Cornelius J. (CJ) Dyck Teacher Scholar Churchman

by John J. Friesen, Winnipeg

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Cornelius J. Dyck, or CJ as he preferred to be known, died at Normal Illinois on January 10, 2014 at the age of 93. CJ was a long-time professor of historical theology at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, one of the founding schools of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

CJ was born August 20, 1921 in the village of Lysanderhoeh, in the Am Trakt Mennonite settlement near the Volga River in Russia. His parents were Johannes J. and Renate (Matthies) Dyck. CJ was the second youngest of a family of nine children, three boys and six girls. 

After the communist revolution in 1917, the Dyck family lost most of its land, experienced the famine due to grain requisitions, and only survived because of relief supplies from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In the 1920s, CJ’s father became the leader of a farmer’s cooperative in the Am Trakt settlement which tried to re-establish productive agriculture in the area. 

By 1927, Johannes Dyck realized that the more left-leaning communists were taking control, that farmer’s cooperatives were going to be liquidated, and that there was no longer a place for him. So he sold his property, bought rail and ship tickets to Saskatchewan for his family of eleven, transferred as much money in American dollars to Canada as he could, and left. The Dyck family passed through the Red Gate on the way to Riga, only a step ahead of agents sent to arrest Johannes.   

In Saskatchewan the family purchased a farm near Hawarden, south of Hanley. Here CJ received most of his elementary school education. In 1934, due to poor crops in the area, the family sold the farm and purchased better land at Tiefengrund, near Laird. Here CJ attended school, and in 1940 graduated from Rosthern Junior College.   

During the war, CJ was called up to do military service, and applied for Conscientious Objector (CO ) status. After his hearing before a judge he was granted a postponement for the duration of the war. Since his father, in his latter 50s during the war, was not well, and his brother Peter was serving as CO in England, CJ was assigned to serve on the family farm.

At the end of World War II in 1945, at the age of 24, CJ volunteered for service with MCC, serving initially in England and the Netherlands. In 1946 he was assigned to the British Zone of Germany, working with all in need of food, clothing, and emigration help, but mostly with refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia. He initiated the daily feeding of about 100,000 children in North Germany with food supplies sent by Mennonites in North America through MCC, aware that in the famine year of 1921 in Russia, it had been MCC food sent to Russia that saved his life. 

Dyck was assigned by MCC to work in South America during 1949 to 1951. His main responsibility was resettling refugees from Germany and Russia in Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. One of the achievements he was most pleased about was working with Mennonites in Paraguay to find a location for, and initiate the founding of a hospital and treatment centre for lepers at Kilometer 81 in Paraguay.  

In 1951 Dyck left MCC work and returned to North America. He became pastor at the Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing, Kansas. In the following year he married Wilma Regier, who came from his home community in Tiefengrund. They had three daughters, Mary, Jennifer and Suzanne. CJ was pastor in Elbing until 1955. During these years he completed a degree in history at Bethel College, North Newton, and a Masters degree at the University of Witchita.

From 1955-1959 he completed a Bachelor of Divinity and a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, while serving as business manager at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary, located in Chicago at the time. As business manager he planned the seminary’s move to Elkhart in 1958.

In 1959 C. J. Dyck was appointed to teach historical theology at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and taught until 1989. Significant additional responsibilities came his way in the next few years. He was appointed director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, the seminary’s research and publishing agency, serving for 21 years. During these years he organized many conferences and facilitated approximately 50 publications, including The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder and Yahweh is a Warrior by Millard Lind.

In 1961 CJ was appointed executive secretary of Mennonite World Conference and served until 1973. He played a crucial role in articulating MWC’s global vision, claiming in 1972, that “[MWC] must be a part of the mission Mennonites are being called to in the world – not just white, Western Mennonites, [but] all Mennonites . . . Unless MWC can become an integral part of what all Mennonites want to be and do in the world, it cannot have a real future.” (MWC News release).

In the early 1960s, Dyck was an observer at the Vatican II sessions, the only Mennonite who was present. Carrying journalist credentials through Mennonite Weekly Review, he reported his observations. Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor, noted, “Mennonite views toward Catholics changed over time, and C.J.’s reports from Vatican II had a major influence on that.”

CJ’s facility in languages, including English, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Low German, enriched his teaching, made him an ideal representative at Vatican II, allowed him to communicate with Mennonites world-wide as MWC executive secretary, and enabled him to include ideas and research from these various cultures in his own writings.

During the years, CJ also wrote and edited a significant number of books, and wrote many book reviews and articles. Two of his best known books are Twelve Becoming, and Introduction  to Mennonite History, which has been used as a text book for many years. Together with Dennis Martin, he edited volume V of the Mennonite Encyclopedia.  A select listing of CJ’s writings is provided below.

In addition to his regular teaching schedule and heavy administrative work, CJ found time to be involved in the local church and community affairs. He was on the founding board of Oaklawn Psychiatric Centre, served on the Elkhart Urban League, the YMCA, and on numerous conference committees, including the General Conference Mennonite Church Business Administration committee. He was involved in starting Church Community Services in Elkhart, an ecumenical organization that provides assistance for low-income families.

CJ was an excellent teacher, making history come alive for his students. He had a wealth of personal experiences from which he could draw, was deeply committed to the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith heritage, and had a love for the church. He had an engaging style of lecturing and a great sense of humour. C.J. made a significant contribution to the Mennonite community and to the larger society as a teacher, scholar and churchman.

    

Publications:

Author:

Cornelius J. Dyck, Introduction to Mennonite History, a popular history of the Anabaptists and

the Mennonites, Herald Press, 1967 and 1993.

Cornelius J. Dyck, Twelve Becoming: Biographies of Mennonite Disciples from the Sixteenth to

Twentieth Centuries, Faith and Life Press, 1973. 

Cornelius J. Dyck, Spiritual Life in Anabaptism, Herald Press, 1995.

Editor:

Cornelius J. Dyck, ed. A Legacy of Faith: A sixtieth anniversary tribute to Cornelius Krahn, Herald Press, 1962.

Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, Alvin J. Beachy, editors, The Writings of Dirk Philips

1504-1568. Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 6, Herald Press, 1992. 

Editor of the Proceedings of the seventh, eighth, and ninth Mennonite World

Conferences, 1962, 1967, and 1972.

Cornelius J. Dyck, Dennis Martin, editors, Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. V. 1990.

Cornelius J. Dyck, editor, with Robert S. Kreider, and John A. Lapp, The Mennonite Central

Committee Story: Documents, Volumes I, II, III, and IV. 1980-1981. 

Cornelius J. Dyck, Willard  Swartley, editors, Annotated Bibliography of Mennonite Writings on

Peace and War, 1930-1980 (1987), Herald Press, 1989.

Johanness J. Dyck, A Pilgrim People, Diary of Johannes J. Dyck 1885-1948, Diary of Johannes

J. Dyck, Memoirs of Johannes D. Dyck (Edited by C. J. Dyck and Peter J. Dyck), Winnipeg, Renata and George Kroeker, 1994.

Credits:

MWC news release, 26, February, 2014, “In Memoriam: Cornelius J. Dyck (1921-2014)”

AMBS News release, Jan. 13, 2014.  “C.J. Dyck, professor emeritus, died Jan. 10”

Preservings

An annual magazine that appears each December.

Funding

Fellowships, grants for research, and publication.