No. 3, Spring 1998
Peter Martinovich Friesen: Advocate for the Oppressed
Peter M. Friesen (1849–1914) is a towering figure in the Mennonite Brethren story. He wrote a momumental historical work on the Mennonites in Russia. He also authored in 1902 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. Russian Orthodoxy was the dominant religion in the country and it was closely linked to and protected by the government, which was 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 were among those who 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.
The years 1904 to 1905 were a period of crisis. Russia had just lost the Russo–Japanese war and there was much dissatisfaction with the government, which led to an attempted revolution. Some blamed the Jews for the misfortune. In Sevastopol, where Friesen lived at the time, violence broke out. The press issued inflammatory articles. Speeches aimed at inciting violence were made at public places .
Friesen was very ill and confined to bed, but felt constrained to intervene on behalf of the Jews. One morning he told his wife 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. Friesen hurried to the marketplace, where he found a mob of several thousand listening to inflammatory speeches. Before he arrived he wrote his name and address on two cards, which he stuck in his coat and trouser pockets. He expected that he might be killed and wanted to leave identification so that his body could be taken care of by his family. In the meantime he had asked his family to pray.
At the marketplace Friesen forced his way throught the crowds to the center where a vehicle was standing. He climbed up and, summoning all his energy, stood on the seat and began 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 giving 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, he 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.