Mennonite Genealogy with Michael Penner

Klaas Reimer and His Times


This article is from the book Familienregister der Nachkommen von Klaas und Helena Reimer mit Biographieren der ersten dri Generationen, published in 1958, p.24-27. This particular article was printed in English.


Klaas Reimer and His Times

     Peter J. B. Reimer


Klaas Reimer, my great-grandfather, was born in Petershagen near the village of Tiegenhof, West Prussia, in the year 1770. This was at a time of important political events. The powers of Poland had steadily declined until one of its westerly provinces, West Prussia came under the rule of the famous Frederick the Great, in 1772. Under the rule of this benevolent Prussian king the Mennonites in West Prussia received full freedom to practice their religion. Frederick the Great believed in full freedom of religion but demanded annual contributions of cash for the support of his military school of cadettes form the Mennonites, who refused to serve in the army. In the year 1780 the Mennonites were granted citizenship, which had been denied them by the authorities for almost two hundred and fifty years. The Mennonites of West Prussia, East Prussia and the Free City of Danzig numbered about 12,000 around this time.


The time of my great-grandfather’s birth was also noted for an important social change among his people. For over two centuries the Mennonite people in that area had tenaciously clung to Dutch, their mother tongue. In 1762, Gerhard Wiebe, a visiting minister from Elbing preached in German for the first time in the Flemish Mennonite Church in Danzig. The congregation as a whole did not approve of this at the time but a German sermon of the visiting minister Cornelius Regier give years later was approved of by a larger number of people. In another then years, 1777, the elder Peter Epp, who later became the father-in-law of our Klaas Reimer, also began to preach in German. He still used considerable Dutch expressions in his German. Thus we see that the change from the Dutch to the German had been completed before Klaas Reimer grew into manhood. He does not consider this change as a problem at all in his autobiography.


Much at the same time the Dutch language had given way to Low German in the homes. Basically we still speak the same Low German with the difference, that where all the time Dutch words and expressions were mixed into it we now mix a considerable number of English expressions into it. Even the Prussian Mennonites who did not move to the Ukraine or to North America, continued to speak this Low German up to the middle of the nineteenth century, which is a hundred years ago.


At the age of twenty, Klaas Reimer joined the Mennonite Church in his village. According to the usual custom this was about the age when the young people were encouraged to receive baptism and accept the responsibilities of church membership. He had received no formal education in his childhood and even the religious instruction before baptism, evidently did not have the desired effect on his spiritual convictions, because he continued to live a rather loose and worldly life.


However, there are indications that he had several experiences during this period of his life which led him into deeper spiritual thinking, and which prepared him for his later spiritual leadership.


At the age of twenty-eight he moved to the village of Neuhuben, near Danzig, where he married a daughter of the elder Peter Epp. After the evidently early death of his first wife he married a Friesen girl with whom he had a family.


After the death of the Elder Epp in 1795, the religious difference between the members in the city of Danziz and those of those of the countryside took a serious turn and the latter still insisted on having their own meetings in the country though still accepting the elder from the city to officiate at baptisms and communications. February 1, 1801, Klaas Reimer was called to the ministry by popular ballot. Though only self-educated, he felt this call from God and devoted himself fully to this service.


During the rule of Frederick the Great, the Mennonites had become prosperous. Appreciated by the king for their agricultural efficiency they had multiplied and increased their land holdings until it amounted to over 50,000 acres in Prussia alone. After Frederick’s death in 1786, the new ruler feared that these expansionary tendencies of a non-resistant group like the Mennonites would have to be checked or the state of Prussia would not have enough soldiers to defend the country. The result was that they were forbidden to acquire any more land and were even asked to decrease their holdings. Since other trades and professions were mostly forbidden territory for them, these agricultural checks were almost a matter of life or death for the Mennonites.


Hundreds of families had left for the wide open Ukraine upon the invitation of the Russian Government since 1788. Klaas Reimer had also found spiritual conditions too worldly around Danzig, so in 1804 he finally decided to start on the trek for the Ukraine with about thirty other people. They started on August 23 and reach their destination, Old-Chortitza, in the so-called Old Colony, November 27 -- a three month journey full of hardships and trials. When he did not find the spiritual conditions in this fifteen-year old colony to his liking, he moved on to the newer colony on the Molotschna River the next year, 1803. Contrary to his expectations he found rather low moral and Christian conditions in the new colony where all kinds of elements from different settlements in Prussia and Danzig had settled down together. An attempt was made, of course, to weld them into more or less spiritual congregations. A certain Jakob Enns had been elected as an elder, with whom Klaas Reimer clashed from the very beginning. Enns had a bad temper and Reimer was stubborn. However, apart from personalities, there were rather serious issues which gave rise to these differences.


