Kleine Gemeinde, in 1952 called Evangelical Mennonite Church (Canada) and in 1960 Evangelical Mennonite Conference, originated in 1814 in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement in Russia (founded in 1804), when Klaas Reimer assumed the role of leader of a small group of dissatisfied members of the Mennonite Church. Before coming to Russia, Klaas Reimer had been elected minister at the Neunhuben Mennonite Church near Danzig on 1 September 1801, to become co-minister with his father-in-law, Elder Peter Epp. Klaas Reimer's autobiography reveals that he began to study the Bible, the Martyrs' Mirror, and other books diligently after he had been elected to the ministry. Encouraged in the thought by his dying father-in-law, he too came to the conclusion that there was no future for the Mennonites in the Danzig area; thus he left with some 30 members of his congregation and arrived in the Old Colony (Chortitza) settlement in 1804, where he became acquainted with a like-minded minister by the name of Cornelius Janzen, who was elected to the ministry at Chortitza in 1805 during Reimer's stay there.
From the Old Colony Klaas Reimer and his group proceeded to the Molotschna settlement where they settled permanently in 1805. Here Reimer soon found that the Mennonites were, in his judgment, too lax in church discipline and rather low in moral standards. He was opposed to contributions made to the Russian government during the Napoleonic War and he objected to coercion in punishing evildoers of the Mennonite community, and to other " worldly" practices. Reimer's unpleasant relationship with the Elder Jakob Enns was another significant factor in a separation of some families from the main church. Reimer's group began to hold special meetings in private homes in 1812. Cornelius Janzen, who had followed Klaas Reimer and his group, cooperated along these lines. The group elected Klaas Reimer as elder in 1814 in the presence of Elder Heinrich Janzen of the Schönwiese church of the Old Colony who, however, hesitated to ordain him formally. Thus Klaas Reimer assumed the functions of an elder without ordination. Cornelius Janzen, his co-minister, preached an installation sermon, and the group of some 18-20 members considered itself organized as a church. Janzen left the Kleine Gemeinde in 1822 and returned to the old church, but three other preachers left the old church to join the Kleine Gemeinde; namely, Heinrich Wiebe 1830, Heinrich Balzer 1834, and Peter Penner 1835.
One of the basic characteristics of this small group was its radical attempt to save a small remnant of children of God from the disastrous influence of the world. It had very strong ideas on nonconformity, humility, and church discipline. On the positive side diligent reading of the Bible, the writings of Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and Peter Peters, as well as the Martyrs' mirror, feet-washing, strict discipline, honesty, etc., were zealously practiced. The Molotschna Oberschulze, Abraham Töws (1842-1848), declared that in 14 years none of the members of the Kleine Gemeinde had been punished for any civil offense. Their preaching was an "admonishing" to live in repentance and in the fear of God. Catastrophes were interpreted as means of preparation for the Judgment Day and were narrated in primitive ballads. Among the practices especially condemned were card-playing, smoking, drinking, higher education, musical instruments, mission work, and marrying one's sister-in-law. Any worldly act, or even an expressed worldly sentiment, was punished with excommunication followed by shunning. The group vigorously objected to all possible forms of resistance. It was not permissible to help the police in apprehending violators. Children were taught to take life seriously and, therefore, laughing and joking was frowned on. Swearing or the use of vain words was not tolerated. Some of these things were carried to such an extreme that their whole conception of a religious life became narrow and cramped. For this reason the movement remained very small for almost a century. It was not an attractive church to join and was called in derision "De Kleen-gemeenta" (Low German for "Little Church"), in German, "Kleine Gemeinde." In contrast the rest of the Mennonites in the Molotschna were called "die grosse Gemeinde," the big church. Outside persecution by the "big church" probably strengthened these people in their principles, but inside dissensions among leading characters weakened them considerably from time to time. Jealousies and unhealthy rivalries developed, due in part to too strict discipline.
