The Kleine Gemeinde had its beginning in the Molotschna Colony of Russia in 1812. Its members emigrated to North America in the migration of 1874 as two separate churches; the larger group settled in Manitoba, and the smaller group of approximately 36 families settled in Nebraska. The Manitoba Kleine Gemeinde changed its name to Evangelical Mennonite Church in 1952 and to Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC) in 1960.
Recent research in Kleine Gemeinde history has provided additional information on certain aspects of the group's history while in Russia. Two areas of significance are Kleine Gemeinde migrations within Russia and the divisions of 1866.
The Kleine Gemeinde migrations from the Molotschna Mennonite Settlement began in the early 1860s as an attempt to provide farming opportunities for landless members and to avoid political and administrative involvement in the mother colony. In 1863 they rented a property known as Markusland in Ekaterinoslav province and established two villages, Friedrichsthal and Andreasfeld. About a year later a small number of Kleine Gemeinde members rented land in Gurshafka volost, Kherson province and settled in the village of Nicolaithal. That same year, 1865, the Borsenko colony, 20 miles N.W. of Nikopol, was purchased and the villages of Blumenhof, Heuboden, Rosenfeld, Steinbach, and Anafeld were established. Two other villages situated near Borozenko, Friedensfeld (1866) and Gruenfeld (1867), were also bought and settled by Kleine Gemeinde families. There was also a Kleine Gemeinde presence in the Crimea. This settlement, however, was due to a renewal movement rather than a colonization effort by the Kleine Gemeinde.
The Kleine Gemeinde divisions of 1866 were precipitated by a disagreement on disciplining a member, Abraham Thiessen (1838-1889). Thiessen was one of the men in the Molotschna who helped force colony administrators to divide colony land among the landless. This action produced sufficient opposition from the well-to-do farmers of the colony to force Russian government involvement. Evidently, the Kleine Gemeinde saw Thiessen's activity as being inconsistent with the church policy of non-involvement in administrative affairs, and so Thiessen was excommunicated.
It seems, however, that a technicality in excommunication procedure was the cause of disunity. Thiessen had been told that his case would be dealt with at a prearranged Sunday meeting when he could be present to defend himself, but because of the urgency of the matter his case was presented to the church a week prior to the arranged time and the church voted to excommunicate him immediately. Thiessen, as well as other family members, took exception to this lack of due process and sought reinstatement.
Elder Johan Friesen (1808-1872) also had second thoughts about the hasty decision and proposed that Thiessen be restored to fellowship. About half the members, under the leadership of minister Heinrich Enns (1801-1881), were opposed to this proposal and consequently left Friesen's church. This group ordained Enns as their elder in 1866. However, he served in this capacity for only a few years before he was asked to resign.
Stability returned to the church after Peter Toews (1841-1922) was elected as elder and reconciliation took place between Toews' group and a major part of Johan Friesen's group under the direction of elder Jacob Wiebe (1837-1921) of the Crimea.
The members remaining with elder Johan Friesen were further divided in 1869 when Friesen excommunicated two ministers and two deacons. These excommunicated men formed the nucleus of another Kleine Gemeinde church which elected Abraham L. Friesen (1831-1917) as their elder. Most of this group emigrated to Jansen, Nebraska in 1874.
The Evangelical Mennonite Conference has undergone numerous changes since the 1950s. Numerically it has grown from 6 Manitoba churches with a membership of 1,870 in 1951 to 53 churches in five Canadian provinces (British Columbia to Ontario) in 1997 and a membership of 5,813 in 1990. Not included in this total are mission churches in Germany, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Kleine Gemeinde members in Belize, who retained that name, have recently expanded to Nova Scotia.
The increase in membership in an expanding geographical area demanded new autonomy for the congregations. For a number of years after the congregations were given autonomy under Elder Peter Reimer in 1945, joint decisions were still made through regular ministerial meetings. However, greater laity involvement was soon reflected in the formation of Conference Council to help with administrative decisions. It was composed solely of men. The elected delegates from each congregation, together with ordained ministers and deacons, make up the council. In 1980 a revised administrative structure was accepted in which the conference churches were divided into eight geographic regions. Thus, as of 1990 each region elected one or more members to a General Board. The General Board, consisting of 15 members, was responsible for setting up an agenda for the semiannual Conference Council meeting. The Conference Council elected officers to conference and paraconference positions, evaluated and accepted an annual budget, and approved all administrative decisions. A conference pastor had been hired to maintain communication between the churches and regions, and an elected moderator chaired the General Board and Conference Council meetings. The EMC, however, has continued to call a number of ministerial meetings a year, the purpose of which is fellowship, sharing church information, and the presentation and discussion of theological and social issues.
While the ministerial meetings and the Conference Council continue to be open only to men, the women of the churches are increasingly involved in the support ministries of the conference. A special women's meeting is held concurrently with the Conference Council during the annual convention. A number of institutions, e.g., the Resthaven Home of Steinbach, Manitoba; Eventide Home of Rosenort, Manitoba; local hospitals; and Steinbach Bible College, are faithfully and practically supported by the women of the conference.
