Reimer, Klaas (1770-1837)

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1959 Article

Klaas Reimer, the founder of the Kleine Gemeinde (now Evangelical Mennonites), was born in Petershagen near Danzig. He married the daughter of Elder Peter Epp and moved to the village of Neunhuben. On 1 September 1801 he was elected minister of the Flemish Danzig Mennonite Church of which his father-in-law was elder. Reimer's autobiography relates that he studied the Bible and Martyrs' Mirror diligently. Encouraged by his dying father-in-law he decided that there was no future for the Mennonites in the Danzig area. He left with some thirty members of the church for Russia in 1804. During a stop at the Old Colony he became acquainted with a like-minded minister, Cornelius Janzen. From here Klaas Reimer and his group proceeded to the Molotschna settlement where he established a home in Petershagen near Halbstadt. Reimer soon found himself in disagreement with the leader of the church, Jakob Enns, and the religious conditions of the church. He was opposed to the contributions made to the Russian government during the Napoleonic War, to the punishment of miscreants in the Mennonite community, and to some "worldly" practices among the Mennonites. In 1812 he and a small group of the Flemish congregations began to hold separate meetings in private homes. Cornelius Janzen had meanwhile joined this group. Klaas Reimer was elected elder in 1814 in the presence of Elder Heinrich Janzen of the Schönwiese Mennonite Church of the Old Colony who, however, refused to ordain him as elder. Thus Klaas Reimer assumed the responsibilities of an elder without official ordination. Cornelius Janzen, his co-minister, preached an installation sermon and a group of some eighteen to twenty members considered itself organized and soon became known as the Kleine Gemeinde in distinction from the "Grosse Gemeinde" (the main body of Mennonites). Reimer and his followers were for some time not recognized as a separate body of Mennonites. Reimer died on 25 December 1837.

Reimer's writings and concerns reveal that he was genuinely concerned in promoting and reforming the Mennonites in accord with the traditions of the church and the writings of Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and Peter Peters. These books were cherished by him and his followers. On the other hand, Reimer had a very poor formal education and had some narrow views on the basic concepts of Christianity and Mennonitism. In the history of the Kleine Gemeinde the latter long overshadowed the good intentions and zeal of the founder and the leader of the group. -- CK

1989 Update

Klaas Reimer, church reformer and founding elder of the Kleine Gemeinde (now Evangelical Mennonite Conference), was characterized by earlier historians as narrow, uneducated and ultra-conservative. Recent scholars, notably Delbert Plett, assess Reimer's role in Russian-Mennonite church history more favorably. They see him not as an intractable, fanatical religious legalist who established an obscure splinter group in the Molotschna Settlement, but as a dynamic, far-sighted leader who envisioned a "pure" church stressing Anabaptist tenets such as active discipleship, the use of the ban for offenders, and a simple, humble way of life away from others.

Already an ordained minister when he immigrated to the Molotschna Settlement in 1805, Reimer was soon feuding with Elder Jakob Enns over such  issues as contributions to government war funds and church authority versus civil authority. Reimer was well-versed in Anabaptist-Mennonite writings and saw himself as upholding that tradition. By 1812 he and his few followers were holding their own services, and after all appeals and even threats of banishment to Siberia had failed, Enns excommunicated Reimer and his group. Leaving the parent church caused Reimer much agony and soul-searching, but he persevered in the face of prolonged harassment and persecution from his co-religionists backed by government officials. Reimer also had to overcome the internal strife fomented by overzealous supporters who considered him too moderate. Klaas Reimer's "descendants and brethren," according to Plett, "regarded him as a giant man of God," who deserves to be remembered as one of the most important Russian-Mennonite church leaders of the 19th century. -- AR


The main source for Klaas Reimer's life and career is the brief autobiography he wrote shortly before his death:

"Ein kleiner Aufsatz." Unpublished manuscript in the Evangelical Mennonite Conference Archives, Steinbach, Manitoba.

Other valuable sources on Reimer's life are the diaries of Abraham Friesen, the ministers' list of the Kleine Gemeinde, the Danzig Church record, etc., all found in the original, transcript, or microfilm in  Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas, USA) and Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA); some originals were in possession of Elder David P. Reimer of Giroux, MB in the 1950s.

Reimer's account has been translated and annotated by: Plett, Delbert. The Golden Years: The Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde in Russia (1812-1849). Steinbach: D.F.P Publications, 1985: 149-97.

Plett, Delbert. The Golden Years: The Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde in Russia (1812-1849). Steinbach: D.F.P Publications, 1985: 148-213 et passim, gives a detailed although polemical account of Reimer's career and achievements.

Reimer, Al. "Klaas Reimer: Rebel Conservative, Radical Traditionalist." Journal of Mennonite Studies, 3 (1985): 108-17, another favorable but more balanced view.

Urry, James. None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1988.

See also:

Reimer, David P. "The History and Character of Our Great Grandfather Klaas Reimer, and Peter J. B. Reimer." and "Klaas Reimer and His Times." Familienregister der Nachkommen von Klaas und Helena Reimer mit Biographien der ersten drei Generationen. Winnipeg, MB: Regehr's Printing, 1958: 16-21, 24-27.

For the less favorable, conventional view of Klaas Reimer see:

Friesen, Peter M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910), trans. J. B. Toews and others. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature [M.B.].

Friesen, Peter M. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft "Raduga", 1911:75 ff.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 455.

Krahn, Cornelius. "From Russia to Meade." Mennonite Life 6 (July 1951): 18.

"Zum 100jährigen Gedenktag des Vorältesten Klaas Reimer, Gründer der Kleingemeinde." Christlicher Familienfreund (Winnipeg, MB: December 1937): 2 f.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Al Reimer
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius and Al Reimer. "Reimer, Klaas (1770-1837)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Feb 2024.,_Klaas_(1770-1837)&oldid=156119.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius and Al Reimer. (1989). Reimer, Klaas (1770-1837). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 February 2024, from,_Klaas_(1770-1837)&oldid=156119.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p, 278; vol. 5, p. 758. All rights reserved.

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