Klaas Reimer died on 25 December 1837. When Abraham Friesen was elected as his successor on 3 April 1838, the number of male members entitled to vote was 61. An elder of the Mennonite Church in the Molotschna, Bernhard Fast, was asked to ordain Abraham Friesen as an elder. He met with his co-elders, Peter Wedel, Wilhelm Lange, and Benjamin Ratzlaff, inviting representatives of the Kleine Gemeinde to meet with them. Since the latter were not willing to agree to the conditions under which Abraham Friesen could be ordained as elder, Friesen simply assumed the functions of an elder without ordination. Through the intervention of Johann Cornies the elders of the Mennonite Church were compelled by the civil authorities to recognize the Kleine Gemeinde and the functions of its unordained elder as valid. This was done through a decree issued 28 January 1843, by the Russian Government Board of Guardians at Odessa (Fürsorgekomitee). On 10 June 1847, Johann Friesen was elected elder, succeeding Abraham Friesen who died on 1 July 1849. The number of voting male members at this time was 91. At an election on 21 November 1864, it had increased to 122. The entire group immigrated to North America in 1874, Cornelius Tows and David Klassen having been the Kleine Gemeinde delegates in the study group of 12 sent ahead "to spy out the land."
In 1834 Heinrich Balzer, a well-educated Mennonite minister of Tiege, joined the Kleine Gemeinde, expressing his reasons for this action in a lengthy treatise on "Faith and Reason" (Verstand und Vernunft). He died on 1 January 1846.
An interesting episode in the history of the Kleine Gemeinde in Russia was its connection with the origin of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB) group, founded in 1869 by Jakob A. Wiebe (1836-1921). A group of Mennonite families from the Molotschna (Wiebe himself was from Ohrloff) about 1860 bought a Muslim village in the Crimea, which they named Annafeld. Through a spontaneous religious revival most of the families in the villages began to seek a more earnest Christian life and experienced conversion, Wiebe among them. Since Wiebe had become acquainted with a leader of the Kleine Gemeinde during a period of work as a hired hand in the Molotschna, he invited the Kleine Gemeinde elder, Johann Friesen, to visit the Annafeld group and organize them as a Kleine Gemeinde congregation, which the latter did in 1867. Wiebe and a P. Berg were ordained as preachers, and Wiebe soon thereafter as elder. Friesen had refused to accede to the request by the Annafeld group for rebaptism, but the group remained dissatisfied on this point and finally proceeded to have one of their members (Kornelius Enns was chosen) rebaptize Elder Wiebe, who in turn on 21 September 1869, rebaptized 18 others. This is considered by the KMB group as their founding date. Immersion was adopted as the mode. The group chose the name "Brüdergeminde" but was soon called "Krimmer Mennoniten Brüdergeminde" to distinguish it from the Mennonite Brüdergemeinde (Mennonite Brethren Church) founded in the Molotschna in 1860, with which it had nothing to do. The act of rebaptism constituted in effect a withdrawal of the Wiebe group from the Kleine Gemeinde with which it had had fellowship for only a few years, although it was not a true schism of a fraction from the historic Kleine Gemeinde group. However, much of the ultraconservative spirit of the Kleine Gemeinde was combined with an emphasis on conversion, assurance, and experience in the KMB group. There was little further connection between the KMB and the Kleine Gemeinde, but in the United States a Kleine Gemeinde preacher, Abraham Klaassen, joined the KMB group in Kansas about 1879.
In 1866 internal dissension in the Kleine Gemeinde in the Molotschna became so serious that signs of disintegration appeared, and the group divided into two parts. Elder Johann Friesen excommunicated two preachers, Abraham L. Friesen and Peter Friesen, and two deacons, Jacob Friesen and Klaas Friesen. There was a reconciliation on 6 May 1869, through the help of Elder Jakob Wiebe. The group adhering to the excommunicated men (26 male members) then organized themselves into a congregation and on 4 May 1869, elected Abraham L. Friesen as elder. He was ordained to the office by Elder Johann Harder of the Blumstein Mennonite Church. In the Johann Friesen group Peter Toews had been ordained preacher in 1868, and was ordained elder in 1870.
Elder Jakob Wiebe was sent to the Molotschna at the time of these troubles to attempt reconciliation. He also visited the Kleine Gemeinde group at Borozenko. His diary reports having achieved reconciliation in a meeting at Fischau, no date being given. Franz Isaac (Molotschnaer Mennoniten, 93) reports that the entire Molotschna Kleine Gemeinde group moved to the district of Ekaterinoslav "in the sixties," but fails to state exactly when or where the migration took place. Presumably the place of settlement was Borezenko.