The Russian Government had given complete administrative rights to the Mennonites, which involved serious responsibilities. The principle of non-resistance was certainly involved in maintaining a police force and in imposing severe sentences like fines and even corporal punishment of the offenders. Here was the issue of a spiritual side by side with a political kingdom. The Anabaptist vision had certainly not foreseen this difficulty. Furthermore, church-discipline was rather lax and the religious services very formal.


Klaas Reimer had considerable support in the attempt to maintain these age-old Mennonite principles of non-resistance, and a simple life of non-conformity with the world. With about eighteen sympathizers the ministers Klaas Reimer and Cornelius Janzen isolated themselves from the rest of the church in 1812 and met more or less regularly in some of the more spacious dwellings. In derision, they were called the Kleine Gemeinde (Small Church), which they did not mind in the least. Several attempts by some of the elders and ministers of the Mennonite Church in the Ukraine and even Danzig, Prussia, failed to bring about a reconciliation. Reimer steadfastly held on to his aim of a non-conforming remnant of faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the members got rather fanatical and over-emotional in their behavior. There is a story that Reimer himself however, had a vision. One time, possibly late at night, when he looked out of the upper hall of the door, he saw a monster in the shape of a bear approaching him. By looking him steadfastly in the eye and not yielding any ground, he overcame the monster, for suddenly he disappeared. This was supposed to be the devil, of course.


By 1815 the church was fairly well established and they need an elder. According to the old custom nobody but an elder could baptize and officiate at communion. After some bickering they succeeded in persuading and elder from the Old Colony to assist in the election of an elder. The lot was drawn on the two ministers and it fell on Klaas Reimer. However, none of the Mennonite elders was willing to ordain Reimer as an elder. After a lot of heart searching and study in the Bible he came to the conclusion that it would perhaps suffice if under the circumstances his co-worker would ordain him. So after the minister Cornelius Janzen had preached an installation sermon, and, no doubt, some silent prayer, Reimer considered himself ordained in 1816.


The ministerial body of the Mennonite Church in the Ukraine did not officially recognize the Kleine Gemeinde. Where the ministers of the Mennonite Church were free from road work duty, for example, these of the Small Church were not exempted. It took thirty years time before this injustice was rectified through the efforts of the great Johann Cornies, one of the famous Russian Mennonites.


December 28, 1837, while travelling in his capacity as an elder, he laid down his tired head and passed away to see what he had believed. He was only 67 years old at the time of his death but he had established a church in spite of the greatest obstacles. He certainly had no idea at the time what difficulties and trials this little organization would have to go through yet and then find itself over a century later a vigorous evangelistic-minded church and young people. This was a growth of about one hundred times as many believers as 140 years ago. Probably one half of those are direct descendants of Klaas Reimer.


He had five children. Two of them, Margaretha who married a Martin Barkman, and Peter, who married a Susanna Friesen, died without descendants. Abraham moved to Manitoba with most of his descendants and Klaas1, as well as Helena who married a Peter W. Friesen moved to Jansen, Nebraska with most of their descendants in 1874-75. Abraham had four sons and four daughters from whom came most of the Reimers, Friesens, Penners and Toews around Steinbach.


Klaas had six sons and four daughters whose descendants mostly live in the U.S.A today, except those of the late Johann F. Reimer, Hochfeld, Manitoba. Helena, Mrs. P. W. Friesen, had two sons and one daughter, the latter being the late Mrs. Heinrich Loewen, Meade, Kansas.



Webmaster footnotes:

1. Klaas Reimer Jr. (18 Oct 1812 - 15 October 1874) intended to travel to Jansen, Nebraska with his children but died shortly before the planned 1874 migration. The trip was delayed one year and his widow and his children made the trip in 1875. This correction is thanks to a descendant, David K. Reimer, of Reedley, CA.





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