No. 18, Winter 2002
Cornelius and Agnes Wall: Steadfast Commitment
Cornelius and Agnes (nee Dueck) Wall survived two world wars and a devastating revolution but never escaped the shadow of these tumultuous events. Cornelius, born in 1893, and Agnes in 1894, grew up in the idyllic Mennonite village of Blumenort in South Russia. But their life’s journey was anything but tranquil.
In March of 1915 Cornelius Wall was in the Red Cross service on the Russian western front in the First World War. Red Cross service was not to require the carrying or use of arms. On one occasion, when anticipating an imminent attack, each member of the unit was ordered to arms. Under great duress, Wall knelt in prayer, beseeching God for guidance. The taking of arms would violate his conscience. Risking the displeasure of his superior, Wall refused to comply. He later recalled that at that moment “the security and comfort of my youth ended forever.”
Wall never again doubted his pacifist convictions. Later while on leave in Bessarabia, he was able to find solace in nearby forests. Of that time he would write, “I still claim these times alone with the Lord and His word were the best Bible school I attended in my whole life.”
The invocation of the Bible school in the forests was perhaps a forecast of the future. Much of his subsequent life was spent teaching in Bible schools. But first came marriage to Agnes Dueck. The wedding day, March 1, 1918, came at a time when virtually all of South Russia was in peril because of the looting, robbing and killing by anarchists and vigilante military bands. At the wedding some bandits brazenly mingled with the guests, helping themselves to the wedding food. Cornelius and Agnes were not deterred by the chaos around them. He began his teaching career in the village school of Tschongrau in Crimea, South Russia. Here he worked alongside the faculty members of the Tschongrau Bible School – A. H. Unruh, J. W. Wiens and Gerhard Reimer.
Shortly after the Bible school classes began in the fall of 1920, all the teachers and students were arrested by Red Army leaders and publicly lined up in front of a firing squad. The equally frightened villagers were called on to identify any who had taken advantage of the local citizenry. After a long, tense silence, one courageous villager called to the officer, “For God’s sake, let them go, they have only been friendly with us.”
The incident was, however, enough to encourage Cornelius and Agnes to migrate to North America. After a long and torturous journey, during which their son Arthur died of malnutrition, the Walls and their two surviving daughters settled in Hillsboro, Kansas. Here Cornelius continued his education at Tabor College. Subsequently he also studied at Winona Lake School of Theology and eventually also obtained a masters degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. This theological training equipped Cornelius for Bible school teaching in the United States, Canada and Europe. The experience as a refugee from the Soviet Union equipped him for service to fellow refugees.
Formal education and life experience were intertwined in the next decades of ministry as the Walls taught in various schools and worked with displaced persons. During the 1930s and 1940s Cornelius taught at the Zoar Academy in Inman, Kansas, and a Bible school in Mountain Lake, Minnesota. In 1948, just as Cornelius was graduating from Princeton, Mennonite Central Committee Director Orie O. Miller prevailed upon the Walls to provide pastoral care for refugees in post-war Europe. But how were they to minister in the face of such overwhelming physical and spiritual poverty? In Basel, Switzerland, they met Mennonite Church leader Harold S. Bender, who succinctly explained their task: “You will know what to do.” For the next two years they traveled from camp to camp, fostering new hope among displaced Mennonites, and frequently also spoke at young people’s rallies.
In the fall of 1950 Cornelius accepted an invitation to teach at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg. Here he was reunited with his friend and earlier mentor, A. H. Unruh. It was a very pleasant setting, but would only be temporary. Early in 1952 MCC again appealed to the Walls to accept another European assignment. While most of the war-induced refugees had by now been resettled, many “hard-core” cases seemed to defy resolution. It was a call the Walls could not decline.
In the early 1950s European Mennonite leaders were also beginning to plan for more systematic religious education of their young people. With the assistance of MCC, the Bienenberg (Switzerland) Bible School campus was purchased in 1957. Wall was appointed the first principal of the school.
Yearning for a well-deserved rest, the Walls crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1958 for the seventh and last time. At last they could retire among their beloved friends in Hillsboro, and reflect on a life of faithful service.