[The handwritten church record of Klaas Reimer and successors, in 1955 in possession of Elder D. P. Reimer of Giroux, Manitoba states: "The congregation divided into two parts in January 1866, held an election, and Heinrich Enns was chosen elder of the one part by majority vote, and as deacon Abr. Lowen, and as preachers Peter Töws and Gerhard Goossen. . . . On 6 January 1868, Cornelius Töws was chosen deacon, then preacher, and following him Joh. Goossen as deacon. But Töws did not preach because he had earlier been under the ban. There was disunity about this matter, and Elder Heinrich Enns was removed from his office in 1868. In the spring of 1869 Preacher Jakob Wiebe was chosen elder in the Crimea on May 6. With the help of the latter with God's help, the congregation which had earlier belonged to Enns was reunited with a part of the congregation belonging to Joh. Friesen, with the preachers Abraham Friesen, Isaak Friesen, and Gerhard Schellenberg, and deacon Peter Wiebe." Additional notes written at the same place in the record by Peter Töws give the information that Gerhard Schellenberg was chosen preacher 23 November 1866, and removed from that office 29 August 1871. Another writer states that Preacher Isaak Friesen was removed from office in April 1870 for improper conduct and that Peter Töws had been ordained elder on 10 October 1870. It is impossible to clear up satisfactorily what actually happened.]
The Kleine Gemeinde emigrants to North America in 1874 settled in three groups, the two larger ones in Manitoba, the smaller one of 36 families at Jansen, Jefferson County, Nebraska led by Elder Abraham Friesen. Here seven distinct villages were organized: Rosenort, Rosenhof, Rosenfeld, Rosental, Heuboden, Neuanlage, and Blumenort. In the same year this group was organized into a congregation and built a meetinghouse two miles west and three miles north of the present site of Jansen. By 1879 Isaac Peters, elder of the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (EMB) church at Henderson, had come into the community and organized an EMB congregation (officially fully organized in 1890) out of dissatisfied Kleine Gemeinde families. John Holdeman's attempt to organize a Church of God in Christ congregation here in the next few years failed (he won only a few families), in contrast to his success in Manitoba.
A few families also joined the Reformed Mennonites (Herrites), although no congregation was ever organized here. The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB) congregation organized here in 1880 was composed of KMB families coming from Russia. This group, as well as the Mennonite Brethren congregation organized in the 1890's, won a few Kleine Gemeinde families. In spite of these losses the Kleine Gemeinde congregation grew, but in 1906-1908 the entire settlement migrated to Meade, Kansas to secure cheaper land and more isolation.
The U.S. Census report for 1916 shows three Kleine Gemeinde congregations in Kansas at that date, all near Meade, with 171 baptized members, and three Sunday schools with 66 pupils. Apparently the settlement made in 1906-1908 by that time had three meeting groups. By 1926 the census reports four congregations with 214 members, and three Sunday schools with 150 pupils. In 1936 the census shows two congregations, with 275 members, and two Sunday schools with 92 pupils. There were two meetinghouses in 1937 at the time of the important Kleine Gemeinde conference held here, but actually only one congregation. In 1944 the congregation dissolved, part joining the local Evangelical Mennonite Brethren congregation, while 124 charter members formed (on 30 April 1944) the independent Emmanuel Mennonite congregation which took one of the two meetinghouses. Elder Jacob F. Isaac continued with an unorganized small group, which in 1954 had 25 members.
