Throughout history there have been conflicts between groups with similar beliefs. Their disagreement stems not from seemingly miniscule differences in religious beliefs or values, but from disputes over how to apply those beliefs to daily life.
Such was the case in early 19th-century Russia, when a small group of dissatisfied members of the Flemish Mennonite church formed a congregation of their own. They had become wary of the increased departure from traditional Anabaptist values, as well as participation in worldly affairs and ideas. This
small congregation, or Kleine Gemeinde, responded by splitting from the Flemish church with the goal of reestablishing these crucial values that they felt to be critical to living a godly life.
Although many of the Kleine Gemeinde’s ideas seem old-fashioned and strict to modern observers, their schism nonetheless led to countless reforms in the Mennonite Church and a re-awakening of spiritual dialogue within the church. The Kleine Gemeinde recognized the deep-rooted problems among Mennonites in Russia and audaciously strove to lend much-needed reforms in the church.
In the early 1800s, many of the principles that unified the Anabaptists in Schleitheim were slowly breaking them apart. One of these principles was that of nonviolent resistance. Many Mennonites in southern Russia wanted to show loyalty to the Russian government. To that end, many contributed towards the cost of the Napoleonic War.1 Although Mennonites did not enlist in the Russian armed forces, they supported the government financially.
Here we see the dilemma that the Mennonites faced. On one hand, they felt as though they should support the government because they saw it as
ordained by God.2 On the other, the Schleitheim Confession made it clear that
governments that use the sword are
outside the perfection of Christ.3 This dichotomy captures the struggle of the Mennonites for a moral compass.
At the same time, some church members further compromised their supposed peace position by inflicting physical punishment on lawbreakers.4 The use of force in punishing
evil-doers in the Mennonite community ignored any spark of nonresistance present in the Mennonite church.5 The departure from the nonresistance of Anabaptism points directly to the reason why the Kleine Gemeinde opposed the established Mennonite church’s actions.
In addition to the apparent lack of proper nonresistant behavior, the church also was lacking in the discipline thought by the Kleine Gemeinde to be needed for living a godly spiritual life. For example, a greater number of Mennonites had begun to participate in
worldly behavior. Such behaviors included, but were not limited to,
card-playing, smoking, and excessive drinking as well as boisterous laughing.6 All of these types of behaviors were seen by more conservative members of the Mennonite church to be frivolous, unwise and entirely contrary to living in accordance with Jesus’ teachings.
However, there was another issue that was central to the tension in the Mennonite Church in Russia. Previously, in Prussia, the government had looked after administrative duties for the Mennonites. Now the Mennonites received extensive privileges from the Russian government for the
local self-administration of their settlements.7 This brought up a perceived conflict of interest between church and local government. The lack of a governmental power outside the colonies further isolated Mennonites from the outside world. However, it also gave the church more power because the church became more closely associated with the local police force. With this additional power came a decline in morality and spiritual discipline. The core Anabaptist principle of being
separate from the world had vanished before their eyes.
In response to these divisive issues, an ordained church minister by the name of Klaas Reimer sought to reestablish the original Anabaptist principles as presented in the Scheitheim Confession. Reimer was ordained as a minister in Danzig in 1801 and migrated first to the colony of Chortitza in 1804 and later to Molotschna.8 Reimer’s preaching stirred up much dissension among the members and elders of the church. Molotschna elder Jakob Enns requested the local Gebietsamt silence him.9 Reimer appealed to Chortitza elder Johann Wiebe to intercede on his behalf. However, Wiebe also threatened
the disturber with banishment.10 There was more conflict, since Reimer viewed church discipline under elder Jakob Enns as being too lax and many considered Enns to be undiplomatic and ill-tempered.11
After much careful consideration, Reimer, along with 18 to 20 similar-minded people, split from the traditional Mennonite church.12 These people met for worship in private homes and as small prayer circles. Reimer had studied the works of Menno Simons and Dirk Phillips and The Martyrs’ Mirror.13 These works, along with the Bible, formed the primary sources of their study.