In practice the EMC churches have changed significantly during three decades. Most notable is the transition from the German to the English language in worship services. At the first annual convention in 1951 only the German language was used, but at the 1965 convention English had replaced German. Communion services in most conference churches include footwashing, however, the common cup with wine has generally been replaced with grape juice and individual cups. Another significant change from tradition was made in 1973 when the Conference Council adopted a resolution that would allow churches to practice baptism by immersion as well as the traditional pouring. While all of the older established churches continue to baptize by pouring, a few of the newer churches are also baptizing by immersion. In contrast to the 1950s, the majority of conference churches now support congregational singing with musical instruments and encourage choir and group participation. Many churches still practise a plural ministry with the leading minister placed on salary. Most of the younger ministers of the conference now have at least some formal theological training.
The Board of Missions was first organized in 1953 with five board members and a budget of $4,500. With an increase in expansion in home and foreign missions, the budget had risen to $1,088,000 in 1986. In 1997, 125 missionaries were serving under the board in Canada, Europe, Africa and Central and South America; five were serving under Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission and 63 under other associate missions. This work is presently administered by a nine-member board which is elected by the Conference Council.
The Missions Auxiliary, a paraconference fundraising organization, was instrumental in providing funds to construct radio station ZP-30 in west Paraguay in 1975. This station was jointly sponsored by the EMC and the Chaco Mennonite colonies (Fernheim, Neuland, Menno).
The Board of Education and Publication, consisting of nine members, has been responsible for promoting Christian education in the conference, as well as being the publishing agent and editorial board for all conference publications. It has also been responsible for publishing the annual E.M.C. Yearbook, which records the yearly activities and records of the conference.
The Christlicher Familienfreund, a German language family paper containing church news, devotional articles, and personal letters, was first published in 1935. The paper was discontinued in 1984. The Messenger, an English biweekly publication of the EMC, was begun in 1962. Its purpose has been to inform readers about what is going on in the conference, to instruct in godliness and victorious living, and inspire readers to contend earnestly for the faith.
The conference archives are housed in the conference office in Steinbach, Manitoba. The collection contains many early Kleine Gemeinde documents, as well as letters, sermons, diaries, and other records pertaining to the history of the Kleine Gemeinde. -- Henry Fast
In 2011, the conference had 62 churches, approximately 7,200 members and 7,800 people attending weekly worship services. Three of the churches were Hispanic in culture and Spanish-speaking. They were Love in Action (Calgary), Iglesia Cristiana Emmanuel (Emmanuel Christian Church) in Calgary, and Iglesia Cristiana Ebenezer (Ebenezer Christian Church) in Brandon. A fourth, Braeside EMC in Winnipeg, had a significant Spanish ministry that was an integral part of its identity. A fifth, Steinbach Evangelical Fellowship Church, held occasional, separate Spanish services.
Church planting in Dutch-German circles remained strong, with increased ministry in southern Alberta, northern Alberta, and southern Ontario. This was often among descendents of those who had moved to Mexico and Paraguay and later returned to Canada for economic opportunities. Their presence revived the use of Low German in some worship services within the conference.
The EMC’s presence was, for decades in Canada, limited to towns, villages and rural areas. In 2011 this was still common. Partly because of the vision of Lee Toews, who moved to Winnipeg in 1948, services were started in Winnipeg at Wesley Chapel in 1951. This building was later purchased and renamed Redwood Chapel. After moving to a larger building, the congregation became known as Aberdeen EMC. By 2011Winnipeg area had six other churches. They were Crestview (1965), Braeside (1968), Fort Garry (1976), St. Vital (1990), Many Rooms Church Community (2005) and Oak Bluff (2006). Calgary had four churches and Brandon had one. While people of Dutch/German background remained in the strong majority, adherents, members, and leaders were coming from a wide range of cultural and church backgrounds.
Using the term “Mennonite” with its strong cultural connotations, as a denominational identity, was increasingly questioned on an unofficial and practical level. Only 22 of 62 churches retained Mennonite in their local church name in 2011.
The first non-Dutch/German minister in the EMC was Edwin Wright, born in Wales. Having served with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Saskatchewan, he crossed paths with Rev. Ben D. Reimer, director of Western Gospel Mission (WGM). Wright served under WGM at Canora and Endeavour in Saskatchewan. The Endeavour congregation was received into conference membership in 1965, while Wright was its pastor. Wright later served at Riverton Gospel Chapel (Manitoba) from 1966 to 1969.
The Board of Ministers and Deacons was renamed Board of Leadership and Outreach after December 2005 as it received the church planting responsibilities from the Board of Missions.
In July 1999 conference delegates decided to maintain their position on only ordaining men to ministerial leadership, but also approved an "exceptional circumstance" for female pastor Ardith Frey of Aberdeen EMC to officiate at weddings. She became the first woman to serve as a pastor in an EMC church. In 2011 four congregations had women serving as a senior, co-pastor, or as an associate pastor. Other social and theological issues that were addressed in the first decade of the 21st Century were the practice of homosexuality and abortion, resulting in statements or letters to government officials.