The larger part (60 families) of the Kleine Gemeinde migration of 1874 to North America located in Manitoba in two parts. The smaller one located in the West Reserve in two villages (Rosenort and Rosenhof) near Morris, and a much larger group in five villages (Blumenhof, Blumenort, Grünfeld -- Kleefeld, Steinbach, Rosenfeld) in the Steinbach area. The two groups (congregations) were under one elder, a moderately progressive and able man, Peter Toews, who had been ordained preacher in the Molotschna in 1866, and elder in 1870. In the first years in Manitoba the group enjoyed a healthy normal development. Then Peter Toews, becoming concerned about the spiritual condition of the church, sought contact with John Holdeman, who had broken away from the Mennonite Church (MC) in 1859 in Ohio and led a small group of followers called the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. He had a small congregation in Lone Tree Township, McPherson County, Kansas, organized in 1878 among the Russian Mennonites in this community. Toews corresponded with Holdeman who then visited the Manitoba Kleine Gemeinde group in 1879. In June 1881, Toews himself visited the Lone Tree Church of God congregation in Kansas, and becoming convinced that he should join the group, invited Holdeman to come to Manitoba. This he did in the fall of 1881, accompanied by a fellow minister, Mark Seiler. As a result of their work Elder Peter Toews, three of the other six ministers, and 165 members (about half; some say one third) of the Kleine Gemeinde in Manitoba were re-baptized and joined the Holdeman group. The reordination of the ministers took place in January 1882. By 1954 this ex-Kleine Gemeinde group had 1,367 baptized members in Manitoba and Alberta.
The Holdeman schism was a major disaster for the Kleine Gemeinde. It was probably the more progressive element that left, so that the more conservative and leaderless remnant, discouraged by what had happened, withdrew into a stricter conservatism and isolation from all other religious groups. In the next 30 years the group remained small and static, with a constant loss of more progressive-minded families to other groups. A number joined the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren congregation which had been organized in Steinbach in 1897, and which has been built up largely out of Kleine Gemeinde transfers.
With World War I and after, change began to come. In 1920 the first automobiles were permitted. In 1926 the first Sunday school was organized in the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde congregation, followed by choir singing and young people's meetings. The country Kleine Gemeinde churches soon followed the example of the Steinbach town church to some extent. By the middle thirties they also had Sunday schools, young people's meetings, and later choir singing. In 1935 a church paper, Der Familienfreund, was established here. The Steinbach Bible Academy (later Steinbach Bible Institute), a private inter-Mennonite school, was established in Steinbach in 1936 largely by the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde congregation. The mission interest also developed about this time. In 1954 the Kleine Gemeinde had about 25 missionaries serving in the Belgian Congo, French West Africa, Bolivia, Panama, Mexico, and Northern Canada. Relief work was undertaken in co-operation with other Mennonite groups in Manitoba through the Canadian Mennonite Relief Committee and the MCC, during and following World War II. The Kleine Gemeinde has been an active member of the Canadian Mennonite Relief Committee of Manitoba. In 1946 an invalid home was taken over from a private group in Steinbach.
During the years of progress following World War I, the growth of the group was remarkable, with an approximate tripling of membership. In 1954 the Manitoba membership was 1,805 in seven congregations. In 1896 their ancient organizational pattern (one elder over all) was broken by the establishment of two elder districts, each of the two congregations (Blumenort near Giroux, Rosenort at Morris) being given its own elder. In 1947 the final move was made to give each of the other three (Kleefeld, Prairie Rose, Steinbach) the right to elect one of its ministers as leader or pastor. All the congregations continued together as a "conference." Blumenort, Steinbach, and Kleefeld had been from the beginning sub-districts of the one Blumenort congregation, each with its own meetinghouse.
The experiences of World War I and the new Manitoba school law of 1919-20 created much dissatisfaction among the Manitoba Kleine Gemeinde, as it did among the Old Colony and Sommerfeld Mennonites. Delegates were sent to Mexico to prospect for colonization possibilities, and others were sent to northern Quebec. Since both reports were negative, plans were dropped. After World War II, however, the idea of emigration was renewed. In 1948 a colony (called "Quellenkolonie") was founded at Las Jagueyes, Chihuahua, Mexico, where 35,000 acres were bought at $7 per acre, this being two thirds of a ranch, of which the other third was bought by Old Colony Mennonites from Saskatchewan. By the fall of 1949 about 15 per cent (ca. 100 families with ca. 700 souls) of the Manitoba Kleine Gemeinde group had moved on to the tract, most of them from the Blumenort and Morris congregations. Of the 23 Kleine Gemeinde preachers in Manitoba, four joined the colony, plus four deacons. The elder who went along was P. P. Reimer, who died in 1949. C. R. Reimer was ordained in his place. In Mexico the following villages were established: Springstein, Talheim, Eichenbach, Grünland, Wiesenheim. In 1954 the baptized membership in Mexico was 323.
