Johannes Claassen, one of the founders of the Mennonite Brethren in Russia, born in Orlofferfelde near Tiegenhof in West Prussia, immigrated as a child to Russia with his widowed mother and later established a home in Liebenau. As a member of the Gnadenfeld congregation he was one of the group of brethren who called the Bruderschule into being, which like the Rauhe Haus in Hamburg was to offer "better education, above all, strictly Christian training," with special attention to gifted orphans. In this cause Claassen twice traveled to St. Petersburg and Reval and secured through the Fürsorgekomitee in Odessa recognition of the school as a teacher-training institution for Mennonites.
Soon after this, the momentous break occurred which led to the founding of the Mennonite Brethren. In the fall of 1859 several members of the Gnadenfeld church began to hold communion services in their homes. They were called to account and threatened with exclusion from the church if they continued this practice, which violated church regulations. Division followed. About 25 members withdrew, led by Johannes Claassen and Jakob Reimer, neither of whom had taken part in the communion service. On 6 January 1860, they signed a charter in Elisabethtal, which was at the same time a statement of their faith (Friesen, 189-191).
Johannes Claassen, Abr. Cornelsen, and Jakob Kooper were chosen as deputies of the new brotherhood. In a letter to the Halbstadt Gebietsamt on 23 January 1860, they declared that they intended to found a Mennonite congregation of their own. Meanwhile the elders of the Molotschna churches had applied to the Gebietsamt for assistance; this office on 28 January forbade all religious meetings of the Brethren. It appears that the three deputies were intimidated and on 10 February signed a document promising "to take no further steps in this matter without first securing the express permission of the higher authorities" (Friesen, 195).
On 19 March the Brethren declared in a new statement "that they did not wish to form a new church, but as Mennonites to live peaceably together in the faith of the fathers, and would even now be happy to return to the Mennonite brotherhood if the preachers would earnestly oppose the decline of the church according to the Word of God" (Friesen, 198 f.). A week later Johannes Claassen quietly went to St. Petersburg; but he accomplished "little enough" and realized that "the matter is very difficult." After his return he advised his brethren to choose their own preachers, and to exclude him and the two other signatories to the charter from consideration. The election, held on 23 March 1860, resulted in the choice of Heinrich Hübert and Jakob Becker.
The break was not complete. Their opponents did what they could to prevent state recognition of the group. At the end of November 1860 Johannes Claassen made a second journey to St. Petersburg for the new brotherhood and at its expense, to acquire civil and ecclesiastical recognition. He remained there until the end of June 1862. On 15 May 1862 he presented a petition to the Emperor (Friesen, 297-303). The result was the provision that "ecclesiastical separation shall in no case incur a loss of civil rights or persecution by police authorities."
Now the matter of a new site for colonization became paramount. On 30 June 1862 Johannes Claassen had returned from St. Petersburg, and on 18 August he was already en route with five other brethren to seek suitable lands in Caucasus. He thereby became the founder of the thriving Mennonite colony on the Kuban; permission for its establishment was given on 4 March 1864 (Friesen, 341), by the Land Office (Ministerium für Domänen) upon the presentation of a written petition on 30 December 1863. On 30 May 1866 Claassen also received from the government the confirmation of Mennonite religious privileges.
During his absence in St. Petersburg the "over-joyful," fanatical tendency appeared. At first Claassen sought to mediate and failed to oppose it energetically enough to prevent its rapid growth and the ensuing aberrations. He had to interrupt his stay in Kuban, where he was engaged in establishing the new colony with great self-sacrifice in the face of serious difficulties. On 4 May he returned to his home and by his apt and decisive intervention in June 1865 (June protocol, pp. 234, 334-374), he succeeded in removing the excesses and establishing "order well-pleasing to God." On 20 July he returned to Kuban and remained there until his death.
Claassen was again most unpleasantly troubled on account of his religious position. He was arraigned with two brethren before the authorities at Halbstadt, but after a brief conference with the colonial inspector in Prischib he was released. In 1869 he was elected Oberschulze. In this capacity it was his duty in 1871 to travel to the city of Vladikavkas to the reception of Alexander II, whereupon he received in 1872 the silver medal and in 1874 the gold, both on the ribbon (Ordensband). Besides these he received from the government a gold watch with an inscription recognizing his services in the colonization of Russia. In 1870 he was visited in his own home by the Grand Duke Michael Nikolayevitch. On 27 December 1876 he died, at the age of 56, in Wohldemfürst. Peter M. Friesen rated him with Johann Cornies and Bernhard Harder as one of the greatest contributors to the cause of Mennonitism in Russia.
Friesen, Peter M. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft “Raduga“, 1911: 189-191, 195, 198 f., 234, 297-303, 334-374.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 356.
 Cite This Article
Neff, Christian. "Claassen, Johannes (1820-1876)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 6 Jul 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Claassen,_Johannes_(1820-1876)&oldid=112175.
Neff, Christian. (1953). Claassen, Johannes (1820-1876). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 July 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Claassen,_Johannes_(1820-1876)&oldid=112175.
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