In 2011, it was increasingly common to find both pouring and immersion baptismal practices among both older and newer churches. Only a few congregations were still practicing footwashing.
Three issues occasionally resurfaced about baptism: how to respond to committed people who request membership without rejecting infant baptism, whether baptism and membership can be separated, and how to respond to people who were baptized in conservative settings (where, for example, baptism was expected before marriage).
Choirs were rare in 2011. The use of choruses and praise bands were common. Fewer churches practiced a plural ministry approach, where a number ministers and deacons gave oversight and ministers could be elected from within the local congregation. It was increasingly common to have a lay board (variously named) with a solo pastor, a senior pastor and a part-time youth pastor, or multiple leaders in larger churches. Almost all congregations in 2011 had a part- or full-time paid pastor. Almost all ministers had a Bible college education and many also seminary training.
The first minister to obtain a graduate seminary degree was Archie Penner, who graduated from Winnipeg Bible Institute in 1940 and went on to earn BA, BD, MA, and PhD degrees.
Since Winnipeg Theological Seminary (now Providence Theological Seminary) opened in 1972, EMC ministers and members have obtained more graduate degrees from it than from all other seminaries in Canada and the U.S combined. Part of the reason is proximity -- the seminary is in Manitoba, where more than half of EMC congregations are located.
In 2011, 104 missionaries were serving under the Board in Canada, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America. Eighty-two were serving as associate missionaries or with organizations where the EMC had special partnerships; and 22 were in EMC-administered fields in Paraguay and Mexico and through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission in Burkina Faso.
Missions Auxiliary organized in 1973 was renamed Project Builders. Its purpose was to support EMC and affiliated mission agencies. Approximately 1.5 million dollars has been raised by the membership in support of mission projects throughout the world. The Board of Education and Publication was renamed the Board of Church Ministries (BCM). It had responsibilities in the areas of education, publication, youth, and archives. The Messenger has been the EMC conference paper since its first issue was published 11 January 1963. It initially had 26 issues per year, later reduced to 22, and became a monthly in 2010 for financial and production reasons.
In December 2003 the conference council discussed and informally approved the formation of a Special Committee for the Promotion of Evangelical Anabaptism (later called the Evangelical Anabaptist Committee). The committee, which operated under the supervision of the Board of Church Ministries and the Board of Leadership and Outreach existed from 2004 to 2008. It informally defined Evangelical Anabaptism, formally surveyed the views of leaders and members, and developed lists of Christian Education resources and a bibliography of Anabaptist materials. It delivered a final report on how the conference's commitment to Anabaptist distinctives might be strengthened.
The 2005 survey of leaders and members revealed that there was a strong devotion to the Bible as God’s Word, to discipleship, and to community. It also revealed there was some movement away from nonresistance and away from non-involvement in state activities. A majority of leaders and members surveyed said a Christian could be a police officer, a majority disagreed that pacifism was a requirement for church membership, a majority saw the use of up to and including lethal force as acceptable to protect a family member, and a minority saw serving in the military as acceptable.
In 2011 the Evangelical Mennonite Conference was beginning to prepare for the 200th anniversary in 2012 of its founding in Russia. -- Terry Smith
In 2010 the following congregations were members of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference:
Barkman, S. Ever-Widening Circles: E.M.C. Missions Silver Jubilee (1953-1978). Steinbach, MB: EMC, 1978.
EMC Yearbooks. Steinbach, MB: Evangelical Mennnonite Conference, 1958-97.
Hertzler, Daniel. From Germantown to Steinbach. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 236-247.
Mennonite World Handbook (MWH), ed. Paul N. Kraybill. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference [MWC], 1978): 315-18.
Mennonite World Handbook, Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: MWC, 1984: 52, 132.
Plett, Delbert. The Golden Years: The Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde in Russia (1812-1849). Steinbach, MB: D.F.P. Publications, 1904.
Plett, Delbert. History and Events. Steinbach, MB: D.F. Plett Farms Ltd., 1982.
Plett, Delbert. Storm and Triumph: The Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde (1850-1875). Steinbach, MB: D.F.P. Publications, 1986.
Reimer, Margaret Loewen, ed. One Quilt, Many Pieces. Waterloo, ON: Mennonite Publishing Service, 1983: 46.
Evangelical Mennonite Conference Confession of Faith
|Date Published||March 2012|
Cite This Article
Fast, Henry and Terry Smith. "Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Kleine Gemeinde)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2012. Web. 6 Jul 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Evangelical_Mennonite_Conference_(Kleine_Gemeinde)&oldid=103234.
Fast, Henry and Terry Smith. (March 2012). Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Kleine Gemeinde). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 July 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Evangelical_Mennonite_Conference_(Kleine_Gemeinde)&oldid=103234.
Herald Press website.
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