A remarkable story has unfolded in recent years to revive the memory of one of the founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church.
In October 2006, Gert and Katherine Martens and Helen and Ed Wiens, all participants in the Mennonite Heritage Cruise, began a search for family roots in the former village of Wiesenfeld in Ukraine. They had little information to guide them, but coincidentally encountered three men working in a yard. They were told that a neighbouring farmer had come across a tombstone and that they could go and see it.
They walked to the area near a fence, pulled a plank away from a pillar, and there was a gravestone. The intensity of their feelings can hardly be described, for the individuals named on the tombstone – Jakob and Wilhelmine Reimer – were Gert’s paternal great-grandparents.
Jakob Reimer (1817-1891) was an influential leader of the early Mennonite Brethren movement, which formally began in Russia in 1860 and which will be celebrated around the globe in 2010.
Although Reimer did not sign the so-called Document of Secession in January 1860, he had been inspired by the preaching of Eduard Wuest, the Lutheran Pietist revival preacher, and he was one of the individuals who faced severe opposition in stormy meetings at the Gnadenfeld Mennonite Church in December 1859. A barrage of criticism was levelled against both Reimer and his brother-in-law Johann Claassen and they were threatened to be turned over to the area administrative officer.
Reimer requested permission to leave the meeting. One of the members of the church shouted, “Away with them; they are no better than the others.” Reimer quietly left the meeting, together with about 10 others.
In March 1860, Reimer signed an explanatory note about the new group to the Mennonite church leaders and in May, a gathering to elect leaders was held in his house. He was one of the first to raise the question of mode of baptism. In 1837, as an 18-year-old, he had read the biography of Anne Judson and expressed a desire to be baptized by immersion, as she had been. Reimer was rebaptized in May 1861 and later was appointed as a leader to assist Elder Heinrich Huebert.
When the “exuberant movement” (Froehliche Richtung) emerged within the Mennonite Brethren church in the early 1860s, with its wild and uncontrolled emotionalism, despotism, and other radical actions, which threatened to derail and discredit the entire renewal movement, Reimer warned against its excesses. A meeting in his “shed” was characterized by such extreme practices that he stated he would no longer tolerate “such bedlam” in his home.
“I do not attend any of the large meetings,” he said, “because I am uneasy there and am firmly convinced that it is not the Pharisee within that warns and chastises me and holds me back from such pagan conduct, but the Spirit of God.” Reimer was excommunicated in 1864 because of his opposition.
Around the centre
After the reforms of June 1865 that addressed these excesses, Reimer was reinstated. After several moves, first to the new settlement in Kuban, the Reimers established the village of Wiesenfeld in 1880. Here, according to P.M. Friesen, “he continued his efforts…to establish a milder, more sincere brotherhood alliance… ‘where everything would revolve around the centre: Christ.’”
Throughout his life Reimer was active in the young Mennonite Brethren Church. He wrote a detailed diary of events – no longer extant – that P.M. Friesen used extensively when he wrote the first history of the Mennonite Brethren Church, published in 1911.
The descendants of Reimer who found the tombstone soon began contemplating what might be done to preserve it and to ensure it would serve future generations as a way of remembering with gratitude what God had done through the Mennonite Brethren movement during the past 150 years. Eventually, through considerable effort, the stone was moved to the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk (formerly Neu Halbstadt), Ukraine, in July 2008. It will be further moved, to Steinbach, Man.
The stone stands now – to all who see it – as a monument, reminder, and inspiration.