The Kleine Gemeinde has remained until the mid-1950s one of the more conservative and traditional of the Russian Mennonite groups which settled in North America. They maintained strict nonresistance and nonconformity, the practices of feetwashing and the wearing of the prayer shawl (cap) by women, the unsalaried and untrained ministry, and in the main the use of German in worship.
P. M. Friesen (Brüderschaft, 111), basing his report in part on Abraham Friesen's Einfache Erklärung (1845), states that the Kleine Gemeinde members liked to read the old Dutch Mennonite writers such as Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, P. J. Twisck, and T. J. van Braght, as well as the Danzig confessions of Hans van Steen and Georg Hansen, and that they translated many old Anabaptist works into German and promoted them (Weg nach Friedenstadt, Die wandelnde Seele). It is possible, though not proved, that the Wandelnde Seele edition published at Stuttgart in 1860, and the edition of Peter Peters' Ausgewählte Schriften published at Stuttgart in 1865 were both sponsored by the Kleine Gemeinde. However, Friesen errs in ascribing the translation of the Wandelnde Seele to the Kleine Gemeinde, since the translation was done earlier by B. B. B. (Benedict Brackbill), as the preface indicates. The 1901 (Elkhart) reprint of the 1865 Peter Peters' works may have been sponsored by the Manitoba Kleine Gemeinde; the preface is signed by A. L. F. Gerhard Cornelsen of the Molotschna settlement was the translator of the third part of Peter Peters' works and the sponsor of the 1865 edition. A Gerhard Cornelson was head of a family living in Gnadenau, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren village in Marion County, Kansas in 1875.
The 1955 Kleine Gemeinde congregations, all in Manitoba, with membership, were as follows: Rosenort at Morris (1874) 479, Blumenort (1874) 446, Steinbach (1874) 400, Prairie Rose (1918) 260, Kleefeld (1874) 142, Riverton, 90 miles north of Winnipeg (1950) 46, and McGregor, 90 miles west of Winnipeg (1952) 32. The total baptized membership is thus 1,805, plus 2,293 unbaptized children. Including Mexico and Kansas the total membership was 2,153. Riverton was founded by Kleine Gemeinde members from other districts. McGregor was the result of union of members of the Sommerfelder, Bergthaler, and Rudnerweider churches, which then joined the Kleine Gemeinde.
For later information see the article on the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.
Classen, D. I. "Meade, a Changing Community." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 14-17, 19.
Fretz, J. W. "The Mennonite Community at Meade." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 8-13.
Friedmann, Robert. "Faith and Reason." Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (1948): 75-93.
Friesen, Abraham. Eine Einfache Erklärung über einige Glaubenssätze der sogenannten Kleinen Gemeine. Wohlmeinend aufgesetzt von einem treuen Diener am Wort des Herrn im Jahre 1845. Danzig, n.d., 40 pp.; reprint at Quakertown, Pa., in the "Himmelsmanna" Druckerei, 1901.
Friesen, Peter M. Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Rußland (1789-1910). Halbstadt: Raduga Verlag, 1911: 106-13 (includes a reproduction of Klaas Reimer's manuscript account of the origin of the Kleine Gemeinde).
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 507.
Krahn, C. "From Russia to Meade." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 18 f.
Loewen, Royden. Family, Church, and Market : a Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
Miller, A. P. "The Story of Jansen, Nebraska." Mennonite Life 9 (1954): 73-75.
Miller, A. P. "The Story of the Jansen Churches." Mennonite Life 10 (1955): 38-40.
Miller, D. Paul. "An Analysis of Community Adjustment: a Case Study of Jansen, Nebraska." Ph.D. diss, University of Nebraska, 1953.
Penner, J. M. A Concise History of the Church of God. N.p., 1951.
Reimer, G. E. and G. R. Gaeddert. Exiled by the Czar. Newton, KS, 1956.
Reimer, P. J. B. "From Russia to Mexico, the Story of the Kleine Gemeinde." Mennonite Life (October 1949): 28-32.
Wiebe, P. A. Kurze Biographie des Bruders Jakob A. Wiebe. Hillsboro, KS, 1924.
The diaries of Klaas Reimer and Abraham Friesen have been preserved, also the record book containing the report of the elections of all ordained men.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 196-200. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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