At the time, Mennonite elders strongly protested the split. However, the new church, known as the
little congregation was soon recognized by the Russian government as being
a separate ecclesiastical organization.14 Along with this distinction came many of the rights and privileges that the Kleine Gemeinde was so wary of in the traditional Mennonite church. However, these rights and privileges also gave the Kleine Gemeinde the opportunity to be separate from the world. Soon other groups of dissatisfied members from various Mennonite colonies joined the Kleine Gemeinde.15
In 1838, a member of the Kleine Gemeinde published a pamphlet justifying Reimer’s decision to separate from the traditional Mennonite church. The member points to the fact that it is
contradictory to the Savior’s teaching to
turn a brother to civil authorities for punishment.16 He points to a connection between this practice and a church with lax discipline and increased drinking. He prefers the ban to any other type of punishment. The member also warns against attendance at weddings because it is not from God. In addition, the member argues that Reimer did not approve of eulogies for the dead at funeral services, especially if the person did not live a godly life.17 Reimer strongly believed that forming a separate church would enable these problems to be resolved. Reimer responded with bold action that addressed his concerns head-on.
Reimer was considered by some to be a quasi-messianic figure and by others to be overly strict and orthodox. He constantly strove to unite his congregation’s actions with those of Jesus’ teachings. However, the famous Russian Mennonite historian P.M. Friesen remarked that
the religious disposition of Klaas Reimer, although a sincerely pious one, was devoid of any joyous knowledge of God’s grace, while his confessional stance in educational and cultural matters was indescribably narrow.18 Reimer considered reading books published by people of other faiths
to be sign of apostasy and of the coming Antichrist.19 Although these orthodox attitudes did not align with those of many Mennonites at the time, they did not go unnoticed.
Leaders from the Frisian church, Franz Goerz and Peter Wedel, attempted to
win Reimer to their views.20 These two men felt threatened by Reimer’s ideas because they were somewhat different from their own. Although they were unsuccessful in changing Reimer's opinion, the event is an example of the beginning of growing dialogue that would eventually lead to significant and much-needed reforms, and even some splits, in the Mennonite church. The original message of the Anabaptists had the potential of being restored through this process.
In many ways, the Kleine Gemeinde became an example to the otherwise disorganized and seemingly unmotivated Mennonites in southern Russia. According to the Molotschna Oberschulze, not a single member of the Kleine Gemeinde was punished in 14 years for any civil offense.21 Overall, the Kleine Gemeinde lived out their objectives in everyday life. The group
vigorously objected to all possible forms of resistance. Interestingly, it was
not possible to help the police in apprehending violators.22 Doing so would be seen as an involvement in worldly matters and thus forbidden.
As a group, the Kleine Gemeinde was directly responsible for the formation of at least one other branch of Mennonites. The founder of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren group, Jacob Wiebe, worked with a Kleine Gemeinde elder as a hired hand in Molotschna in 1867. Wiebe invited the elder, Johann Friesen, to come to his congregation in Annafeld to organize them as members of the Kleine Gemeinde. Wiebe was ordained as a preacher, than as an elder.
Friesen initially refused to rebaptize the members, but did so when pressed. Elder Wiebe was rebaptized and later baptized 18 others. This is considered by the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren to be the moment of their origin.23 As such, they adopted immersion as their mode of baptism. Much of the Kleine Gemeinde’s
ultraconservative spirit was combined with an emphasis on conversion, assurance and experience in the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren group.24
From these events, it can be seen that the Kleine Gemeinde had a significant influence on the formation of the Mennonite church. They challenged the unwavering ideas of the past and provided a vision for reforming many of the practices that hampered the church.
As the 19th century moved along, greater religious diversity showed itself throughout Mennonite colonies in southern Russia. Some viewed the time from 1850 to 1885 as the
period of greatest religious ferment.25 The Mennonite religious experience became diverse and complex, as reformers such as the Kleine Gemeinde group challenged and changed the religious landscape. The boldness of the Kleine Gemeinde in its break from the traditional Mennonite church showed others that the struggles and problems associated with the church could be avoided or amended for the better.
Eventually, many Kleine Gemeinde families emigrated to Nebraska, Kansas and Manitoba.26 In 1874, two large groups settled in Manitoba and a smaller one in Nebraska. In Nebraska, a growing Kleine Gemeinde congregation moved en masse to Meade, Kan., to
secure cheaper land and more isolation.27 While many groups were becoming more aligned with worldly activities and ideas, the Kleine Gemeinde continued its silent protest against such activities. Along the way, it influenced all Mennonites and allowed for changes to take place that more closely aligned the people to the original principles of Anabaptism.
The history of the Kleine Gemeinde spans nearly two centuries. From the beginning, their leaders recognized the difficulties with living in a worldly manner. They sought to unite the principles of the Schleitheim Confession with their own lives. In order to accomplish this task, they broke off from the only church they ever knew. This bold response allowed other reformers to voice their disagreement with the established Mennonite church for the many inconsistencies between their actions and their beliefs. In so doing, they would change the landscape of Mennonite spirituality for the better.