians. Thom and his sister, Margaret, question such harsh treatment by the church elders, particularly by Deacon Block. But Mennonite church rules are as inflexible as the ruthless, relentless Block, and their disapproval is quickly supressed by their father, Mr. Wiens. Nevertheless, Thom wonders for what purpose he teaches a Sunday school class to the half breed children of Wapiti. He is almost thankful that his students are unable to understand enough of his lessons to become Christians, since they will never be good enough to join the Wapiti Mennonite church while Block is deacon.
This missionary out-reach program to the neighbouring half breed children was initiated by Joseph Dueck, a young, educated, idealistic Mennonite school teacher Block as school trustee brought to Wapiti to teach the area’s children. Joseph and Deacon Block clash on a number of issues relating to the appropriate conduct of Christians. Joseph, Block’s intellectual equal, states that it is hypocritical of Mennonites to supply Canadian troops with farm produce, but to refuse to help protect Canada and the Mennonite way of life against foreign aggression. Even serving in the medical corps with the military is anathema to Deacon Block. Block reacts aggressively against Joseph for holding a young people’s meeting in English, since exclusive use of the German language provides a buffer against the evil influences of the non-Mennonite world. Block considers Joseph a challenge to his authority and a destabilizing stimulus undermining the traditions Block established in Wapiti, and ensures that Joseph leaves Wapiti.
Solving one problem often leads to other problem. Canadian children must be educated, despite Block’s belief they only need a limited knowledge of the world. Because of the war, a Mennonite teacher is unavailable to replace Joseph, and the school trustees inadvertently hire Razia Tantamont, a young, English woman just out of normal school. Razia interacts with the local men — Pete Block, Herb Unger, and Thom Wiens — who visit her alone at her teacherage accommodation for various innocent reasons and otherwise. Her teaching abilities and discrete conduct prevent Block from dismissing her, at least until the Christmas break. At the school Christmas program attended by all residents of Wapiti, Hank Unger appears resplendent in his Air Force uniform, a decorated war hero home on furlough. Hank and Razia have a history. When they pick up on their relationship after the program, some bitter feelings erupt in non-Mennonite ways.
Wiebe’s novel discourses on the differing concepts of peace and peacemaking found in the Old and New Testaments. When Mennonites practice the peace they preach, what are they actually doing? Does peace mean a physically and spiritually safe, well-order community, where each person knows his or her role and place, and conflicts are resolved justly through discussions? Or is peace internal, an “inward peace that is in no way affected by outward war but quietly overcomes it on life’s real battle-field: the soul of Man” as Joseph Dueck claims?
King James Version, Daniel 8 Versus 23 - 25
23 And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors are come to the full, a king of fierce countenance, and understanding dark sentences, shall stand up.
24 And his power shall be mighty, but not by his own power: and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people.
25 And through his policy also he shall cause craft to prosper in his hand; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many: he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand.
Wiens, Elmer G., 2012. "A Look Back: Revisting Peace Shall Destroy Many by Rudy Wiebe." Roots and Branches, Periodical of the Mennonite Historical Society of BC, vol. 18(3), pages 6-7, September.
© Elmer Wiens