‘Anything else would be a lie’: 5 Questions with Ralph Friesen

Ralph Friesen was born in Steinbach in 1945 and was raised in the Mill Street (now 2nd Street) neighbourhood, surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins. After his graduation from Steinbach Collegiate Institute, he worked for a year as a sports reporter and columnist for the Carillon News. He left Steinbach to attend university in Winnipeg.

Ralph has Masters degrees in English Literature and Marriage and Family Therapy. He has published short fiction, poetry, reviews and historical articles in a variety of magazines and periodicals. He is the writer of a family history entitled Abraham S. Friesen, Steinbach Pioneer and a history of Steinbach entitled Between Earth & Sky: Steinbach, the First 50 Years. Currently he has a biography/memoir at the printers entitled Dad, God, & Me.

Ralph is married, with two adult children and five grandchildren, and lives with his wife Hannah Hofer in Nelson, BC. He has retired from his therapy practice and devotes much of his time to research and writing.

1. I was telling a friend about your fascinating talk on revivalism, and how Ben D. Reimer was the first evangelist born here, and she suggested that revivalism and evangelism are two entirely different things. Now, I can’t say that I’ve studied it so much, but I would definitely conflate the two, yes, for sure. But… are they the same, or different?

Well, you can be evangelical, you can evangelize, without holding revival meetings. So I guess “revivalism” would be a particular expression of evangelicalism, characterized by large gatherings in churches or tents or stadiums where people hear fiery sermons and are entreated to make a public commitment. Evangelicalism is broader than that. I think the two “isms” come together in an emphasis on the importance of being saved or born again. And we haven’t even touched on another “ism”—fundamentalism, which likes to party with the other two.

2. Thanks to you, I’ve learned the word “kirchliche”. I’ve heard a lot about how Mennonites were “unsaved” until these revival meetings came about — is this what people mean when they say they were previously “kirchliche”?

I guess so. I’ve never heard anyone say they were previously kirchliche. Who talks like that? I borrowed the word from Leland Harder (Steinbach and its Churches), and I’m sure it doesn’t originate with him. The tension is between a communitarian and traditional path to salvation and a one-time-peak-experience idea of salvation. The answers to “Are you saved?” are different. The latter gives you the time and place it happened. The former says, “You’ll have to ask my neighbour.”

3. You’ve moved away from Steinbach… but would you consider yourself to be a born-and-bred Steinbacher?

Anything else would be a lie. I was born in the Bethesda Hospital. I lived with my parents in the house my grandfather built in 1897, behind my dad’s store (Evangel Book Shop). I ran around in what was then known as the Mill Street neighbourhood. Today the store and house are gone, and the neighbourhood looks very different, so I tend to hang out in the Pioneer Cemetery when I visit. Grandparents and Great-grandparents rest there. I tell some stories about being a born-and-bred Steinbacher in a memoir I hope to self-publish this fall, called “Dad, God, & Me.”

4. Your most recent article published in Preservings is a history of revivalism in Steinbach, entitled “Revive Us Again”. Were there any other song titles you were tempted to utilize?

You mean like “Shake, Rattle and Roll”? (Bill Haley and the Comets, 1954).

5. Was it difficult or cathartic to write this?


Bonus 6th Question: I’ve noticed that people often conflate Mennonite-ism with the fundamentalist revivals that Steinbach seems to be a magnet for. What can we say to these people? Or, what is the easiest way to clear this up?

That’s two different questions containing the word “conflate.” (Sound of buzzer.) Plus another “ism.” The Mennonite story is complex and often self-contradictory. A lot of it has to do with who’s in and who’s out. Sometimes it’s important to make that distinction, but most of the time it seems to me a waste of psychic energy and a way of shoring up feelings of superiority. As in the Low German “poem” I picked up somewhere along the way: “Miene Mam säd etj soll nich bie du sette, waels du schtinkst.”